An Intersection of Marx and Jesus

A (very) brief examination of the two through the book of James [by William Brien]

The following was written by a student of mine, William Brien, and I found the content quite insightful. As a caveat, Brien writes “I submit this piece with only a limited understanding of Marxism, therefore if I am panned for misconstruing it I yield my position to the experts.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. Also, I’d like to add that these insights are merely those: insights. He is, “giving credit where credit is due.” He’s a true intellectual who does not have to profess allegiance to something in order to see what value it may offer. None of the following determines his religious or political inclinations.

Never in the history of humankind has a doctrine been so viciously contorted as that of Christianity. It has been used as justification for atrocities ranging from the Holocaust, to Apartheid, and even Jim Crow. The symbiotic relationship between Russia’s Orthodox Church and the Tsarist regime served as a bulwark of aristocratic rule amid the mass killing and famines of the early 20th century empire. Yet the egalitarianism promoted in the Christian scripture itself directly contradicts the oppressive status quo it has been used to preserve. The Epistle of James condemns the hypocrisy of elitism, saying,

If a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please,’ while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there,’ or, ‘Sit at my feet,’ have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?… Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? (2:2-6).

Perhaps the radical Marx could have found a friend in James. Indeed, the apostle’s contrast between the “dishonored” poor and the “rich who oppress” and “drag [the poor] into court” is very much reminiscent of The Communist Manifesto’s elite bourgeoisie guarding the means of production and subjugating the proletariat. The perpetuation of injustice, in accordance with this passage, is not the fulfillment of God’s plan, but a crude imitation designed to protect tyrannical authorities. Though these distortions led Marx to adopt a vehement opposition towards religion, ironically enough, the greed-filled class struggle which he proves to be the driver of socio-economic development towards socialism runs parallel to the greed and sin which drive the actions and thoughts of human beings as they work to become good Christians. It is the death of self-serving pursuit and the preservation of equality, whether through political and economic revolution or through compassion blind of class, which both doctrines wish to bring about.

The Toxicity of Toxic Language

When “Toxic” becomes Toxic

Here’s the thing about “toxic” relationships: it’s not always restricted to one person being *the* “toxic” person that needs to be excised from the group or broken off with. Though, this is commonly what is conveyed in the dialogue of aftermath of relational split: “that person was toxic; so glad that person is gone. Now, we/I can go on being/becoming more healthy.” While I don’t have a very high anthropology (meaning: I still question the inherent goodness of human beings but not the inherent dignity; plus, I’m a Luther theologian, it comes with the terrain), I still believe that *anyone* can be “toxic” in *any* given situation. It’s the mix of personalities in their potential for toxicity. Potential for toxicity can be other wise dubbed as the beloved and oft used term: “brokenness.” However, in common parlance, it’s not just “brokenness” (because general brokenness is acceptable for the most part), “toxicity” is like the dark underbelly of “brokenness,” the thing that is the deal breaker and can’t ever be tolerated by anyone. Thus, people who have otherwise standard issues and problems and “brokenness,” get labeled as “toxic” and should be avoided at all costs because they bring “toxicity” to everything. They’re essentially and inherently harbingers of poison to every relationship they touch; they’ve been ontologically defined as poisonous.

(Side note, I’d like to argue that it is better to render “brokenness” as “bentness” in order to adhere to the inherent dignity of human beings. “Brokenness” can indicate being useless and worthy of being trashed; all human beings are never ever, never ever of that category.)

“Toxic” is the new “co-dependent.” One of the problems of the language of toxicity becoming so popular is that it has lost its actual definition and impact (there are legitimately toxic people, things, and places in our lives). It has become easier to label someone as “toxic” because they are causing us *any* discomfort. Also, It has become all the rage to label someone, some-place, something as “toxic,” in order to scapegoat our own problems on to someone else, some-place else, or something else. It’s easier to just cut someone, some-place, something out of your life, rather than take a long hard look in the mirror and realize you are fucking up your own life. (I say this as someone who was caught too long in “toxic” this-and-that language and finally had to come to terms that *I* was (me and my trauma narrative) more of the problem than any other person, place, or thing.) Rather than knee-jerk reacting and labeling someone, some-place, or something as “toxic,” it might be worth slowing the roll and asking: why is this causing this reaction in me? Therein answers lie.

Another problem is, from my perspective, we all carry within ourselves potential for acting caustically[1] toward others; our potential for this activity can be actualized by other people acting out of their issues and trauma (and vice versa). Also, our caustic behavior can be actualized by another person’s otherwise normal personality traits because we’ve had some sort of trauma associated with those traits even if they’d never be considered categorically “problematic” by any professional. It’s rarely the fact that only one person is the “toxic” source, but rather the mix of personality traits we have that conform and collide with others. Conformity with others creates a wonderful sense of peace and acceptance, but this does not mean collision is out of the question nor does it mean that when collision occurs it’s a deal breaker and the other person is now “toxic.” Collision occurs as conformity becomes bedrock in a relationship. When the honeymoon of a new relationship wears off, it’s then where we start to see how different we are from each other and also the potential for triggering and being triggered. (And I am not speaking of small things like a disagreement and miscommunications that run standard in any relationship. Rather, I speak of the big collisions, the ones that demand terms like forgiving and forgetting.)

When collision happens, it’s a time for introspection and dialogue. The normal and healthy response in situations where collision has occurred—in any way—is: discussion, both interpersonal (what happened and what can we do together to grow and move forward with our relationship (if possible)?) and intrapersonal (why did this action trigger this response in me?). Granted not all relationships are or need to be carried forward, some are mutually too caustic (as a whole) to be continued; not because one person is inherently “toxic,” but because the unit doesn’t work and we are both mutually bad for each other because we trigger each other, you trigger me, or I trigger you. None of us wants to be in relationship that is primarily collision and strife. None of us want to be causing the caustic reaction. (I’m a firm believer that not all personality types should be anything more than cordial acquaintances because the relational scales tip too much in favor of the potential for collision and triggering.) Often times, though, a good conversation will allow for light to be shed on issues that either or both people in the relationship were blind to, where acceptance of your own and the other person’s contribution to the issue can be owned, and create the space for solutions to move forward to be implanted and embraced.

We have used and abused the word “toxic” in all its forms, and the results prove disastrous. We are all bent, traumatized individuals making our way through this journey of life. Even the most integrated of us still has plenty to work on and will continue to aggravate, frustrate, and bother other wanderers. The most we can do is admit our own weaknesses, realize when those weaknesses are not beneficial to others, and realize where we can and need to become strong.

Something that I loved learning about when I started studying Luther and his conception of justification and the proclamation of the Gospel, was not that he let me off the hook of the law of God, but that he put me on it. Far from being a therapeutic hedonist, Luther has a high view of the law both as it plays into the believer’s relationship before God and in the believer’s life. No, sin boldly isn’t the same as: you do you as you please at whatever expense and at whomever’s expense. It’s about the reality that you are, by encounter with God in the event of faith, right before God, that this event-encounter is not born of your particular activity but does have significant bearing on your present activity. Luther’s dialectic of law and gospel and the need for the good theologian to be able to distinguish between the two is never about being given the license to avoid the law at all costs and to reject all people and things and words that give off even the hint of personal discomfort and conviction to us. Rather, it’s always about being able to really *see* with our own eyes what is the law and what is the gospel, what brings death and what brings life, and to act accordingly—not to avoid it but to enter into the event, to be encountered there in by God and God’s grace.

Sometimes, we must enter into the death present and terrifying in relational collision (to face it head on, eye to eye, word to word) in order to be brought into something so much more beautiful and alive than it could ever be if we had sidestepped the entire problem in the name of comfort. I will be more alive, you will be more alive, and even the relationship (either sustained or terminated) will be life giving (even if there is grief and pain as a result of termination). With God all things are possible, even abundant life out of what feels like and looks like certain death.

 

[1] I like “caustic” rather than “toxic” because there is an allusion to a chemical reaction, neither chemical is bad in it’s own state, but when combined the reaction is bad.

“Here, I live”: a birthday reflection

Birthdays can cause us to take that self-reflective pause in which we examine our lives. In that pause, we take stock of what’s happened over the course of the past twelve months. We are like late night Netflix addicts, rewatching all those life episodes to which we already know all the lines and all the outcomes. We watch and (maybe) relive the great moments, the heart-stopping moments, the difficult moments, and even the moments where we thought our worlds were going to explode and implode at the same time….but didn’t.

We hear Birthday’s haunting and incessant questions: are you where you want to be? Are you where you thought you would be? Are you who you want to be? Who you’d thought you’d be? Are you happy with who and where you are? Birthdays aren’t very good at having their questions ignored; most of us will at least whisper some response, and we all know silence is itself an answer and rarely a positive one.

This past year, I’ve had some tremendous ups and some tremendous downs. But those specific events (the ones replaying in my head as I review this past year) will not be the substance of this post. The details of the events–at this point–mean very little to me because they’re dead and gone. The totality of those details, the mega-form they took, what as a whole they left me *is* what matters. In my opinion, what has remained with me in the aftermath of those events is more important than merely the petty details of this thing or that, of the he said-she said, of what went up or down. Because it’s in this aftermath where I looked at what I had and built from there. (We never really start over from scratch, we always build from what we’ve learned.)

From the very wonderful, amazing, heart-stopping, I-Can’t-believe-this-is-happening-right-now events to the dreadful, horrible, gut-wrenching, I-Don’t-see-how-I’ll-ever-make-it-through-this events, what has remained with me, over and over and over again is: life. In every way that word can be used type of life. Because no matter how much my knees knocked because of nerves or my stomach churned because of emotional turmoil, I kept stepping forward. And each and everyone of those steps drilled home the reality that I am very much alive.

I don’t credit myself with this aliveness, though I’m aware that I did play both an unconscious and conscious role in the process of stepping. (Some synapses have to be firing intentionally for a mind and body to engage in the act of stepping in a specific direction.) I do give some credit to really neat friends who refused to let me keep rehearsing the same lines of my favorite trauma script…even when it’s all I wanted to do. They used their words to turn my head in the right direction and urged me forward and not backward. Mostly, if not entirely, I give credit for this aliveness to my daily encounter with God in the event of faith. Because it’s here, in this encounter where I’m brought face to face with God, where I am wrenched from and out of a world that demands my allegiance and obedience and has me scrambling for some modicum amount of control, stripped of all that I *think* I am and of all that I let control and define me, and made painfully aware that there is no other way to embrace the future but through my pained confession that I do not know what comes.

All I know in this event encounter is God (all other knowledge, presuppositions, ideas, and conceptions have been exposed and burnt up by the friction of this encounter). And this knowledge, this face to face encounter undoes me completely, renders me to dust, brings me into crisis with everything around me. It’s in the crisis where the crucible is formed and my faith made to be as pure as gold; for in the tension I’ve nothing but what faith will locate itself in and that is God. Thus, all I can know is God, I cannot stand on my own here, and it brings me to death. Here, I die.

But yet even though I die, it is not merely unto death or to indulge the wicked intentions of a sadistic god. The God I believe in is the God of love and life, mercy and peace, humility and justice and in abundance. What has been proclaimed to me, shown to me, made known to me in the word and wisdom of God–the proclamation of Christ crucified–is that the activity of God moves from death to life, life in the here and now in vibrant, remarkable, awe-inspiring ways. Life out of death is resurrection.  My feet are (daily) planted firmly in this wholly other God on whom and in whom I am wholly dependent and that is life and life abundant; I’m alive. Here, I live.

