Not long ago I read a story by Oscar Wilde about a selfish giant. The giant had a garden, full of flowers and beautiful trees, and each day, as the town’s children passed by, they would play in the garden, delighting in it. The giant had been away for many years, but upon returning, he was dismayed to find that his garden had become a playground. He yelled at the children to get out and built a wall around its borders.
Winter came, snow covered the ground and the last of the fall flowers faded. The children no longer had anywhere to play—the streets were too busy, the ground too rocky. They would pass by the garden and say to one another, “how happy we were there.”
When spring arrived, all around the garden flowers began to blossom and trees began to bud. But not inside the walls. There, snow blanketed the ground and the trees were bare. The cold stayed all summer and fall and through the winter again and the giant mourned the loss of his flowers, the silence of the birds.
In the spring, the children tired of having nowhere to play, snuck into the garden through a small hole in the wall. The giant woke from his winter sleep and looked out to see flowers in the trees and each one with a child sitting in it. He was so glad for the flowers that he wasn’t angry at the children for trespassing. He realized that they were what had brought life to the garden. But in one corner of it was still winter. The tree there was bare and a little boy was standing beneath it, too small to reach the branches. The giant went to the boy and gently lifted him up. The tree immediately blossomed into flower and the whole garden was fully alive again.
When I read this fable, I heard a resonance with our Gospel for this morning, for it too is a story about giants and children; about what really brings life into the world. In the Gospel, Jesus and his disciples have begun the journey to Jerusalem. They know that this is it; that the messianic moment for Jesus to claim his crown has come. But as much as Jesus tries to tell them that his crown will be made of thorns and his coronation throne will be a cross, the disciples just don’t get it. Their imaginations are captive to the kingdoms made up of palaces and protected by armies, the reign of tyrants who act like giants. And so, in their excitement about the coming victory, they’re beginning to wonder where they’ll land after the revolution is over. What cabinet positions will they have in Christ’s reign? Who will sit on his right hand and on his left?
We can imagine Jesus walking quietly with them, hearing their conversation in the background. He doesn’t interrupt, but when they come to a stopping place he asks them a question. “What were you arguing about back there?” There’s an embarrassed silence; some shuffling around, they didn’t realize he’d heard all of that. We can imagine his smile as Jesus gives them a key lesson of the Gospel: Those who want to be greatest in God’s reign must become the servants of all. He takes a child, someone not very useful for the purposes of power, and puts her in their midst. Here’s how you’ll know your successful in God’s reign, he says. When you welcome a child like this, you’re welcoming me, you’re welcoming God.
The world of earthly power has no room for children. Jesus knows this well, for his birth came when Ceasar demanded a census, a tool for taxes and building armies, and there was no room in the inn. The world that has no room for children is one that has no room for life. As Thomas Merton writes, “We live in the time of no room…The time when everyone is obsessed with lack of time, lack of space, with saving time, conquering space, projecting into time and space the anguish produced within them by the technological furies of size, volume, quantity, speed, number, price, power and acceleration.” This is a world that has no room for children and their play. It has no time for their meandering walks, their lingering awe, their restless movement. And so we discipline them into the curriculums of competition that will land them in the best schools that will in turn get them the best jobs. We assure ourselves that we are concerned by their wellfare by supporting the institutions and industries of their care. We do this because, as the social critic L.M. Sacasas recently noted, ours is a world where children are not integrated into our lives but are “logistical problems to be solved.”
It is into this world that Christ comes. He arrives as a child with all the children who have no room. “Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for Him at all, Christ has come uninvited,” writes Merton. Like the children breaking through the giant’s wall, life makes space in the margins, breaking through the borders despite our best efforts. And in this breaking through, Merton writes that the place of Christ, “is with those others for whom there is no room. His is the place with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons… With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world.”
If we want to welcome Christ, receiving the great joy of his Gospel, our work is to make space for the ones for whom the world has no room at all. This begins when we embrace the children in our midst. This is not an embrace of children as objects for the working out of our adult anxieties and ambitions. Instead it is the slow work of listening, bending down, freely playing until the earth blossoms with life. The journey we must make is from selfish giants to gentle ones. And in our slowing, our opening, our gentle listening we may also discover the child within us who maybe grew up too fast because there was no room for children. We may learn again to be children of God embraced by the sufficiency of his love.
In his book on Christian meditation, James Finley, a student of Merton, offers an imaginative exercise in making room for children. I invite you to close you eyes, still yourself, and join me in closing with this meditation.
Imagine you are climbing a mountain. Below you is the valley, and you realize it is the place where you grew up, a place where you experienced the pain of exclusion, the pain of there being no room for children. You are trying to get away from that valley, ascending the mountain to be with God. But just as you come around the corner of the trail, and you can see the summit right before you, you hear a child crying down below. You realize that even though you want to go up, you must go down to help the hurting child. Listening, your follow the cries until you find yourself back in the valley, the place of your own painful memories. You open the door to your home and there a child is huddled in the corner. It is your own wounded child-self. You sit down next to the child and put your arms around it. Then, suddenly realize that you are at the summit of the mountain, you have reached the top and your are now with God in fullness! You feel God’s embrace and your heart is overwhelmed with love and compassion. Looking out from the mountain, you see the many valleys of the world below.
But again you hear the cries of a child and so again you must go down. The child is still there in the valley, crying in the corner, and you reach out to embrace it with all of the love you have received at the summit. And just as you put your arms around the child it turns into your mother, your father, your sister and brother. The child turns into the difficult co-worker, the annoying neighbor, the politician who fills you with rage. You now see the child as all those you pass on the street. Empowered by God’s love you embrace all of these people who hold within them a wounded child, a child for whom the world had no room; and carrying God’s love, God’s embrace, you make room for them, because you know that God has made room for you. Amen.
When I was first apprenticing in agriculture, I met a wheat farmer from Western Oklahoma named Kim Barker. An avid reader, he told me that if I wanted to learn how to farm, I should go to used bookstores and antique shops, searching for agriculture texts that were written before the rise of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. “The old books tell you how to do things,” Kim said, “while the new ones only tell you what to buy.”
That is how, one day, I found myself digging through a dumpster. I wasn’t foraging for day old sushi or expired dairy (though I admire the “freegans” whose stomachs can handle such things). Instead, this dumpster belonged to the Conway County Library where a number of “outdated books” had just been culled. Among them were several farming books of just the sort Kim told me to look for. The best was a slim volume with a yellow cover, the dust jacket wrapped with the usual plastic of a library book. It was Andre Voison’s Fertilizer Application.
Voison was working at the point when synthetic nitrogen was making its way from the bomb factories of World War II to farm fields of Europe and America. And though not opposed to these fertilizers, per se, he came to see that they were not a net positive. As his research showed: apply large amounts of synthetic nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus, and other important nutrients in the soil begin to disappear.
Riboflaven, Voison argued, could be diminished in soils supplemented with synthetic fertilizer. Vegetables then grown from that soil would lack sufficient amounts of this protective nutrient. The result, he believed, would be wide-spread diseases of malnourishment among those with more than enough to eat.
Contemporary research has born Voison’s vision out. In England, the Broadbalk research station has continually measured nutrient levels in wheat since 1843. What they’ve found is that since the introduction of modern wheat in 1968 the content of zinc, iron, copper, magnesium, phosphorus, manganese, sulfur, and calcium has plummeted 18 to 29 percent. While wheat became more abundant the bread made from it became far less nourishing.
The Gospel of John, of course, was written well before synthetic fertilizers and modern dwarf wheat. Most people lived, more or less, on a bread that was rich and nutritious, with grains grown from soils teaming with the microbes that sustain plant life. And yet, the difference between modern and ancient wheat offers us insight into the the bread of the ancestors and the living bread that Jesus gives. It is a difference of direction and relationship; fast food on the way to something else or a feast at which we linger.
