Spiritual Ascension

It’s hard to know what to do with the Ascension of Jesus. In front of his disciples, Jesus is raised into the air and carried away by a cloud. This happens forty days after Easter, and is the culmination of Jesus’ earthly incarnation. Just as he was, by the Holy Spirit, conceived within Mary and born a human, he is borne aloft by the Spirit and carried back up to God.

The “up” part is maybe the trouble. We no longer believe that the sky is a dome, an arrangement of concentric spheres on which hang the sun, moon and stars, and behind them of course, is heaven. We have looked beyond the dome with our telescopes, and have pierced it with our rockets, and, well, we didn’t find heaven up there. When 21st century minds think about things like this, we tend toward alternate dimensions, and strange realities described by string theory, not simply an elevator up into the sky.

And strange, too, that Jesus’ body went with him. We are dust, and to dust we shall return, but Jesus’ body, made of the same stuff as ours, the same dust, does not return to the soil. No bones will be found. There is no geological memory of Jesus. No remains. Only the story, told by those who gathered in that house in Jerusalem that day, and those who heard them, and those who heard them, and so on. Which is pretty good, but still, strange.

So I guess I’m saying that as a physical event, as a literal mechanical operation of God, you are forgiven if the Ascension does not speak to you. But reading it as a story that describes a spiritual movement might open it up a little bit.

So let’s look at how this ascension functions as a mirror image of Jesus’ arrival on earth. If this is the ascension, we might call his birth a con-descension, a descending with. It is, all this time later, still incredible to us that God would subject Godself to… well, to us. So God doesn’t merely send Jesus to teach us how to connect with God. The gesture is not merely a sending-forth, but in the ascension, Jesus is drawn back in. This life, given freely, as a gift, also loops back around to the sender.

But it is not a retraction. God is not taking Godself away from us. Think about the teachings these last few weeks, about Jesus going to his Father’s house, which has many rooms. Or about how Jesus will send an Advocate, the Holy Spirit, to be God’s presence with us during his absence. God is teaching us something about God here.

If the sending, the con-descension of Jesus is a display of God’s love, of God’s forgiveness and desire for relationship with the world, then what does the Ascension show us? I would argue that it shows us God’s hospitality. For Jesus does not simply disappear, but gives us a path, a way to follow him. 

So the Ascension becomes a symbol of our welcome into the household of God. It is the final action of the incarnate Jesus, which is a notable status to occupy. And in his final act, he shows us the way to God. Now, of course, given the physics of the situation, it is not a literal path. It is a spiritual one. By practicing the life that Jesus teaches, we can participate in his ministry, and can follow him into fellowship with God. By practicing steadily and faithfully, we are inwardly transformed. We do not become Jesus per se. That’s a dangerous thing to suggest. But we become more like Jesus, and live lives more characterized by God’s presence.

The ascension takes on a new meaning if this is God’s way of showing us the way to God. Pretty much ever since it happened, people have been scandalized by the fact that Jesus was a human. When he was crucified, that would have meant God was suffering. It meant God was part of the cycles of violence and death that are so prevalent on the earth. If God has a body, and bodies eventually fail and decay, does that mean God fails and decays?

Here, then, is an answer. God does not decay, but returns. God is always, as with the ascension, returning to God, and also, in the Holy Spirit, returning to the world. This is the processual nature of God. God proceeds into and through the world and back to Godself, at every moment. The connection is always active. This constant procession, God’s receptivity and calling, means that God responds to the world, to each speck of it, at each moment. Every part of the universe gets the possibility for the next moment from this divine procession. The future opens up as the Spirit pulls the tangled threads of the world into a new form of order. Endings lead into another moment. Inasmuch as God returns even to the places where life falters, God’s procession into and through the world is at every moment a renewal. 

The cross looked like God’s ultimate failure, but the God who moves in and through all of creation summoned a next moment. The miracles of order on the edge of chaos, of planets condensing from clouds of gas and ever-more-complex life springing from primordial soup, these witness to the sacred movement, creativity, and calling of God’s procession. All of it is thoroughly sacred, constantly folded into relationship, exposing new potentialities and awakening new life. 

For all of this, the story of the Ascension does not stand as a testament to the structure of the cosmos. God, we find with growing confidence, is not found by going “up.” But the truth this story tells is not astrophysical. Just as the world was not created in one week a few thousand years ago, but that’s not the truth Genesis has to tell us. These stories are about how God relates to us. The Ascension shows us a God who not only sends Jesus to a world that frankly didn’t deserve him, as a gesture of grace and love. It shows us that same God, 33 years or so later, inviting us—all of us—home. It is done by the constant movement of God into the world, through the world, and back into Godself. This is how we are constantly folded into the divine household. By Jesus, and by the Holy Spirit, we are shown the way and welcomed home.


Enfolded by the Spirit

It’s the Spirit that we need these days. A lot of our usual guideposts and practices for connecting with God aren’t available during the quarantine. We’ve talked enough about the things we miss during social distancing, and I don’t need to rehash it. What Jesus is promising in today’s Gospel, though, is the spiritual presence of God after the physical presence of Jesus is over. The loss of Jesus’ company, of his bodily presence with his followers, is not the loss of God. There will be an Advocate, a helper, a Spirit of truth.

Spirit is not as beefy a word as they might have hoped for. In each of the ancient languages from which our Scriptures come, it means “breath, or wind”. Its poetry is undeniable, but likely the disciples were not pinning their hopes on poetry. People often feel that way about the Spirit. God moves subtly, soft as breath, folding the world into relationship like the wind curling autumn leaves into a momentary spiral. We get it in fits and bursts and not in the obvious, undeniable interventions we long for.

Jesus is not conjuring a third person of the Trinity here. No matter how in-spired he was, he is here referring to an already-ancient understanding of God as a hovering, windy presence, summoning order on the edge of chaos at the world’s beginning, and breathing life into dust to create life. The Spirit is God’s way of holding all of the creation in the hollow of God’s hand.