What has proven itself time and time again over the past 365 days is: it’s in this event-encounter with God that I am made and caused and given the strength to stand and withstand the events (good or bad) that have come my way and will come my way because I am not dependent on the outcome (good or bad) or on myself. My dependence is on and in God alone by faith alone by grace alone. These events that happened to me only pushed me into a deeper dependence on God, which resulted in resilience, confidence, and strength that define me today. It is in and has been in the good and bad events of my small and short yet large and long life where I have experienced God in God’s self-disclosure as, “…Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace…” (Is. 9:6).

Thus, I’ll close by answering Birthday’s questions early in the day:

Am I where I want to be? Yes. The view from where I am is wonderful

Am I where I thought I would be? No. I could only have have hoped to be here.

Am I who I want to be? Yes, and there’s still room for more improvement.

Am I Who I’d thought I’d be? No. I don’t think I had the wits to see her coming.

Am I happy with who and where I am? Yes. 100%, yes.

 

Crisis Desideratus

Mark 4:35-41 (Sermon)

And then he woke up, rebuked the wind and then he said to the sea, ‘Silence! Shut up!” and then the wind abated and then there was a great calm. And then he said to [his disciples], ‘Why are you timid? Do you not yet have faith?’ And then they became frightened with a great fear and then they were saying to one another, ‘Who is this that both the wind and the sea obey him?’ [1]

It was Mother’s day, 2015. My husband and I decided that going for a family hike would be a great idea. The five of us drove out to “Potato Rock” or otherwise known as “Miracle Rock” (it’s located in the Colorado National Monument). While we were there, we hiked around and then met up with my husband’s brother and his wife (and their two dogs). Once we were all together, we proceeded up the ½ mile hike to see Potato Rock.

Here’s the description of the setting from the website:

“Once you get to Miracle Rock the view changes rather dramatically. The rock itself is perched precariously on a one foot pedestal on the edge of a rather high cliff. This is definitely a place to keep a close eye on the youngsters. The view of the surrounding valley and distant mountains is very pretty. Miracle Rock itself is only about 1/2 mile from the picnic area.”[2]

MiracleHike5

The description doesn’t lie. The rock is precariously balanced; one could say, “miraculously” balanced. Apart from some sort of abstract theory pertaining to a physics that only God knows, there’s no reason for the rock to be standing on its potatoey end.

Also, the description doesn’t lie about the precarious landscape surrounding Potato rock. It’s dangerous. Very. There’s no gradual descent from the minuscule plateau housing potato rock; it’s all cliffs and deadly, dastardly drops. For someone who has a fear–a great fear–of heights, these landscape predicaments force me to stay a good, healthy distance from the edges. The view is very pretty, and I was fine admiring it from the shade cast by the large upright rock.

I stood there with my sister-in-law, and we chatted. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that my daughter (2 at this time) had been let down from her hiking backpack. She remained close to her father and meandered a reasonable bit away. The next thing I saw was Liza running toward the edge. I heard Daniel hollering her name, and my voice joined his. No response. She kept running. My heart was in my throat; my mind raced: what do I do? I knew I couldn’t run for she’d find it to be a game. I had one chance to stop her before she reached the edge. So I did the only thing my maternal mind, body, and soul could think to do: I gathered up every single ounce of energy and strength I had in my 145 pound body, and I hollered her name so loud and so deep that the force caused every muscle in my body to tense and shake, and I was physically pushed backwards. I put everything I had into that maternal yawp; I had to: my child was running straight into danger, into death.

Liza didn’t just stop running when that sound emanated from my mouth. She collapsed mid stride, melted to the ground, and started to weep. Essentially, I had frightened her into stillness. Feet from the edge, she was a weeping, sobbing, mommy-wanting mess of a two year-old toddler. Feet from the edge, she was safe and alive. Moments later my sister-in-law looked at me, her eyes as big as half-dollars. I had frightened her, too, when I hollered (she was right next to me). “Where did that come from?” She asked. “I’ve never heard such a sound.” The look she gave me was as if she was coming to terms with the fact that she didn’t know fully who I was.

Moms, we have a way about us, don’t we? One look can solicit all the deeply held secrets of our children, remind them swiftly that maybe they should very much rethink what they are about to do or say, or assure them that you’re there with them and that they are safe. One note of our voice can stop our children dead in their tracks or bring comforting and soothing notes to anxious and fearful little ears. The tragedy when children cannot hear their mother’s voice when they need it most.

But what does this have to do with our Gospel passage?

In my opinion: everything.

And then, on that (same) day, when evening came, he said to them, “Let us go to the other side.” And then, after leaving the crowd, they (the disciples) took him along with them in the boat, and other boats (were) with him. And then a great hurricane wind came about and then the waves were (continually) beating into the boat, so that the boat was already filled. And he, he was in the stern, sleeping upon a pillow. And then they (the disciples) raised him and then they said to him, “Teacher, does it not concern you that we are perishing?”

Jesus’s popularity and extensive teaching drive him to seek refuge away from lakeside Galilee; taking to a fishing boat with his disciples and rowing out into the expanse of water heading toward the “other side” would be this refuge. [3] Or so was the plan. But the disciples are there and Jesus is exhausted so surely this is going to become a teaching event. Jesus isn’t going to get the reprieve and rest he desires, and Mark’s story telling style here is so quick and rapid-fire like that the reader is made aware that something is coming.

And that which is coming is a sudden massive storm. The disciples would have been aware of and accustomed to the sudden, violent storms that rage on the lake of Galilee; and this particular storm was so strong and so violent that the boat, a low sided fishing boat, was about to sink, it was that filled with water from the relentlessly beating waves stirred up by the hurricane like winds.[4] But this storm isn’t the point or goal of the story because it was a common place storm, and Mark moves his reader quickly to the point: the disciples launch into a full blown freak-out while Jesus sleeps, and this sleeping Jesus is the main character in this scene. [5]

The disciples are in a panic in a major way. The reader can tell by how the disciples not only wake Jesus up, but also how they question him.[6] There’s nothing cool and collected about their question to Jesus, “Teacher, is it no concern to you that we are perishing?” (Our English translation comes across too calm and collected.) In other words, “How the *firetruck*are you sleeping?! And why the *firetruck* are you not doing anything?!” And they knew enough about Jesus to know that he, as their Rabbi, as their teacher, would have a solution.[7] In the face of this great storm, these called and elected men, are stripped of everything they know and forced into a crisis where death is not merely possible but imminent. In the face of this great storm, the disciples have been thrust upon their own seamanship, and they have been made painfully aware that those skills and that knowledge are completely useless in this moment. Unless there is some sort of intervention, they’re left for dead.[8] Karl Barth describes the situation better than I can,

“But lo! their apostolic office, their episcopal habits their experience, their tradition even the living but sleeping Jesus among them, all appear to be useless. The storm is too violent. The pillar and ground of truth totters. The gates of hell are menacingly open to engulf them. They are terrified that the ship and they themselves and Jesus will all perish, that it will be all up to with them…”[9]

The disciples are in a serious and immediate existential crisis: we’re helpless to do anything…we don’t know what to do! And while crisis is a four-letter word in our vocabulary, when it comes to the divine word economy it is a good word, it is good news because crisis is the fertile soil of the encounter with God in the event of faith. The disciples are about to become more like disciples in this moment than in preceding ones. And we, along with them as participants in their story, are made to be more the church than we were moments ago. [10]

And then when Jesus woke up, he rebuked the wind and he said to the sea, “Silence! Shut up!” And then the wind abated and then there was a great calm. And then he said to his disciples, “Why are you timid? Do you not yet have faith?” And then they became frightened with a great fear and then they were saying to one another, “Who is this that both the wind and the sea obey him?

Jesus rises and rebukes the wind and commands the sea to shut up! and be silent. And the elements obey. Like unruly children[11] rebuked and corrected sternly and seriously by the voice of their mother, the elements sit down and shut up. And when Jesus halts the great hurricane winds and the overbearing tumultuous waves of the sea, I am pulled into the story at a gut level. I get it. And while I understand the miraculousness that stands behind the encounter between the dingy, the raging sea,[12] and Jesus, on some level it seems exceptionally acceptable. Why wouldn’t the divine creative yawp from Jesus cause the winds and the waves (the very things he called into existence[13]) to stop dead in their tracks? Why wouldn’t the elements obey his rebuke and command? That which has and those who have been created by and in the comfort of a voice, know that voice. And when we hear it, we respond…immediately.[14] There is an immediate response when Jesus hollers at the wind and sea; immediately a great calm that replaces the great storm. On a deep and visceral level, this makes sense to me.

Why wouldn’t love sound so ferocious in order to protect that which it loves? And this is why the disciples are rebuked; it’s not that they didn’t believe Jesus could do something, in fact they knew that he could do something. They are not in doubt of that fact. Rather, look are their question to him, “…are you not concerned…” In other words, do you love us? Do you care? That’s what their question to Jesus reveals: they are doubting his love for them because he’s not doing something tangible. His sleeping indicates to them his lack of concern, a lack of care, a lack of love. God’s love for God’s people drives God to miraculous and powerful activity: floods, parting seas, bread from heaven and water from rocks, death and resurrection (to name a few). God is an impassioned God and the disciples know this but this is what they doubt in Christ in this moment. [15] Do you care? Do you love us to respond to our cries?

And be sure: what happens here in the rebuking of the wind and the waves is about love, even Jesus’s seeming interrogation of the extent and status of the disciples’ faith is an expression of love. Why wouldn’t God reckon with and dominate the sea, the long used metaphor of chaos and destruction, where humans are the most out of control?[16] To gaze upon the ocean and the sea is marvelous and human; to control it, divine.[17] In rebuking and commanding the elements and their subsequent and immediate obedience to his voice, he reveals to the disciples who he is…not who they think he is, but who he is. They are stripped of their messianic assumptions about Jesus; Jesus reveals himself to them. In this moment, the disciples are brought face to face with God in God’s self-disclosure in the great reveal of divine power, divine love.[18] The disciples doubted because the did not know the one whom was in the boat with them; this one had to be revealed to them.

Divine power is the power of love for the beloved. We are encountered by the word of God, thus encountered by divine love in those moments when disaster seems certain, where we are brought to the end of ourselves and forced into the desperate confession: What do I do? Where the answer isn’t needed because the silence is deafening. Where doubt isn’t the antithesis of faith, but specifically in times of crisis doubt is the substance of faith. It is in this crisis where we encounter God in the word of God in the event of faith. In that crisis we are lassoed by God’s voice, reoriented and centered rightly on God, pulled tightly to God, and anchored and secured in God’s self, like a newborn baby who turns her head in the direction of the soothing voice of her mother and fixes her foggy gaze on her mother’s face. (Because as much as God is paternal, God is also maternal, and while we learn the voice of our Father, we know the voice of our Mother.) In the mother’s gentle, “shh, shh, shh, it’s okay sweet one” or her primal maternal yawp that stops us suddenly in our tracks, all is well here in this encounter.

We are forced outside of ourselves; we are forced in this encounter in this crisis to drop everything we’ve grown accustomed to relying on, every tradition, every doctrine held dear, everything that we put our faith in that isn’t God. We are forced into such a position where faith actually finds its target: God. God who is for us, who will speak into and rebuke and silence the storms and the turbulent waves of our “plight,” in whom we see that no one is alone neither we nor the disciples nor the other many boats out on that lake.[19] This is the God we encounter in the Gospel proclamation; this is the God the disciples encountered that stormy evening.