To help his hearers understand what he is offering, Jesus draws on one of the great miracles of the bible—the giving of manna in the wilderness. Manna was God’s life sustaining answer to Israel’s need during the Exodus from Egypt. But this miraculous bread that helped the people of Israel find their freedom, was always meant to be only an expression of the true source of Israel’s sustenance—their abiding relationship with the living God.
The problem, then as now, is that the people paid no attention to the deeper source of their nourishment. Once they ate the manna, they forgot all about continuing to trust in God’s provision and love. As the book of Numbers puts it in its recounting this miracle, “Despite his wonders, they refused to trust him. So he ended their lives in failure, their years in terror.” (11:32b-33a).
This episode was a critical one in Israel’s story. No fewer than three Psalms recount Israel’s refusal to be satisfied with God’s gift of manna, and Jesus’ hearers would have known these verses by memory. When he tells them that their ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness and died, Jesus is not offering anything that would have been news to his audience. The people of God were always facing same old challenge—to be consumers of God’s gifts or participants in God’s abiding life? Jesus’ difficult teaching is that they were once again taking God’s gifts for their own selfish ends, living as users of God’s provision rather than sharers in his life.
Much of industrial agriculture, as the farmer Wendell Berry has put it, follows the pattern of the strip-mine. It extracts but does not replenish. And this pattern of consumption without return is one that is pervasive in our society, even our faith. We are hungry and God has spread a perpetual feast before us. But we opt instead for a cheap substitute, grabbing a bite on the way to the rest of our lives, wondering as, Psalm 78 puts it, why we “can’t stop [our] craving even though the food is still in [our] mouths.”
Jesus offers a different way, one that goes back to God’s gift of nourishment in his covenant with Israel. Jesus is calling for us to move away from the patterns of consumption that will only leave us depleted, however much we eat and to instead participate in the continuous energy available from the everlasting life of God. We move to this participation by way of return and relationship.
A contemporary of Andre Voison was Sir Albert Howard. In his important book, The Soil and Health, Howard wrote that many of our ecological problems are a “punishment meted out by Mother Nature for adopting methods of agriculture which are not in accordance with Nature’s law of return.” The law of return is essentially the law of the gift. Gifts are not things we receive and deposit, storing them away. For gifts to be true gifts they must be circulated, not in exchange but in reciprocity. When we receive the gift of good food from soil, our response should be to return life to the soil with mulch and compost. And the same pattern holds in our life of faith. God is a host who invites us to come, share a meal, to eat together in the continual conversation of love. It is not something we pay for and consume, but rather a relationship we enter through the circle of God’s grace. The Eucharist, when it is eaten as a meal of thanksgiving, is a sign of that sharing and gift, but it is not one we can abide in alone.
Good food is always the result of life together. As Sir Albert Howard wrote: “the problems of the farm and garden are biological rather than chemical.” In the industrial model the soil becomes little more than a medium of inputs for agricultural outputs, exchange rather than reciprocity. But good, sustaining soil—the kind that provides rich and nutritious food—is made through an ongoing community of living relationship. From fungi to protozoa, moles to microbes, good soil is the common ground of a common life. And this too is a truth of our abiding in Christ. It is through the return of our thanksgiving and the life of relationship that we become participants in the divine, joining in the community gathered at the banquet to which God is always calling us. It is a reality, like any good loaf of bread, in which we find our nourishment together.
In seminary, I occasionally baked bread for our Eucharists. There was a rotation, and we were guided only by a common recipe. When it came my turn, I went to a specialty store, and bought flour milled from an ancient kind of wheat, the same sort that likely grew on the Palestinian planes of the Jesus’ day. The wheat was grown by farmers following the renewing patterns pioneered by Voison and Howard, a way of agriculture that focused on sustaining the community of life beneath the ground. I mixed the wheat with olive oil, sourced from a Palestinian cooperative of farmers not far from Bethlehem. At the end, I sweetened it with a bit of honey from a nearby farm in the Shenandoah valley. When we received it together, in the midst of the Eucharistic meal, little bits torn and given, it was a gathering of life and care, of return and relationship. And as we ate the wheat, born of so much life, we were opened to the nourishment of the one whose flesh is true bread and blood is true drink. It is a sign of the meal to which we are invited, the table that God has set before us saying, “come and stay, eat and be satisfied.” Amen.
This past week sport climbing made its Olympic debut, combining the disciplines of bouldering, lead, and speed to challenge teams from around the world. There were exciting match ups and disappointments. Jacob Schubert was the only person to top the 45-foot lead wall and Slovenian Janja Garnbret dominated the women’s bouldering competition, setting herself up for eventually claiming gold. The U.S.’s Brooke Raboutou, whose image has adorned my daughter’s wall, came in second for bouldering, but wasn’t able to score well enough in the other disciplines to secure a medal.
The Olympic climbing competition was particularly exciting of my family because for the past few years, following the lead of my oldest daughter Lily, my family has become dedicated to the sport. A few times a week we go to the Little Rock Climbing Center and occasionally we venture outdoors, visiting the sandstone bouldering mecca at Cowell or top roping at Rattlesnake Ridge.
One of the things I love about entering into a new sport is the vocabulary it brings. Every sport has special words, and climbing’s blend of technical skill and unique culture makes it no exception. For instance, if you climb to the top of a route you have “sent” it. “Choss” is the moss and dust that can get in your eyes while climbing outside. A “sandbag” is a climb that is judged to be harder than advertised. A “project” is a climb one is working on, but have not yet completed. A “beta” is the pattern of moves needed to solve a problem or route.
Climbing is a communal sport and often a contemplative one. It’s not uncommon to walk into the bouldering area of the gym and find three guys sitting on the padded floor, looking up at a wall quietly, sometimes muttering to themselves and moving their hands through the air, following some imagined route. If you watched the Olympics, you saw these kinds of gestures from climbers like Colin Duffey of Team USA, who stood before the final lead wall moving his hands like he was clawing the air.
At other times in the gym, a group will gather around a particular climb, discussing the best way to approach it. Someone who’s sent the climb might say, in terms that sound like an esoteric incantation to outsiders, “you go left and have to Gaston on the two crimpy holds then, grab the slopper while doing a right heel hook, and dyno to the top”—with everyone listening, nodding with understanding. But just as often, a climber will simply demonstrate her beta, even posting videos on a climbing app for others to follow. The art and skill of climbing comes in understanding these moves and imagining them for one’s own body, adapting as necessary to varied heights, the different lengths of arms and legs.
A beta could be called a pattern of imitation, and though the term is limited to climbing as far as I know, it names a truth that is at the heart of all human life. We learn how to do most everything, not through discursive teaching or even the powers of reason, but by imitation. This is why thinkers from the ancient Stoics to modern self-help podcasters say that one should take care in choosing those with whom you spend time. Moral formation happens in community and has far more sway than raw facts or data on one’s decisions. To make a change in ourselves usually also requires some change in our community. We are always watching what others do and doing likewise, for good or for ill.
Our teachers, too, are those who show us the way more than simply tell us what to do or believe. If we want to rise above our current condition and abilities, then we should look to those who are where we would like to be. In Islam, the scriptures of the Koran are accompanied by the hadith—stories about the Prophet Mohammed and his early disciples. It is the hadith that provides guidance on how to be a good Muslim, whether it be offering water to puppies or hospitality to a difficult neighbor. Likewise, the Gospels are far more filled with the actions and activities of Jesus than his explicit teachings. His command to “follow me” is a command of imitation. Yet in the imitation of Jesus we find ourselves called to something more than mimicking the movements of the messiah. As Paul puts it in his letter to the churches around Ephesus, our ultimate call is to “imitate God.”
