Exegesis of John 8:44 for Grace Cathedral

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Readings for Thursday in the Fifth Week of Lent

Genesis 17:1-8

Psalm 105:4-11

John 8:51-59

This homily was preached by Daniel London at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco on April 6, 2017

The Gospel readings for this Fifth Week of Lent have included passages from the 8th chapter of John, which contains one of the most beloved stories in all the Gospels as well as one the most troubling. The former involves a woman caught in adultery and the latter involves Jesus and the Jews caught in a vitriolic debate. Our reading today includes the final jabs of this troubling dispute between Jesus and the Jews, which ends with the Jews attempting to stone Jesus. This argument is so troubling that the lectionary organizers thought it best to omit a significant portion of it; several verses which have been highly prone to misinterpretation and which have, in fact, been used to justify Christian violence against Jews. The verse most prone to pernicious readings is verse 8:44 in which Jesus says to the Jews, “You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him.” To this day, white supremacists and anti-Semitic communities point to this verse as justification for their “Christian” anti-Judaism, this verse in which Jesus seems to call the Jews to whom he is speaking “children of the devil.”[1]

In many ways, it probably was wise for the lectionary organizers to omit this verse and others like it from the Lenten readings since it is so fraught and so very difficult to interpret. However, as someone with Jewish background, I cannot help but grasp the nettle and grapple with these words of Jesus. Although unpacking and dismantling the apparent anti-Judaism in the Gospel of John cannot be accomplished in one brief homily, I would like to offer a reading that has been helpful for me.

Jesus was a Jewish rabbi arguing with other Jewish rabbis about how to interpret the Torah as rabbis are wont to do. This was an intra-Jewish debate, a debate within the Jewish community. Throughout John, Jesus seems to highlight the portions of the Torah that defend and advocate for society’s victims while his interlocutors tend to focus on the parts of the Torah that condemn, punish, accuse and expel. In general, Jesus plays the role of the Advocate while his interlocutors play the role of the Accuser. In Hebrew, the word for Accuser is “Ha Satan” (Satan) which is translated into the Greek as diabolos and into English as devil. Later on in John, Jesus calls the Spirit which he will leave for his disciples the “Paraclete,” which is Greek for the Advocate. A significant part of Jesus’s ministry involved healing, protecting and defending victims from the social mechanism known as scapegoating which the Bible personifies as Ha Satan, the Accuser. We are all very susceptible to this social mechanism of blaming and scapegoating innocent victims; and many fascists have risen to power on the backs of various scapegoats and remain in power by consistently deflecting blame onto others. The Bible exposes the reality and violence of this social mechanism of scapegoating and Jesus stands fully within the Jewish prophetic tradition when he exposes others who are caught up in this behavior.

One of my favorite theologian James Alison points out how “Jesus uses the word ‘devil’ about his interlocutors’ paternity and his interlocutors use ‘demon’ to get back at Jesus…the word diabolos in John always refers to the founding principle of fratricidal order [scapegoating], and is a revelation of a principle that is to be overcome, not an accusation of ‘bad people.’ The word ‘demon’ – daimonion – is the accusatory word from within the fratricidally structured cultural order, the way one indicates someone as not ‘one of us.’ Jesus’ word diabolos reveals the murderous structure of [the scapegoating mechanism] the interlocutors’ word daimonion is a function of that [scapegoating mechanism].”[2] In other words, when Jesus says to the Jews that their father is the devil, he is not trying to insult them or demonize them; he is trying to show them that they are caught up in the behavior of the Accuser, the Satan. They behave as the Satan by accusing Jesus of having a demon and then by seeking to stone him to death just as they hoped to do to the woman supposedly caught in adultery. We all know the saying, When we point the finger at someone, we are always pointing three fingers back at ourselves. Jesus is saying that whenever we point a finger at someone else to accuse and victimize and demonize there are always three fingers pointing back at us, indicating our complicity in the work of the Satan.

The tragic irony is that the very passage that calls us to stop demonizing others has been used to do just that. Throughout history, Christians have too often played the role of the Satan by using this passage and others like it to accuse, demonize and victimize Jews and other vulnerable peoples and communities. When we do this, we fall into the very trap from which Jesus came to save us.

The Spirit which Jesus gave us is the Spirit of the Advocate, the Paraclete, the same Holy Spirit who has been speaking up for outcasts and victims ever since Abraham interceded for others and welcomed strangers into his home. The Holy Spirit has been speaking up for outcasts and victims even before Abraham and it is that Spirit that Jesus embodies and invokes when he says, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.” And it is that Spirit that Jesus pours out on his disciples and on all of us at our baptism, inviting us to bury our addictions to accusation and blame and to defend and advocate for those of us who are vulnerable and victimized, including those parts of ourselves that are vulnerable and victimized; for by doing so we are continuing the work of Christ and abiding with the Spirit who rejoiced with God at creation and who lives and reigns with God both now and forevermore. Amen.

[1] The website of the anti-Semitic White Nationalist Community called Stormfront.org cites John 8:44 in their list of “What World Famous Men Said about the Jews” https://www.stormfront.org/jewish/antisemite.html, accessed April, 6, 2017.

[2] James Alison, Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay (Crossroads, 2001), 68.

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Aromatizing our Prayers

This Lent, I have been trying to experience the Fourth Gospel through the five senses and experience God through the five senses. I have been trying to listen to the Spirit of God in my breath and in the wind. I have been trying to appreciate tasting, drinking and eating particularly the consecrated bread and wine through which the Spirit of Christ enters me and makes my body into a temple of the Holy Spirit. I have been trying to open my eyes to see opportunities for creativity and healing where once I saw opportunities to blame; and to see God’s creativity and healing power at work even when things appear to be very, very messy.

I have been trying to do this. In some ways, it has been really encouraging and has helped me be present and in other ways it has been disappointing and discouraging. I have often found that my reflections on the bodily senses tend to become too abstract and spiritualized way too quickly while the intent was to engage the senses in a down-to-earth and practical way. However, the Fourth Gospel keeps pushing me to go deeper in my engagement with the senses and to understand the senses as symbols of deeper spiritual realities. In a way, this makes a lot of sense. Most of us don’t come to church to focus on our flesh but rather to focus on our spirit, or more specifically, on the Holy Spirit that gives life to our flesh. As Paul says, “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (Romans 8:6). But then he goes on to remind us that our fleshly bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, “The Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you” (Romans 8:11). The Fourth Gospel similarly invites us to understand our bodies as temples of the same Spirit who raised both Jesus and Lazarus from the dead. I have been trying to find this balance between appreciating the spirit that gives life to the body and appreciating the body that houses the spirit. It has been hard and frustrating and sometimes disappointing.

So I brought this disappointment with me to our gathering here last Saturday along with other frustrations around sickness in my family. I had been struggling to find the right words to pray so it was helpful for me to ease into the ancient words of the Psalms, which express a kaleidoscopic range of emotions. We lit some frankincense and prayed psalms of joy, anger, confusion and sadness. We chanted the Psalms; we read responsively, antiphonally, softly, joyfully, loudly (especially when we competed with the lawnmowers outside). And all the while, the frankincense kept burning, releasing its holy fragrance and reminding us of how all our prayers were, in the words of Psalm 141, “set before God like incense.”

Initially, the aroma of the frankincense reminded me of the stunning Anglo-Catholic parish at Time’s Square: St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, known for its frequent use of frankincense and fondly referred to as “Smoky Mary’s.” Now that holy scent has taken on new meaning for me as it will remind me of this church and this sacred space and time when we gathered to prayerfully read all 150 Psalms. The aroma will remind me of how all our prayers —both joyful and sorrowful—were received by God as sweet-smelling incense.

Our sense of smell, as we all know, has a unique way of triggering memories and deep emotions; and our Gospel this morning is suffused with references to smell, memory and deep emotions. When we are introduced to Mary, we are reminded that she is the one who poured (or will pour) expensive perfume on Jesus’s feet and filled the entire house with its potent fragrance. Martha tries to remind Jesus that there is already a stench of death and decay emanating from Lazarus’s tomb. And the onlookers remind themselves of Jesus’s love for Lazarus and his previous healings as they observe Mary, Martha and Jesus each express their own intense emotions.

Just as the Psalmists and those who pray the Psalms express their intense emotions to God so too do Martha and Mary express their emotions to Christ in this morning’s Gospel. Mary and Martha show us that no matter how despairing and even hopeless our prayers might be they are still received lovingly by God as sweet-smelling incense.

