and The Earth Opens

Ash Wednesday Homily on Numbers 16 and Psalm 88

Psalm 103:1-2 Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy Name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.

Ash Wednesday Meditation

In the book of Numbers there’s a story about a man named Korah of the tribe of Levi who, with a couple of his Levite friends, gathered about 250 chiefs of the congregation of Israel and rose up against Moses challenging his authority and presence as Israel’s leader. Korah spoke to Moses, “‘You have gone too far! All the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. So why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?’” (Num 16:3). The accusation from Korah dropped Moses to his knees, so the story goes. Moses saw the accusation from this son of Levi not as one against him but against God. And so, Moses tells Korah that God will tend to and deal with this situation in the morning. So, morning dawns. Moses instructs the bulk of the congregation of Israel to move away from Korah and his two friends. Once the majority of Israel is safe, Moses says to everyone,

‘This is how you shall know that the Lord has sent me to do all these works; it has not been of my own accord: If these people die a natural death, or if a natural fate comes on them, then the Lord has not sent me. But if the Lord creates something new, and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up, with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, then you shall know that these men have despised the Lord.’

Numbers 16:28-30

Moses stopped talking. And then:

The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, along with their households—everyone who belonged to Korah and all their goods. So they with all that belonged to them went down alive into Sheol; the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly. All Israel around them fled at their outcry, for they said, ‘The earth will swallow us too!’ And fire came out from the Lord and consumed the two hundred fifty men offering the incense.

Numbers 16:31-35

From dirt they were taken and to dirt they returned.

In the Psalter, Psalm 88 picks up this story. Korah is remembered in Israel’s hymns; the psalmist giving voice to the one who dropped to the bottom of the pit when the earth opened up underneath his feet:

You have put me in the depths of the Pit,
    in the regions dark and deep.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
    and you overwhelm me with all your waves.
You have caused my companions to shun me;
    you have made me a thing of horror to them.
I am shut in so that I cannot escape;
    my eye grows dim through sorrow.
Every day I call on you, O Lord;
    I spread out my hands to you.
Do you work wonders for the dead?
    Do the shades rise up to praise you?
Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
    or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
Are your wonders known in the darkness,
    or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?
But I, O Lord, cry out to you;
    in the morning my prayer comes before you.
O Lord, why do you cast me off?
    Why do you hide your face from me?

Psalm 88:6-14

Psalm 88 has no happy and uplifting ending. The psalmist is not rescued from the pit and darkness is the only thing that accompanies them day and night. God seems absent and distant. And maybe even more than that, God appears to be gone. Not for lack of trying, the one stuck at the bottom of the pit cries out day and night, pleading with an entity that might have left them there to rot. Here enclosed in walls of dirt they suffer, here in the dust they are in agony, and here in the darkness they cry out and….silence.

From dirt they were taken and to dirt they are returned.

These are the mournful, sorrowful, anxious filled, agonizing, words of Ash Wednesday. Today is our reckoning with God—each of us embarks on our own journey into divine encounter. Today we each come into close proximity with the divine and the holy and are exposed as stuck and sick. Today we each recall how fragile our lives are—vulnerable to virus and infection, to breaks and fractures, to mental breakdown and heartbreak. Today we each are reminded of how often we have failed ourselves and others, broken promises, played the charlatan with her act together, opted for self-gain over self-gift. Today we each clearly hear all the voices and see the faces we turned deaf ears and blind eyes toward as they asked for help, for acknowledgment, for dignity. Today we each are brought to our knees in our humanity remembering that our time here is finite. Today we each collide with the ruse of free will and autonomy. Today the ground opens underneath us and swallows each of us. Today we each drop all the way down to the bottom of the pit, landing on hard ground and are consumed by darkness. Today we each echo the psalmist, “You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me; my companions are in darkness” (Ps 88:18).

There is no way to bypass Ash Wednesday and proceed straight to Easter. For those of us sitting here in 2021, the new life of Easter is hinged on our encounter with God in the event of faith that is the death of Ash Wednesday. We must each walk this long and arduous path of self-reckoning and self-exposure spanning the time from Ash Wednesday to Good Friday. I cannot protect you from it; in fact, I must lead you into it. Today they weight of my stole feels more like the heavy of a millstone than the light of fabric; today I anoint you not with oil but with ashes and dirt.