I find it hard to imagine imitating someone like Mother Theresa or living like St. Francis. It is hard for me to think that I could follow the pattern of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s moral bravery, or the sacrificial life of Martin Luther King. If these human lives are hard to follow, it seems impossible to conceive of imitating God, and yet that is what Paul calls us toward.
This audacious call is based on an even more audacious claim right at the beginning of scripture. In Genesis chapter 1, the mytho-poetic story of creation tells us that human-beings were made in God’s image. We become fully human by living into this image, by adequately reflecting God’s life in ours. This imitation will never be complete. Paul accompanies his call to imitate God with the caveat that we do so as “beloved children.” The problem is that most of us don’t even try to imitate God, even imperfectly. We have forgotten the image of which we are a reflection and so no longer seek to follow its pattern. The early Christian theologian Athanasius said that human beings are like a masterpiece that has been covered over with grime and neglect. It needs restoration, but as any restorationist will tell you, it is best to have a picture of what you are working toward.
That is where Jesus comes in. Jesus is the image of God and the image of the human being fully alive. If we want to see what human life can be, we look to Jesus; like a climber following the beta of someone who has already sent a route. The challenge is to discern what this imitation looks like, we have to take the beta and figure out how these moves will work for our bodies, our circumstances and lives. Jesus shows us what is possible, the pattern of ascent toward God, but much work is needed to make that a reality.
It is helpful here to use another word that draws from a similar Latin root. In order to imitate Jesus and thus imitate God, we need to do the work of imagination. As the philosopher Dallas Willard puts it, we should imagine, “what would Jesus do if he were us?” This question sparks a myriad of others. How would Jesus live in this body, this place, this kind of work, this history? How would Jesus live in my family and with my friends? How would Jesus live into the particular gifts and limits of my personality and mind? Finding the answers to these questions is the work of discipleship. It is endless, challenging, and exciting work. Living into the answers we find is the path toward growth and becoming.
Not long ago Lily and I were at the climbing gym, working a boulder problem. A couple of other climbers were there with similar skill levels, working the same route. We all had different bodies, different heights. One climber found his way to the top, but it required a reach that I didn’t have. I watched and imagined my own way up, trying several different sessions, until eventually I’d built the strength to finally send it. Then Lily did the same, following the beta, but making it her own until she sent it with fives and fist bumps all around. And that is how the life of discipleship goes. We look to Jesus as the image of the divine; reading the Gospels, trying on his life as our life. But in that imitating we also look to others. We look to the great exemplars of the faith, we read the lives of the saints and the biographies of people like Bonhoeffer and the stories of people like Therese of Lisieux. One beta leads to another beta, and over time we fuel our imagination with the possibilities, the varied paths of imitation—all pointed to the ascent, the life with God that lies at the top.
At the same time, we build our strengths and our capacities, we stretch and train through the disciplines of the Christian life so that we can do the things we imagine with ever greater ease. Then one day we find ourselves challenged. Someone needs our love and we can give it. Someone provokes our anger and we let it pass. A person invites our slander and we refuse. The moves that carry us up the wall are easier than they once were. We move forward with greater clarity, greater joy. “Just wait until you can send V4s one climber told me,” offering a promised land beyond my current climbing grade, “then the moves get really fun.” And so, it goes with discipleship, on and on, to the increasing joy of living into God’s life and image. We all have problems, be they bouldering routes or the mundane realities of ordinary time. The best way to send them, to experience the pleasure even in a problem, is to take a beta from someone who has already been there—“Christ who loved us, and gave himself up for us.” Amen.
Not long ago, in a review of some recent books on way-finding, the British nature writer Robert Macfarlane wrote of the extraordinary ability of animals from monopod clams to Arctic terns to navigate across the landscape. The clams can go out and forage, moving about the water and currents, and still return to the unique crevice they’ve carved in a wave smashed boulder. The terns, birds that weigh only four ounces, travel 44,000 miles from Greenland to Antarctica and back each year, feeding from the ocean surface as they go. The ability of animals to navigate, whether far or near, comes from a complex interplay of memory and instinct, but also their unique physiology. Many animals literally have an internal compass with shards of magnetite in their bodies that help orient them according to the earth’s poles.
Humans lack these “inbuilt bio-compasses.” As far as we know, there are no magnetite filings floating in our brains to guide us north. But we have “something arguably more powerful,” writes Macfarlane. “Our remarkable navigational ability as a species is closely connected to our ability to tell stories about ourselves…” It is by stories that we map the landscape and learn to navigate the terrain of self and community that accompany any geography. These stories help us understand our past and imagine our future; they enable us to be present with a loved one far away or make whole the scattered geographies of our lives. Stories also draw boundaries and borders, they create citizens and aliens, the insiders and the outcasts by which we mark our way in the world. Go there, don’t go there; this place is safe or this dangerous—these are the storied markers we place across our maps.
There are times when the maps must adapt because the terrain has changed. There are times when the maps aren’t true to the world and so guide us in the wrong direction. Just look at some of the old European images of the “New World” of the Americas. The maps are caricatures of the continents because the cartographers were working from misguided imaginations. And this is true of the inner landscape made from stories too. Sometimes our stories map the world with the borders all wrong and the paths misplaced. When that happens we need new stories so that we can find our way to the landscapes of our fullness.
There was a pastor named Mark, in Roman occupied Palestine, who knew the need for a new story. He led a church in a place that was electric with possibility. Revolution was in the air and everyone was digging in, choosing sides and drawing boundaries. But they were using the wrong map, charting the wrong landscape. Mark had learned of a different territory in their midst, a place called the Kingdom of God that lay not on the horizon, but could be moved into now, even in the middle of the Roman occupation, even amid rumors of revolution. From the guides before him, the stories told along the way, Mark put the path on paper. He wrote a map he called the Gospel, the good news.
The story we heard this morning is a location on Mark’s map, a layered geography that shows us the set boundaries of the place and then undoes them. Like a film or novel following parallel lives and suddenly veering to intersect in a surprising event, Mark sets up two stories that bring us to a conflict that resolves into a new possibility.
The old map had been drawn according the borders of purity. Clean and unclean were the lines that determined where you lived, who you ate with, where the possibilities lay for inclusion in the common life of decency. Tax collectors and colluders, lepers and prostitutes, Samaritans and menstruating women—all of these, at one time or another, lived outside the boundaries of cleanliness. To eat with someone on that side, to even be touched by one of them, would mean a whole series of ritual purifications for any righteous Jew. The border was hard and the boundary couldn’t be crossed without consequences.
And yet that’s the very boundary to which Mark takes us. He shows Jesus creating a new path by healing two women on either side—the daughter of a well respected and well to do community leader, and an impoverished woman unclean and excluded from common life. One woman had been raised in twelve years of loving embrace and economic privilege; one woman had lived for twelve years in exclusion and economic exploitation. And yet both find a new place in Jesus, both find a new life in the family of God.
We may think we are far from the culture of shame that set the scene for Mark’s gospel. We may think that our time is free of such fear of those who might infect us with their uncleanness. But ask for a minute, Who is welcome at your table and who would never be invited? Who would you live next to and who would you keep out with a fence and a locked gate? Who would be ashamed to even enter the doors of our church or sit in our pews?
There are still plenty of maps on offer that tell us who is good and who is bad, how we can be successful and educated and righteous. There are many maps that make us feel safe with defined borders and well lit streets. But just as in Mark’s day, none of these will guide us to the landscape of God’s reign. The terrain of God’s kingdom is a place of paradox. It is not safe, at least to the constructed egos of our self-regard, but in it we can live free of fear. It is a wild and open country, unbounded, and yet it is illumined by the light of God’s good blessing. This kingdom is a place where wholeness comes without price and all debts are forgiven. It is a landscape where the respected and the ashamed, the somebodies and the nobodies, lose all the identities that defined them and are satisfied only as beloved children of God.