Both Mary and Martha embody the many psalms that cry out to God for help when they say together, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” Also like the Psalmists, Mary and Martha must struggle with the inexplicable delay of their Lord. As readers, we too are baffled by Christ’s delay when we read the puzzling words: “Though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” Why would Jesus stay after having heard this news? As readers, we are compelled to ask this question and to also imagine the confusion of Martha and Mary, who must have been praying something akin to the potent words of Psalm 44, which cries out: “Wake up, O Lord! What are you waiting for? Rise up, come to our help.”

When Jesus does finally arrive, he appears to be too late; and Mary and Martha each respond to Jesus’s significant tardiness in their own way. Martha’s response embodies the psalms that express anger and confusion but then reaffirm their trust in God’s saving power when she says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” What I love so much about the Gospels in general and this morning’s passage in particular is how we get to see how God in Christ responds specifically to emotion-filled prayers and complaints, like those in the Psalms. Jesus receives Martha’s complaint and subsequent affirmation of faith by inviting her to broaden and deepen her understanding of the resurrection and of himself, proclaiming, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

Mary’s response to Jesus’s delay embodies the darker psalms that both begin and end in anger and confusion when she falls at Jesus’s feet, weeping and says simply, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” In other words, “Why weren’t you here earlier? You could have saved him. He is dead now because of you.” Commentators often point out that, with these words, Mary is rebuking Jesus.

And how does Jesus respond to Mary’s raw emotions? He seems to accept her complaint as a genuine act of faith and responds with one of the most profound, humble and human acts of love and pastoral care within all the Gospels. He weeps with her. He responds to her tear-stained prayer by crying with her. One of the Psalms (Psalm 56) says to God, “You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.” Our tears are precious to God, so precious that they move him to tears as well. Throughout John’s Gospel and especially throughout this passage, Jesus is no stoic. He is bursting and overflowing with intense emotions. The fully human Jesus of John empathizes fully with all of our sorrows. He not only receives our prayers as incense; he also enters into our deepest emotions with us.

The fully human Jesus of John is also fully divine; therefore, he can also hear the prayers of one who is dead and buried; of Lazarus who embodies perhaps the darkest Psalm of all: Psalm 88, which concludes with these haunting words: “Your terrors have swept over me; they have engulfed me completely. You have taken away my loved ones. My only friend is darkness.” In the stinking darkness of death and decay, Jesus smells hints of new life and calls them forth when he cries, “Lazarus, come out!” We learn that even the most dark and disturbing secrets and feelings which we are sure must smell like death to God are received by Christ who will transform them into new life.

Episcopal priest and author Martin L. Smith writes, “In Lent…we often try to palm off on God the renunciation of desserts and treats, when Christ is [really] summoning us to hand over our burdens” (127-128). So what burdens is Christ summoning you to hand over to him this Lent? What emotions or complaints or frustrations are you being invited to bring to God in prayer? I invite us to trust that whatever we bring to God in prayer will be received by him as sweet-smelling incense. I also invite us to aromatize our prayers. What do I mean by that?  I mean that I invite us to not only practice being present to the moment and to our bodies by appreciating our sense of smell but I also invite us to let God speak to us through our sense of smell. Perhaps there is an emotion or wound or longing hidden deep within us that can only be triggered and unleashed through the smell of some aroma. Let us invite God to tap into those deep parts of us this week through our sense of smell so that we can bring those emotions or wounds or longings to God in prayer, like Mary and Martha and the Psalmists; so that we can hand over our burdens to Christ; so that we can we allow God to breathe his refreshing life into those dark parts of our soul that might feel dead. And by doing so, we can experience resurrection and new life in our own tombs and valleys of dry bones through the One who is the Resurrection and the Life. Amen.

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Seeing God in the Mud

We are now well into the season of Lent and our Gospel readings from John have invited us to appreciate our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit by listening to our God-given breath (which is also God’s life-giving spirit within us) and by tasting (drinking and eating) the consecrated bread and wine and water through which the Spirit of Christ enters our bodies and quenches our deepest thirst. Today, the Gospel invites us to open our eyes and to see; to be liberated from our blindness and to see the world as Christ sees the world.

“As Jesus walks along, he sees a man blind from birth.” His disciples also see the blind man, whom Christian tradition has given the name Celidonius; but the disciples seem to see Celidonius as an object for theological debate and as an opportunity to apportion blame, in this case to blame the victim. They ask, “Who sinned this man or his parents that he was born blind?” Jesus’s response to their question reveals the stark difference between how Jesus sees and how the disciples see. He says, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. But in order that the works of God might be revealed in him, we must work the works of him who sent me.” Where the disciples see an opportunity to blame Jesus sees an opportunity to heal. And with this response, Jesus reveals our true blindness. We are all blinded to an extent by our compulsion to blame and to scapegoat.

I remember preaching here several years ago at Pentecost and asking you all, “Why do you think we have ordained clergy since we believe as a church in the priesthood of all believers?” I remember someone here said that we need leaders who have studied the Scriptures and traditions well enough to teach and preach effectively. But I also remember someone saying in a kind of tongue-in-cheek sort of way, “Well, we got to have someone to blame.” And I’ll never forget that because I think it is so insightful. (And I am actually quite sure that it was our guest music director Jay who said that). It is true that a significant part of being a leader is not only receiving praise when things go well but also bearing the blame when things go poorly. Some leaders strategically deflect this blame by scapegoating various innocent victims either within or outside of the community; and this has been a very effective strategy for fascists, who capitalize on our blindness, our compulsion to blame. World leaders have risen to power using this scapegoating strategy and sometimes priests use it as well. But in today’s Gospel, Jesus rejects that strategy; he rejects that way of seeing and invites us to be healed of our compulsion to blame which so often blinds us from the larger and more complex reality.

Blaming and scapegoating others is not the same as trying to locate the source or sources of a complex problem in order to try fixing it. Blaming and scapegoating others involves grossly oversimplifying a problem in order to unleash our own frustrations, anxieties and insecurities onto someone else, who is often innocent. Although Jesus himself is scapegoated, he refuses to scapegoat others, which we see very clearly in this passage. In fact, this entire chapter of John which we read (chapter 9) exhibits the consequences of this way of seeing, which is essentially blindness, being blinded by our compulsion to blame. The disciples first blame the blind man for his physical blindness; then the neighbors and the Pharisees seek someone to blame for his new ability to now see; the parents deflect blame by redirecting it back to their son; and it all ends in deeper division, exclusion, and eventually expulsion. No wonder Jesus concludes by saying that those who think they can see are actually the ones who are truly blind.

John’s Gospel shows us the ways that we are blinded by blame and how this blindness leads to deeper division and even destruction. There are also many ways that Jesus tries to heal us from this blindness and help us to open our eyes and to see more deeply and expansively.

As I have said many times before, the Gospel of John is a sensual Gospel in that it uses the bodily senses in order to communicate spiritual truths while also inviting us to appreciate our bodily senses and sensuality, which can be infused with God’s Spirit. It is only in John that we see Jesus getting his hands really dirty and muddy as he makes healing clay out of his own saliva. It’s hard to think of a more natural and organic ointment than mud made out of saliva. And yet it’s also quite startling and even disturbing. The disciples must have been fairly confused when they saw Jesus respond to their question by spitting on the ground, making mud and then putting the mud on the man’s eyes! This is a muddy sensuality. And yet is through the muddy sensuality that healing takes place. From an outside perspective, it might seem like Jesus is just making things worse and messier. But Jesus is trying to get his disciples and us to open our eyes and to see how the healing and illuminating power of God is at work in the muddy messiness of our lives. Jesus wants us to see God in the mud. Rather than rushing to remove the mud or fling the mud on others whom we want to scapegoat and blame, Jesus invites us to let go for a moment and let God work his healing power through what appears to be very messy. In his book Messy Spirituality, Mike Yaconelli writes, “Spirituality is not about being fixed; it is about God being present in the mess of our unfixedness.”

There are indeed many problems that need fixing in our lives, in this country, in this church and in the preschool. We have lots of work to do and there is an urgency. As Jesus says, “We must do the works of him who sent me while it is day. Night is coming.” Jesus certainly does not condone a lazy passivity. But Jesus is inviting us to expand our vision by first recognizing how much we limit ourselves and our purview by blaming others; how we are blinded by blame. And he invites us to expand our vision by seeing God’s presence with us and God’s healing power at work in what might appear to be very, very messy.