The fear of the disciples in response to the work and divine power of Christ is appropriate,[20] and this fear should be our response when encountering God in the event of faith. However, it is often over-emphasized that it eclipses the disciples’ incessant questioning and discussion about “Who is this…?” Who is this that both the wind and the sea obey him? This is the question that we should always be asking. This is the question that makes the church. “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” (John 4:29). When we are encountered by God in the event of faith, the fear (the faith, the reverence) that produces itself is the product of this question. “Who is this…” is the right question, and it is this question that is both our existential dilemma and also our existential solution. Jesus, God of very God, is the “sure foundation” of our existence and of the church’s existence. And throughout the many centuries since he death and resurrection of Christ, we still don’ fully know the extent to which he is our sure foundation, and so we ask, “Who is this…”[21]

We come here every Sunday to hear the gospel proclaimed so we can once again be brought into encounter with God in Christ who is our “sure foundation”. We come here to hear, not my voice or Reverend Montgomery’s, but the voice of God who calls to us, who whispers our names. We come here to hear the powerful love-filled voice that can still the wind and silence the waves. We come eager and reticent to hear the voice that can (and will) stop us dead in our tracks, protecting us from hurling ourselves off deadly cliffs. We come here lost and swamped by what seems to make sense and what seems to be reasonable to us, to the status-quo, and in hearing the word of God we are re-centered and reoriented on God, on God’s wisdom, on God’s mercy, love, and justice; thus (hopefully), when we leave, we become forces to be reckoned with in the world. We come here to hear God’s voice so deeply that we are undone completely and remade entirely by the power of the proclamation of the word of the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Psalm 46: 1-11

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Come, behold the works of the Lord;
see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
10 “Be still, and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth.”
11 The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.

 

[1] R.T. France, 222.The Gospel of Mark NIGTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002.) Mark has a “…vivid narrative style gives added emphasis to the danger and panic of the disciples…” Also per Dr. Jim West, Mark’s style here is more like the “Dude, Where’s My Car” scene at the Chinese restaurant, “AND THEN!…AND THEN!” All translations of Mark 4:35-41 in this sermon are mine.

[2] http://www.coloradowestoutdoors.com/home/hiking/bangs-canyonglade-park/miracle-rock/

[3] France, 222. Jesus is more supernatural than ever with these miracles (coupling this one with 6:45-52).

[4] Ibid, 223.

[5] Ibid, 223. “Like Jonah’s equally remarkable sleep in the storm (Jon. 1:5-6) it serves to highlight the crucial role of the key figure in the story where the other actors are helpless…”

[6] Ibid, 224. The ου μελει σοι indicates panic on the part of the disciples and is “blunt” language and not “respectful address”.

[7] France, 224. “But clearly they have already been with Jesus long enough to take it for granted that he will have the solution to a problem beyond their control.”

[8] Karl Barth CD IV.3.2.72 p. 733. Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of Reconciliation ed. G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrence (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson 2010). “And when the great storm arose, and ‘the waves beat into the ship, so that it was now full,’ these, men who were elect and called, who had already received so many promises and consolations in respect of their own existence as His people, who had indeed the consolations in respect of their own existence as His people, who had indeed the assurance of His own presence, seemed to be cast back upon their own faith and in the last resort upon its bold action in exercise of the seamanship.”

[9] Ibid, CD IV.3.2.72 p. 733

[10]Ibid, CD IV.3.2.72 p. 733. “Inevitably the New Testament εκκλησιαι find their own story here.”

[11] France, 224. “His authority is asserted in strikingly anthropomorphic commands, in that he ‘rebukes’ the wind as if it were an animate being, and addresses the lake as if it were an unruly heckler, ‘Be quiet! Shut up!’”

[12]Ibid, P. 221

[13] John 1:1-4, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”

[14] France, 225. The aorist tense indicates an immediate result and “…the γαληνη μεγαλη (replaces the λαιλαψ μεγαλη) emphasizes the total transformation achieved by Jesus’ intervention.”

[15] Ibid, 225. “Those to whom the secret of the kingdom of God has been entrusted nonetheless apparently lack faith…what they lack here is not so much understanding as πιστις, which here as elsewhere in Mark…is a practical confidence in supernatural power, the correlative to miracles. So lack of faith makes disciples δειλοι, unable to respond to a crisis with the confidence in God (or, more pertinently, in Jesus) which is the mark of the true disciple.”

[16] Ibid, 221 fn39 Referring to PJ Achtemeier. “God’s battle against the sea, as a hostile primeval force”?

[17] Ibid, p. 221. “Control of the elements is even more extraordinary and inexplicable than the restoration of suffering human beings, and is in the OT a frequently noted attribute of God in distinction from human beings who find themselves helpless before the forces of nature.”

[18] Barth CD IV.3.2.72 p. 733-4. “‘There was a great calm,’ for in the living presence of Jesus there was revealed His living action, His self-declaration in deeds. He not only was what He was for them their Lord and Deliverer; He made Himself known to them as such. He made peace for them. No doubt His people could and should have clung simply to the fact that through Him alone, but genuinely through him, it had peace and would be and was sustained.”

[19] W. Travis McMaken. Our God Loves Justice: An Introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2017). Quoting Gollwitzer, “…‘the core of the gospel is the message that this world and every person is not alone, ha they do no live out of themselves’ but ‘ are instead borne by the love of God…who stands against humanity’s plight and promises to over it.’” p.145

[20] France, 225. The reaction of the disciples describe as φοβος μεγας is appropriate and is in opposition to the cowardice of v.40, “…appropriate response of humans faced with a display of divine power or glory…”

[21] Barth CD IV.3.2.72 p.734. “What was this fear? It was the great and necessary and legitimate fear of the Lord which, as the beginning of wisdom, began with the end of the little and unnecessary fear which could only lead the community to despair of itself, its apostolate, its faith and indeed its Lord. And the end of the little fear came with the fact that Jesus not only was its Saviour but manifested Himself as such and therefore as the sure foundation of its existence as His people, of its apostolate and of its faith.”

 

Heath Carter and “Union Made”

My mom has never been very religious but always very concerned about my earning potential. She was worried when I became a Christian and started to entertain church work as a vocation that I’d end up destitute. The church didn’t fit my Wall-Street, southern Connecticut based upbringing and family. However, relief was allayed: I was getting ordained in The Episcopal Church. “Oh!” she said, “The Episcopal Church is a very wealthy church! You’ll be paid well!” The comment went in one ear and out the other; I never fully thought to question why that was even a thing or if it should bother me.

But it does bother me. And now, after all this time since that first conversation, I’ve been instructed in why it bothers me. I give credit to this enlightenment to Heath W. Carter and his book, “Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago.” This book by Carter is a tour de force of the battle for economic equality and the development and fight for the “Union Made” Social Gospel in Chicago’s history. The rise of material wealth in Chicago brought with it the evangelical clerics and their churches. Being able to purchase expensive preachers and pay them handsomely moved the church from a position of working alongside the average working person to a member of the elite class. As the capital trend went, so did the pulpits. Carter deftly explains the ebb and flow of what was the constant struggle for the working/earning class against capitalism’s monstrous appetite that consumes everything even the gospel.

Carter focuses on a specific era of Chicago’s history—roughly the era encompassing the ante-bellum to the early 1900s, tracking the formation and establishment of and the need for (!) unions for wage-earners. The reality is, the thrust of Carter’s work isn’t restricted to that handful of decades. To a significant degree Carter is using history to shine the light on the reality of our current era. That reality is: there is currently a constant struggle against capitalism and an elite and privileged version of the gospel that is plaguing the western world in this 21st century. Thus, while I am convicted and saddened by this reality (and by the part I play and have played in it), I am also very optimistic for the future because this book exists.

To preach the word of God is–for the preacher–to actively engage in proclaiming to all of God’s people the radical and revolutionary wisdom of God, which is in contradiction with the wisdom and the status quo of the world and against oppressive power structures and elite hierarchies. God and God’s word will always side with those who are oppressed and marginalized, with the far off and rejected, with the homeless and the hungry, and the naked. To engage in this preaching, to enter into pastoral ministry for any reason—especially for financial gain—is anathema to the Gospel and an offense to God.

This book is a must read if we want to actually learn from history and not just about it. This book is a must read if we want to embrace the reality that the cries of the oppressed and marginalized cannot be chalked up to or pushed away as mere echoes of a bygone era. Carter writes at the end of his “Epilogue”,

“Now, in the early decades of the twenty-first century, American capitalism appears once more poised to overwhelm American democracy…It remains to be seen whether present-day believers will quietly abide this state of affairs, or whether it will at some point call forth a nation of prophets comparable to those that visited Gilded Age Chicago” (182).

For those who are losing their lives in this constant battle and fight against Capitalism, we, gospel believing, Christ following Christian disciples have no time to lose; let us heed the call.

 

 

I recommend you follow Dr. Heath Carter on Twitter; to do so, here’s his handle: @heathwcarter. And his blog is here: https://heathwcarter.com/

The Silence of God, God of the Void: A Reflection for Holy Saturday

Silence is disturbing. Personally, I’d rather know bad news than sit with myself in the midst of silence of reply. I’d rather a verbal explosion go off, leaving word shrapnel strewn about; that’s something I can tangibly make sense of, examine, create order with. Give me baskets piled high of “what-you-actually-think”, and no matter how much pain I may have, at least I have something to work with and to fight with. The whole idea that “no news is good news” escapes me; I find no comfort in having nothing with which to do battle against. I can’t kick against silence; there’s nothing to fight in the void.

God gifted me with the ability to be a very good and efficient problem solver. A MBTI INTP, I live to order chaos, to make precise connections over vast intellectual distances, to build and construct and expand and to push and to see just how far this *thing* can go (be it object, idea, or my own person). Thus I would naturally expect that God would meet me as I am: give me riddles to solve, puzzles to put together, ask me to follow along a trail of thoughts dropped by God’s divine hand so that when I arrive at the end I can, as if by intellectual paint-by-number, assemble these thoughts to get the full picture I’ve been desiring.

But rarely is this so. Rarely?…Better yet: never. That I expect God to meet me in such a way is my own demand on God, it is my own form I’m forcing God into. I forget that God self-discloses God’s self. The reality is that my encounter with God in the event of faith is often in the midst of total silence, where I feel as if I am suspended and hovering above a void and an abyss that it is threatening to take me into it. Where my repeated whispers of “Why?” are pulled from me only to float off into the distance and seemingly evaporate like a lone cloud does as it floats over the dry Colorado desert. Where my “Where were you when…?” stack up and collect dust and become brittle, like old books long forgotten. Where the word “hope” has no value and where doubts of God seem to ontologically define my spirituality and my personhood.

I’m not alone in this particular encounter with God in the event of faith. According to one scholar, Elie Wiesel has a similar conceptualizing of God,

“For Elie Wiesel the struggle of the survivor is not merely an inquiry with the mind while knowing in the heart but a shattering of that knowledge, that trust in God. Wiesel’s God is not a God who gave man freedom in history but rather a God who promised deliverance and remained silent in the hour of Israel’s greatest need, a God who made it impossible to believe in the promise of future deliverance. Wiesel’s theodicy is a theodicy of the void. His God is a God of silence. Wiesel’s struggle is to live in the face of the void.”[1]

Everything that has been held dear is shattered and rent asunder. Like Wiesel, everything I’ve put my “hope” in is and has been demythologized. The stories become like playground taunts to my pain and suffering, to my deep abiding questions. The God I’ve historically worshipped is, in the silence and in the face of the void, demythologized; and I come face to face with God’s Thou-objectivity as it is and not as I assume it to be. I’m exposed as the one who has worshipped the stories and not the one to whom the stories point: God. Thus, I am demythologized.