Jesus’ promise today is no compensation prize, then. It is the promise of a presence that cannot be stopped. The Spirit is far too slippery for anyone to nail down, much less arrest and crucify. It would have been the Spirit breathing life back into Jesus’ body on Easter. And the Spirit would move through authors in disparate communities in the decades after Easter, compelling them to write of God’s movement in Jesus. The Spirit moved through the church in the early years of imperial oppression, breathing on it like a flame kindled in tinder. And when the church was embraced by empire, the Spirit maintained an ornery presence, challenging institutional authority.

Our biblical vocabulary for the Spirit, in both Hebrew and Greek, is primarily feminine. Femininity, in classical philosophy, is more earthly, and less purely rational than masculinity, and so less privileged. If you think you hear relatively little about the Spirit, that might be part of it. Classical philosophy was confused in so many ways about the value of earthiness and of pure reason, and I don’t care to apologize for it there, but it’s also true that the Spirit didn’t follow the script written by the patriarchs. The Spirit can, as it would on the Pentecost, call forth divine wisdom from any person, regardless of their position in the church hierarchy. If you are trying to lead a well-organized global religion, the Spirit can cause a lot of trouble. The Spirit was disruptive long before disruption was a buzzword, breathing life into reformations, into subversive and beautiful faith that opened space for more and more people to realize God’s presence. 

And the Spirit is personal. She speaks to you where you are, and speaks to me where I am. Just as God is one and yet three, the Spirit’s calling is to the whole creation and uniquely also to each of us. The Spirit is going to be with you no matter what career field or graduate program or internship you pick, because her movement is fluid and faithful. In fact, the Spirit seems to continually nudge us toward a sort of creativity, a co-creativity with God that suggests that there is no straight and narrow path to follow so much as a field of creative and compassionate engagement with the world.

The Spirit liberates people. It is often said that no matter what people do to you, they cannot control your thinking. The Spirit has spoken to people in prisons and enslavement, in oppression, and in the midst of unimaginable suffering. She is called a comforter. There is real freedom in the experience of God. To know that your present circumstances, whatever they may be, are not what define you, is liberating. And to know that the Holy Spirit moves through you can bring forth the courage to speak, and to speak again. It can also—and should always—bring forth the courage to listen to those who speak from circumstances that are not our own.

The Spirit moves us toward a beauty that is not explicitly defined so much as sketched in very broad outline. She moves us toward a mutual thriving, toward a belovedness felt by one an all, toward a harmony or contrast that disregards homogenous sameness in favor of a chorus of differences making something broader and deeper by listening to the Spirit and one another and responding from the depth of our being, from the depth of our love. 

We are, then, not left orphaned. Not for a minute. Not in our bleakest loneliness, and not in our most numbing boredom. The Spirit is with us, and so then is the possibility of being part of something God today, right now. Circumstances change, and the canvas you paint on may shrink or grow, but you are called to paint nonetheless. You are called to seek the good, to practice mercy, and to embrace the beauty of creaturely life. That beauty is not always obvious. Life, even with the Spirit, is unclear and often painful. That sets us up to attend to remarkable resurrections each day, then, finding beauty amid the chaos, and brilliance in the doldrums.

Next week the story of Jesus’ life ends with his ascension to heaven. But the story of life is actually always beginning, each moment a tiny miracle sparked by the Spirit.


A Trinitarian Welcome

John’s Gospel often sounds like a theology essay, and today gives us some of that flavor. Jesus is teaching his disciples about the bigger plan. This stretch of John gives the gist of what is going to happen after he is no longer with us. The disciples will follow Jesus to his father’s house, where there are many rooms. This metaphor sounds great, except they don’t exactly know where Jesus’ father’s house is located. Thomas, ever the one to say what I would say, points this out to Jesus, thereby teeing up one of the most important lines in the Gospels.

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” That’s how you usually here it quoted. This line has become the prooftext for Christians who want to deny the validity of other religions. The way it’s read is that Jesus is asserting that he, contrasted to other ways of accessing God, is the singular mode of connection that actually works. Any other way of trying to be with God will not get the job done, in this interpretation. It must happen through Jesus. Hence, the well-intentioned desire of many Christians to bring people of other faiths to Christ, in order to save them. On the face of it, that is where the text seems to lead.

The context of the passage doesn’t quite fit that reading, though. This is an intimate teaching, just Jesus in his disciples, on the evening before he would be arrested and crucified. This is on the day we observe as Maundy Thursday, just a little while after the Last Supper. Jesus has already predicted Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s eventual denial of knowing Jesus. He’s not preaching to the masses here. He is tying up loose ends with his closest friends.

Notice that Jesus promises to personally help them. “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” This passage is saturated with human connection. Jesus senses the fear in his disciples, and is assuring them that the terror of tomorrow will not sever the ties between them. In the passage immediately following this one, Jesus promises also to send the Holy Spirit to guide his disciples.

The question he is answering, then, is not “is Judaism as good as Christianity” or “say there’s this prophet in Arabia in 600 years or so. What would you think of him?” No one in this scene is shopping for a new religious paradigm. The question is one of grief, asked from within the circle of those who love Jesus the most, and it is asking “how are we possibly going to manage without you?”

Jesus’ answer is that they are already folded into the household of God. “If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.” This is much more than Jesus saying, “I got a guy, he’ll hook you up.” This is getting into some levels of divine connectedness that we still marvel at.

When Philip says, “show us the Father, and we will be satisfied,” or to put it bluntly, “just show us God,” he gets the theology drop. “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” I am in the Father and the Father is in me. The theological term here is “mutual indwelling.” Jesus and God the Father, though distinct persons, dwell within one another, and are each full manifestations of the divine. You see Jesus, you see God. You see God, you see Jesus. They aren’t the same thing, but also they’re the same thing. Got it? No? Good. This is how words can express a mystery without exhausting it.

The mutual indwelling explains how Jesus could radiate divinity here on earth. How he could raise Lazarus, cure lepers, give sight to the blind, how he could teach with astonishing clarity and depth. He is a human, one of us, and he is also God, both in full measure. But what is this going to matter after Jesus ascends back into heaven?