From dirt you were taken and to dirt you will return.

Don’t lose heart, beloved; hold tight to the mercy of God. There is no end of the earth so far, no pit so deep, no darkness so dark, no dirt and dust so thick where you, the beloved, are out of the reach of the love and mercy of God, from where God cannot call you back unto God. Not even death itself can separate you from love and mercy of God.

He forgives all your sins
and heals all your infirmities;
He redeems your life from the grave
and crowns you with mercy and loving-kindness;
He satisfies you with good things,
and your youth is renewed like an eagle’s.

Psalm 103:3-5

Sex and Revolution Pt III: The Aligned Self

Sancta Colloquia Episode 308 ft. Rachel Cohen

In this episode, my friend, Rachel Cohen (@pwstranger), tells me her story. As I make mention of in the introduction, Rachel and I have been friends for the better part of a decade. Our paths have overlapped and split an overlapped again. We share some of that story in the episode, so I won’t go into detail here. Rachel also spends time throughout the episode telling her story of her self-alignment and realignment about her sexuality and embodiment with what she believed and was taught. Rachel’s story is unique and one that is best in her voice, so I won’t go into detail here about that either. What I will say about this episode is that Rachel and I cover good ground looking at the capitalization of self-gaslighting to peddle a false gospel and how we can monetize our shame and guilt for likes and retweets and shares, how certain schools of popular theology use the theme of brokenness and failure as a means of self-justification, and how the freedom of confession can be freeing for a moment and turn into putridness like manna kept longer than commanded. Rachel mentions that for her (and I’m guessing for many other people) there is a perception of thriving that is disconnected from the inner self. We can present as thriving while on the inside the core of the person is being suffocated and starved. The way this misalignment of the self persists is by controlling what information is accessed by the self. In other terms, you are dunked deep into the echo-chamber and held down so that liquid is your self’s amniotic fluid from which you can never be born. But is this actual “thriving”? No, it’s a perception of thriving according to the rule and approval of those around you. To actually thrive necessitates an ability to be *yourself* even in the midst of encountering new information, new people, and even information and people you disagree with and that/who disagree with you. You cannot find *your* voice if you are forced to speak a certain way, so gaining alignment and having “integrity”, Rachel explains, necessitates finding your voice for yourself and to come to your conclusions. No one gets to tell you what to think—even if you are informed by teachers and leaders and mentors, you decide what you are going to think. This ownership of thought is important especially when engaging with theology which is a form of human meaning making, as Rachel explains. And it’s important because here you can distinguish between shame that is healthy conviction and your own conviction because you transgressed *your* own boundary and shame that is destructive because it’s imposed on you by an external system. But this is only the first part of our conversation…there’s part II. So, start listening here and then get ready for part II…*

In part two Rachel goes into depth about the role a robust theology of suffering plays in the life of a queer person and how that theology is used by the dominant culture group to oppress and dominate the lgbtqia+ community. She shares more of her story and her journey while incorporated the work of Dr. Miguel de la Torre (Doing Ethics from the Margins) through out her sharing. We talk about echo chambers, shame, fear of being ostracized and exiled from the group…things that shouldn’t be synonymous with Christians but often are. In group and out group is the way the dominant group maintains its control and primacy, without the fear of exile…or hell (!) how else do you keep the dissenters quiet? To be honest, the episode is long, so there’s no way I’ve done it justice in this summary. So, find some time, crank it up to 2x speed and jump in. It’s a great conclusion to part III of #sexandrevolution

Excited? You should be. Listen to Part II here:

Listen here to Part I here:

Rachel Cohen is a licensed therapist who currently lives in Denver, Colorado with her lovely partner and dog. She has two Master’s degrees: one in Theological Studies, and the other in Counseling. While in seminary, Rachel began to examine and move beyond many of the deeply held beliefs and ideas that were pervasive in the evangelical Christian circles in which she was residing. It was also during this time that she began the complex and liberating journey of coming to understand and embrace herself as a queer woman. She is passionate about helping others untangle unhelpful narratives and ideas, discover more of who they are, and learn how to establish healthier boundaries with others. Her favorite recipe is BBQ salmon bowls with mango avocado salsa. Her favorite pastime is songwriting. She’s currently reading Untamed by Glennon Doyle and The Body Says No by Gabor Maté.
*In this episode Rachel and I speak about a podcast, Millenneagram, that I listened to late in 2019 and early in 2020 as part of my personal therapy practice as I was processing some major pain.  When Rachel and I recorded the host and producer of the podcast, @riverpaasch was not publicly going by “River”. Rachel Cohen brought this to my attention and I felt that I should add something here in the blogpost because it’s important. That podcast is no longer in production. And their work is profound and insightful, and I highly recommend hitting those old episodes as well as finding them on social media to learn from them.

Further/Recommended Reading:

Untamed by Glennon Doyle

Ancient Laws and Contemporary Controversies: The Need for Inclusive Biblical Interpretation by Cheryl B. Anderson

Heterosixism in Contemporary World Religions: Problema nd Prospect by Marvin Mahan Ellison

To Shake the Sleeping Self by Jedediah Jenkins

Stop Caretaking the Borderline or Narcissist: How to End the Drama and Get on with Life by Margalis Fjelstad

Any poetry by Andrea Gibson

Table (Etiquette) Turned

Luke 14:1,7-14 (Sermon)

Introduction

I don’t talk about this fact of my life often, but I was raised in a wealthy environment. In the world of the elite and the privileged, I am comfortable. Among hunt clubs, country clubs, cotillion, and the weekend house in Vermont, I was raised and trained to be skilled for any social situation. I understand not only the demands and pressures of this type of life, but also the demand for right social etiquette. So, whenever Jesus is addressing the elite, the wealthy, and the powerful, I feel the weight of his exhortations. Jesus’s words hit too close to home. I prefer it when Jesus speaks of another group of people, one that I’m not associated with through birth and upbringing. But, alas, here we are in Luke 14 with the elite and their etiquette being called out, and I’m guilty. My number’s been pulled (again), and I have no choice but to listen to the voice of my Lord and my savior.

1, 7-10

At a dinner party, Jesus engages the guests with a story about what to do when invited to a dinner. Don’t take the foremost seat, Jesus says. Take the lower seat and allow yourself to be invited to the position of honor. Here’s the reason: you’ll avoid the shame[1] of being asked to move to take possession of the last place[2]. While avoiding risk, you may also incur reward: you’ll receive the glory[3] being asked to move to the more honorable place.[4] Finally, this makes sense to us. Isn’t Jesus’s reasoning in vv. 7-10 logical? Sit lower at the table to avoid being embarrassed by being asked to move. And maybe, you’ll even gain some pleasure in being called friend and given the place of honor! [5] This is win/win. Right? This is etiquette Emily Post can get behind!

Or is it?

v.11 [Because] All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.

Verse 11 is the right-hook of right-hooks in this passage. We should’ve known better than to trust that Jesus and Luke were finally on our side. While at first glance v. 11 looks to be the tl:dr of the previous discussion about choosing your seat at the next wedding banquet you attend, it’s anything but. To seize the place of honor with hopes it would not be taken away would validate one’s elite position in society.[6] But, like the healing of the bent woman on the Sabbath in chapter 13, Jesus challenges our allegiance to laws and rules. He’s saying: do not vie for the top seat; forgo that affirmation. Sit, Jesus says, sit for all to see in the last seat; let honor be given to you and do not seize it for yourself.[7]

Receive honor; not take it. Let it be placed in the hand. But what if we don’t get the honor we think we deserve? Could you imagine being so empty handed, waiting for your host to call you forth, giving you the place of honor, the place you swore was rightfully yours? Could you watch as someone else was given that seat? Could you admit maybe you didn’t deserve it?