This terrain has been given no better description than that offered by another British writer, the poet and priest R.S. Thomas. In his poem “The Kingdom” he describes the journey to this landscape of God’s reign and how we can begin to live within it. Thomas writes:
It’s a long way off but inside it
There are quite different things going on:
Festivals at which the poor man
Is king and the consumptive is
Healed; mirrors in which the blind look
At themselves and love looks at them
Back; and industry is for mending
The bent bones and the minds fractured
By life. It’s a long way off, but to get
There takes no time and admission
Is free, if you purge yourself
Of desire, and present yourself with
Your need only and the simple offering
Of your faith, green as a leaf.
The simple offering of our faith, Thomas’s words are an echo of Jesus’ call to discipleship—“Do not fear; only believe.” That is the key to the map, the way into the kingdom. Can we make space within? Can we clear away all of the false geographies and distorted borders of our inner landscape? Can we let the stories of the Good News guide us into a different territory, even now, in the midst of our world of crisis? We can, for many disciples before us have made the journey, guided by the stories that show the way, the map made of the Gospel of God’s good love. Amen.
Interstate Reflections on a Relational God
The Rev. Ragan Sutterfield
Somewhere East of Santa Fe and before Amarillo, the car fell into a quiet lull — the girls in the back occupied with reading and coloring books, the on again off again DVD player; Emily beside me writing in her journal. I drove, watching the roadside, noting the birds among the sagebrush. My mind wandered, rambling across the landscape so strange and beautiful and sparse to my Mid-South imagination.
In these quiet moments on the road I can become philosophical. And since I’d been thinking about the Trinity, trying to write a sermon for this strange Sunday, my mind turned there. In Santa Fe we’d visited our friends’ Eastern Orthodox Church. It was an alien service for my West formed worship, but there was something beautiful about the space—a dome of icons, images everywhere reminding us of the Incarnation and our lives caught up in the mystical reality of God.
It was the Eastern Church that helped give us the Trinity. Their early theologians, animated by the contemplative imagination, saw the whole cosmos drawn into a communion of being. To be, for them, was to be relational. And this relationality both reflected who God is and the call of any human life. As the Orthodox poet Scott Cairns puts it, “Since our trope of the Trinity figures God as a relational being, it follows that the Image-bearing human person is also necessarily a relational being, so much so that for the Orthodox—as for all Christians, back in the day—an individual is not the same thing as a person; genuine personhood stipulates the communion of one with another.”
Out the window, billboards flickered, marring the views of mesas and mountains. I thought of the Southwestern writer Edward Abbey’s character in The Monkey Wrench Gang, Doc Sarvis, who carries a chainsaw in his trunk so that he can cut down billboards at night. No Doc Sarvis had been around recently so I was forced to read the messages. There was one with the image of an unhappy child and a slogan that read: “New Mexico, No. 1 in Nuclear Weapons, Dead Last in Child Welfare.” Another called for an end to domestic violence with a 1-800 number for those threatened by it. Then for several miles we we saw billboards of a woman with a finger to her lips in a hush, inviting us to the adult superstore off an exit by a truck stop.
If we are called to be relational beings, image bearers of the Trinitarian life, we are doing a poor job. Our challenge, perhaps the fundamental challenge of every aspect of human life, is that of right relationship. If we cannot rightly relate to God, one another, and the whole of creation then we are doomed.
What do we do about our broken personhood? Our misplaced love? How is it that we can live into that ancient call of both Torah and Jesus, to love God and neighbor?
Maybe it was a question like this one that led Nicodemus to visit Jesus one night, under the cover of darkness, hoping no one would see. Jesus tells Nicodemus that he needs a whole new life, a conversion from the compromised religion of which he was an official. But Nicodemus had lost his imagination for renewal. He misunderstood Jesus’ call for a new life of relationship with God and neighbor; the change of heart and life so radical it was like being born again. What Nicodemus needed, Jesus tells him, is the Spirit and no temple can contain it.
It is the Spirit, the wild and breath-giving reality of God, that moves in us and around us—drawing us into the conspiracy of God’s reign. It is the Spirit, as Paul writes to the Romans, that joins us to the family of God. It is by the Spirit’s life that we find ourselves alongside Jesus, our brother and our model. Jesus is that person of God who, as the Egyptian bishop Athanasius put it, “became human so that humans can become God.” We are called to be heirs with him, joined by the spirit of adoption—that’s the glory we’re called to, even in our groaning world.
We enter Texas, spotting pronghorns here and there as sage brush gives way to grass. Huge windmills spread across the horizon, spinning generators to make the power for our device dependent world. West of Amarillo the wind brings with it the stench of manure and urine, assaulting us even behind sealed doors. We soon see the source, thousands of Black Angus steers crowded into pens, mired in the muck of their own waste. “That is a feedlot,” I tell my daughters. “That is what our world does to animals so that we can have cheap beef.” Down the road, here and there, we see cattle spread out, grazing on lush grass. A better way, a more humane choice.
Humane—again its that question of right relationship. Somehow in our language we’ve held on to this idea that to be fully human is to be merciful and kind, to live in communion rather than exploitation. The rupture with that call is painful, down to our being. In Romans 8, in the same long reflection from which our Epistle reading today is taken, Paul writes that “creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” Creation is waiting, in other words, for humans to be human again.
We pass under a bridge and spray painted across the steel beams in sloppy large letters is John 3:16. The graffiti joins with a wide array of roadside religion we’ve passed. Crosses in pastures topped with American flags, huge replica tablets of the ten commandments. I always find it strange how people choose to express their faith along highways. I suppose those who spray paint John 3:16 on overpasses do so because they see its message as one that will “save” people through the incantation of some sinner’s prayer. But as I think about John 3:16, passing feedlots and windmills, adult store ads and the ugly clusters of fast food restaurants, I hear a salvation that is something more.
“For God so loved the world,” the verse begins. It’s agape love here, the kind of sacrificial love that is willing to put everything on the line for the sake of another. And yet there is also a tone of desire in this love. God wants us, God wants to be in union with us, and so God is willing to even enter our broken world, our suffering lives.
For this reason, God who lives in the communion of the Trinity, came in the person of the Son to show us how we too can be human bearers of God’s light and love. And God moved again in person of the Spirit, the Holy Breath, empowering us with the life to live that love—joining us to the Father’s family, joining us to one another, drawing us into the membership of all creation.
We took a detour South of Amarillo to look at a canyon cut by a river, revealing the colored ribbons of strata beneath the surface of the Earth. We descended into the canyon, hiking along the river, where the girls had a mud fight as a storm brewed on the horizon. On our way back to the interstate, we spotted a rainbow as the sky was split between gray and blue, and Western Meadowlarks sang from the barbed wire. We pulled over to see the rainbow and soon after a man in a truck stopped to make sure we were alright. We were, for in this one moment that included the beauty of light and rain, the neighborliness of checking in, the gift of life connected, we felt the communion to which we are called, the life of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
By the time we entered Arkansas the next day, I hadn’t made much progress in understanding the Trinity. But with the rambles of my roadside reflections, I felt as though somehow, I’d entered into its truth. I’d seen brokenness and I’d seen beauty, and I understood that all of it is being joined into God’s life, all of it is being healed and made whole in the communion of God’s love. And we too are called to join in that healing just as we are called to participate in that communion. The challenge for us is to quiet down enough to live into relationship with the God who makes all relationship possible. It takes time, it takes silence, it takes attention and defenseless waiting. But we can do it for we were made for it, we were made to live in connection. And God, who is communion and all love sent the Son to show us the way of that connection and the Spirit to empower us for relationship. Our call is follow in that way, live in that Spirit, so that we may join in the ecstatic life of the one we bow before and say, Holy, Holy, Holy.