As we read in First Samuel, the Lord does not see as mortals see; he does not judge by outward appearance. And Psalm 23 also invites us to see as God sees, to look deeper and broader in order to see God walking along side us, comforting us, even as we walk through the dark and muddy valley of the shadow of death. And Ephesians invites us to wake up, open up our eyes of faith and rise from the dead blindness of blame so that Christ may shine upon us and help us to see his rod and staff guiding and consoling us through the muddy valley so that we may be healed and enter what the Psalmist calls “the house of the Lord” where our cups overflow and where goodness and mercy follow us all the days of our lives. Let us open our eyes in order to start seeing as God sees. Amen.

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Quenching Our Deepest Thirst

During this season of Lent, we have started reading and experiencing portions of the Fourth Gospel through the five bodily senses. Last week, Jesus’s conversation with Nicodemus in John 3 invited us to appreciate our auditory sense by listening to the wind, to the silence, and to our very breath. In this morning’s Gospel, we read about Jesus experiencing thirst and asking a woman for a drink. In fact, in John’s Gospel, Jesus expresses his physical thirst a couple times: here, as well as on the cross when he says, “I am thirsty” (19:28) and then receives wine on a branch of hyssop. However, in our Gospel this morning, we never actually read about Jesus receiving the drink for which he physically thirsts. It appears that, as a result of his conversation with the Samaritan woman, his deeper hunger and thirst have been satisfied, so much so that he refuses to even eat the food that his disciples bring to him. It also appears that the Samaritan woman’s deeper thirst has been quenched a well as a result of their fruitful and enlightening conversation. Although the Samaritan woman remains nameless in the Bible, Christian tradition has given her the name Photini or St. Photini, which means the “Enlightened One.” She is kind of like a Christian Buddha. (“Buddha” meaning the “Awakened One.”) So through this conversation with Jesus, the woman awakens to some deep theological insight that is so substantial and meaty and refreshing that she and her entire town can feast on it for days. So what is this deep insight and how can it enlighten us and quench our own deep thirst?

Let us begin by first setting the context for this theologically dense conversation and then briefly unpack some of its many meanings. First of all, the Samaritans were descendants of the Israelites who remained in the land of Israel when the Judeans were exiled to Babylon in 586 BCE. The Samaritans were ostracized by the Jews because, during this time of exile, five foreign nations moved in and corrupted the Samaritans with their foreign gods: Babylon, Cuth, Hamath, the Avvites and the Sepharvites (2 Kings 17:29-30). In addition to these five nations and their gods, the Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes added yet another deity by calling their primary temple on Mount Gerizim the temple of Zeus Xenios and the Samaritans seemed to welcome this addition (2 Maccabees 6:1-2). Some recent commentators have suggested that the woman’s five husbands and current partner ought not be understood literally but symbolically since she herself represents the Samaritan people who have had five foreign gods, as well as one who was currently not their true god. The Samaritans only considered the first five books of the Bible to be Scripture and refused to acknowledge the validity of the other writings, such as the prophets and the psalms. They also refused to acknowledge the validity of the temple in Jerusalem. Their temple was on Mount Gerizim.

So Jesus speaking to a Samaritan woman is scandalous because A) she is a Samaritan and B) she is a woman and according to conventional Jewish wisdom at the time (Pirke Avot 1:5), “he who talks too much with women brings evil upon himself and…will in the end inherit Gehenna.” But Jesus is thirsty and wants a drink and is willing to risk criticism and Gehenna by speaking to the Samaritan woman, who is then flummoxed and asks, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” Basically asking, “Don’t you know that your people look down on us and avoid us because we have a completely different temple and style of worship?” Jesus responds by very subtly hinting at an entirely new way of understanding temple worship. He says, “If you knew who you were talking to, you would be asking me for living water.” Now the phrase “living water” generally referred to flowing water so the woman is now completely confused since Jesus doesn’t even have a bucket. But since Jesus speaks in symbolic and prophetic language, his use of the phrase “living water” likely refers to the “living waters” that would flow out from the true temple of God, as prophesied by Zechariah (14:8) and Ezekiel (47:1-12). With these words, he is pointing to a temple that will both transcend and include Jews and Samaritans, a temple that he himself will fill with his life-giving, thirst-quenching and replenishing spirit.

“Sir,” she says, “Give me this water. Show me this temple.”

Although it initially seems like Jesus changes the subject, I see him as again responding to her request with subtle and prophetic wit. He says, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” Now if we suppose (as most people do) that the Samaritan woman literally did have five husbands, then this would not be a sign that she was a loose and immoral woman (as many male commentators like to suggest). Instead, this would be a sign that she was a victim of her own society. As I mentioned a few weeks ago in a sermon about Jesus’s teachings on divorce, wives generally could not divorce their husbands. At the time, some rabbis were arguing that a man should be able to divorce his wife for whatever reason he wanted (be it overcooking dinner or just losing interest in her). In this case, the woman would constantly be under the threat of being divorced, which would lead to social ostracism and economic destitution. Remember in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus sided with the school of thought (the School of Rabbi Hillel) that protected women from simply being tossed aside by fickle and selfish men. The Samaritan woman, it seems, had been abandoned and tossed aside by men five times!

However, the most likely reason for this series of failed marriages would not have been the fickleness of the men but rather the barrenness of the woman. Being barren was often grounds for divorce since a man was obligated to father two children.[1] It seems that the Samaritan woman was likely barren which would also explain why she came to the well alone at noon, thus avoiding the other women who would have likely seen her infertility as a punishment from God.

By understanding the woman in this light, we see Jesus reaching out to someone who has been pushed around by men because of her womanhood, belittled by Jews because of her Samaritan identity, victimized by society and scorned by other women because of her body and its apparent barrenness. Jesus is reaching out to an excluded person who represents a whole community of excluded people. He is reaching out to someone who is excluded by the excluded; excluded because of her body by a group of people who are excluded because of their ethnicity.

The Samaritan woman then seems to bring the conversation back to the subject of temple and worship and the differences between the Samaritans and the Jews. But for Jesus, he was already addressing this issue by gently inviting her to acknowledge the ways in which she felt abandoned and betrayed by men and by a God who seemed to give her a deeply flawed body. He was responding to her questions about temples and worship from the beginning by inviting her to see her body not as flawed but as a vessel for the living waters of the Spirit of God to rush through, as a temple for the Holy Spirit. He says, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (4:21, 23-24).

Jesus is saying, “Beloved sister, your deepest thirst is not to know about who is right and who is wrong when it comes to the temple and worship. Your deepest thirst is to be loved and accepted and to love and accept yourself and your own body, which has been the source of such shame for you. I am here to quench that deepest thirst by telling you that you are not only loved and accepted by God and by me but also by revealing to you that the true temple of the Holy Spirit of God is now your body.”

Jesus says this to the woman in his mystical and subtle way and she responds incredulously and dismissively by saying, “Well, yes, I know that the Messiah is coming and someday he will explain all these things and finally accomplish all of these wonderful things you’re describing.” And Jesus says, “No, it’s happening right now. Someday is today. Right now, if you are open, I can make your body into a temple of the holy spirit, out of which the living waters of God will come gushing forth. I can quench your deepest thirst. I am the Messiah, the one who is speaking to you.”

At these words, the Samaritan woman becomes Photini, the enlightened one. She leaves her water jar at the well because now her deeper thirst has been quenched. She begins to understand her body as a temple of the Holy Spirit as she returns to the city with new courage and conviction, inviting others to meet the man who knew and quenched her deepest hunger. She invites us as well to “come and see” and encounter the Christ who can satisfy our thirst by making our bodies into temples of the Holy Spirit. Her conversation, conversion and subsequent evangelism of the Samaritans of Sychar are so profound that one Johannine scholar, Sandra Schneiders, suggests that she is the textual alter-ego of the author of John’s Gospel; that perhaps Photini is not only the enlightened one but also the beloved disciple who leaned on Jesus’s bosom at the last supper, and who listened to the heartbeat of the one who gave his spirit to her so that the body which was once a source of shame could become a holy temple for the divine spirit to dwell. From then on, every time she would take a simple sip of water or wine or eat a piece of bread, she would remember and invite us to remember the one who quenched her deepest thirst and satisfied her deepest hunger by making her body into God’s true temple.

I can’t help but imagine St. Photini inspiring St. Paul to write the following words to the church in Corinth, when he said, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God…therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Cor 6:19-20). As we appreciate the bodily gifts of listening and tasting (and seeing, smelling and touching) throughout this season of Lent, may we do so as people enlightened like Photini, giving thanks and praise and glory to the God who dwells within the mansions of our hearts and the temples of our bodies. Amen.