Recently I was reminded of a concept Luther articulates early in his lectures on Galatians and one that I use frequently with my students when explaining the journey of faith. Faith is a journey into darkness[2] not up and into the light but down and into the darkness, being lead by the hand and not by our own sight. Luther writes,

“Here let reason be far away, that enemy of faith, which in the temptations of sin and death, relies not on the righteousness of faith or Christian righteousness, of which it is completely ignorant, but on its own righteousness or, at most, on the righteousness of the Law. As soon as reason and the Law are joined, faith immediately loses its virginity. For nothing is more hostile to faith than the Law and reason; nor can these two enemies be overcome without great effort and work, and you must overcome them if you are to be saved. Therefore when your conscience is terrified by the Law and is wrestling with the judgment of God, do not consult either reason or the Law, but rely only on grace and the Word of comfort. Here take your stand as though you had never heard of the Law. Ascend into the darkness, where neither the Law nor reason shines, but only the dimness of faith (1 Cor. 13:12), which assures us that we are saved by Christ alone, without any Law. Thus the Gospel leads us above and beyond the light of the Law and reason into the darkness of faith, where the Law and reason have no business.[3]

In the event of faith, we are ushered out of the light and into the darkness; we are completely undone unto death of the self that was. Where faith is undone unto it’s own death. Where our self-created depictions of God are undone unto their death. Where we are thoroughly and completely brought to nothing in the divine silence and in the void.

“Therefore we are nothing, even with all our great gifts, unless God is present. When He deserts us and leaves us to our own resources, our wisdom and knowledge are nothing. Unless He sustains us continually, the highest learning and even theology are useless… Therefore let no one boast or glory in his own righteousness, wisdom, and other gifts; but let him humble himself and pray with the apostles (Luke 17:5): ‘Lord, increase our faith!’”[4]

In the silence, stalwart faith turns to haunting doubt; hopeful stories are exposed as hopeless myths; reason is exposed as enemy; and I am left naked and exposed and in what feels like certain death. I let go of the things I’ve had a death grip on and give in to the pull of the void. Arms clinging to unsubstantial things go limp and unfurl to the left and right; head drops back and eyes close waiting to be sucked in and all the way down into nothing, in to the void.

But in this silence, in this seemingly deathly void, there is life. The “I am who and what I am” is. I am in God’s intimate embrace, locked deeply in the divine kiss summoning me from death–resurrection from the dead–and as I wake and the divine kiss pulls back, one word, “hope”, remains, trailing on my lips.

We rush from Good Friday to Easter Sunday clinging to the stories therein as if these were our only hope. We skip over Saturday because it has no story to offer us, no story for us to anchor our faith in, no words that we can cling to when we face doubt and despair. We skip over Saturday because silence is disturbing and the void feels most threatening. But maybe, maybe it’s the silence of Saturday that is the most divine because we are brought deep into the darkness, into the silence, into the void and asked to die to everything we’ve held on to for life.

To have faith in God’s activity in the world depicted in the stories handed down to us makes sense but is not the substance of faith but of the rational. Rather, to have faith in the wake of the cessation of divine activity, when words aren’t spoken and heard, where there’s nothing to cling to but God’s ambiguous and alarming “I am” is the substance of faith. To have faith today, when it doesn’t make sense because all seems lost and gone, is the substance of faith. And this is the substance and demand of the silence and void of Holy Saturday.

 

 

[1] M. Barenbaum “Elie Wiesel: God, the Holocaust, and the Children of Israel”. See also, Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God and his reference to Elie Wiesel’s Night, pp. 273-4.

[2] Dr. David W. Congdon mentions this concept of Luther’s (via Rudolf Bultmann) on this episode of Whit Hodge Podcasts: https://soundcloud.com/whitehodgepodcasts/s2-e1-everyone-be-saved-dr-david-congdon

[3] Martin Luther Lectures on Galatians: Chapters 1-4 LW vol. 26. Pp. 113-4. Emphasis, mine.

[4] Ibid, 114.

The Impossible Puzzle: Sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

In my house, there are two jigsaw puzzles framed and hanging on two separate walls. The puzzles achieved “frame and wall-mount” status because they were both very difficult to put together; each demanding months of time, and in one case, a few years. If you’re not a puzzle person, then I may have just lost you, and it’s quite possible you think I’m crazy. But I’m not crazy; my fellow puzzlers may/will attest to this: puzzles often take massive amounts of time depending on the complexity of the picture.

One puzzle that’s hanging is a large picture of a massive group of penguins in the different stages of molting from furry to sleek. That’s it. ALL. PENGUINS. The other puzzle that’s hanging (and this is the one that took me a few years) is a bit more complicated. It has no edge pieces, the image is repeating, each piece is cut the same, and, wait for it, there are 5 extra pieces thrown in. The puzzle is rightly part of a series of puzzles called: “Impossibles.”

These are not puzzles for your average puzzler; they will surely weed out the puzzling mice from the puzzling humans. It does this weeding because there’s no way to do this puzzle according to normal puzzling conventions. There are no edge pieces to find. Sorting in any constructive way is pointless; you get (about) three piles: black cat pieces, white cat pieces, and pink marble background pieces. And with every piece cut the same and that there are extra means: pure puzzling mayhem.

In order to complete the puzzle, you must let the puzzle tell you how to put it together. It reveals its puzzle-self to you and contradicts everything you know about puzzles. The wisdom of the puzzle doesn’t make sense; it completely defies puzzling common sense. By all means, it’s foolishness…

For the word (proclamation)[1] of the cross (on one hand) is foolishness to the ones who are being destroyed (on their way to ruin), (…)[2] 

The word of the cross is foolishness from our human perspective because it’s counter-intuitive to our common sense. It contradicts everything we hold to be true. Justice defined as retribution makes sense; justice as reconciliation… Come again? The first, the powerful, the rich, the strong should be first and blessed; what is this about the last, the meek, the poor, and the lame being first and most blessed in the Kingdom of God? “God helps those who help themselves”; nope, God helps those who can’t help themselves because they are burdened by systems of oppression.

There’s very little in the proclamation of the gospel that isn’t cacophonous to my ears that are strained toward the solo of self illusion. Me. Tell me more about me, and then I’ll listen. What makes sense to me, what coincides with my reason about myself and about the world and even about the divine is what I want to hear. Let me be content with the image of God I’ve constructed, and thus the image of humanity with it. Share with me whatever it is that won’t tear back the protective layers of my cozy cocoon. Keep me comfortable and well sedated on the continual drip of saccharine sweetened words of self-affirmation. Tell me everything’s okay, even if it’s not. Tell me not to worry, even when there’s ample reason to worry and worry a lot. Lie to me.

The proclamation of the cross is a direct assault on our common sense and our self-centered orientation. In fact, it’s a flat out revolution against us. It’s such an assault that it causes offense, great offense. Our knee jerk reaction is to reject the message and continue on our way to destruction and ruin. We are not hard wired to the good defined by the word of the cross; we abhor it and thus reject it. It’s clearly foolishness.

However, the validity of the proclamation of the cross rests in the divine wisdom behind it and not in whether or not I agree.[3] Thus, my rejection of the proclamation of the cross is the declaration that I believe it to be a lie. If the proclamation of the cross is actually divine wisdom,[4] then my foolish human wisdom and I both stand condemned and continue on our way to destruction and ruin.[5] Continuing on my way to destruction and ruin is surely folly, but the power of the lie that blinds me is strong.

…but (on the other hand) to the ones being[6] saved, it is the power of God to us.

But there’s good news in verse 18. For those who have been encountered by God in the event of faith, the proclamation of the cross is life. The revolutionary word of God in the proclamation of the cross is revolution against my lies and those of the world; it is oriented toward life. It is, to quote Paul, “the power of God to us.”

Paul presents two distinct groups of people: those who are on their way to life and those who are on their way to destruction. Those who are on their way to destruction are doing so by depending not on the wisdom of God but on the wisdom of the world, on their own wisdom. But those who are “being saved” are so because God is operative[7] in them through the proclamation of the cross. They have been exposed by the illuminating word of God and have been brought through the death to self that is the ash-bed of new life. They are on their way to being saved and to living life rightly oriented to God and to neighbor.

In God’s self-disclosure in the word of the cross, the one who is encountered therein in the event of faith is transitioned from the folly of the wisdom of the world and is ushered into the wisdom of God that is the form and substance of the kingdom of God. And, thusly, this wisdom of God, the word of the cross, is the constitutive power of those who are being saved and the constitutive element of living as disciples in the kingdom of God.

Those who are disciples in the kingdom of God cannot devolve back toward the self-deceptive lies of the wisdom of the world and obsessive orientation of the self toward the self[8]; this is a skin that no longer fits or feels comfortable. Death and destruction are not befitting a creature created for life and blessing.

For it has been written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise and I will declare invalid the intelligence of the intelligent. Where is the wise? Where are the scribes? Where are the debaters of this world order?[9] Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?

Now, the bad news of that good news we just discussed is that I can’t get there from here, especially of my own intellectual efforts. I spent the first part of this sermon talking about how my own conceptions of what is right, sensible, and wise are the sure path to destruction and ruin because they are in contradiction to the wisdom of God. Apologetics fails here. Natural theology fails here. Reasonable arguments fail here. The cross is offensive and appalling and foolishness until I can see it otherwise. Apart from divine intervention and illumination in God’s self-disclosure,[10] I cannot see the truth and goodness of the divine activity in the world as proclaimed by the word of the cross.

The key to the divine intervention and illumination that I need is expressed here in v.19, where Paul quotes from Isaiah 29:14, “‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise and I will declare invalid the intelligence of the intelligent.’” And also in verse 20d, “Has God not made foolish the wisdom of the world?” My wisdom and I need to be destroyed, my intelligence and I need to be declared invalid. The world needs to come into conflict with the divine word of the cross and suffer its death throes. I need to come into conflict with the divine word of the cross and suffer my death throes. And it’s in the encounter with God in the event of faith that this destruction, invalidation, and death throes occur. But it would not merely be death working for death’s sake (this would be the trajectory of the wisdom of the world), but in operation for the sake of new life (the power to those who are being saved). [11]

The word of God is destructive, specifically the word of the cross. And here in lies a distinction and a demand: destructive destruction or creative destruction? You are going to be destroyed one way or another, would you like to be destroyed unto death or destroyed unto life? No one who is encountered by the word of the cross is left untouched. There’s no part of the person in the event of faith that is not razed to the ground. We, the liars are exposed as liars.[12] The cross is a word of death. For the hearer who is encountered in the event of God’s self-disclosure in Christ and the conflict that ensues within the person in this event of encounter a demand is felt and that demand is to die to the self, to self-empty, and to self-abandon[13] and to let go. But this letting go and self-emptying and self-abandonment is not into a dark abyss of nothingness (destructive destruction) but into God and God’s self (creative destruction).