A couple of weeks ago Jay, our mail carrier, delivered a package to our porch. It was wrapped in brown paper and addressed to my daughter Lillian. Inside were two books from her godmother—a novel for Lily and a picture book for Lucia. But like all good books that enter our house, they were really gifts for the whole family.
The picture book was called The Keeper of Wild Words. It is the story of a girl whose grandmother teaches her the language of the given world through words like brook and wren. As the author’s note in the back explained, the book was inspired by the decision of the Oxford Junior Dictionary to remove over a hundred natural words from its pages. These words, the editors decided, were no longer relevant to most children’s lives. Now included in their place were new terms such as analog, chatroom, and database.
Words for the wild world may not make sense in a world dominated by screens and the utilitarian calculus of employment. But if we hunger to learn the truth of the given world beyond the passing fads of the present then wild words are indispensable. Such words are not our tools but rather our teachers—they help open us to the creation of which we are members whether we like it or not.
I have long watched for such words. And as we celebrated yet another Earth Day this past week I was reminded of how important it is to keep the language that brings us into belonging with the creation, rather than removing us by making the world as a mere resource. I came across such a word recently in James Rebanks’ beautiful memoir The Shepherd’s Life.
Rebanks’ story is about growing up in a family of shepherds in the Lake District of England. His family and most of those in his community have been keeping sheep in this place for millennia, and though some aspects of that life has changed, the fundamental rhythms of shepherding have not. As he writes, “You could bring a Viking man to stand on our [hill] with me and he would understand what we were doing and the basic pattern of our farming year…Things are driven by the seasons and necessity, but not our will.”
At the opening of the book Rebanks offers the word that serves as the running metaphor throughout: heft. As he explains, heft could be used as a noun, meaning a piece of upland pasture. It could also work as a verb, referring to a sheep’s becoming hefted to a place—getting attached to a particular piece of land. It can also be an adjective, describing a sheep’s attachment to a particular pasture. It is a word, Rebanks tells us, that is derived from the Old Norse for tradition.
Though it is not a biblical term, the people of the bible would have understood hefting. They belonged to a place and lived in a tradition that was rooted to the ground, and when Jesus came, he joined in that long abiding. Jesus was not some abstract messiah who dropped in from the heavens. As Peter refers to him in our reading from Acts, he’s Jesus Christ of Nazareth—he’s a person from somewhere.
That somewhere was a place dominated by sheep, and even carpenters knew what being a good shepherd was all about. Everyone in Galilee, shepherd or not, would have a had the scent of lanolin on their skin. So it is that Jesus, as he often does, picks up an illustration from the close-by world to say who he is: “I am the Good Shepherd.”
He then offers a definition in contrast—the good shepherd vs. the hired hand. Its here that the language begins to seem a bit odd, at least to those of us trained in the mercenary ways of the market. The good shepherd, Jesus tells us, is one who will lay down his life for the sheep. This is strange because sheep are, obviously, the shepherd’s livelihood; why, if sheep are your business, would you sacrifice your life to save them? And this gets exactly to Jesus’ point. For the good shepherd, the sheep are not simply a product. The good shepherd is not providing, as the multinational corporation Cargill puts it, “meat solutions” for consumer market. The Good Shepherd belongs to the sheep just as the sheep belong to the good shepherd—they are hefted together, they abide as John puts it, and the bond of that abiding is love.
We speak a great deal of love these days. But the sort of love that endures, the kind of love that enables the care the world needs, or the salvation through sacrifice that Jesus accomplished, is one that dwells in the particular. As Willie James Jennings writes in The Christian imagination, the problem lies in how we’ve viewed the the world; the kinds of words and images we’ve used to understand and describe it. Jennings writes that “A Christian doctrine of creation is first a doctrine of place and people, of divine love and divine touch, of human presence and embrace, and of divine and human interaction.” He goes on to say that “Christianity is in need of a place to be fully Christian,” and that our “segregated mentality” is bound to “the loss of a world where people were bound to the land.” Our problem, whether it is racism or ecological catastrophe, in Jennings’ analysis, is that we aren’t hefted. We’ve come to see the world as a fungible, an exchangeable abstraction on which we can play out our economies of salvation without any real incarnation, without any real presence with the particulars of a people or a place. We’ve adopted the religion of the hired hand.
If instead we want to be joined to the life of the Good Shepherd, belonging to him, belonging to the incarnate particulars of his presence, then we must be hefted to a place that is also a person. This is what Jennings says is our only hope for overcoming the colonialist mind, the hired-hand religion that turns bodies and the land into interchangeable commodities. Jennings writes that, “If Christian existence stands on nothing greater than the body of one person, then it could be that the only way for Christian communities to move beyond cultural fragmentation and segregated mentalities is to find a place that is also a person, a new person that each of us and all of us together can enter into and, possibly, can become.”
The task then is one of abiding, of knowing this place that is a person in the way that Rebanks’ inhabits the land of his Lake District farm and knows not only each particular sheep, but their lineage and habits, their bleeting that answers to his call. We must be hefted, following the weight of the incarnation, so that we can belong here, joining with this place and these people where we discover Christ’s presence dwelling in the particular. Christianity, if it wants to be freed of the religion of the hired-hand—the logics of racism and the economies ecological exploitation—must be joined to the ground, the dirt, to landscapes and animals, and find itself, as Jennings says, in a life that is “collaborative with the rhythms of God’s other creatures” and animated by “imagining a joining to other people exactly in and through joining their lives on the ground.”
To do this work of imagination we need metaphors that have roots and words that are wild. We would do well to look to people like Rebanks who went to Oxford and yet returned to shepherding because he was hefted, and he knew that the world, no matter the economics, could offer him no better life than to belong with his sheep. It is from them that we can learn again what the life of a good shepherd means and distinguish it from the commodity religion of the hired hand. The time of exploitation and colonialist theologies has past. We need new ways of imagining our faith. To do so we also need to learn the wild words of a grounded life—words like heft and abide—that resist being domesticated into the tools our ambitions, but will instead teach us how to be here in the landscapes of the Incarnation. That place is a sacred one formed of holy ground and rooted peoples, the whole chorus of creation, all answering the call of the Good Shepherd whose voice speaks from the abiding that makes love possible. Amen.
A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year B
Last week, when spring announced its arrival in my yard with apricot blossoms and bumble bees, and everything seemed to grow an inch overnight, I decided it was time to clear my garden beds of their winter cover of turnips. My youngest daughter Lucia joined me in the work, both of us barefoot on the earthworm tilled ground, softer than any carpet. We pulled and sorted the crop, some heading for the compost pile, some for the kitchen, ready for a feast of greens and crisp roasted turnips fresh from the oven. Alongside the turnips in the garden, here and there, clumps of dark green grass had begun to grow. It was wheat from the straw I’d used to mulch the bed. What was seemingly dead last fall, was now verdant and vibrant, forming its body from sunlight and air, soil and the nutrients mined by microbes.
It felt good to be doing this work, my hands and feet bare, and my daughter beside me. It was one of those all too fleeting moments when I sensed that I was a part of something larger than myself. I was joined with the bees and flowers, with the wheat and worms in a common reality—life bursting and flourishing, creation enacting its fullness. It felt, for that fragile moment like we were participating in God’s glory, receiving and reflecting it, by simply living into what we were made to be.
“A tree gives glory to God by being a tree,” Thomas Merton once wrote, “For in being what God means it to be it is obeying Him.” And that is what it felt like we were all doing on that spring evening—we were living into the yes of what we were made for; we were being obedient to our being.