[1] The School of Hillel argued that a man should have one daughter and one son while the school of Shammai argued that a man should have two sons. Sefer Hasidim

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Listening to the Wind

In today’s Gospel, we witness an encounter between Jesus and a Pharisee named Nicodemus who approaches Jesus rather clandestinely at night. Throughout the conversation, Jesus tries to guide and pull Nicodemus out of his narrow worldview in order to hear Jesus’s words with a more deep and expansive understanding. Jesus is essentially trying to lead Nicodemus out of a literalistic understanding into a more spiritual understanding.

There are many Christians who insist that there is only one plain meaning of Scripture. According to the Gospel of John, however, this way of understanding and hearing Scripture as literal, plain, straightforward and univocal is actually exposed as myopic, obtuse and ridiculous. To all of the many Bible teachers out there who assert that their interpretation is the most straightforward, literal and plain and the “only proper” interpretation, Jesus asks, “How can you be a teacher and not understand these things? How can you be a teacher of Scripture and not understand that there are many deeper meanings?”

Please understand that whenever I preach and offer an interpretation of Scripture and the teachings of Christ, I am never insisting that my interpretation is the only one. The more I read and pray and study, the more I am pushed to be open to a deeper and wider expanse of interpretation. There are certainly boundaries to interpretation, but there is enormous depth and breadth and height within those boundaries. This is why I enjoy hearing how the Scriptures speak to you in your own particular life and context, as I hope we can do later this morning.

The words of Jesus in John are multi-vocal, which means they are jam-packed with meaning and we could spend the rest of Lent unpacking and chewing and digesting these teachings in John 3. However, as I read these teachings today, there is one particular verse that resonates most deeply with me and that is verse 8: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

In these words, I hear Jesus inviting Nicodemus and us into a deeper kind of listening. In the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) Jesus often says, “Whoever has ears, let them hear!” In John, Jesus is saying the same thing in a more subtle and poetic way: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” With these words, Jesus invites Nicodemus and us to listen, to be still and quiet enough to actually listen to the wind.

How often do actually hear the wind? Sometimes the wind makes itself very apparent, as it did on the first Sunday of Epiphany when Justin and I were here early and felt a mighty wind shake the entire building. Or maybe you’ve had an experience while camping when the night winds seem to violently howl the very name of God (“Yahweh!”) and toss you and your tent to and fro, as was my experience at Zion National Park several years ago. Or maybe you’ve experienced heavy windstorms or tornadoes or hurricanes.

But often the wind is making a soft and gentle noise that we generally do not hear. And it is by stopping and listening to the wind that we are actually being attentive to the Spirit. The Hebrew word for “Spirit” is ruach, which is the same word for wind. The Greek word for “Spirit” is pneuma, which is also the same word for wind. According to the Hebrew and Greek languages (the languages of the Bible), when we are listening to the wind, we are listening to the Spirit. So I invite you this week to take some time to simply listen to the wind.

 

In order to do this, we first need to be still and silent. And by being still and silent we can actually listen to the wind even when there seems like there is no wind to be heard. If you take some time to simply sit in silence, you will likely find that what you initially thought was silent was not silent at all.

Whenever I teach Godly Play or lead worship with children, I begin by inviting them to pray by simply being silent. I remind them that prayer is not just us talking to God but also listening to the God who wants to speak to us. And all the great mystics agree that “God’s first language is silence. Everything else is a poor translation.” (And remember what Rabbi Gamliel said: “I have been raised on the talk of sages, but have found nothing more true than silence”). I often wonder if this is how Abram heard the voice of God call him and bless him. Did God speak audibly to Abram in the voice of Charlton Heston? Or was Abram consistently attentive to the Spirit, listening to the windy silences of the vast Arabian deserts?

Blaise Pascal said, “All of humanity’s problems stem from our inability to sit quietly in a room.” Many of us are very uncomfortable with silence, but we will be divinely blessed, not unlike Abram, if we spend time listening to what the poet Rainer Marie Rilke called the “ceaseless message that forms itself out of silence.” And what is that ceaseless message that forms itself out of silence? It is what Catholic priest and contemplative Henri Nouwen called the inner voice of Love. Nouwen wrote,

Have you ever tried to spend a whole hour doing nothing but listening to the voice that dwells deep in your heart? … It is not easy to enter into the silence and reach beyond the many boisterous and demanding voices of our world and to discover there the small intimate voice saying: “You are my Beloved Child, on you my favor rests.” Still, if we dare to embrace our solitude and befriend our silence, we will come to know that voice.”[1]

 

By listening to silence, we can come to know more intimately that wonderful love of a Father who gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life; the love that does not seek to condemn but rather seeks to save.

I invite us this week to listen to the wind, to listen to the silence and also to listen to the sound of our own very breath. The Hebrew word for Spirit is ruach, which means “wind” and it also means “breath.” So if you think there is no wind to be heard at all, there is always the life-giving wind blowing through our bodies. According to the Hebrew language, the breath that we breathe in this moment is the same as the wind blowing through the trees, which is the same as the Spirit that hovered over the primordial waters in Genesis and who dances with the Father and the Son in the Holy Trinity. So listen to the wind, the silence and your breath because by doing so, you are listening to the Holy Spirit. Listen.

[1] Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World (New York: Crossroads, 2002), excerpt from the Inward/Outward daily meditation

 

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Patience and Presence

For the last several years, I have had the privilege to teach at the Episcopal School for Deacons in Berkeley, where our deacon today, the Rev. Rebecca Morehouse, worked for many years and from which she has recently retired (or tried to retire). The class I have taught since 2013 has been Christian Social Ethics and in this class, I teach students (most of whom will become deacons in the Episcopal Church) a method for ethical decision making. The method is expressed in the word DISCERN, which functions as an acronym for a seven-step process, with each letter of the word DISCERN representing each step. So the “D” stands for “Determining possible outcomes” of the decision. This involves applying the utilitarian or teleological approach which seeks to provide the greatest good for the greatest number. English philosophers John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham. The “I” stands for “Imagining universal application”; imagining a world in which everyone made a similar decision if there were in a similar circumstance.  The “S” stands for “Seeking wisdom in your faith tradition” and we spend much of the class gleaning relevant wisdom for today from the rich Anglican Moral Tradition. The “C” stands for “Consulting broadly,” seeking wisdom from outside the Anglican Moral Tradition and even beyond the Christian tradition. The “E” stands for “Examining Personal Experience” and the “R” for “Reflecting on Biases” and the “N” for “Never Stop Praying.” We spend a semester unpacking each of these steps and then applying this method to several case studies. But this morning we’re not going to do that. This morning I want to very briefly unpack the penultimate step in the method and that is “Reflecting on Biases.” Part of this step involves engaging with three major thinkers of the 19th and 20thcentury: Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche, philosophers who have been called the “Masters of Suspicion” and who have collectively asserted the everyone is driven by three major forces: sex, money, and power. Perhaps you can already guess which thinker is associated with each: Freud thinks that sexual desire often drives our unconscious impulses; Marx thinks that ideology controls society; and Nietzsche thinks we are all driven, in one way or another, by the will to power. Sex, money and power. These “Masters of Suspicion” do not necessarily think there is anything inherently wrong with sex, money or power, but they help us to see the many ways in which we can easily become controlled and manipulated by these forces every day. When we fall prey to these forces or to an inordinate attachment to them, we can very easily fall into sin.

Although these Masters of Suspicion were each wonderfully creative thinkers, they were not entirely original. The Jewish and Christian traditions had already recognized the dangerous potency of these three forces, as attested to in our readings this morning. The Scriptures wrestle with sex, money, and power in their own way, usually in terms of pleasure, possessions and pride. In our reading from Genesis, we see these three forces subtly at work in influencing Eve to eat the fruit of the forbidden tree. The Scriptures say, “The woman saw that the tree was good for food (to possess), and that it was a delight to the eyes (pleasure), and that the tree was desired to make one wise (pride), so she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.” Pleasure, possessions and pride push humanity to fall headlong into sin.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus confronts these same forces in the desert when the devil tempts him to satisfy his hunger by miraculously turning stones into delicious loaves of bread (so pleasure), to possess all the kingdoms of the world and all of their splendid riches (possessions), and to assert his power over the angels to protect him from self-sabotage (power). By resisting these temptations, Jesus acts as the new Adam and begins reversing the effects of the Fall and begins renegotiating our relationship to power, possessions, and pride (sex, money, and power).

With this understanding, we can see why Jesus emphasized three particular acts of righteousness in the Sermon on the Mount, which we heard on Ash Wednesday, when he emphasized fasting, alms-giving and prayer, in order to help temper our attachment to pleasure, possessions and pride.

In the Gospel this morning, we get to see Jesus in action, responding to the temptations of pleasure, possessions and pride, which the devil dangles before him with diabolic brilliance. I want to highlight two characteristics of Jesus’s response, which I invite us to imitate throughout this season of Lent.