Jesus continues to be that aspect of God, that person of the Trinity, who is a living avenue of God’s love, a portal into the divine. Even absent his physical form, those who seek the way he established, who gather and remember him and become part of his spiritual body here on earth, these Christ-followers are able to find God because they have a path to follow. 

Jesus says, “very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”

The love he showed here continues after his physical incarnation is over. The love he showed his disciples was not conditional to his physical life, but is in fact a characteristic of God. God always reaches out, listens, attends to God’s relationship with God’s people. This flows right into the promise of the Spirit, that aspect of God that moves among us still and guides us, nudges us, whispers to us, constantly reaching out and folding us into this divine life.

The rush to read this as a message of exculsivity, I think, forgets the question Jesus was answering. I simply don’t think Jesus is making a comparative religious claim here. This teaching doesn’t come in a debate of Christianity vs. other religions. That, to be perfectly blunt, is much more superficial than what is happening here. When we focus on finding a winner in our own competitions, we forget that God likely isn’t playing our game.  This passage is about how those who follow Jesus are part of a broadly inclusive and deeply loving community with God. It is about how a triune God—always three, always one—embraces the world with love and shows us how to more deeply connect with the source of our being. It is, then, about how you came to be part of that same community. Thanks be to God.


Power and Non-Violence

First Peter doesn’t show up too often in our lectionary. There’s not that much of it to start with. And it kind of falls from view behind all the letters of Paul. Tradition holds that Saint Peter wrote this letter during his tenure as the Bishop of Rome, aka Pope number 1. But scholars doubt that. It’s likely pseudonymous, written by someone else and signed as Peter to give it credibility. Not an uncommon strategy in those times.

The letter is addressed to a group of congregations in Asia Minor, who are being persecuted. The author of the letter urges them to remain faithful in the face of injustice, using Jesus as a model. I want to spend a little time thinking today about the way these people were encouraged to suffer with dignity.

“It is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly.”

This is nonviolence in one of its primordial moments. And nonviolence is a very serious endeavor. It is not, as it often appears, a passivity. Neither Jesus nor his disciples nor any of the leaders of nonviolent movements who find inspiration in Jesus is engaged in something passive. Jesus, we know, carried anger. He overturned the tables of the moneychangers and remarked on his exasperation with the world as he found it.

The moments we might point to as passive, the “turn the other cheek” moments, actually subvert the power dynamics of the situation. The nonviolence Jesus practiced and taught was a very intentional strategy. It didn’t come from a lack of concern, or from relativising everything to the point that no particular thing matters. Rather, it came from a deep commitment to the values Jesus taught. The man who healed the sick and the poor, and who washed his disciples feet and taught that every person is loved could not, with any integrity, employ violence. You cannot, for example, go about claiming that every life is sacred and every person beloved while also designating some people’s lives as less valuable than your ideas. Killing in the name of God’s love just doesn’t compute. There is no moral high ground to claim once you’ve turned violent. Your enemies will use your violence as a reason to commit violence against you, just like you did to them, and no one wins..

“For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.” Jesus’ nonviolence does not warrant our violence. It serves as an example. Jesus broke the cycle of violence repaid with violence, and the cycle must be broken again and again. This is the Christian calling. The violence of the Roman Empire attempted to snuff out the movement of Jesus, and the resurrection means it didn’t work.

“When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” The only way that Jesus’ dying for my sins makes sense to me is if it frees me. In particular, it frees me to continue breaking the cycles of violence in the world. It does that not through some bit of magic, but by showing that the rewards of violence are not the rewards I want. Secular power and prestige are awfully tempting, but a life closer to God is the bigger prize. And that is what I am freed to by Jesus’ death and resurrection.

The author of First Peter is calling these Christians in Asia Minor, who live in a very precarious situation, to the radical reality of Jesus’ resurrection. The futility of trying to stop killings by enacting more killings can stop. The sacred value of each and every person can be honored.

But we cannot wait for some law to make it so. We cannot wait until we have the governing majority—which Christians have had every minute of this country’s existence—and then turn society into a place of peace. Change does not happen like that. The world becomes peaceful in a granular way, through discrete disruptions of the cycle of violence. Jesus did not make the world a non-violent place. People can still choose violence, and they do every day.

The choice of non-violence is not naive, then. The person who chooses nonviolence knows that their individual choice will not bring human violence to an end. But that person knows that their choice matters. We make choices based on our beliefs, on our truths, and we keep doing it, because a peaceful future can only be realized through peaceful actions. So your decision to refrain from violence is your way of making the world more peaceful. It is what you can do. It is how you can show your faith that a world motivated by love is altogether better than a world motivated by fear.

“For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.” First Peter frames this choice of nonviolence as a return to God. Humans are constantly choosing the bloody way forward, pursuing their goals through the threat of suffering, and through inflicting pain and death on others. This, in no uncertain terms, is straying from God. It is straying from everything that is good and sacred about human beings. Our good shepherd guards our souls by freeing us from the momentum of violence, and giving us the opportunity to begin, in our place and time, to live peacefully.

This is what an ethic of life looks like. It is easy to choose nonviolence when you are not threatened. It is hard, and crucial (literally, cross-shaped) to forgo violence in the face of violence. This hard path is where we as Christians are led. It is where we follow our good shepherd. And it is the way home.


Senior Farewell

Even our glimpses of eternity are fleeting. Peter, when Jesus shone like the sun and Elijah and Moses stood beside him, wanted to build temples on that mountain, and to stay there. The undeniable demonstrative presence of God is something we would like to bottle, to keep with us, to remain in. Moses himself only saw God’s back, for the fullness of divine presence would have been too much for his human frame to bear. Today we see disciples, on Easter, walking and talking unawares with the resurrected Jesus. They invite him to stay, to hear the Good News, even while it is still not really known. And when he breaks bread, like in the days before, they know it’s him, that the women who went to the tomb were right. And then he vanishes.