Humility is not about relinquishing your personhood and self; it’s not about stripping the self of dignity and humanity. Rather, humility is the art of being in the fullness of your embodied self, and intentionally stepping aside, saying, “No…you.” It’s the voluntary full-self self-sacrifice bringing life to others where there should’ve been death. It’s the moment where you shrug off what’s rightfully yours, to identify with those significantly below your status. This is the level of humility that is the call on every disciple who follows Christ.[8]

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross. (Phil 2:3-8)

vv.12-14

Apart from the exhortation to follow after Christ, taking the lesser station over and against the higher station you believe you deserve, there’s a deeper eschatological[9] (last) aspect at play. This “last” (eschatological) aspect incorporates the view to a new order inaugurated by the advent of the Christ into the world. [10] In the most beautiful of all divine subterfuge, Jesus steals the position of host[11] and offers his host (now guest) a lesson about the true table etiquette of heaven, the last will be first and the first will be last.

Jesus explains: do not invite those people who’ll bolster your status in society (friends, brothers, relatives, and wealthy neighbors[12]), who can repay the invite. Rather, invite those who are not worthy according to society’s standard. According to Jesus, it’s about using what you have to bless those who have not and (precisely because they) cannot repay you for your hospitality. [13] Those who are beggarly and cowering over, the maimed, and the blind[14] are the unworthy of society and thus the most worthy in the economy of the reign of God. [15] Standard social and religious conventions are met (once again) with divine the sentence in Christ: XXX. [16]

Inviting those who are from the fringe of society, the “unclean/untouchables,” would be death to one’s social status, according to the system of the day. And yet it is precisely these that Jesus exhorts his hearers to invite to their banquettes—even if the invitation is wasted, and the one invited cannot reciprocate. [17] Both the rich and the poor knew the system; thus this command form Jesus, this exhortation, puts both the rich and the poor into one bind: risk your pride. The etiquette of the kingdom of humanity collapses under the weight of Jesus’s inaugurated new order of the reign of God .[18]

It’s hard to receive a gift you haven’t earned and can’t repay. It is hard to give a gift without expectation of gratitude in the form of repayment. Jesus folds these extremes in and makes them meet at one point: the reign of God. The war is waged not with human beings but on behalf of them; not with creation, but on behalf of it. The war Jesus leads is against those forces that keep division and placing intact to keep people from people; those forces of sin and death that keep the rich from the poor and poor from the rich.

There’s no way around it, according to Jesus, we’re to engage and give to those who cannot repay in kind; this is “blessed.” Those who receive and cannot repay and those who give without expecting repayment: they are the blessed. These who are first are last and these last are first.

The reign of God comes to fruition in this meager and simple act. It’s not grand and abundant sacrifice; it is an invitation to dinner. Jesus rewrites the symphonic tones of what it means to be in communion; the orchestra plays and the band responds; each gives as needed and takes as is given. And community, real, true community abounds. The kind of community that is marked by the characteristic of divine love that causes heads to turn: those are Christians.

Conclusion

As a priest called by God to tend the flock, I now set for and serve you from the table of the banquette of the wilderness; a humble table set for one (one cup, one plate) that is for all people. Bread placed in the diversity of hands having done everything to those that have yet to do a thing—the bread of heaven knows no distinctions. I get to participate in the event of baptism ushering you in to this whacky and absurd reign of God that turns everything upside; I get to wash you and welcome you. In short, I get the opportunity to serve you, invite you to the table and to the water, tend to your cares and concerns, remind you that God is good and that you are the beloved.

The last one into the Jordan was the first one out; it is he who is the first to embrace a death he didn’t deserve to be called to the place of honor. It is he who arrives at the banquette table in the wilderness of the new heavens and the new earth to make room for us, the very last. And we come, anxious, limping, hunched over, exhausted, with nothing to offer but our deep gratitude for the free gift of life that we could never ever repay. You are the beloved. God is good.

 

 

[1] From the Greek text..και ελθων ο σε και αθτον καλεσας ερει σοι «δος τουτω τοπον,» και τοτε αρξε μετα αισχθνης τον εσχατον τοπον κατεχειν.

[2] From the Greek text see the second half of fn 1 (τον εσχατον τοπον κατεχειν)

[3] From the Greek text “φιλε, προσαναβηθι ανωτερον; τοτε εσται σοι δοξα ενωπιον παντων των σθνανακειμενων σοι.