Obedience may be a jarring word here. We are a people who are taught that our fullness comes when our identity is freed of constraints. Our minds are formed by the philosophies of the Enlightenment which Immanuel Kant defined as the call to “think for yourself.” We like to pretend that we do, adopting whatever mode of thinking for ourselves is on offer from the peddlers of authenticity. We are free, we tell ourselves—walking down the grocery aisle, surveying the varied choices and knowing that we can pick what we like, say what we like, do what we like, at least up to a point.
And yet, in our freedom, disencumbered from the claims of others, obedient only to our own desires, we find ourselves isolated and alone, allied only to the most abstract realities of nation and commerce, liberated to choose and yet dissatisfied by the choices. Maybe the way to find our fullness isn’t through the negative freedoms the Enlightenment gave us, the ability to act without constraint and yet without guidance. Maybe we need a pattern in which we can live, a way that helps us love and belong and flourish into the people we were created to be.
The ancient Hebrews had such a way. They called it the Law, the Torah, and it set forth a pattern of life that would form them into the people of God. When followed rightly, it was a path toward fullness and peace, happiness and delight.
“I have taken greater delight in the way of your decrees
than in all manner of riches,” says the Psalmist.
These are the words of someone who has found freedom in obedience, fullness in bowing to the Creator. The problem is that such obedience is hard to maintain, the pattern difficult to follow. There is is something inside the human person that draws us away from doing the very thing we know we should want. Obedience takes struggle, its far from the easy way out.
Artists know this truth. It’s always easier to let the paint stay in its tubes, the page blank, the piano keys untouched, than to do the work of fulfilling one’s talent and training. In her essay collection, Having and Being Had, Eula Biss shares a conversation with a writing student who works as a professional composer. When asked about his day, he talked about the long struggle to write just a few lines of music. Biss could relate, she replied that she could spend all day writing and barely have completed a page. Another student, overhearing the conversation, asked why they would keep doing the work it if it was so hard. “Casting about, I come up with service,” Biss writes, “We’re in service to the art, I tell my student, bent to it. There’s pleasure in this posture, in being bettered by the work. It isn’t the pleasure of mastery, but the pleasure of being mastered.”
Our art is to be human, to cultivate fully human lives against all of the death dealing alternatives that make us both more and less than creatures. Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury once wrote that, “being a creature is in danger of becoming a lost art.” It is not lost for trees, or flowers, nor is it lost for the soil microbes teaming beneath the ground or the birds now migrating their ancient paths. It is lost for us, it is humanity that has forgotten the art of being creatures before God. And it is only in obedience that we can recover that art and live again into our fullness.
Jesus is the one who embodied this fullness, living with the law written on his heart; it was he who mastered and renewed this work of being human. Jesus was, as the writer of Hebrews puts it, the obedient one who made possible our own obedience, showing the way to a new possibility for human life. His is the way down, the humble path of letting go of our godlike ambitions, our self-serving wills, and living again as creatures embraced and enlivened by love.
Our work is to be apprentices of this art of being, following Jesus on his way. It is along this way that we will find the pattern of God’s laws etched within our hearts through the well-trod path of obedience. “Obey now,” writes the Quaker mystic Thomas Kelly, “Use what little obedience you are capable of, even if like a grain of mustard seed. Begin where you are. Live this present moment, this present hour as you now sit in your seats, in utter, utter submission and openness toward Him.”
When we bend down as creatures, living our lives in obedience, we will be like seeds falling to the ground, a death making way for new life. In the secret silence of the soil, God will take the offering of our humility, and turn us toward growth, our lives rising toward the radiance of God’s ever shining love. In that light, we will be fully what we were made to be.
That evening in the garden the sun began to set southwest over the horizon as bats took to the sky, hungry after their winter sleep. I gathered my tools and bent toward the ground, smelling the earth from which I was formed and to which I will return. The word that formed within me was thank you; thank you that I am a creature in your creation, thank you for obedient trees and bees and flowers who express the life for which you made them, thank you for coming here in humility, that we too might learn to be obedient, joining in the art of being human, going up by going down, and shining forth with the beauty of being a creature. Amen.
A Sermon for Lent 1, Year B
This week, my writing shed far too cold and the roads a snowy challenge, I spent most of my working day at my daughter’s desk watching birds out the window. I did work, of course. I had meetings on Zoom, I prepared for classes, answered emails, edited webpages, and wrote this sermon. But all the while, I watched the White-throated Sparrows, Orange-crowned Warblers, Red-winged Blackbirds, Northern Cardinals, Carolina Chickadees and the myriad of other feathered creatures at our feeders, hungrily gathered around seed and suet as the snow fell. And as I watched, I thought about the time that God was a bird and Jesus was with the wild animals.
A Rufous Turtle-dove, a Laughing Dove or a Namaqua Dove—we don’t know which of the nine species found in Israel—only that the Spirit came as one, some member of the family Columbidae, to announce the arrival of the Messiah. The Life-giving breath of God now embodied with wings then led Christ into the wilderness—the place beyond human control and power where he was with the creatures that resist domestication, the animals that serve no human purpose.
For those worried that I may be slipping into some fuzzy pantheism of nature as god, that’s not what I mean. What I want to reflect is a Biblical theology of creation and God’s relationship to it—a relationship in which God the transcendent sometimes takes on the forms of the immanent. Be it as bird or fire, stillness or human being, God is present as and within the cosmos and yet never contained by the creation.
God’s coming as a dove was different, I imagine, than the Incarnation of Christ as human, but the difference between God and human is far greater than the difference between human and dove. Either is a descent for God; a limiting of Godself to be near to us. We are creatures and God is not. People live and belong to the creature side of reality and God’s becoming small for our sake was as much about House Sparrows as it was Homo Sapiens.
From the beginning, our lives have been within instead of apart from creation. The first human was formed from the humus, adam from adamah, and given the same breath of God as the other animals. When the first people rebelled, it was a revolt against this fact, a seeking to be like God rather than living within the limits of embodiment, the common life of creation. The first humans had been called to serve and keep a small household of life, the ecosystem called Eden, but instead they sought to master and transcend creation. It was because of this act that the earth was cursed, alienation and violence spreading as creation itself unraveled in response.
The violence of human life in the world invited the flood, God unleashing the waters of chaos so that the order of creation could be renewed. God’s mission was to restore the cosmos God had called good, the creation in which human beings were meant to be priests calling forth its holy flourishing rather than tyrants exploiting the earth at every turn. So it is that after the flood God made a covenant, not only with Noah and his family, but with the whole of creation, animals wild and domestic.
God promised to never again unleash the waters of chaos, but what God refused to do, human beings can still bring. The snowstorm of this past week, the floods of a year ago, the extremes of cold and heat—all of these are signs as clear as a rainbow that our lives on earth are out of balance. Extreme weather is no longer an “act of God” as the insurance adjusters say. It is an act of Exxon and Trans Canada and Amazon, an act of all of us who have made our lives of easy comfort more important than the life of creation. If creation is to be healed, the human being and its relationship with the wild must be mended.
This is why God came as a bird and Jesus went into the wilderness to be with the animals. It was there in the wild that Jesus resisted Satan and it was in the wilderness that the angels waited on him. But when it comes to the wild animals, Mark only tells us that Jesus was with them. As the scholar Richard Bauckham writes, “Jesus does not terrorize or dominate the wild animals, he does not domesticate or even make pets of them. He is simply ‘with them’.” Fennec Foxes, Lynx, Wild Donkeys, ravens like those that fed Elijah in his 40 days in the wilderness, doves like those that announced the end of the 40 days of the Flood to Noah—Jesus is with all of them in neighborly communion.
In doing this, he is enacting the messianic promise envisioned by Isaiah—the promise that humanity and the wild world will live in peaceableness, lions with lambs and children playing over the nests of venomous snakes. Jesus is enacting the reality in which humanity moves into harmony with the wild, even the animals that most threaten us. In this, Jesus does not force these creatures into the metrics of human evaluation, but sees them simply as they are—fellow creations of God, living out their lives toward the fullness for which they were made.