This ephemeral nature of our experiences of God is frustrating. But I think it’s more a matter of human nature than of God withholding Godself. And I don’t say that to tee up one of those sermons where I talk about how pitiful we humans can be. It’s more a matter of physics. As rather small, limited systems, we aren’t equipped to take in the breadth of infinity and eternity. It’s not bad or good. It’s just a matter of being much, much smaller than the universe and its creator, and being fastened to our particular viewpoints.

But that means that when those moments happen where the veil between heaven and earth is thinner, we innately want to stay in them. Those moments come as a gift, as an experience of something bigger and deeper than we can comprehend, something which can be at once beautiful and terrifying and soothing. These moments are riveting, and if we could just have every moment be like them, life would be a lot easier to sort out. Or so it seems.

I have, in my life, been fortunate beyond words to be part of several communities where glimpses of God come more often than in other parts of my life. None of them was obsessed with specific practices or doctrine—though those matter a lot—so much as about people whose lives reflect the grace of something beyond our grasp. Each one of those communities came to me as a miracle. I remember standing, as a high school sophomore at a retreat center, in a room full of people and feeling a genuine love for them all, even if I didn’t know them. Or being in college and having the kind of friends who called me to be a better, kinder, more loving expression of myself. Or being an adult and being given the space to think and to speak, to falter and to surprise even myself, by communities that aim to to free people to be who God calls them to be. 

Of those communities, the EC is the only one I haven’t yet had to leave. I graduated, or moved, or got hired to be a campus minister, and I had to say goodbye to each of those communities. Each time, I worried that I would never find it again. For all the theology I love, none of it could convince me of God’s presence if I hadn’t felt it already, and I felt it in the presence of those people in those places. Leaving them was grief, every time. Even when I was coming here. The EC held more insecurity and uncertainty for me when I arrived than it did community and inspiration.

Certainly, though, the veil between heaven and earth is often a bit thinner in this community. We cultivate an attention toward God’s movement and toward the ways God calls us. And we are honest about the experience of being a human trying to sort it all out. How the task of being a human can be overwhelming and at times hopeless, and at other times soaked through with a beauty we feel in our bones.

I know, then, that it is hard to leave a place like this. I’ve done it, and I’ll have to do it again some day. It’s scary every time. So it’s with a lot of empathy that I say to this year’s seniors that whether it feels like it or not, you are ready. I’ve watched you grow in your time here. I’ve watched you find your voices as leaders, as friends, as people of faith. I’ve watched you shape this community with your spirit, your kindness, your intelligence, and your humor. I, with the luxury of not being the one graduating right now, can easily and sincerely say that you are ready.

And I can say that we are going to miss you. You are a part of us, and we love you.

I can also say that I know well the feeling of hanging on because the next thing hasn’t come into clear focus yet, of worrying that something is being taken away before you’re ready. It’s that clinging to the experience of God, because things are easy here. But we are called to share this thing we’ve found, to help other people know it. We are called to help others know the deep joy and relief of Easter. You are called to share the Spirit you’ve found here. 

And that means parting ways. This is not a severing of ties, though. You are part of this community even when you aren’t with us in person. We are always here for you, and I am always your campus minister.

It’s particularly strange to preach this sermon under these conditions. There would be a lot of hugging if we were together at the EC, a lot of tears, a lot of laughter bursting through the sadness. All of that feels muted by the physical distances between us. I’m sorry that it is happening in this way, that we didn’t get to have big goodbye hugs and that you’re not getting the victory lap of Duke that you worked so hard to earn. It is altogether disorienting.

I’m going to miss you an awful lot, class of 2020. I know we’ll see each other again, and soon, but this goodbye is hard to say all the same. Perhaps it’s fitting then, that we read this story from Luke today, of disciples, a bit confused by what was going on, and surely feeling isolated around Jerusalem in the wake of Jesus’ death. God came to them, made things clear for a while. They couldn’t stay in that moment, but they could tell other people about it. That’s how we make the EC, and that’s how you’ll make the next thing, too.


A Second Chance at Faith

This is a story of second chances. You’ve probably thought about Christianity in terms of second chances before. After all, the forgiveness of sins offers a second, and then a third, fourth, fifth… chance. Our first deviation from being perfect doesn’t end our pursuit of the good. The chance to pursue relationship with God, even from our rock bottom is an amazing gift.

I imagine, too, that the disciples in this Gospel story felt like they had been given a second chance. After all, in the days leading to Easter, it had become clear that no one actually expected him to be resurrected. Judas betrayed him, Peter denied him. The women who went to the tomb that Sunday went expecting to find a corpse.

So whatever their faith in Jesus looked like, it didn’t include this cosmic dimension, this transcendence of death. They had followed him, had learned from him, had loved him. And he had told them we would die and then rise again, but that, frankly, is really hard to believe. Who’s to blame them? Not I.

They had it easy, too. They got to see him, to see the wounds. Thomas, the first person to be told the story of Jesus re-appearing with his disciples, was incredulous. I love Thomas for that. Thank God we get Thomas to give voice to what we are thinking. Thomas needs to see and feel. It’s easy to take Jesus to be a great teacher and a good man. On that level, he’s still worth following. But Thomas was being asked to believe that Jesus was God, and had returned from the dead. He was being asked to believe that Jesus not only rose on Easter, but that he loved his disciples so much that he came back to be with them. Thomas was going to need to see some proof. He got it, too. Lucky guy.

Their second chance was more than another chance to be in his company, or another chance to get things right. It was another chance to formulate their faith. The disciples’ post-Easter understanding of Jesus was surely much deeper than their pre-Easter understanding. Jesus as a notable religious teacher, or even as a prophet, is different than Jesus the one who trampled over death and revealed the foolishness of the world’s violent ways.