Thus, the word of the cross is also the word of life for we must hold in conjunction with the event of the death of Christ on the cross, Christ’s resurrections. Thus, the word of the cross is life for those who have been brought to death (for those who are being saved). If there was ever a moment for tabula rasa[14] in the life of a person, it’s at the very intersection of death into new life. New life lies in entering into that darkness, into death, being destroyed by the word of God. But rather than the flat-line being the last thing the we hear as we enter into the darkness of death, we hear the trumpet summoning us awake, resurrecting us from death in to new creation and new life.

Helmut Gollwitzer writes,

“…[God] is already ‘with us on the scene with his Spirit and his gifts’. He has already bound himself to us indissolubly in Jesus. The victorious battle has already been waged on the Cross and made secure, so that destruction, wickedness, the devil and death do not have the last word, but life, light, and the promise of God. There is not only a promise for a distant future. He fulfills already the promise in the midst of the unchanged world through liberations now, through fellowship with God now, so that now we do not merely hope fore eternal life, but again and again experience new life, and can bear witness not merely to the future of a new life at the end of the old world, but to the presence of the new life in the midst of the old world—and on these grounds can go forward into stronger hope.”[15]

Our new life marked by the proclamation of “a Christ crucified,” by the proclamation of the cross takes on a decidedly active cruciformity. Our new life’s peculiarity is marked by a revolutionary and new orientation:[16] others rather than me, giving and sharing rather than taking and holding, last rather than the first, the weak rather than the strong, the meek rather than the powerful, reconciliation rather than retribution. [17]

The wisdom of God and the wisdom of the world are in radical contradiction, in fact (as mentioned above) the wisdom of God articulated in the proclamation of the Cross is a full blown revolution against the wisdom of the world. [18] Thus, it is necessary that Christians, because of their encounter with God, will also exist as revolution and in contradiction to the wisdom of the world. As the world walks in one direction according to its wisdom, we, through our encounter with our “resurrected Lord” are “‘[forced]…into a totally different direction’”[19] that is the wisdom of God. Proclamation of the cross is not strictly preaching about the word of the cross from the pulpit, but is also (and especially?) the living out the word of the cross[20] in both word and deed.[21] It’s about living and speaking dangerously in distinction and in opposition to the natural inclinations of humanity and of the world.[22]

Because the foolishness of God is wiser [than the wisdom] of humanity and the weakness of God stronger [than the strength] of humanity (I Cor. 1:25).

God’s wisdom reveals itself to us through the power of the Holy Spirit. And in this self-revelation we are brought into and through destruction into new life that retains the characteristics of the God who has breathed life back into the ashes of ourselves. God is the impossible puzzle, you cannot determine God from your common sense and worldly wisdom; God discloses God’s self.

And in correspondence with God (and God’s activity in the world), the church and the disciples of Christ are impossible puzzles in the world; revealing God in the proclamation of the crucified Christ to the world. And in that proclamation revealing themselves to the world rather than being defined by worldly wisdom and common sense. And because we as a church and as disciples are created and sustained by the proclamation of the cross, sustained by the wisdom of God which is the power of God to us who are being saved, let us live and love radically. Let the entire world and all of humanity know us by our [radical] love and [revolutionary] life.

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35 NRSV).

 

 

[1] Anthony C. ThiseltonThe First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text. Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans, 2000. “Since της μωριας describes του κηρυγματος in v. 21 where the two aspects of thought are parallel, we may justifiably assume that proclamation most adequately conveys the aspect of λογος which Paul has in view. Message of the cross…risks too narrow a concentration on cognitive or informational content. Such content is certainly included but it tends to point away from the transformative dimensions of proclamation.” 153

[2] The 1 Corinthian passage translation in the sermon is my translation.

[3] Thiselton 155. “The proclamation is folly unless God, not human wisdom, stands behind it to validate and to underwrite it.”

[4] Thiselton, 154. “But, as Conzelmann correctly notes, the contrast between being on their way to ruin and being on our way to salvation does not correspond to the antithesis between human folly and human wisdom; it reflects the contrast between human folly (μωρια) and divine power (δυναμις θεου).”

[5] Karl Barth CD II.1 “Because the foolish are without faith in Him and therefore do not belong to the true people of God, they can obviously see in the news of the death of Jesus Christ (either with or without that of His resurrection, and even more so with it) only the news of a further demonstration of the meaninglessness of human life; and probably indeed the proclamation of the paradox that the meaninglessness reveals here too is as such its true meaning. So then, as I s described in Acts 17:32, they turn away in impatience or alarm from this foolish Gospel. But they do not realize that by doing this, and by making this judgment, the are already condemned, exposed and revealed as the mother of the dead child.”

[6]Thiselton 156 “The temptation to assume that Christians have already ‘arrived’ nourishes a mood of self-congratulation which is entirely at odds with the proclamation of the cross: a Christ wounded, humiliated, and done-to-death. Hence ‘It is highly characteristic of Pauls’ soteriology that he does not speak of “the saved” (which would be “sesosmenoi”) but of those who are being saved (sozomenoi). Salvation is not yet gained in its totality.’” (Hering qtd in).

[7] Thiselton 156. “The cross, then, constitutes the point at which, and/or the means through which, God’s presence and promise becomes operative as that which actualizes and transforms. It differs from human weakness and folly not in degree but in kind…a merely rhetorical or psychological exercise in communicating some belief system remains empty if it fails to engage with the cross precisely as a saving proclamation…”

[8] Thiselton 157. “The latter brings illusion and self-deception which marks their way to ruin, for recognition of one’s ignorance and one’s need to continue to learn and to grow marks our way to salvation. However, unlike the tradition of the Greek sage, Paul bases everything on the proclamation of the cross. By its very nature this determined the pattern of Christian disciples as living for others, at whatever personal cost.”

[9] Thiselton 165 “In Jewish and Christian eschatology the phrase occurs most characteristically to set in contrast ‘this age’ from ‘the age to come.’ But if we translate this age, we encounter a lack of contextual understanding brought to the text by modern readers who may have little understanding of a Jewish eschatology of the two ages of apocalyptic.”

[10] John Calvin Institutes of the Christian Religion II.ii.20, “Because these mysteries are deeply hidden form human insight, they are disclosed solely by the revelation of the Spirit. Hence, where the Spirit of God does not illumine them, they are considered folly.” 280. And Karl Barth CD IV.2.350, “Where the Holy Spirit intervenes and is at work between Him and us as the Spirit of Jesus Christ, as the self-activation and self-revelation of the living Jesus Christ, we can believe and confess it in face of that hard antithesis.”

[11] Thiselton 161. “……in the wisdom of his own purposes God chose to reverse what was perceived as wise in an event which appeared to consist in weakness and failure. But would lead in the longer term to new beginnings and to a chastened, transformed, people.” And, 162, “Here the semantic contrast functions in relation to God as power (v.18), as denoting that which is effective, valid, operative, and capable of achieving its goal. Against the background of Isaiah 29 the contrast suggests a parallel between the vulnerability and fragility of time spent devising strategies for self-preservation or self-enhancement as against seeking alignment of the self with divine purpose.”

[12] Karl Barth CD IV.3.1.390 “And it is as He attests the truth, Himself, in this form, that He unmasks us as liars. It is in this form of suffering, as the wholly Rejected, Judged, Despised, Bound, Impotent, Slain and Crucified, and therefore as the Victor, that He marches with us and to us through the times, alive in the promise of Spirit. In this form he is at the core not only of the kerygmatic theology of Paul but also of the kerygmatic accounts of the Gospels.”

[13] Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, 16. “Only by self-emptying in encounter with what is alien, unknown and different does [a person] achieve selfhood…trust in the hidden and guaranteed identity with Christ in God (Col. 3:3) makes possible the self-abandonment, the road into non-identity and unidentifiability, which neither clings to ancient forms of identity, nor anxiously reaches out for the forms of identity of those one is fighting in common.”

[14] Karl Barth, CD II.1.435, “‘Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this world?…There is none. By the very fact of what God has done through this Gospel He has made tabula rasa of all that is published in the world as wisdom but is not.” I’m applying this to the person in the event of justification.

[15] Helmut Gollwitzer, The Way to Life. 63.

[16] Thiselton 166. “…the event of the cross is like the new frame of reference brought to the sick by health, or to children or to the unsound in mind by full, rational maturity.” I think it’s more than just a new frame of reference. Due to the destructive and re-creative nature of the encounter with God in the event of faith, I’m not merely handed a new key to the world, but recreated to be oriented in a different way within the world.

[17] Thiselton 162. “Paul invites his addressees to say what is left of a human wisdom which Gods saving acts have left high and dry in the light of a cross. The cross places giving, receiving, and serving above achieving or ‘finding the right formula.’”

[18] Thiselton 169. The wisdom of God “…stands in antithetical opposition to the wisdom of this world order, which is fallible, temporary, short-term, and self-absorbed. The links with apocalyptic verdict, whether in the cross or at the end time, cannot be avoided. For what some may perceive as foolish is in fact definitive, and will expose its transient opposite as deceptive and illusory.”

[19] W. Travis McMaken Our God Loves Justice: An Introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2017. 150-1. “What overcomes this ecclesiastical banality is encounter with the church’s resurrected Lord, with ‘the Easter story [that] broken into our world, bringing with it a power, a world-overcoming revolution, which makes everything different in our life, which forces the church into a totally different direction.’ This encounter delegitimizes the church’s banality and demands that the church become an agent in proclaiming this world-overcoming revolution through word and deed. Instead of leaving the church to its comfortable domestication, ‘the one thing that matters for the church is that she should be both a danger and a help to the world.’ Gollwitzer’s ecclesiology calls for a dangerous church because a church that is not dangerous is not help at all.”

[20] Thiselton 167. “‘The word kerygma…here means not the act of preaching itself, but the content of that proclamation…The point is worth making, first because the emphasis falls on the limits of natural human inquiry and discovery. Second, Schrage places the emphasis on the divine decree and its basis, not on the mode of communicated as such, and on the difference between gospel proclamation and human discovery. It has nothing to with whether the mode of communication is in a pulpit rather than variety of modes which may or may not include lectures, dialogue, disputation, or living the gospel out.”

[21] See fn17.

[22] See fn17.

Extravagantly and Lavishly Loved: A Homily on John 12:1-8

John 12:3-5 “Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’”

I have certainly wanted to flip my lid over waste. I hate waste. Of the three Rs of ecological consciousness (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) the second one, Reuse, is my mode of living. “Wait!” I holler as my husband takes out a large jar to toss in the garbage. “I can use that!” And to good use it goes. I can use all parts of vegetables and chickens to make food. Plastic bags from stores? You can cut them into plarn (plastic yarn) and make more durable bags by crocheting the plarn. I’ve used jelly and jam jars for drinking glasses. For a while I collected the water from the shower while the water warmed up and then hauled it from the second floor to the basement to the washer to do laundry in order to use less water. I hate waste.

The human reality of the situation confronting us in this portion of the gospel of John isn’t far fetched. Judas isn’t “technically” wrong. The Jews of this time had an extensive tithe system and collection in place for the poor.[1] (In fact Jesus’s rebuttal to Judas, in v. 8, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me” echoes Deut. 15:1-11 which is the basis for this collection system for the poor.) All four gospel accounts of this story (Mt 26:6-13, Mk 14:3-9, Lk 7:36-50, and our passage from John), describe the scene after the woman breaks the bottle of costly oil and pours it on Jesus: the surrounding crowd around the table is upset with her.