In our time, wild animals are rarely dangers to our lives or livelihoods. Most of us do not worry about lions or bears, and when we deal with incursions by the wild they are more annoyance than catastrophe. We have, in many ways conquered nature. We are the danger against which the wilds need to be defended, we are the beasts who need to be brought into healing communion.
As I was working on this sermon I received an email from an ornithologist sent to an Arkansas birding discussion list. He was reflecting on the fact that one of the most important places for migrating shorebirds in Northwest Arkansas is now slated for a suburban development and golf course. He wrote with the tone of lament proper to a prophet: “All fields are being red-dirted that once provided habitat for migrating Upland Sandpipers. It will go down in history: loss of a varied natural world of flowing springs, native Tallgrass Prairie, songs of Eastern Meadowlarks…I am too old to dodge reality. Too old to convince some people in suits there are acres, springs, and whole fields too precious to even consider monetizing.”
The story at the heart this ornithologist’s lament is as ancient as Noah, but its pace moves ever faster. The human way needs to be healed, to be turned toward another kind of life. We need a conversion toward creation so that all being can sing its praise of God in fullness. It is God’s world, made from God’s love and care and wonder. God loves all creatures and even takes their form from time to time, be it as bird or human. When Jesus went to the wilderness, led by the winged Spirit, he went to begin the life of another way, a way in which humanity can be with the wild in the common blessedness of creation. His life from that time forth was a call to join in that way, a call to conversion and repentance.
Outside my window I watched a female cardinal, her body a soft orange, her face black, her tail red. She sat on the branch of an elderberry, in a garden I’ve planted for wildlife. Beyond her was a small statue of St. Francis peaking out of the snow. It was Francis, who long ago created an order for people who responded to the call of Jesus to repent, to change our lives in the midst of a world bent toward power and money. It was Francis who called the wild animals his sisters and brothers, healing through the harmony of creation’s common worship.
In Francis we see that what Jesus made possible in the wilderness we can now begin to live in our daily lives. We can live with other creatures beyond abuse and exploitation, we can cultivate space for the wilds that remain. We can learn, as Wendell Berry has written, to “waste less, spend less, use less, want less, need less.” We can recover the art of being a creature that is at the heart of our human vocation. But to do that we must answer Jesus’ call; we must repent, turning and turning and turning again toward the God who loves us so much that he took on human flesh and even descended among us as a bird. Amen.
It seems that there is a certificate for everything these days, along with some official group to issue it and, most likely, take our money for the service. One can become a Certified Special Event Professional (CSEP), for instance, or hold a Certificate in Career Readiness. There are certificates for the mastery of various software programs, planning methodologies, and fitness routines. There are Certified Dog Psychologists and Certified Beer Judges. From one top tier university I found 31 certifications in leadership alone, from a Certification in Critical Thinking Leadership to one in Innovation Management.
Not all certifications and degrees are bad, of course, but their growth signals a crisis of legitimacy. What were once basic human skills, shared freely and developed in community, have become certificates that are given only after the consumption of some educational product. And our judgement of those who are competent no longer requires our discernment of clear outcomes (are they really any good at X) but rather a glance at the frames on a person’s office wall.
This increase in certifications also reflects a general dissolution of community coherence. In a settled and thickly bonded community no one needs some organization to tell you that Mary knows how to help new mothers through the difficulties of lactation. She is part of a community of women who have learned from one another how to live into the gifts of their bodies. Together they help one another, unembarrassed of their biology, and it becomes clear that Mary is especially good at troubleshooting issues that arise. But in a fragmented and unsettled world, how would a nursing mother know where to turn when she needs help? In a culture where health has become the domain of experts, Mary’s gifts can only be exercised if she is a Certified Lactation Consultant, awarded not for her clear abilities as judged by her local community, but by some abstracted professional organization.
Further, in a world of certifications a person might feel devoid of the proper knowledge to do the most basic tasks or fulfill the most immediate responsibilities. I remember talking to some friends who were glad to send their young child to a specific daycare because the center had a nutritionist on staff. These parents said they weren’t sure how to provide healthy food for their child and they trusted the daycare could do a better job. These parents both held advanced degrees and yet though they were certified authorities they had been disempowered in their basic human responsibilities and competencies. Such is the crisis of authority in which we find ourselves.
Though there was no proliferation of certifications in 1st Century Palestine, the Gospel of Mark presents us with a Jesus who is stepping into a similar crisis of legitimacy. There were a host of religious teachers who were presenting their varied solutions to the challenges of faithfulness. And yet for too many that work had become a matter of abstract debates, concerns with minutiae rather than an ongoing encounter with the living God. As Dallas Willard has written, when the holistic reality of the soul is left out, everything becomes technique. So it was with many of the debates in the synagogues of Israel.
Jesus, the Gospel of Mark will later tell us, had mercy on the people because they were like sheep without a shepherd. Those who were supposed to be the shepherds of Israel, the living caretakers of the convenient relationship with God, had become more focused on the dead concerns of their expertise rather than the husbandry of Israel’s life of faithfulness. So is that when Jesus takes up the scriptures in the synagogue in Capernaum he gains credibility not through certification, the stamp of approval by the reigning officialdom, but by the clear living reality of God’s presence made manifest in his word and body. His authority wasn’t from any set of letters by his name or certificate on his wall, but his evident power to effect the reality of God’s reign.
Jesus is here living into what had long been understood as the role of the prophet in Israel. The prophet was not to be someone bound to any lineage or program of training in the way that priests were. Instead, the prophet was someone chosen by God to communicate the ongoing work of God’s faithful relationship, the free and loving dynamic of God’s covenant.
Such a relationship is open to possibility. This is why the prophet is not like an astrologer or diviner whose concern is simply to tell the future. The prophet is the one who lives in communion and communication with God, looking at the future and imagining its possibilities as God sees them. To fail at such a vision and its reading of the world from God’s side, is to fail in prophecy.
While the scribes of the synagogue would have made no claims to be prophets, their failure to imagine the world from God’s view, to read the scriptures with a sensitivity to what God was doing, is the reason they lacked authority. Jesus’s work in turn was to draw Israel back into relationship with the living covenant and open it to God’s vision of the future. It is this power to name and demonstrate God’s will and work in the world that proves Jesus’ authority as a prophet. Jesus is able to act, casting out demons and healing the sick, because his life is joined not to a static faith captive to its canons, but rather the dynamic and living word of which he is the primary manifestation.
What is our call in response to these scriptures? In a world that has lost the ability to judge competence, we must renew the only basis of authority we can ultimately trust—an ongoing, deep life of listening relationship with the living God. Such a life is a whole one, marked by qualities of character that extend well beyond words. As my friend Claudio Oliver recently put it to me, we must not make Jesus public in the world, but we must make him manifest. That is what Jesus did in that synagogue on a Sabbath long ago. To do that work now, we won’t need any certificates hanging on our walls. All we need to do is to listen to the God who still speaks and make our lives an echo of that speaking, reflecting the life that God is creating, even now, in the world.
There was a woman my family came to know while I was in high school named Bon Nell. She lived in a doublewide trailer on the outskirts of Plummerville. Her accent was all Arkansas and she had a gruff manner about her that included frequent cursing, a habit reflecting her time in the Navy. In her home she had a sunny spot where the Bible was always open and notebook pages were filled with the lists of people she prayed for daily. I was lucky to make it on that list and for over twenty years she prayed for me until this past fall when she died at the age of 98.
Bon Nell had no degrees in scripture. She read no Greek and understood little Hebrew. I’m sure that there was much in her theology with which I would have disagreed. And yet, it was she who prayed day in and day out for me and for so many others. She read and re-read and studied the Bible, not as a fascinating subject, but as a living word that could exorcise darkness and bring God’s love into the world, a love she knew powerfully in her own life. Bon Nell had the kind of authority that comes from presence and authentic experience—presence to God that was made manifest in her life.