In a sense, the disciples were being shown the way to a deeper faith. We all can resonate with this. Growing up, if you were brought up practicing Christianity, we were taught a kind of strange array of Bible stories first. The ones that would make good movies. I mean, the Christmas story, sure. Good one. But Jonah and the whale, Noah’s ark, the Tower of Babel, even Jesus walking on water… These are good and beautiful stories, but they make a peculiar introduction to God. These stories teach us of God as more of a storybook character, not unlike the fairy Godmother in Disney movies. A strangely distant yet omniscient figure that comes through with magic at the perfect moment.

The storybook understanding of God, frankly, doesn’t make it past the cross. That God died. Breathed his last, literally ex-pired. Maybe that was the God the disciples thought they were dealing with. There’s no shame in it. Resurrection is hard to wrap your head around. Surely, having followed him up to death’s doorstep, and having seen him keep going, more than one disciple, maybe all of them, thought God had died.

What had died was their neat and tidy understanding of God. The tame, storybook God.  The understanding of a God whose ways are compatible with the ways of the empire, whose power would manifest as secular force. The understanding of a God who keeps tabs of our good and bad deeds, and whose wrath can be kept at bay—and good favor secured—by worshipping God in very specific correct ways. The understanding of a God whose favor was most seen in the delay of death. A long life and lots of descendants and land. These were the signs of God’s favor. That God was nailed to a cross and died and then the story ended and everyone went to where they were staying and probably stared at the floor, feeling like they had been punched in the gut.

Thomas was trying to understand that he had a second chance. That where his early faith had been destroyed by death, this reappearance of Jesus didn’t mean that his old faith was correct after all, but that it fell far short of the mark. God had always been much more than that. Jesus triumphed, not by force, and not by passivity either. He triumphed by actively walking into the fray and showing that all of our violence is ultimately meaningless. This was not a victory for the storybook God, but for the God who persists in agonizing situations, the gritty, messy God of people who cannot ignore the dark side of life.

God the superhero who is always in your corner but never seems to show up quite like in the stories gives way to God the ceaseless calling to a way of love, a burning flame which cannot be snuffed out by the executioner’s tools. The God you never saw yields to the God who actually shows up in the darkest of moments.

This is the second chance the disciples were struggling to comprehend. We struggle with it today, too. The storybook God is far easier to understand. But this God runs deeper. This story doesn’t die on the cross, unable to push past the unavoidable specter of death. Sunday school faith eventually falters, and the more resilient, subtle, and achingly beautiful faith in the God who keeps reaching to God’s people carries on.

If you’ve been here for the first Sunday after Easter before, you have heard me say that I love doubting Thomas. He is the patron saint of those who have doubts, who struggle to believe that there could be room in this world for the love we hear described in this Gospel. It is a reasonable and understandable struggle. And yet, the second chance to form our faith is always arriving.


Unquarantinable Love

At first, I thought it was a little too on the nose. I’ve grown sensitive, during this quarantine, to phrases that are being overused. Sagely referring to the quarantine as “this time” or talking about all the things that will be different after this. In part, this is because I can’t stand repetition, and I don’t really like cliches either. These are problems to the point that I talk to my therapist about them. But I also think it’s because the quarantine is so clearly unresolved, and so many people are trying to make sense of it, as though it has to mean something. It’s our natural instinct to want to blunt the edges of something frightening and make it manageable. It’s our instinct to try to wrap our intellect around our fears so they feel less dangerous. But I don’t think it works right now. I mean, the quarantine is still indefinite. The COVID-19 virus is still spreading. People are still dying. We don’t know how much longer things will be this way. I’m not ready to talk about it like I have some spiritual command over it. And I sure don’t feel equipped to preach to you about the hidden wisdom of the COVID-19 quarantine.

So when Catherine Keller, my doctoral advisor, signed an email to her past and present advisees with the phrase, “with unquarantinable love,” my cliche sensors went off. But Catherine is one of the wisest people—not to mention probably the best writer—that I’ve known. She has earned the benefit of the doubt. So I let it linger in my mind a beat longer. And there’s nothing cliche about it. Unquarantinable love is what we are consistently shocked to realize we receive from God. Here, in the middle of “this time” is, if not a new phrase, a new resonance that brings out Easter in a new light. Unquarantinable love.

Humanity has done everything it can to fend off God’s love. We have read the Ten Commandments and broken them with gusto and flourish. We have created gods in our own image, have failed to see the presence of God in one another, and have abused the creation around us. When we caught the ultimate break, you know, when God took human form and lived and healed and taught as one of us, we persecuted Jesus, tortured him, and nailed him to a cross, because to do otherwise would have meant really thinking hard about changing our ways.

It’s baffling, to see ourselves doing these things. Why squander these gifts? Why turn away from love and develop exquisite technology of punishment and death? It is, I believe, because we squander the greatest of our gifts. The gift of being unconditionally loved. We are fundamentally uncomfortable with our human predicament. Bestowed with the unbelievably improbable miracle of life, we cannot help but live in fear of life’s end. Our eyes are constantly drawn to the shadows at the end of the tunnel. We worry that, because we are going to die someday, we are insufficient. And we try to scrabble together enough of an advantage over our fellows that we might become immune to death. It is an impossible and foolish task, but we are obsessed with it. 

And now in our quarantine, when for the first time in generations being a good citizen means real daily sacrifices for all, and real suffering for many, the structures through which we express ourselves and grapple for advantages and for justice are all attenuated for the greater good. The noise dies down and in the quiet we are stuck with ourselves. 

Three women went out early in the morning to care for his body. Hope was lost, but love was not, and anyway he was theirs and somebody should take care of him. So they went, and when they found the tomb empty, hope came back in a wildly disorienting way. 

Humanity had thrown away its last best shot. Had done it in gruesome fashion. And Jesus came back. For no good reason, really. We had really, truly blown it. And Jesus came back. Because God is not driven by the calculations of evening up scores and shoring up advantage at others’ expense. God’s love is, by our standards, uncivilized. Civilized love is far too rational and careful, and bails out way before it gets to a cross. 