First of all, Jesus responds to each of the three temptations with words from the Holy Scriptures. He had immersed himself in the Torah, in the teachings of the Prophets, and in the poetic prayers of the Psalms. He knew them by heart. While Jesus was physically fasting in the desert, he was spiritually feasting on “every word that comes from the mouth of God.” So when the devil himself uses Scripture in an attempt to make Jesus grasp for power, Jesus is fully equipped with yet another reference to Scripture to quote in order to counter the attack. So this Lent, I invite us to feast spiritually on the Word of God so that we too can resist the devil’s many temptations and temper our relationship with pleasure, possessions and pride. This Lent, we will immerse ourselves in the Scriptures by feasting on portions of the Gospel of John, starting next Sunday.

The second characteristic about Jesus’s response to temptation that I want to highlight is slightly more subtle and complex, but equally important. In order to appreciate this characteristic, we need to first appreciate how tempting these offers actually were for Jesus. These offers to miraculously make bread, to escape death and to become the king of all the world were extremely tempting offers for Jesus because he really wanted to do these things. We know he wanted to do these things because later on in Matthew’s Gospel, he does all of them: He miraculously makes bread (to feed thousands of people), he escapes death in his resurrection and then he commissions his followers to make disciples of all the nations of the world. So does this mean that Jesus eventually succumbs to the devil’s temptations? Absolutely not!

Jesus fulfills his deep desires, but he does so in God’s time and in God’s way, rather than in the devil’s way. The devil offers him the fast-food approach of instant gratification, which is tempting indeed. But God’s way often requires patience and long-suffering and sacrifice. The timing was right for Jesus to miraculously make bread when there was more than just his mouth to feed. And the timing was right for Jesus to escape the clutches of death only after he had endured the suffering of the cross and the grave.

As I preached about on Ash Wednesday, our process of spiritual growth and deification is a long and arduous one. Indeed, it is the way of the Cross, the via dolorosa, the path of pain and suffering and sorrow. Of course, we would prefer to bypass all of that and just get straight to the good stuff. As the blues singer Albert King said, “Everybody wants to go to Heaven, but Nobody wants to Die.”

Matthew’s Gospel teaches us that when it comes to the spiritual life, the fast-food approach is actually the devil’s approach. This is why we don’t just hop from Epiphany to Easter. We first walk the via dolorosa of the Lenten season. In this season, we train ourselves to trust in God’s time and to follow God’s way, even when it is full of difficulty, pain, self-denial, and boredom. It is in this season, that we renegotiate and recalibrate our relationship with pleasure, possessions and pride; with sex, money and power. God wants us to flourish and thrive and God has tremendous blessings in store for each of us here as well as for this church as a whole. But, in order to claim them, we must first walk the way of the Cross. Before we can properly celebrate the glorious resurrection on Easter Sunday, we must first observe a holy and somber Lent. Before we can go to Heaven, we first have to die.

So what is this second characteristic of Jesus’s response to temptation that I want to highlight? I would say it is his patience, his calm refusal to rush and grasp at the rich blessings that are in store for him, his ability to be present to the here and now. This Lent, as we read through John’s Gospel, I invite us to practice being patient by being fully present to the here and now. One of the best ways I have learned how to do this (or at least start doing this) is by simply being in my body, being mindful and grateful for even a single breath that I breathe, a bite that I take, an aroma I smell, a texture I touch, a beauty I see, or a melodious sound I hear. As we will be reading parts of John’s Gospel throughout Lent, I will be highlighting an aspect of John that I noticed while writing my dissertation; and that is the Gospel’s emphasis on the body and the bodily senses, the Gospel’s invitation to experience the divine pulsating through our flesh, to be refreshed by the God who became flesh in order to help us see our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit.

Being present to the here and now is actually very difficult work, especially when the “here and now” is troubling and painful and might be the last place or moment in which we want to be. But ultimately, this practice of mindfulness helps prepare us to receive the many blessings that are in store for us as well as those that are in front of us right now. This practice also helps temper our relationship with pleasure, possessions and pride so that we may more fully enjoy our God-given pleasures, possessions and pride in God’s time and in God’s way.

So once again, in the words of the Book of Common Prayer, “I invite you, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word,” but above all, by practicing patience and being present to the here and now through mindfulness and appreciation of our bodies, these temples of the Holy Spirit, and being renewed and refreshed by the divine Word who became flesh. Amen.

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Ash Wednesday Sermon: Practicing Deification for Lent

Whenever I preach on Ash Wednesday, I like to highlight the apparent incongruity built into the service, in which we hear Jesus tell us, “Whenever you’re being pious, don’t make a show of it” and then we proceed to put ashes on our foreheads thus making a show of our piety, whether that is our intention or not. I like to highlight this as well as other incongruities and occasions in which we seem to not only fail in obeying Jesus but our disobedience to Jesus, in some cases, is built into the very way we do church. For example, earlier in the Sermon on the Mount, we heard Jesus say, “Do not make vows” (Matt 5:34) and then we proceed to make very important vows at our baptism and at marriage. These vows are central to the sacraments. Later on in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says to his disciples, “Do not call anyone on earth ‘Father’” (Matt 23:9), and then we proceed to address not only our earthly fathers but also some clergy often as “Father,” including myself. Now I’m not at all opposed to any of this: I’m not opposed to calling someone “Father” or being called “Father;” I’m definitely not opposed to our baptismal vows or marriage vows and certainly not opposed to the imposition of ashes, but there is clearly a tension here. Jesus teaches us not to do something and, when we gather as his body on earth, in some cases, we do that very thing.

Also, several weeks ago, we heard Jesus say, “You are the light of the world…let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16) and today, in the same sermon, Jesus basically says, “Don’t do your good deeds before others in order to be seen by them” (Matthew 6:1). Which one is it, Jesus? Make up your mind. We see incongruities not only between Jesus’s teachings and the way we do church, but we see them within Jesus’s teachings themselves, indeed within the very same sermon! So how do we approach this?

Apparent incongruities in Scripture are not simply mistakes or mere contradictions, but rather invitations into the deep, paradoxical mysteries of God. In Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth, he doesn’t shirk at all from the paradoxes that have come to mark his life and ministry. He is very honest and upfront about them when he says, “We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see– we are alive…as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”

Lent is a season of prayerful and penitential preparation for the Feast of the Resurrection. And it is a long liminal space between Epiphany and Easter, that invites us to sit with the incongruities and allow them to open us up to receive the divine mysteries lurking underneath, and to appreciate the paradoxical mysteries that are all around us: We are dust, but we are dust that breathes the breath of God. We are mortals, but we have eternity in our hearts. And tonight we mark ourselves with the cross, the great coincidence of opposites, the symbol that represents the simultaneous glorification and humiliation of the One who was both God and man. There is a plethora of these paradoxes.

This year, as I have had the opportunity to study and read deeply with you all the portion of the Sermon on the Mount that precedes the Ash Wednesday reading, I have come to see a particularly profound mystery and paradox that flows through the currents of the whole Sermon on the Mount and might even be the heart of the entire sermon, which I have come to understand and refer to as the Teachings of a Jewish Mystic.

And I see this Jewish Mystic, who is also my Lord, conveying this paradoxical mystery or mysterious paradox especially in his teachings tonight. And it is this: If we seek to become God, we will inevitably bump up hard against our human limitations and fall headlong into sin (which is deep disconnection from ourselves and from everyone around us). But if we relax into our humanity and lean lovingly into the divine source of our every breath, we will find ourselves growing into divinity.

In other words, if we seek to become God over and against the one true God, I’m sorry to say we’re not going to make it. He’s going to win. We will end up strangling ourselves with our own spiritual arrogance, which, according to C. S. Lewis, is the sin that made the devil become the devil. (Ego-centric arrogance and seeking to become God over and against God).

But, if we seek to partner with God, fully aware of our human limitations and of our absolute need for God, who graciously provides with the gift of every single breath we breathe, then we begin a journey that leads to such profound union with God that we begin participating in divinity ourselves. The ancient Christian theologians called this process “theosis” or “deification.” And St. Athanasius, who is known as the Father of Orthodoxy, sums up the entire Gospel when he said, “God became human so that humans can become God.”

So there are two ways of saying, “I am God.” One is an expression of the utmost arrogance, on par with the devil’s arrogance. And the other is an expression of the utmost humility. One is an expression of competition with God while the other is an expression of a human who realizes that she is dust in whom God has breathed life and who seeks to merge and partner with the divine source of every breath. Paradoxically, it is by acknowledging our humanity that we can participate in divinity. As another ancient Christian theologian Irenaeus put it: “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.”