So, when it is recorded that Judas pipes up about the loss of the perfume (prior to John’s insertion about why), he’s not technically wrong or very much out of place for voicing his disdain for the action. And, I have to confess, I would’ve seen eye to eye with Judas. I’d like to think that I’d be all about Mary’s action, but the reality is that I wouldn’t be. Prior to Jesus’s explanation of why this action by Mary was a good deed, I’m team Judas. Why are you wasting this precious and very, very, very, costly fragrant oil, Mary?!

And it was very costly. Judas rightly quotes the value of the oil now rendered useless all over Jesus’s feet: 300 denarii. At that time, it’s a year’s salary. Roughly equivalent to: $18-$20,000. Mary’s gesture–from the human perspective prior to divine revelation—is superfluous, extravagant, wasteful, and unnecessary.[2] Mary, this perfume could’ve been put to better use…

”Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me’” (John 12:7-8).

And I must let my words fall heavy to the ground right at that moment, just like Judas’s did in our story. I must let the rebuke of Christ as recorded by John silence me so I can hear those falling words break on the ground like the alabaster jar did moments before in the hands of Mary. I must allow the illuminating word of the Word Incarnate to expose me for who I am: a betrayer. I must experience the extravagant aroma of Mary’s costly perfume eclipse the decaying stench of my misplaced concern.

Mary is the designated prophet (designated by Jesus) to anoint Jesus for his Kingly ministry that is going to Jerusalem to die for the sins of the world (John 3:16). (Just like Samuel anoints David to be the anointed king in 1 Samuel 16, so Mary anoints Jesus The Anointed One.)[3] And, Mary is the true disciple and Judas is the anti-disciple. And like Judas, I am the anti-disciple.

Mary is the true disciple because she loves Jesus to such an extent that the most lavish and extravagant act is not wasted because it honors Christ[4] and is an act of true devotion to Christ.[5] This is the level of selfless and lavish and extravagant love of Christ that escapes Judas at this moment.[6] Even with Christ’s explanation and defense of Mary’s actions, Judas will still carry on with what it is he’s going to do. Jesus isn’t enough and isn’t primary for Judas. In fact Judas is more than willing to “surrender [Jesus] for something else which appeared better to him.”[7] Where Mary pours out a year’s worth of salary to honor Jesus, Judas takes in 30 pieces of silver to betray him.

But even here, there’s hope. Even in Judas’s wrongly ordered priority there is hope. And if there is hope for Judas (The Betrayer), for the disciples (who never seem to get it) and then there’s hope for me, for us. Judas’s sin at this moment is not his solely and alone, but indicative of all the disciples. It is this systemic sinful misalignment in the mind, heart, and soul that needs a very special, extravagant, lavish, prodigal act of love. It is this sinfulness, it is this uncleanliness[8] that is the reason why Jesus is being anointed as The Anointed One who will go to Jerusalem for them to die for them. So that by his death sins will be forgiven and by his resurrection justification will be granted by faith alone (Rom 4:25). And this lavish and extravagant love poured out through the event of the cross and with it the resurrection of Christ, is not just for Mary the good disciple, but for Judas—the very bad one, this love is poured out for the disciples who fled and denied and doubted Jesus, and for us.

Here this very, very, very, costly fragrant good news:

The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world [with lavish and extravagant love] to save sinners. (1 Tim 1:15)

…if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous and he is the [lavish and extravagant] atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:1)

For God so [lavishly and extravagantly] loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. (John 3:16)

We [extravagantly and lavishly love] because he first [extravagantly and lavishly] loved us. (1 John 4:19)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] RT France commenting on the similar passage in Mark 14, (554) “οταν θελητε might suggest that giving to the poor was merely an optional extra. But in first-century Judaism it was more than that. The concern for the poor expressed in Dt. 15:1-11 (which includes the recognition, echoed here by Jesus, that ‘the poor will never cease out of the land’) had become the basis of an extensive and carefully regulated system of donation to poor relief, which included the mandatory ‘tithe for the poor’ as well as numerous opportunities for personal charity. The point is not that you may neglect the needs of the poor, but that they can catered for at any time: the opportunity will not go away.”

[2] John Calvin Institutes of the Christian Religion IV.xvii.26, “The anointing did not please the disciples, because they thought it a needless and useless expense and bordering on excess; consequently, they would have preferred to have the money, which they thought ill spent, bestowed upon the poor.” (1393).

[3] Karl Barth CD IV.2.796-7. “It is to be noted that what finally made the incident significant for all four Evangelists is that it gave drastic and unexpected concretion to the anointing of the One who in the New Testament is call ‘the Anointed.’ This woman accomplishes it…in direct preparation for the confrontation of the royal man complete in His death.”

[4] Karl Barth CD II.2.462, “It is an utterly prodigal, a wholly generous and selfless, and at the same time an absolutely humble action, and Jesus later says (v.8) that it honours His dead body in anticipation, and will therefore glorify His death.”

[5] Karl Barth CD IV.2.797. “What emerges clearly in all four accounts is that Jesus not only defend unconditionally the act of the woman but in all solemnity acknowledges that it is a good act which belongs necessarily to he history of salvation, even though it seems to be wholly superfluous, an act of sheer extravagance, which can serve ‘only’ the purpose of representing direct and perfect self-giving to him.”

[6] Karl Barth CD II.2.462 “But it is precisely this, this prodigality, which Judas—as seen by his protest (v.4)—cannot and will not understand or accept…He is not wiling that the complete devotion, which by her deed Mary had in a sense given the apostles as a pattern for their own life, should be an absolute offering to Jesus…It is to be for the benefit of the poor, of those who are injured or needy to help improve their lot and that of others, and in that way it will be a meaningful devotion. This view, this attitude of Judas, is what makes him unclean.”

[7] Karl Barth CD II.2.463.

[8] Karl Barth CD II.2.465. “And He still says the same [Zech 11:9] as He takes it upon Himself to be led to the slaughter on their behalf, because of their guilt and according to their will. They have the reward which they wanted and earned. And it is with this reward that their punishment secretly beings. The sin of Judas is that, with all Israel, he wants this reward with which the punishment already begins; that for him Jesus can be bartered for this evil reward. This sin makes it clear that as far as he was concerned Jesus was present with the disciples in vain. He protected and watched over them in vain. In it there is exposed an uncleanness which was the uncleanness of all the apostle and need a special cleansing.”

Even From Dust

Ash Wednesday (Sermon)

I have a confession: I don’t like Ash Wednesday. Now, some of you may be shocked to hear this. Some of you may not be shocked. And some of you may even (secretly) agree with me. But, nonetheless, I don’t like Ash Wednesday. So, when I was told I was preaching Ash Wednesday, I smiled and said “yayyy.” But on the inside, I cried just a little bit.

You see, Ash Wednesday puts a hard stop to the festivities that culminated in yesterday and last night (the final night of) Mardi Gras. Ash Wednesday throws open the door to a season of some sort of self-denial and fasting that is the season of Lent. None of us really like days that end our celebration and start us about our task of taking life seriously. Ash Wednesday, in some respect, is the Monday of all Mondays in the liturgical calendar. And who really likes a Monday?

But it’s not only the Monday-esque vibe that Ash Wednesday brings to our liturgical life and calendar that I don’t like. It’s not the inauguration into season of self-denial and fasting of Lent that I don’t like. It’s the part that constitutes and substantiates the inauguration of Lent that I don’t like. And it’s that very part that we love to forget to talk about as we transition from celebration to fasting. Dialogue surrounding Ash Wednesday moves swiftly and deftly from what I did last night and all the fun I had to, “Yes, I’m giving up _____” for Lent. But something else needs to happen before I so smoothly move from Mardi Gras to Lent and that is the form and substance of Ash Wednesday; I must be forced to reckon with myself as I am and not as I portray myself to be.

Ash Wednesday is less like an average Monday and more like that one Monday where it was already bad and then you got pulled over and instead of the Police Officer handing you a ticket, she handed you a stack, a ticket for every infraction you’ve ever committed known and unknown to you.

Ash Wednesday is not a day of celebration; Ash Wednesday is the 4th step of the 12 Step Program for Sinners.[1] It is a day for us to take a fearless and ruthless moral inventory of ourselves that results in our throwing ourselves prostrate on the ground crying out, “Lord, Have Mercy! Have Mercy on us!” And knowing that our lives, our very lives are fully and completely dependent on that divine word of “Mercy.” It’s a day to wake up to the dire reality that apart from God’s mercy, we are only dust.

I don’t like Ash Wednesday because I’m the one that has to bring you to that place with my words. Rather than using my priestly office to bring you hope and comfort and to bless you and bring you life, I have to use it in a way that reminds you of the curse of sin, and that the wage therein is death. I have to anoint you not with oil, but with ash. I have to remind you that you are dust and that, as it stands now, to dust you will return.

We are dust because we have failed. And this failure is nothing to gloss-over as we are wont to do. This failure surely pulverizes us to dust because this failure encompasses our activities and the orientations of our heart and mind. We are fully incriminated: body, mind, and soul. We have not acted the way we ought to act, we have not spoken the way we ought to have spoken, we have not thought the way we ought to have thought, and we have not loved as we ought to have loved. We have failed to uphold God’s good and righteous law. What I mean by failure to uphold God’s law is our failure to live according to this:

4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 5You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7 Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 8 Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, 9 and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)

And, failure to uphold this:

“…you shall love your neighbor as yourself…” (Leviticus 19:18b)

There’s no escaping what feels like (and is) the crushing weight of condemnation of Ash Wednesday and it’s demand to self-reflection and fearless and ruthless moral inventory. You can’t side-step this event. Today you will be bombarded by the words of the liturgy and of the prayers. Today the voices of the prophets of Israel ring in our ears anew:

“The faithful have disappeared from the land,
and there is no one left who is upright;
they all lie in wait for blood,
and they hunt each other with nets.
Their hands are skilled to do evil;
the official and the judge ask for a bribe,
and the powerful dictate what they desire;
thus they pervert justice.” (Micah 7:2-3)

“Blow the trumpet in Zion;
sound the alarm on my holy mountain!
Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble,
for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near—
a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness!
Like blackness spread upon the mountains
a great and powerful army comes;
their like has never been from of old,
nor will be again after them
in ages to come.” (Joel 2:1-2)

“Gather together, gather,
O shameless nation,
before you are driven away
like the drifting chaff,
before there comes upon you
the fierce anger of the Lord,
before there comes upon you
the day of the Lord’s wrath.
Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land,
who do his commands;
seek righteousness, seek humility;
perhaps you may be hidden
on the day of the Lord’s wrath.” (Zephaniah 2:1-3)

“Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” (Isaiah 58:6-7)

You have failed. You have failed God and you have failed your neighbor; you have failed God because you have failed your neighbor. The homeless go unsheltered. The hungry go unfed. The marginalized and oppressed continue in their bondage and slavery. Let this active word of God spoken through the prophets present itself to you not as mere historical fiction spoken to others of long ago, but as a very present reality in its veracity. Let this word of God touch you: let it break your heart, let it trouble your conscience, let it be the encounter with the divine that strips you of “…all agreeable self-deceptions…” and causes you to face the truth of your failure: you are people of unclean lips in the midst of people of unclean lips (Is. 6ff).[2]

And not only are you incriminated in this verdict of guilty, but I, too, am convicted and condemned. I’ve remained silent when a voice was needed; I’ve intentionally stepped back and hidden from the call to step up and act. I have professed love of God and then turned a blind eye to the turmoil, oppression, and suffering of my neighbor. I have not fed the hungry, housed the homeless, or clothed the naked. For this I am guilty and judgment comes; judgment comes from God and I am guilty. The encounter with God in the words of the prophets burns and I am rent to dust.