But God’s love is not civilized. It is not quarantinable. We sure treated it like a virus. In the depths of misery, God loved us from the cross. Not because we deserved it. Not because it settled some score. Because we had nailed God to a cross, and God’s love is wild and uncivilized. We left God’s love to die, then isolated it in a tomb sealed with a huge rock, so that it would not spread and undermine all the lies we tell ourselves about who we really are. But on the third day that tomb was empty. The story of Jesus was not over.

This is unquarantinable love. It bursts the bounds we try to set around it. Death does not stop it. Mortality does not stop it. Suffering does not stop it. Isolation does not stop it. All of the things that give us pause, that cause our polite, civilized love to start hoarding toilet paper, are trampled under the feet of unquarantinable love. The resurrection is a complicated thing, and if you struggle with it, trust me, I understand. But at its simplest and perhaps most profound level, the story did not stop. Love didn’t avoid death, or mortality, or suffering, or isolation. Love marched right through them. Jesus claimed death, mortality, and suffering as part of God’s kingdom. Where civilized love turns fearful and falters, God’s love soldiers on. 

Unquarantinable love does not reveal the deeper meaning of our quarantine. I expect there will not be a deeper meaning. I suspect that the quarantine just is, with no layers much deeper than slowing the spread of a deadly virus. I don’t know. But unquarantinable love plays a radical countertheme against our present isolation and restlessness, reminding us that the wild and blessedly unreasonable love of God can be felt in any circumstance. Unquarantinable love cannot be chased away or ignored into submission. It springs back in the next moment, no matter what we do. Jesus made visible the unruly tendrils of life, gaudy in the springtime sun, that constantly reclaim the fortifications we put up to keep death outside the gates.

So, people of God, know today that you are loved. Know that nothing about you can be a barrier to that love. Know that the fragility and inadequacies you loathe in yourself are met with a love that cannot be scandalized or shocked. The rules for who deserves love are—and this bears repeating—all made up by people. Today, in the empty tomb, it turns out that every single person is wildly, irrationally, beautifully loved by a God who simply will not stop pouring out unquarantinable love on our quarantined world. Alleluia! Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen, Indeed.


Sacramentality in Quarantine

It’s almost too much, to be honest, to read the story of Lazarus’ death right now. Danger is looming as authorities in Jerusalem are seeking to arrest Jesus, and yet he goes perilously close to the city to see his friends Mary and Martha, and to raise from the dead their brother Lazarus.

It’s too much in a couple of ways. It reminds me that the calendar plods on without concern for our quarantines and our viral pandemic. This is the Gospel we read on the Sunday before Palm Sunday. Holy Week is nearly here, and while this Lent has given me lots of time for introspection, I’ll be honest: I’ve just been trying to make it through the day, each day. No surprise that, without so many of the things I’ve arranged in my life to help me, my depression has been making itself know. The introspection helps. The meditation, the prayer. The walks. They help me put things in perspective, to find something that I can actually control, and to focus on that. But I’ve not been living a very intentional Lenten journey. I forgive myself for that.

But also I cringe at the appearance of this story of Jesus raising a friend from the dead right now, this year. In other stories, he healed wounds and cast out diseases, and now, two weeks before Easter, he is reversing the flow of death. Would it be so hard to, you know, do that more often? The preacher of this text is tempted to fall back on Christian platitudes. A preacher might say, “viruses come and go, but life with God is not interrupted.” Or perhaps “Jesus triumphs over death, and so you have nothing to fear.”

Those won’t do. We know now that Lazarus was a one-off, sort of a proof of concept before the big event on Easter. Long gone are the hopes that the loved ones we lose will be miraculously raised to be with us again, here and now.

Our discomfort is not just a fear of the Coronavirus, but also—perhaps most prominently—a despair at what it has already taken away. We have lost time together, annual traditions, rites of passage, Easter and LDOC and March Madness. The communities we inhabit at Duke are not accidental. We build them because we are a social species and because we need support and inspiration and company. Even if we stop the virus from spreading, we will have lost something very real.

So let me direct your attention to the part of the story before the raising of Lazarus. That is where you will see God’s instincts.

Jesus should reasonably avoid Jerusalem. Bad things will happen to him there, and everyone knows it. But Mary and Martha are grieving, and he loves them. They have hosted him and cared for him, and it is clear that the love is reciprocal. So he goes to Bethany to see them. Two miles is all that separates Bethany from Jerusalem, but that is where the people he loves are. So goes.

Jesus’ words are pretty stoic in this story. He says he’s only doing all this to show people and teach them, but look at his reactions to the suggestion that Lazarus only died because Jesus was not there. He is disturbed. For all of the talk of God as an unmoved mover in the tradition of Aristotle’s philosophy, this is a divinity who is moved by the pain of his friends. We can see the tension between his mission of teaching the Good News and his desire to protect the ones he loved. Jesus couldn’t have stayed in Bethany without turning away from his calling, but when Mary and Martha tell him he could have kept Lazarus from dying, we feel him wish he could have stayed and done exactly that. For all of his power, Jesus couldn’t be everything to everyone. That pained him. This is who Jesus is.

It’s this compassion that I want you to hold onto this week. Jesus suffers with those who suffer. He not only suffers with them, but he goes to be with them. In our Lenten readings, we see him turn away from an understanding of power that would insulate him from the world’s pain, and instead walk directly toward the pain. Where things are hard, where people grieve, or feel isolated…these places are where Jesus walks.

It’s not just by metaphor that I suggest that God is with you. It is in the movement of the Holy Spirit, who moves through our scattered online space here and makes it sacred. In the presence of the Spirit, Jesus, too is with you. We won’t have the sacrament of communion today, but the lights we all have with us represent that presence. A thread that tangles us together, and a love that pours out on us even in the solitude of social distance.

Remember then, that ours is not a distant and aloof God. Ours is a God who does not abandon God’s people, even when they may feel abandoned, and who knits together community and love across whatever divisions may arise. The God who went to be at Bethany is the God who comes to be with you. The love is the same. The compassion is the same. Lazarus rose. Yes, that is the exclamation point on this story, but God’s insistence on being our companion is where I find the comfort today.