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus expects us to give, pray and fast in order to recognize our utter dependence on God for every single breath we take, for every bite of bread we consume, for every single penny we receive. Ironically, this is how we store up treasures for ourselves in heaven by becoming fully alive as humans, as God-breathed dust. This Lent, I invite us to seek and participate in the glory of God by becoming more fully alive, by relaxing into our humanity and abandoning ourselves completely to what Dante called “the love that moves the sun and the other stars” and to merge in love with the divine source of our every breath. Amen.

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“The Cloud his Bow, the Fire his Spear”

 

Readings for the Last Sunday after Epiphany:

Exodus 24:12-18

Psalm 99

2 Peter 1:16-21

Matthew 17:1-9

This sermon was preached at the St. Francis of Assisi Episcopal Church in Novato CA on February 26, 2017.

Tomorrow is the feast day of the seventeenth century Anglican priest George Herbert who is arguably the most skillful religious poet of the English language. Ever since I read his poem “Easter Wings” in high school, I have been fed and inspired by his words and wisdom. The poem I have been chewing on the last few days is one with the deceptively simple title: “The Bag.” The third stanza of the poem describes Christ’s self-emptying and incarnation with these words:

The stars his tire of light and rings obtain’d,

The cloud his bow, the fire his spear,

The sky is azure mantle gain’d.

And when they ask’d, what he would wear;

He smil’d and said as he did go,

He had new clothes a making here below.

The two images that resonate most deeply with me are in the second line: “The cloud his bow, the fire his spear.” The Cloud and the Fire. These images are ubiquitous throughout Scripture in describing God—they both appear several times in our readings this morning—and they have become emblematic of different understandings of God that have conflicted and developed over and against each other throughout the centuries. The Fire and the Cloud.

I have been teaching an online course on pre-Reformation English Spirituality and Mysticism at CDSP and we have been studying the 14th century English mystics, whose profound spirituality fed into the ocean of Anglicanism in which George Herbert swam. Today, the most famous of these 14th century English mystics is the beloved Julian of Norwich, but there are others who also deserve our attention, since we are their spiritual descendants, as Episcopalians and Anglicans. The two others that I want to highlight this morning are the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing and a freelance hermit named Richard Rolle, who is the author of a book called The Fire of Love. These two mystics can help deepen our appreciation of the Transfiguration of Christ, as told in Matthew’s Gospel.

Richard Rolle is one of my favorite of the English mystics and he uses the image of fire to describe his bodily experience of God. In his book The Fire of Love, he writes, “When a [person] is perfectly converted to Christ, he…feels a warmth most sweet, burning like a fire. He is filled with wonderful sweetness, and glories in jubilant song.”[1] Rolle experienced God as one who tasted sweet, who felt warm like a fire and who sounded like a melodious song. Many other Christians have experienced and understood God in similar ways, as a divine fire that can be physically felt. Such Christians are generally part of what is called the kataphatic tradition, which emphasizes the imminence of God, who can be imagined in our minds and felt in our bodies. However, there is another tradition in Christianity that is quite different, a tradition that is often associated with the image of the cloud.

The anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing used the image of a cloud to describe how we fail to see the God who is right in front of us. This mystic is often referred to as the Cloud author because, in his most famous text, he explained that between God and us, there is what he called a “Cloud of Unknowing” that obscures our vision of God. We cannot penetrate this cloud with any rational thought or theological insight or rigorous study. The only we can penetrate and see through the Cloud of Unknowing is by shooting through it arrows of love (“humble impulses of love”). The Cloud author is very skeptical and suspicious of any physical experiences of God like those described by Richard Rolle. He instead encourages a kind of prayer that does not try to access God through the mind or body, but purely through the heart. This author is part of what is called the apophatic tradition, which emphasizes the transcendence and incomprehensibility of God.

These two major traditions invite us to ask ourselves, “How do we experience God? Do we experience God with our bodily senses as a fiery warmth and melodious song? Or do we experience God as on the other side of a ‘Cloud of Unknowing,’ beyond anything we can grasp with our minds or bodies, but accessible only through love and centering prayer?” Historically, those who have experienced God as one beyond the cloud have been at loggerheads with those who have experienced God as fire. This particular division may or may not resonate with us today, but it may remind us of other divisions more close to home. For instance, those who experience God more through contemplative silence can often clash with those who prefer contemporary worship music that makes us feel those wonderful warm fuzzies that Richard Rolle talks about. Or those who want to integrate their spirituality with political justice often clash with those who prefer to keep religion and politics separate. Or those who attend the 8 o’clock service may clash with the 10 o’clockers; or those who prefer Rite I may clash with those who prefer Rite II. The clash between the Cloud of Unknowing and the Fire of Love is emblematic of the many clashes that continue to challenge and plague the church.

The invitation in our readings this morning is to hold them both together, both the Fire and the Cloud. The readings invite us to recognize them both as valid understandings of and approaches to the divine. The reading from Exodus holds them both together when it describes the cloud that covered Mount Sinai for six days while simultaneously saying that the glory of the LORD was a like a “devouring fire.” Also, remember that in Exodus, God led the children of Israel as a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Psalm 99 brings these images together by describing “the pillar of cloud” out of which God speaks. Peter invites us to pay attention to the heavenly voice that spoke from the cloud as if it were a fiery lamp shining in a dark place. And in Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration, Jesus’s face shines like the fiery sun while being overshadowed by a bright cloud. Mark and Luke emphasize the whiteness and the cloud in the Transfiguration, but Matthew highlights both the cloud and the fire. Matthew seems to understand that Peter, James and John may have all experienced the Transfiguration somewhat differently. For Peter, it might have been more like a fire of love while for James and John, it might have been more like a great cloud of unknowing. Matthew makes space for both.

In my class, I invited my students to choose between the Fire of Love track and the Cloud of Unknowing track. The first track involved reading Richard Rolle and repeating the name of Jesus while remaining open to various thoughts, images, and even warm fuzzies. The second track involved reading the Cloud of Unknowing and practicing a form of Centering Prayer that consistently let go of any thoughts, images or warm fuzzies. I was impressed with how well they were able to enter into their own prayer practice while remaining open and curious and enthusiastic about the experiences of their classmates who engaged in the opposite prayer practice. Like Matthew in his account of the Transfiguration, they were able to hold together both the Fire and the Cloud, different understandings and approaches to the divine.

This ability to hold together differences is the great charism of English spirituality and Anglicanism. It is part of our Anglican identity and in our Anglican DNA. And few exemplify this ability better than the beloved Julian of Norwich. As she endured a life-threatening illness, Julian received 16 different visions of God, some fiery and some cloudy. It took her about 20 years to make sense of them and reconcile the apparent contradictions, but she was committed to working through the many different representations of God. To me, Julian embodies the Anglican Via Media (the “middle road”) not so much by compromising, but by holding together both the fiery kataphatic understanding of God and the cloudy apophatic understanding, honoring them both and acknowledging their differences and apparent contradictions. In Julian of Norwich, the fire and the cloud can be held as one. She learns how to do this through her deep theological reflection on her knowledge and experience of Christ, especially the open wound on Christ’s side, which she describes as a “fair and delectable place, large enough for all mankind to be saved and to rest in peace and love” (Ch 24). For Julian, Christ’s side wound becomes a symbol of openness and hospitality to all kinds of different people with all kinds of different experiences. And it becomes an important symbol for Anglican spirituality as a whole. In fact, it is also used by George Herbert at the end of his poem “The Bag.” He writes,

As Jesus was returning, there came one

That ran upon him with a spear.

He, who came hither all alone,

Bringing nor man, nor arms, nor fear,

Receiv’d the blow upon his side,

And straight he turn’d, and to his brethren cry’d.

 

If ye have anything to send or write,

(I have no bag, but here is room)

Unto my father’s hands and sight

(Believe me) it shall safely come.

That I shall mind what you impart,

Look, you may put it very near my heart.

 

Christ, in his radical self-giving, invites us into a spaciousness, into the wideness of God’s mercy, so wide that it can hold both the fire and the cloud. George Herbert, Julian of Norwich and St. Matthew knew that this spaciousness was, like Christ’s side wound, close to the heart of God. They knew that it was in this spaciousness that we can be touched by the One who says to us, “Get up and do not be afraid”; that we can, in the words of the Collect, be strengthened to bear our cross and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with “the cloud as his bow and the fire as his spear,” lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen

[1] Richard Rolle, The Fire of Love, Chapter 19, translated and introduced by Clifton Wolters (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), 107.