From dust we were taken and to dust we shall return.

“The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always accuse,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
10 He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
11 For as the heavens are high above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
12 as far as the east is from the west,
so far he removes our transgressions from us.
13 As a father has compassion for his children,
so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.
14 For he knows how we were made;
he remembers that we are dust.” (Psalm 103:8-14).

There is hope yet still and this I must proclaim alongside judgment lest our hearts grow too weary to beat and our mind too burdened to conceive of hope and our bodies too feeble to make it to our feet. “For he knows how we were made,” writes the Psalmist. “[H]e remembers that we are dust.” Our God is a God “whose property is always have mercy,”[3] to have mercy especially when and where all hope seems lost.

“Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you;
therefore he will rise up to show mercy to you.
For the Lord is a God of justice;
blessed are all those who wait for him.” (Isaiah 30:18).

Paul exhorts us in the place of Christ and with an urgent entreaty in the 2nd Letter to the Corinthians, “…on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God!” [4] God’s justice is not retributive; it is merciful and reconciliatory and thus restorative. Being rent to dust by the heat of judgment of the divine words of the oracles of the prophets and the law may seem like the final nail in the coffin, but with our God it’s just the beginning.

In the beginning God created out of nothing, and out of nothing God will create a new beginning. There is hope in the creative and long-suffering mercy of God.

We throw ourselves in our manifold convictions and guilt and failure at the feet of a God who is merciful—not “maybe will be,” “might be,” or “could be,” but is merciful. We throw ourselves down at the feet of a God who has reconciled and restored us to himself in his mercy through the sending of his son out of self-sacrificial love for us.[5] This is the God we come into contact with in Christ, the God by whom we are touched in the words of proclamation of Christ and yet we live because of God’s mercy and reconciling us to himself.[6] This is the God we encounter in Ash Wednesday.

We live in this encounter because there’s an exchange[7] occurring between Christ, and us as Paul writes, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). We live because Christ willingly and voluntarily and lovingly resolves to head to Jerusalem to die and to be raised up (Mark 8:31).[8] We live because God is so merciful that God will bear in God’s own self (freely intervening by his own being from both sides)[9] on the cross our sin and become so indistinguishable from that sin.[10] We live because the sin bearing sinless Christ—who knew no sin in any way, shape, or form–dies and in his death so to goes the death of our death, so to goes the dust of our dust. And from the dust of death: life.[11] Our lives are given back to us because God is merciful to take our affairs in this world so personally that he makes himself responsible and burdens himself with our failure and guilt and evil ways;[12] That is the extent and power of God’s love for us; that is mercy and this is our merciful God: the God who in “[Christ] is the [one] who entered that evil way, with the result that we are forced from it; it can be ours no longer.” [13]

Speaking about Isaiah’s encounter with the divine in Isaiah chapter 6, which applies here to our situation in Ash Wednesday, Helmut Gollwitzer writes,

“A miracle happens, the miracle of all miracles, that this impure being, impure in the midst of the pure creation, that this intolerable being is permitted to live. The annihilating encounter with God becomes for him a life-giving encounter. Without his co-operation, entirely on the initiative of this other power that ought to have meant his death, that which must be death for him is turned into new life; the miracle of forgiveness. He who can no longer purify himself is purified…Death is taken away, the death which I bear in myself because of my contradiction, my impurity is covered by the encircling life-giving love to him who was the prey of death.”[14]

From dust we were taken and to dust we should return; but our God is a merciful God and there is life even out of dust and ash.

[1] “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”

[2] Helmut Gollwitzer The Way to Life: Sermons in a Time of World Crisis Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1981. “The bible in fact believes that things would be just the same with everyone one of us, as it was with this man Isaiah, confronted with the final truth, with the divine life which fills the creation, everyone of us is stripped of and must acknowledge himself as the dark blot in the creation, that must be removed in order for the creation to join with clear and pure voice in the great joyful hymn of praise of the angles. That is for us the intolerable truth, which we try to disguise from ourselves with all kinds of inventions, a truth which we face when the word of God touches us.” 41. (cf Is. 6)

[3] BCP Prayer of Humble Access

[4] Murray J. Harris The Second Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text. The New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005. 447. “But here neither verb denotes a dispassionate and detached request but rather an impassioned and urgent entreaty. The second us of υπερ Χριστου links the δεησις with the ambassadorship: whether performing the general role of envoys (πρεσβευομεν) or issuing a specific entreaty (δεομεθα), Paul and his colleagues were acting υπερ Χριστου, “for Christ,” on his behalf and in his stead. Moreover, this repeated prepositional phrase suggest that the principal role of Christ’s ambassadors is issuing the evangelistic treaty to be reconciled to God.”

[5] Ibid, 447. “The aorist imperative passive form καταλλαγητε is unlikely to be a reflexive passive, ‘reconcile yourselves (to God),’ whatever allowance be made for synergism (Cf. 6:1-2), because whenever this verb is applied to the atonement, God, and only God is the reconciler (see above v. 18). While it is possible that this passive is permissive, ‘let yourselves be reconciled (to God),’ it is more probably a true passive, ‘be reconciled,’ or, to bring out the ingressive sense of this aorist, ‘get reconciled,’ with God as the implied agent.”

[6] Ibid, 449. “In the divine economy, the declaration of ‘the message of reconciliation’ (v.19), or, in other words, the preaching of the cross of Christ (1 Cor. 1:18, 23) with the attendant entreaty to be reconciled to God, is the link between the objective work of reconciliation accomplished by Christ and the subjective appropriation of its benefits by the sinner. Paul saw himself and everyone who proclaimed reconciliation in Christ as trustees of a message (v. 19), ambassadors for Christ, and mouthpieces for God (v.20).”

[7] Karl Barth CD I.2.156. “…in the likeness of flesh (unholy flesh, marked by sin), there happens the unlike, the new and helpful thing, that sin is condemned by not being committed, by being omitted, by full obedience now being found in the very place where otherwise sin necessarily and irresistibly takes place. The meaning of the incarnation is that now in the flesh that is not done which all flesh does…[(5.21)]…does not mean that He made Him a man who also sins again—what could that signify ‘for us’?—but that He put Him in the position of a sinner by way of exchange (καταλλασσων, in the sense of the Old Testament sin-offering).”

[8] Harris, 2 Corinthians, 451. “Although ποιειν can mean ‘make something into something (else),’ the meaning here is not ‘God made the sinless one into sin’ … but ‘God caused the sinless one to be sin,’ where ποιειν denotes causation or appointment and points to the divien intiiative. But we should not forget that matching the Father’s set purpose to deliver Christ up to deal with sin (Acts 2:23; Rom. 8:32) was Christ’s own firm reolsition to go to Jerusualem to suffer (Mark 8:31; Luke 9:51). Jesus was not an unwillling or surprised participant in God’s action.»

[9] Karl Barth CD II.1.397. “This sending means a self-offering grounded in the free will of the Father and the Son in fulfillment of the divine love turned towards the cosmos and the world of man. But it is the case that God in this offering or sending of His Son, and the Son Himself in accepting this mission and allowing Himself to be sacrificed, has exposed Himself to an imposition. In His love God has been hard upon Himself, exacting a supreme and final demand…in a self-emptying, in a complete resignation not of the essence but of the form of His Godhead, He took upon Himself our own human form—the form of a servant, in complete likeness to other men…allowing himself to be found in fashion as a man…Like all men He was born of a woman (Gal. 4:4). But what does it mean to take the place of man, to be Himself a man, to be born of a woman? It means from Him, too, God’s Son, God Himself, that He came under the Law…that He stepped into the heart of the inevitable conflict between the faithfulness of God and the unfaithfulness of man. He took this conflict into is own being. He bore it in Himself to the bitter end. He took part in it from both sides. He endured it from both sides. He was not only the God who is offended by man. He was also the man whom God threatens with death, who falls a victim to death in face of God’s judgment. If he really entered into solidarity with us—and that is just what He did do!—it meant necessarily that He took upon Himself, in likeness to us…the ‘flesh of sin’ (Rom. 8:3). He shared in the status, constitution and situation of man in which man resists God and cannot stand before Him but must die.”

[10] Harris, Second Corinthians, 454. “We conclude that in v.21a Paul is not saying that at the crucifixion the sinless Christ became in some sense a sinner, yet he is affirming more than that Christ became a sin offering or even a sin bearer. In a sense beyond human comprehension, God treated Christ as ‘sin,’ aligning him so totally with sin and its dire consequences that from God’s viewpoint he became indistinguishable from sin itself.”

[11] Ibid, 455. “So γινομαι may be given its most common meaning (‘become,’ ‘be’) and points to the change of status that accrues to believers who are ‘in Christ’ and that is the ground of the ‘new creation’ (v.17). ‘To become the righteousness of God’ is to gain a right standing before God that God himself bestows (cf. Rom. 5:17; Phil. 3:9). It is to be ‘constituted righteous’ in the divine court…As a result of God’s imputing to Christ something that was extrinsic to him, namely sin, believers have something imputed to them that was extrinsic to them, namely righteousness.”

[12] Karl Barth CD IV.1.236. “But the great and inconceivable thing is that He acts as Judge in our place by taking upon Himself, by accepting responsibility for that which we do in this place. He ‘who knew no sin’ (2 or. 5:21)…gives Himself…to the fellowship of those who are guilty of all these things, and not only that, but He makes their evil case His own. He is above this fellowship and confronts it and judges it and condemns it in that He takes it upon Himself to be the bearer and Representative, to be responsible for this case, to expose Himself to the accusation and sentence which must inevitably come upon us in this case. He as One can represent all and make Himself responsible for the sis of all because He is very man in our midst, one of us, but as one of us He is also very God and therefore He exercises and reveals amongst us the almighty righteousness of God. He can conduct the case of God against us in such a way that He takes from us our own evil case, taking our place and compromising and burdening Himself with it.”

[13] Karl Barth CD IV.1.236. “It is no longer our affair to prosecute and represent this case. The right and possibility of doing so has been denied and taken away from us. What He in divine omnipotence did amongst us as one of us prevents us from being our own judges, from even wanting to be, from making that senseless attempt on the divine prerogative, from sinning in that way and making ourselves guilty. TIN that He was and is for us that end is closed, and so is the evil way to that end. He is the man who entered that evil way, with the result that we are forced from it; it can be ours no longer.”

[14] Gollwitzer Way to Life 41.

“Thy Kingdom Come, Thy will be done”: Sermon on Mark 1:1-8

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1).

There is nothing better than good news. Wouldn’t you agree with me? Is there anyone here that would dare say: “eh, no…give me that good ol’ bad news…nothing like a good dose of bad news to make someone feel alive!” I doubt it. Good news invigorates us. Good news spreads a smile across our face and brightens our eyes. Good news results in various forms of physical celebratory habits like embracing, grasping, jumping up and down, and and a hearty #squee.

Good news can bring relief, especially if there was a possibility of bad news. Good news alleviates our fears: what could have been bad isn’t and won’t be. This type of good news is that which drops us—fast and hard—to our knees in gratitude with tears of joy, with a sincere, “Oh, thank God!” that whispers past our lips. Same, too, for the good news that springs itself upon us and breaks the long, dry season of silence and disappointment. The kind of good news that will radically recalibrate our world; good news can drag us out of the valley of despair and place us on the mountain top of joy, long suffering hope materialized.