There Is No Gate

Our practice of walking around with ashy smudges on our forehead seems a little odd, given that the Gospel we read each Ash Wednesday urges against public displays of piety. Do not sound trumpets when you give alms. Do not pray on the street corners to make people see you. Do not make a melodramatic display of your fasting. Do not store up treasure for yourself. These are the commandments of today’s Gospel passage.

There is something deeply moving about the imposition of the ashes. There is a tenderness to the touch of another’s hand on your forehead, and a contrast between that tenderness and the frankly bleak words they say. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” More than any other ritual in the course of the church year, the ashes root us in our fragile humanity. The simplicity and starkness of the moment ground us in something we so elaborately try not to see, and to me, there’s always a palpable relief in just accepting my mortality in a moment of honesty and grace.

So then, the question I want to ask about today’s Gospel is this: why are these public displays of piety bad? Is it because they are annoying, a little bit gauche? Perhaps. I would co-sign that sentiment. But that’s pretty superficial. We can generally count on the wisdom of the Gospel to run a little deeper than “don’t be annoying.”

It is, I believe, not about whether or not we annoy other people. If our displays of piety lay stumbling blocks in front of others, that’s to be avoided, but I think the more compelling lesson from today’s Gospel has to do with how our practices shape our own relationship with God.

Every action has an outward motion, into the world, and an inner motion, within our being. I submit that part of the work of Lent is to help our outward actions correspond to an inner motion toward God. To give alms has a clear outward value, as it gives money to those who need it, but the inner motion that accompanies it is not determined by the outward motion. I could, as the hypocrites in the Gospel, give money to the man panhandling on the corner and make sure people see me do it, and tell everyone that I did it, but that will not help me see God. In fact, it does the opposite.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. We come before God always as mortals. As fragile bodies with expiration dates, and our mortality unites us, no matter what differences and separations we might construct. If I give alms and need to be seen doing it, I am trying to add a narrative difference between myself and others. I am trying to make others view me as qualitatively different than themselves, for I am the one who gives to others, the one whose defenses against death are such that I can afford to be generous to those who are not so well defended.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Give to your fellow children of God because our shared mortality binds us together. Give because you want your life intertwined with those of your neighbors.

Likewise, when you pray, who cares who sees you? Of what value is someone else’s witnessing of our piety? If that is our focus, are we actually seeking communion with God? Of course not. We are seeking to be thought of as pious. As deep. There’s nothing shallower than that.

Prayer is a key instrument of our relationship with God. It is meant to deepen our experience of the divine and to strengthen us to serve the world better. When we use it to distance ourselves from others, we are trying to make ourselves appear less mortal than them. Prayer draws us together.

Fasting, as well. No points are awarded for your outward display of deprivation. The value of your fast is its inward effect of drawing you closer to God, of making you more aware of our need for God and our interdependence as humans.

So then, Lent. We choose our fast, our practice, to guide our observance of this season. We do so in parallel with Jesus’ forty days in the desert, a time of fasting and contemplation, and the facing of temptation.

As you pick your practices, notice how this Gospel isn’t about seeing the world as a barrier to the experience of God. It’s actually about the barriers we ourselves erect, even the ones we erect through good and pious behaviors, which then keep us further from God. 

A Buddhist koan that I’ve come to love illustrates this principle. A koan is a brief saying that illustrates something we can’t arrive at by intellect alone, much like a parable.  This koan is about an enlightened being, or a bodhisattva, named Manjushri.One day as Manjushri stood outside the gate, the Buddha called to him, “Manjushri, Manjushri, why do you not enter?” Manjushri relied, “I do not see myself outside. Why enter?”

Manjushri’s wisdom is that gates are of our own construction. A core teaching of Zen Buddhism is that the path to enlightenment is gateless. Any time we perceive a gate across our path, we have created it with our own thinking.

This is a time to examine your own thinking, and to ask yourself what gates you put in your path. We start Lent with this reminder of our eventual death because the path to accepting God’s love—to really accepting any love—starts with being honest about who we are. Our prayers, our studying, our intellectual prowess, all of these often function as defenses against looking clearly at ourselves. They become gates, and give us the illusion that we are outside and that we will, through cleverness or manipulation or sheer force, somehow earn the love we yearn for.

“Manjushri, Manjushri, why do you not enter?”

“I do not see myself outside. Why enter?”

The saying, “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” can function like a koan. These are words that remind us that there is no “outside.” Our creaturely existence, in our bodies, in this life, is all already inside. Our attachments to prestige, or to power, or to money, are all attempts to dodge the fact that we are dust, returning to dust. But we don’t need to dodge it, for it is in this life that we encounter God. Denying our susceptibility to death only puts up gates between ourselves and the source of life.

So as you choose your discipline for Lent, I urge you to choose something that helps you become aware of gates you put in your own path. Perhaps you might even take them down. And, like Jesus in the desert, you can consolidate and direct your calling, by knowing who you are in relationship with God. We resist the temptations not so we can impress people, but because we know they direct us away from God. We give alms, and pray, and fast because we desire closer relationship with God and with one another. 

So what actions of yours are driven by a desire to distance yourself from the rest of humanity? What do you do to try to convince yourself that death is optional? Those are your gates. Those are the ways you convince yourself that you are outside. But the truth is that you, in your frail, imperfect, beautiful human form, are enough, and you are already inside. You are loved more deeply than you can know. There are no gates. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Start from there.


Upside Down

Out of context, today’s Gospel passage is a difficult one. In context, well, it’s still difficult. But I think we are obligated to read it as part of the Sermon on the Mount, and not as a standalone edict. Our lectionary, which divides the Bible up into passages and assigns them to particular days, has created an artificial division within the document, as though Jesus took a week’s break between last week’s passage and this week’s. He didn’t. Let’s put it back together—that is, let’s re-member it—and see where that puts us.