 

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The Sermon on the Mount: Teachings of a Jewish Mystic (Part 3)

 

Readings for the Seventh Sunday after Epiphany:

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18

Psalm 119:33-40

1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23

Matthew 5:38-48

This sermon was preached at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in San Rafael CA on February 19, 2017.

When Jesus was in his mid to late twenties, there was a major political demonstration that likely had a significant influence on his life and teachings. In 26 AD, the prefect of Judea Pontius Pilate brought the Roman imperial standards into Jerusalem and displayed them at the Antonia Fortress, which was connected to the Jewish Temple. The imperial standards were symbols of the empire, sometimes a golden eagle on a pole called an aquila, but in this case, they included statues and effigies of Caesar. Now this was tremendously offensive to the Jewish people since it violated the second of the ten commandments: thou shall not make any idols or graven images. To have idols within the same complex as the Jewish temple was an absolute atrocity, so the Jewish leaders asked Pilate to remove them. Unsurprisingly, Pilate did not care that he was violating their law and so denied their request. So what did the Jewish people do? They organized a kind of sit in. Hundreds of them lied down, fully prostrate around Pilate’s house and remained motionless in that position for five days and nights. On the sixth day, Pilate said he would respond and so he had the protestors gather in a stadium to hear his answer. However, instead of answering them, he had his soldiers surround the Jews in a ring three soldiers deep. As historian Josephus tells it,

Pilate, after threatening to cut them down, if they refused to admit Caesar’s images, signaled to the soldiers to draw their swords. Thereupon the Jews, as by concerted action, flung themselves in a body on the ground, extended their necks, and exclaimed that they were ready rather to die than to transgress the law. Overcome with astonishment at such intense religious zeal, Pilate gave orders for the immediate removal of the standards from Jerusalem.[1]

 

The Jewish people opposed what they understood to be evil not by violently rebelling but by nonviolently resisting, to the point of risking their own lives. Although their sacred law was being terribly defied by Rome, they knew that attacking Roman soldiers would be yet another violation. They also knew that each human being was made in the image of God (whether Jew or Gentile) and there was a divine potential for good in every person. To destroy a human life would be to destroy a beautiful and beloved creation of God in which God had invested and inserted a part of himself. It was by risking their own lives that the Jewish people were able to appeal to that goodness even within Pontius Pilate, that divine spark. They resisted evil not with more evil but with a bold and courageous appeal to goodness, even within someone who might be considered a monster.

Young Jesus was steeped in these Jewish teachings and saw how they could effectively challenge and transform the world’s most powerful empire. He likely witnessed many other examples of Jewish nonviolent resistance throughout his childhood and young adulthood, and after spending a season in the desert likely marinating in what is called Merkabah mysticism, he developed a keen understanding of the connection between mystical enlightenment and an ethic of nonviolence. This morning’s section of the Sermon on the Mount provides an excellent case in point. Let us open our Bibles to Matthew 5:38.

Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.” Now here it sounds like Jesus is telling his followers not to resist evil, not to engage in any form of resistance whatsoever. And this is where it is again helpful and even necessary to look at the original Greek. The Greek word for “resist” here is antistenai which is made up of two parts: anti which means “against” and histemi which is a verb that in its noun form (stasis) means violent rebellion and armed revolt. “It refers specifically to the moment two armies collide, steel on steel, until one side breaks and flees.” (Wink, 11) So a more accurate translation would be “Don’t retaliate against violence with more violence.” Instead, resist evil and violence in a different way. Seek that creative third way of resistance that transcends the primal response of fight or flight. Jesus then clarifies this meaning by providing three concrete examples of creative non-violent resistance to evil and oppression.

He says, “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek turn the other also.” About three months ago, I preached on Luke’s version of this teaching out on the prayer labyrinth for All Saints day. It wasn’t that long ago so maybe some of you will remember that I asked Br. Richard to come up and show how he would strike me on the right cheek. (He’s not here today because he knew this was in the readings and he didn’t want to have to do that again). But I’m still kind of tickled by the fact that we have a picture of a Franciscan friar punching an Episcopal priest on our Facebook page. Apparently, he used to be a boxer so he knew that in order to strike me on the right cheek, he would need to use a left jab. So he would use his left hand and, at Jesus’s day, the left hand would only be used for unsanitary tasks. It would not even be used for striking someone on the cheek. Instead, someone would strike the right cheek by using the back of their right hand and that would be done not so much to injure but to insult, not to hurt but to humiliate. Masters would backhand their slaves and Romans would sometimes backhand Jews. And it is important to remember that Jesus is generally speaking here to a Jewish audience. So by turning the other cheek, the oppressed Jew would rob the Roman oppressor of the power to humiliate, essentially saying, “If you are going to hit me, hit me as an equal, as a peer, as a human being just like you.” So the Roman oppressor has the choice to either acknowledge the other as a peer or to stop hitting altogether. So the call to turn the other cheek is not a call to be a doormat but rather a call to nonviolently resist oppression, humiliation and dehumanization. (Ok, some of you already knew that. Let’s look briefly at the other examples.)

Verse 40: “If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.” New Testament scholar Walter Wink thinks this teaching likely evoked some chuckles among Jesus’s listeners because it’s basically telling people to strip down to nothing. The Greek words for coat and cloak were himation and kiton, which meant outer garment and inner garment. So why would Jesus tell his listeners to strip naked? And how is this a form of creative nonviolent resistance? Well, many of Jesus’s listeners were likey in enormous debt, as they were overtaxed by an empire that needed money to fund its many military campaigns. Many who could not pay off their debts with money had to give away other personal belongings, including their clothes, including the shirts of their back. So when Jesus calls them to give away even their undergarments, he is inviting them to essentially say to their creditors, “You want my robe? Here, take everything! Now you’ve got all I have except my body. Is that what you’ll take next?” It’s important to know that nakedness was taboo in Judaism, and shame fell not on the naked party, but on the person viewing or causing one’s nakedness (Gen 9:20-27) (Wink, 20). So not only would the creditor be shamed by the nakedness he would also be exposed as a cruel moneylender, stripping his debtors down to nothing, and he would therefore be invited to change his ways and repent. Walter Wink argues that Jesus “in effect is sponsoring clowning,” playfully exposing the truth, and therefore carrying on a “venerable tradition in Judaism.” (Wink, 21). There is a saying in the Jewish Talmud: “If you neighbor calls you an ass, put a saddle on your back” (Baba Qamma 92b).

Finally, Jesus’s third example in verse 41: “If someone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” In the Roman empire, soldiers were allowed to force occupied peoples to carry their heavy packs and equipment for one mile, but only one mile. And there were mile markers on highways to ensure this because the Romans were enlightened enough to know that forcing people to schlep their equipment (which could be 65 to 85 pounds) over excessively long distances would easily provoke occupied peoples to violently revolt. Forcing a civilian to transport equipment for more than a mile carried severe penalties for the soldier under military law. So Jesus’s call to go the second mile is not so much about being extra generous and assiduous in helping others complete a task. It’s more about how an occupied people can take the initiative in an oppressive society, “how they can assert their human dignity.” (Wink, 24). So Jesus invites them to imagine the “hilarious situation of a Roman soldier pleading with a Jew, saying “Come on, please give me back my pack!’” and the Jewish person responding, “Oh no, don’t worry, I don’t mind carrying it another mile.” This is Jesus offering a creative, nonviolent, disarming and comical response to violent oppression. He was speaking to particular situations of oppression which his listeners knew very well and offering a playful third way to resist and dismantle systems of violence and to invite the oppressors and persecutors themselves to repent.

Jesus says, “You have heard it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” Once again, Jesus sounds like a true Jewish mystic as he invites his listeners to see the divine spark within everyone, even our enemies, our persecutors, our tyrannical leaders who overtax us in order to fill their wallets and fund their wars (and perhaps avoid paying their own taxes). The Bible is clear that our God is a God of justice. Oppressors and tyrants will indeed reap what they have sown. And yet our job as children of our Father in heaven is to help others see the ways in which they have succumbed to evil and violence and to repent, just as the Jews helped Pilate to change his mind, even if it was just for a moment. The God who causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous, wants all of his children to discover their divine spark, to recover their imago Dei, that image of God imprinted on them by Heaven at the moment of their creation. When Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” he is saying “Be faithful to your divine purpose just as God is faithful to his own purpose.” The Greek word for “perfect” is teleios, which comes from the word telos, which means “purpose.” The word “perfect,” I think, is a very imperfect translation. Being true to our divine purpose means connecting or reconnecting with our divine spark, our imago Dei, and seeing that same divine spark in others, even in our enemies; it means unleashing our divine potential through love, compassion, creative resistance to oppression and ultimately through our devotion to the One who fully embodied the image of God on earth, Christ our Redeemer and our Liberator and our Lord. Amen.