And isn’t this what Advent is all about? Isn’t Advent about our waiting, longing, desiring, and hoping for good news? Our liturgical calendar thrusts us back into the story of the Israelites; we are caused to sit and listen and imagine and to bear that history as part of our own. We are asked to recall and remember the longing of the people of God. We are asked to recall and remember the hungry and the thirsty people of God who are waiting for their God to intervene on their behalf, who are longing for their God to hear their cries and liberate them from oppression, who are desiring to be resident with their God as his people in God’s Kingdom come, and who are hoping for alleviation of the toil, suffering, sorrow, and brokenness in the fulfillment of the one who is to come, the Messiah.

We are asked to feel the heavy weight of Isaiah’s words,

“A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken’” (Is. 40:3-5)

We are asked to let our desperate hearts, our burdened minds, and our exhausted bodies cry out, “so be it!” and let our voices join in the great chorus belonging to the people of God.

We are asked to hear (again) the proclamation of the advent of God in our world in the word incarnate, the savior, Emmanuel, Jesus Christ the Son of God, and to be encountered (again) in the event of faith.

Thus, let us hear and turn our heads to the proclamation of Mark,

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mk 1:1).

The gospel of Matthew begins with the who’s who of Christ’s genealogy; characters ranging from the very good to the very “colorful.” The author of Matthew begins the gospel in this way to demonstrate that Jesus Christ is of the line of David and is the long awaited messiah, Emmanuel, “God with us” (Mt 1:22ff).

The gospel of Luke begins with an account of the conception of both John the Baptist and Jesus as a pronouncement that the long awaited liberty and rescue for the captives has come, the long awaited son of God, the “savior for us” (Lk 1:69a), the fulfillment of all of God’s promises to his people, is here.

The gospel of John, being the most abstract and theologically dense of all four gospels of Christ, begins with the connection that the God who hovered over all of creation in the beginning is one and the same with the incarnate Word; the Word went forth and created as it went and the Word goes forth (now) creating as it goes, forcing away the darkness and illuminating the world (Jn 1:1-18).

Mark’s gospel starts off with the clear proclamation that there’s good news: Jesus Christ is the Son of God and with the advent of Christ in our time line so to the inauguration of the time of the reign of God with him. (The whole of the written book that is Mark’s gospel is a proclamation about Jesus Christ and his kingdom in the fullest sense of the word proclamation.)[1] Mark steps out into the streets ringing his bell and shouts: Hear, Ye! Hear, Ye! Hear ye the good news: Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is come!

And be not mistaken, Mark is very much concerned with the advent of Christ and with the concurrent coming and inauguration of the kingdom of God.[2] Our author is being politically polemical in his introductory language. The Hellenistic religious use of the word ευαγγελιον («good news») had the «connection with the cult of the emperor, whose birthday, accession to power, and the like, even a forthcoming ‘royal visit’, were hailed as ευαγγελιον.»[3] The author of Mark isn’t pulling any punches. He coopts and uses intentionally political language to grab the attention of his audience. The audience being not only Christian disciples, but also roman authority.[4]

Again, place Mark and his announcement in the streets. The one who thinks he’s divine (the human emperor) isn’t; Jesus Christ is. Mark points at the human ruler and says, essentially, «Not my emperor.» And he invites his audience—the people suffering under the harsh rule and demoralized under the oppression of the powers that be—to see the distinction between the human emperor and the Christ, the true emperor. He invites them to locate themselves in the coming of the kingdom of God and to see that this new location[5] demands a confrontation with the way the regime and reign of the human emperor operate because the hearer of the good news of Jesus Christ can see them for what it is: the current regime is sham, the human emperor is naked.

For Mark (and for anyone willing to listen) there’s a new emporer in town and this emporer is the emporer who is going to tear down the current regime and reign and usher in a completely new one. The new reign and regime that comes in with Christ’s advent will not be marked by oppressive systems and structures designed to keep the low low while granting unfettered power to the powerful. It wont bear the traits of despotic rule. It won’t use the coercion and subjugation and enslavement of human beings to reduce them to mere cogs in a machine or objects to be used, abused, and left for dead. In fact the kingdom of God cannot be marked by these things because these things are antithetical to the character of God and thus to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God.

With the immediate reference to the announcement of John the Baptist, Mark intentionally draws the audience into the realization that Jesus Christ is truly divine, thus ousting the human emperor from his self-proclaimed divine status,

«[John] proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit’” (Mk 1:7-8).[6]

This new emporer is truly divine (the true son of the true God) and thus the new reign and regime, the Kingdom of God, that Christ ushers in will have the characteristics fitting of a divine kingdom: divine restorative and transcending justice, peace that surpasses all understanding, reconciliatory mercy.[7]

With the Son of God on the throne, the kingdom of God is very much at hand and the Christian disciples are baptized into this new reign and regime, into this new emperor and his good kingdom. Thus, not only the kingdom bears these divine traits of justice, peace, and mercy, but so, too, the citizens of this new kingdom. The Disciples of Christ bear these traits by their baptism both of water and of the Holy Spirit and in their life in the world.

And if this is all true for those initial hearers of Mark’s gospel, so it is true for us who listen today. By our baptism with water and Spirit, we have been grafted into the history of Jesus Christ and thus if into His history then our present and our future is located therein where the promises of God are yes and amen and this is our present tense reality. We are reminded that the promises spoken by God that are fulfilled in and by Christ are ours by faith.[8] We are born anew by the spirit (all that was and is, is washed from us),[9] and we have been given the ears to hear the loving summons of our Savior that calls us to an encounter with God in the event of faith.

Also, if Mark’s proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is for us, thus, so too is his political polemic. In hearing this proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, we have been given not only ears to hear the proclamation but also eyes to see that we are—in the event encounter—located squarely in the kingdom of God. And if located therein, then citizens: active, participatory citizens. Citizens who are not removed from society, but live a radical and different (and maybe even dangerous?)[10] existence in society. We are a voice for the voiceless and resist oppression; we create space for the alien and the refugee; we fight for freedom for all because if our neighbor isn’t free, then we aren’t free. Our neighbor’s pain is our pain, our neighbor’s plight our plight, our neighbor’s suffering our suffering. We are marked by the characteristics of our God: mercy, justice, and peace, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

We profess our faith in Christ, the Son of God and push forward the good rule of Christ into the entire world, this is the mission of the church, and this is church as event rejecting the status quo and defending and advocating for the defenseless.[11] We preach Christ crucified and risen. Jürgen Moltmann writes,

“Wherever Jesus is acknowledged as the Christ of God, Christian faith is to be found. Wherever this is doubted, obscured or denied, there is no longer Christian faith, and the riches of historic Christianity disappear with it. Christianity is alive as long as there are people who, as the disciples once did, profess their faith in him and, following him, spread his liberating rule in words, deeds and new fellowship.”[12]

We, today, are asked to remember the advent of the long awaited messiah of Israel, the fulfillment of all the promises of God. We are asked to hear (again) the proclamation of the advent of God in our world in the word incarnate, the savior, Emmanuel, Jesus Christ the Son of God, and to be encountered (again) in the event of faith. And we, along with Mark’s audience, are asked to participate in the kingdom of God and to be a force in the world that must be reckoned with.[13] We are asked to step out into the streets with our verbal and physical proclamation of the good news that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has come, forgiveness and reconciliation are here, and so too God’s kingdom and “liberating rule.”

[1] R. T. France The Gospel of Mark TNIGTC. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002. “Mark’s book is intended, therefore to pass on the god news about Jesus. This news has been hithero the subject of primarily oral declaration (Mann therefore appropriately translates ευαγγελιον here as ‘Proclamation’), but Mark’s book is an attempt to communicate it in written form (though probably with a view to its being read orally in the congregation. Ευαγγελιον denotes the content rather than the form of the book» 52-3.

[2] Karl Barth CD IV.2.64.197-8, “Again, ‘the kingdom of coming with power’ of Mk. 9:1 could be calmly replaced by ‘the Son of man coming in his kingdom’ of the parallel Mt. 16:28. ‘The Gospel’ in the preaching of Philip in Ac. 8:12 is the kingdom of God, and (the και is surely to be understood epexegetically in all the passages) the name of Jesus Christ. According to the last verse of Acts (28:31), Paul preached ‘the kingdom of God,’ and taught ‘those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ, with all confidence, no man forbidding him.’ According to the great voice from heaven in Rev. 12:10, the βασιλεια of God and εξουσια are given to His Christ. The references to the kingdom and to Christ are obviously to be understood in the light of each other in all these passages.”

[3] Ibid 52.

[4] Lauren Ellis. Final Paper on the Gospel of Mark, “There is a two sided approach to addressing who was reading (or who needed to read) Mark’s Gospel. The first audience to consider is Christians who were enduring suffering—they can read about suffering in context and see a meaning for their suffering. A second audience is the people in Authority in the empire. Christians are not what Tacitus and Nero thought they were; thus, if the Empire takes Christianity seriously, they will not only see the truth but also see that Christianity would help to make the world better. The modern reader can see the two fold apologetic aspect of the Gospel.”

[5] W. Travis McMaken Our God Loves Justice Minneapolis, MN: Fortress 2017. “As Ulrich Dannermann and Matthias Weissinger put it, ‘social analysis and social criticism are a theme of theology work. Theology can only adequately speak to the real world, to real people, when it tries to plot society…on the horizon of the coming kingdom of God’” 92-3.

[6] Karl Barth CD IV.4.56, “The different aspects of the event which according to this preaching is directly imminent are as follows. According to Mt. 3:2 what is at hand and at the doors, can take place any moment, is the βασιλεια των οθρανων, the establishment on earth of the divine dominion already set up in heaven. What breaks in is also God’s penetrating and divisive judgment. (…) Just as distinctively as the kingdom, no less majestically than the threatening judgment, there also comes in and with the judgment something very different, namely, remission, the legally effective taking away and setting aside of the sins of Israel, which are not overlooked or taken lightly, but which are brought under the grace of God (Mk. 1:4; Lk. 1:77; 3:8).”

[7] McMaken, Our God Loves Justice, 89-91.

[8] This particular portion of the sermon is me playing around with the insights and scholarship of W. Travis McMaken as found in “Definitive, Defective or Deft? Reassessing Barth’s Doctrine of Baptism in Church Dogmatics IV/4” IJST vol 17.1 Jan. 2015.

[9] Karl Barth CD IV.2.563 “…in relation to everything that [I] previously was or otherwise [am] it is a new beginning newly posited by God.”

[10] McMaken Our God Loves Justice. 149-151. Specifically, referring to Gollwitzer, “Instead of leaving the church to its comfortable domestication, ‘the one thing that matters for the church is that she should be both a danger and a help to the world.’ Gollwitzer’s ecclesiology calls for a dangers church because a church that is not dangerous I no help at all” 150-1.

[11] McMaken Ibid, 16. “Just as God cannot legitimately be objectified, so also the church cannot legitimately by objectified. The true being of the church occurs as it responds in faithful obedience to its encounter with God’s though-objectivity, which necessarily includes renunciation of its privilege and political advocacy on behalf of the marginalized and oppressed.”

[12] Moltmann The Crucified God New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1974. 82.

[13] McMaken Our God Loves Justice “The kingdom of God is the ‘revolutionary, eschatological, and social determination of the present’; it is ‘the revolution of all revolutions, that is, the eschatological revolution’” 118.