The Sermon on the Mount occurs right as Jesus is beginning his ministry. Crowds are starting to follow him, and you get the sense that he wants to train his disciples a bit more before things get out of hand. He goes up the mountain, and they follow him, and he begins to preach.

The sermon opens with the Beatitudes, which bestow blessings on those who are lowly by secular standards. Jesus is beginning to unpack his vision of God’s Kingdom. If you can remember the first time you heard the Beatitudes, you get something of how radical this is. I remember hearing them and thinking this was some secret truth buried far beneath the outer workings of the world. As though our sense of power was almost entirely mistaken. And indeed, Jesus would display power made perfect in weakness.

Having issued a prophetic and poetic counter to the exploitative power schemes of our world, Jesus proceeds by giving the metaphors of salt and light. In each, his disciples are compared to elements that find their value in relation to other things. It follows thematically from the Beatitudes, as they are told that power, which is entirely expressed as God’s love, flows out ever more broadly, rather than being held back in a personal reserve. Salt and light both have meaning only in how they relate to others. Power, which is love, is meant to be shared.

This dynamic of inversion continues to our salvation, as we discussed last week. Salvation is not a commodity we acquire, but is something we participate in by living into our covenant with God, and by serving as an example and invitation for others to do so. Put differently, you don’t achieve salvation. You realize it. The Sermon on the Mount urges us to pursue an inward transformation, to take on the radiant depth of the salt and the light, and not just put forth hollow performances of them.

Again, you may have heard this message enough times that it is losing its edge, it’s—dare I say—saltiness, but the insistence that we are most connector with the divine when our inward experience of love extends to an outward offering of love is something that we can never hear too much. We truly need God’s help to keep these values in our practices.

So when Jesus turns to the topic of anger, we should not be looking for rules to guide our behavior, but rather for principles to guide our spiritual growth, which will then reflect authentically in our behavior. Jesus is not giving new rules, but revealing the spiritual depth behind existing ones.

The commandment not to kill should really be an easily achieved baseline. The spiritual movement behind it, though, is one of reconciliation. Jesus counsels us not to make our offerings at the altar before we are reconciled to one another. The offerings we make reflect our inner state, and to be authentically worshipful, our inner state must align with our outer state. This is why we confess our sins and then greet one another in peace immediately before our offertory and communion. We do not come to this table to set ourselves apart or reinforce worldly rivalries. We come to it together, to become as one, and we must honor one another and ourselves. 

It is not enough to simply not commit adultery as we typically understand it. That’s a physical obedience, and Jesus again pushes for a spiritual depth. In particular, Jesus sets his sights on the hetero male gaze, saying that objectifying women violates the covenant we make in marriage, and more broadly in life, to honor God’s presence in each person. I have heard stories that people other than heterosexual men objectify others, but we have certainly caused more suffering with our lust more than any other group. I am not offended by being singled out here. As with the other topics, Jesus is pointing to a spiritual orientation that honors the inherent value of each person.

Divorce. This is the tough one. The commandment is “whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” But Jesus pushes harder, saying that anyone who divorces his wife—and I think the gendered language makes a difference here—except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery. That sentence sure is rough. 

The gendered language points to a unilateral dynamic in these divorces. The man divorces the woman, and she receives the consequences . And I think the setting aside of the woman’s unchastity as the exception to the rule emphasizes that the divorces Jesus critiques represent a societal violence toward women. In such a patriarchal society, divorced women were in a very vulnerable position. And so the act of divorce is even more traumatic than it is now. The woman, who is here blameless, now faces the consequences of a divorce she did not cause. She now lives outside a marriage she did not break. The arbitrary severing of commitments truly hurt other people. Nothing happens outside of relationship to others and to God.

This story doesn’t reflect an understanding of marriage that we embrace today. Things like love and happiness, which are very big and biblically articulated values, are at least nominally at the center of our modern marriages, and our understanding of marriage as sacrament implies a quality of goodness and grace that can certainly be eroded by things other than infidelity.

What I’m saying is that this isn’t a legal manual for marriage, but a spiritual lesson on relationship and accountability. Under the literal operation of the text, which is very loud with this particular text, something spiritual moves. The text is, in classic Biblical fashion, centered on the man, but once we face that fact, we can see spiritual value. This isn’t about marriage vows. It’s about relationship.

If you think I’m shortselling marriage vows, pay attention when Jesus starts talking about oaths. Jesus does not care about oaths. He also, I believe, is not terribly impressed by marriage vows. Vows are the promise of action, the promise of a certain way of living, but they are not the living themselves. Anyone can take an oath. But unless the oath reflects your soul, it is spiritually negligible.

All of this, the whole thing, is an invitation to pursue transformation. It is not easy. The temptation to selfishness, or to a hollow sort of morality, is strong. Those are the easier paths. But they are not the paths to wholeness. It is easier to participate in relationships that disregard or exploit others. It is, in fact, deeply woven into the economy of our world. But we cannot do it without diminishing our own relationship with God.

The Sermon on the Mount is a lengthy, remarkably deep call to a new way of being. It is not an instruction manual for each step of the way. We have to figure those out for ourselves. But we know we do it in relationship, and with practices that challenge us to value our own participation in God’s love as much as other people’s participation in God’s love. The Sermon on the Mount was given to people living in a different society, and we need to remember that. Taking the Bible literally almost always cuts off most of what it has to say. But is is also, I think, the greatest sermon ever given. So we need to sit with it, at times wrestle with it, and let it speak spiritually to us. Every time I read it I see new layers and new implications.

It’s complicated, this Sermon on the Mount. Parts of it radiate grace, and parts clang off of our modern ears. It may be the greatest thing ever committed to paper, but it is also intensely of a time and place we don’t fully understand. And so we don’t diminish it by claiming to exclusively understand it. We honor it by grappling with it. This week, I simply invite you to read Matthew 5 again. Keep going into chapters 6 and 7 if you have time. The Sermon on the Mount keeps going. It is a remarkable and complex invitation to a world turned beautifully upside down.