I don’t regret most of my learning, the degrees I’ve earned or the curriculums I’ve completed. Still, those things are trivia compared to the authentic experience of God’s love. And if there is any credential I would be glad to claim, any authority I’d hope to have, it is the kind that I’ve seen, not on office walls, but in the eyes of people like Bon Nell—an aliveness of soul, a love of Jesus, an expectant vision of what God will do next in the world. To have authority like that we must read the scriptures, pray daily, and live continuously in the presence of God’s love. In these things we will discover that we are enough and more than enough. As Bon Nell would always write in her annual birthday cards in bold lettering: God loves you. Knowing that love will give you all the power and authority you need to make Jesus manifest in this world that is so in need of his light. Amen.
One evening a couple of weeks ago, my nine-year-old daughter came into the living room with a look of both sadness and satisfaction on her face. Earlier she had taken our computer to a quiet space so that she could complete her daily lesson in Mandarin Chinese using the program, Duolingo. This is a practice she began last year, shortly after we all went into lockdown. Each evening she would announce, “its time for Mandarin,” and would go do her 10 minute lesson. She continued, never breaking her streak, for over 270 days, until that evening when she announced: “I guess I’m finished, there are no more lessons.” She had completed the entire Mandarin curriculum Duolingo had to offer.
Lily was drawn to Mandarin for her own reasons, mostly having to do with curiosity more than any practical ends. Chinese with its characters and very different grammar is a fascinating language to any English speaking mind. The more she studied, though, I think she realized something else about learning a foreign language. Its not just about new grammars and words; its about entering a different reality.
This is a point upon which much contemporary philosophy has been written. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, for instance, says that the differences in languages do “not represent so many arbitrary conventions for expressing the same thought, but rather several ways for the human body to celebrate the world and finally live in it.” Different words and grammars, their shapes and sounds and expressions, open up different possibilities for the lives we might lead. To learn a new language is to learn a new mode of being.
This experience of a different tongue can also affect how we view our own language. To move between words, like moving between worlds, can alter ones perception of the options. We need this from time to time in order to renew our language and free it from the ossified expressions of the familiar. There is a need, as theologian John Milbank has put it, to make the word strange. Today we have a perfect opportunity for that work in our Gospel reading.
In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus offers one of the shortest and most powerful sermons ever delivered: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” For those of you who judge a sermon by its brevity (and I know you’re out there), Jesus’ proclamation is without parallel. And yet, his whole ministry could be seen as an explanation of this opening statement. It would have been radical and exciting to those who first heard it, both from Jesus himself and those later disciples who heard it in Mark’s recounting. But for those of us today, sitting back on our couches, many Sundays under our belts, this sermon is little more than a repetition of familiar cliches—the time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near, we need to repent, we should believe the gospel—yada, yada, yada, we’ve heard it all before. It’s time to look at the Gospel again, to make the word strange and hear it from another side, play with these words like a poet, and see if they might cough and sputter and come rushing back to life again.
The poet Scott Cairns has a series called “Adventures in New Testament Greek.” This morning I want to go on such an adventure with you, walking through a foreign landscape and looking at four terms that might bring the word of this Gospel to life once again.
The first thing Jesus mentions is time. In doing this he’s answering what scholars call one of the fundamental worldview questions: where are we? Where are we in the vast expanse of creation? Where are we in the story of God’s work to heal the world? Where are we in hope, expectation or fulfillment? To these questions Jesus answers emphatically: Peplērōtai ho kairos.
The Greek of the New Testament world contained two words for time. The first was the familiar chronos, from which we get our word chronology. This is sequential time, the sort of time that can be measured by a clock or a calendar. Marching or plodding, but always moving forward with a distinct past and present and future. But the Greeks, philosophical as they were, also had another word for time, one that figures much more prominently in the New Testament. That word is kairos, which means the right moment, the opportune time.
When Jesus says that the time has been fulfilled, he doesn’t mean that all history has come to an end, but rather that the long awaited hope of Israel has finally arrived. Whatever might be going on in the rhythms of chronos, a new reality is born in the dimension of kairos. Where are we, someone may have asked Jesus as they wandered through the countryside. His answer wasn’t Roman occupied Palestine or the year of some Emperors reign. Jesus’ answer is that we are in the opportune moment, the time that God is acting.
But opportune for what, exactly? How is God acting? Jesus answers that question with another familiar phrase: ēngiken hē basileia tou Theou. The time is fulfilled because God’s kingdom has arrived and if you want it, you can grab hold of it, for it is at hand. That is what this verb ēngiken means. Imagine Jesus the carpenter, working with chisels and mallets, saws and planes. He’s fitting a board into place in a newly built portico for a wealthy business person in the nearby metropolis of Sepphora. Where are Jesus’s tools? ēngiken, they are at hand, ready for him to grab and begin working. So it is with God’s reign. There is no more waiting; the kingdom of God is right where you can take hold of it.
How do we enter this space? Here Jesus gives us a term that in English has so much baggage its hard to salvage. “Repent,” the NRSV says. Which probably brings to mind, for most of us, images of a hellfire preacher calling on us to give up drink and dancing. What the Greek says, however, is far more interesting. What Jesus calls us to is “metanoia,” a renewing of our minds. I like how the Common English Bible more accurately translates this word: “Change your hearts and lives.” That’s what Jesus is calling us toward.
In one of his “Adventures in New Testament Greek” poems, Scott Cairns takes on this word, playfully helping us understand its meaning.
“The heart’s metanoia,” he writes,
without regret, turns not
so much away, as toward,
as if the slow pilgrim
has been surprised to find
that sin is not so bad
as it is a waste of time.”
In the time that is God’s kairos, when the kingdom is at hand, who needs sin? It’s like staying inside, bing watching Netflix while the sun is shinning and day is beautiful. Turn off the screen and get outside! Enjoy the gift of the world and leave behind all our shallow distractions. That’s what the call of repentance is like. But what can be easy when the sun is out, can be more difficult once the clouds come. The old habits, the easy addictions that we thought we’d lost, come creeping back. That’s why we need our last word.
After changing our hearts and lives with metanoia, Jesus calls on us to pisteuete en tō euangeliō. Here are two of the most stock terms of our faith: believe in the gospel. We’ve heard it a thousand times. How can we make these words strange? Trust is probably a better word for us than believe. It is less saddled with religious baggage, it speaks to what Jesus is calling us to do: Trust the good news that God is now in charge. Trust the news that transcends all the headlines: God’s reign has arrived.
This is a odd message with strange words in our world that still assumes that power is what matters and value can be calculated in dollars. We believe in progress counted in chronos and imagine God’s kingdom someplace far off, something that will come only after we die. Our goal, so often, is simply to be a decent person, rather than radically change the way we live. We trust our institutions and make charity something we do rather than embody. But strange words can help us enter a different world, one whose depths we must keep plumbing, immersing ourselves more and more deeply into this new reality. That is the call of Jesus, the herald of the Kingdom.
The night after Lily finished her final Duolingo lesson in Mandarin, she decided to start a new program in Chinese, one that would help her continue her learning. We found a course that uses various YouTube videos of movie scenes and advertisements from China. She jumped in at the intermediate level and has continued her nightly study, immersing herself not only in a new language but also a new world, so different from her own.
We would do well to do the same, learning the new language of God’s kingdom. We must study it, immerse ourselves in its cadences, try to speak it again and again until one day we find ourselves fluent. This is the work of discipleship, of changing our hearts and lives; it the task we are called to take up right now, in this kairos moment as we put our trust in the God whose reign is now among us. Amen.