[1] Josephus, War 2.172-174; Antiquities 18.55-59. Walter Wink writes, “Despite the similarity to a wolf’s baring his throat to show he is overmastered, the two acts are polar opposites. The wolf is surrendering; these Jews were being defiant. The wolf seeks to save its life; these Jews were prepared to die for their faith. The Jews later tried the same tactic against the Emperor Gaius (Caligula), and again prevailed, aided by the providential death of the emperor (Antiquities 18.257-309).” In Wink, Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way (Minneapolis MN: Fortress Press, 2003), 108, n. 12

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The Sermon on the Mount: Teachings of a Jewish Mystic (Part 2)

 

Readings for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany:

Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Psalm 119:1-8

1 Corinthians 3:1-9

Matthew 5:21-37

This sermon was preached at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in San Rafael CA on February 12, 2017.

There is a wonderful collection of wisdom sayings from Jewish rabbis who lived from 200 BC to 200 AD. The collection is called the Mishnah Avot or Pirke Avot, which means “Sayings of the Fathers.” It is full of excellent little nuggets of wisdom such as Rabbi Hillel’s famous saying, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” (1:14) And also a beloved saying of Rabbi Tarfon, who said, “You are not obligated to complete the task but nor are you free to abandon it” (2:21). And one of my favorites is Rabbi Gamliel who says, “I was raised on the talk of sages, and yet I find nothing more true than silence” (1:17). The rabbis in Pirke Avot generally sound very much like Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel, especially in the Sermon on the Mount, which is why many scholars say that Jesus in Matthew sounds most like the Jewish rabbis of his day.

The first verse in Pirke Avot reads, “Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, who transmitted it to the elders, who transmitted it to the prophets, who transmitted to the sages of the Great Assembly, who taught three things: Be careful in judgment, raise up many disciples and make a fence around the Torah.” Now what does it mean to “make a fence around the Torah”? It means that in order to make sure they do not break any of God’s commandments, they thought it would be wise to make more commandments so that they do not even come close to breaking God’s commandments. For instance, in order to make sure that they never break the third of the ten commandments (“Do not take the LORD’s name in vain”), the Jewish people decided to never use God’s name at all, lest it be used in vain. That was their way of creating a fence around that commandment. So as a result, we actually don’t know how to pronounce the name of God in Hebrew. When Jewish people read the tetragrammaton, they say “Adonai” or “Ha Shem” or even “Heaven.” We actually see this same strategy being employed by the author of Matthew in the first Beatitude, when Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:3) while in Luke’s version, Jesus says “the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20). Matthew is more careful when it comes to using the name of God. Matthew is making a fence around the Torah.

I share this idea of “making a fence around the Torah” because many suggest that this is exactly what Jesus is doing in this morning’s section on the Sermon on the Mount. They suggest that Jesus is, in a sense, adding to the commandments so as to make sure we don’t even come close to breaking them. If we don’t even get angry with someone, then we won’t come close to murdering them. If we don’t lust, we won’t come close to committing adultery. And we won’t break our oaths, if we don’t make any oaths at all in the first place. This understanding of Jesus’s teachings makes sense to me, and yet again I think it is barely scratching the surface of the profound meaning of his words.

Jesus seems to be describing a kind of people—God’s people—who cultivate their inner lives in such a way that following the commandments requires almost no effort. If we were to cultivate an inner life that was not plagued by anger or lust, then it would be natural and easy for us to avoid murder and adultery. In this way, Jesus again sounds like the rabbis who say that if we can follow the tenth of the ten commandments, then we will have no problem following the rest of the commandments. The tenth commandment being: “Thou shall not covet” (Exodus 20:17). If we are fully content with what God has given us in the present moment, we will have no reason to steal, lie, cheat, destroy and dishonor others. Jesus and the rabbis invite us to cultivate an inner life of peace and contentment, which is ultimately what the Torah invites us to do.

Let us turn our attention to the text, to verse 5:21. “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” Woah there, Jesus! Hell fire? That’s not very Episcopalian! This is where it is helpful to look at the original language. The Greek word here for “fool” is more, which is actually where we get the word “moron.” Some scholars suggest, however, that more is the transliteration of the Hebrew word “more” which means “rebel” or “apostate.”[1] As a result, New Testament scholar R. V. G. Tasker thinks Jesus is saying that “the man who tells his brother he is doomed to hell is in danger of hell himself.”[2] In other words, when we point one finger at someone else, we are always pointing three fingers back at ourselves. This understanding makes sense in light of Jesus’s later command to not judge lest ye be judged.

Verse 23: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” You may be surprised to know that part of our liturgy this morning and every Sunday morning is shaped by this very teaching. What do we do before we collect our offerings? We share the peace with one another. We share a sign of affection and reconciliation with each other. If we are holding a grudge against someone or believe someone is holding a grudge against us, we are called to forgive and be forgiven and reconcile. The point is that reconciliation, for Jesus, is more urgent than financial stewardship; a healthy community is more important than a wealthy community.

Verse 27: “You have heart that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.” It is clear that Jesus is speaking here in hyperbole, as rabbis are wont to do. (Unfortunately, some have taken Jesus literally, including an early Christian theologian from the third century named Origen, who apparently did actually mutilate himself. Ironically, this same theologian later became the leading proponent of allegorical [non-literal] interpretations of Scripture in early Christianity, after having learned the hard way not to take the Bible au pied de la lettre. Jesus’s strong language and his reference (yet again) to hell actually makes a lot of sense to me, especially in the context of addiction. In the 12 step meetings I have attended, I have heard the saying that “religion is for people who are trying avoid hell while spirituality is for those who have already been to hell.” And 12 step spirituality offers ways to help people from falling back into that hell, ways that require hard work and serious sacrifice. As someone addicted to nicotine who could not really imagine life without smoking, I have had to remove major parts of my life that felt essential (almost like body parts) in order to avoid falling back into the hell of addiction. I had to cut off certain relationships and activities that had become very important to me and yet had made me highly susceptible to smoking. Jesus calls us to make serious sacrifices in order to avoid falling into the hell of addiction, which comes in many different forms: alcohol, drugs, pornography, and others that might be less conspicuous but just as pernicious.

Verse 31: “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Now this needs to be understood in the context of Jesus’s other teachings on divorce as well as the debates among the rabbis at the time. There were two major schools of thought on divorce at the time: the school of Rabbi Hillel and the school of Rabbi Shammai. Rabbi Shammai’s school taught that the only ground for divorce was sexual infidelity while Hillel was much more lenient, allowing men to divorce their wives “for any cause whatsoever.”[3] Now in this time, wives generally could not divorce their husbands, but if a man could divorce his wife for whatever reason he wanted (be it overcooking dinner or just losing interest in her), then the woman would constantly be under the threat of being divorced, which would lead to social ostracism and economic destitution. Although upon first read, it seems like Jesus is being harsh and even misogynistic, a closer look at his teachings on divorce (including in Matthew 19:1-10) shows that he is actually siding with the school of thought that protected women from simply being tossed aside by fickle and selfish men. (Often when Jesus comments on the Torah, he emphasizes the parts of the Torah that are intended to protect the vulnerable, in this case women.)

Finally, verse 33: “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make your hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.” In Jesus’s day, the Pharisees made a fence around the command to not break vows made to the Lord by simply never making vows to the Lord at all, never swearing to God; instead, they would swear on everything but God: heaven, earth, Jerusalem, their own head. However, like a true Jewish mystic, Jesus explains that God is in everything and that’s God’s name has been sealed on all of creation so whatever you choose to swear by you are still swearing by God’s name. So we are brought full circle back to the Name of God: the Name that we ought not say in vain and indeed cannot say at all because we don’t know how to pronounce it and yet it is this same Name that infuses all created things with life and meaning and divine potential. We all have been stamped and sealed with this holy and ineffable Name of God; and in his teachings this morning, Jesus calls us to act accordingly and to treat one another and all of creation with honor and reverence, since everything that has been created has been signed and autographed with love by its Creator. If we let this truth seep into the deepest ground of our being, perhaps we can learn to let go of our anger, lust, rejection, and deceit, perhaps we can see ourselves and one another as beautiful expressions of the inexpressible Name of God. Amen.

[1] Psalm 78:8; Jeremiah 5:23

[2] R. V. G. Tasker, The Gospel according to St. Matthew (Tyndale New Testament Commentary IVP, 1961), 69.

[3] Josephus, Antiquities, IV. Viii. 23

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