[4] From the Greek text

[5] Joel Green The Gospel of Luke TNICNT ed. Joel Green. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997). 551, “…he demarcates a more prudent strategy when entering a banquet room. Because honor is socially determined, if one’s claim to honor fails to be reciprocated by one’s audience, one is publicly humiliated. Better, Jesus says, that might not be granted.”

[6] Green 550, “…where one sat (was assigned or allowed to sit) at a meal vis-à-vis the host was a public advertisement of one’s status; as a consequence, the matter of seating arrangements was carefully attended and, in this agonistic society, one might presume to claim a more honorable seat with the hope that it (and the honor that went with it) might be granted. What is more, because meals were used to publicize and reinforce social hierarchy, invitations to meals were themselves carefully considered so as to allow to one’s table only one’s own inner circle, or only those persons whose presence at one’s table would either enhance or at least preserve one’s social position.”

[7] Green 552, “The aphorism of v 11, then, must first be read as an indication of what God values, of what is most highly valued in the kingdom of God, and of the basis on which judgment will be enacted. …those whose dispositions have been transformed to reflect the divine economy, v 11 can be read as moral guidance, reflected in behavior advised in vv. 8-10; read in this way, Jesus’ “parable” is not designed to provide one with a new strategy by which one might obtain the commendation of one’s peers. Instead, it insists that the only commendation one needs comes from the God who is unimpressed with such social credentials as govern social relations in Luke’s world…”

[8] Green 542-3, “Relative to his table companions in 14:1-24, Jesus has a distinctive view of the world, shaped fundamentally by his experience of the Spirit, his understanding of the merciful God, and his awareness of the presence of God’s redemptive project, the kingdom of God, in his ministry. Within this immediate co-text, Jesus’ version of dining etiquette, shaped fundamentally by these preunderstandings and dispositions, comes to expression as a warning and invitation to his companions at the table, Pharisees and scribes. Within its larger co-text in the Third Gospel, however, the reach of Jesus’ message is more inclusive, calling for an embodiment of the kingdom of God in the social practices of Pharisees and legal experts, yes, but also in the behavior of his followers and the people as a whole.”

[9] A potential play on words here considering that the word Luke puts in Jesus’s mouth to describe the last spot is “εσχατον” to speak of the “last place” at the table.

[10] Justo Gonzalez Luke “Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible” Louisville, KY: WJK 2010 180, “But at a deeper level one can see the eschatological reference of his words. Jesus speaks of a ‘wedding banquet’—a subtle reference to the final day of celebration, repeatedly depicted in the Bible as a wedding feast. Then he concludes his remarks by applying them to the larger, eschatological dimension of the final judgment and the new order of the kingdom, which reverses the present human order: ‘For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’”

[11] Gonzalez 179

[12] From the Greek text “…μη φωνει τους φιλους σου μηδε τους αδελφους σου μεηδε τους συγγεωεις σου μηδε γειτονας πλουσιους…”

[13] Gonzalez 180, “The reason invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind is precisely that they cannot repay you, and you can expect payment only at the day, at the resurrection of the righteous.”

[14] From the Greek text: πτωχους, αναπειρους, χωλους, τυφλπυς

[15] Green 553, “Jesus’ message overturns such preoccupations, presenting ‘the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind’—notable examples of those relegated to low status, marginalized according to normal canons of status honor in the Mediterranean world—as persons to be numbered among one’s table intimates and, by analogy, among the people of God.”

[16] Gonzalez 180, “What Jesus now says and proposes is contrary to all rules of etiquette. Then, as today, it was quite common for people to invite to a dinner those who were of equal social standing with them—family, friends, colleagues…When one holds such a dinner, the guests are expected to return the invitation. To us. This would seem normal. But Jesus sees things differently: when a former guest invites you, you have already been repaid. While we might consider this an advantage, or at least the normal order of things. Jesus proposes inviting those who cannot repay…Surprising as this may seem to us, it would have been even more surprising for the host whom Jesus is addressing, for it was precisely such people whom a good Pharisee would consider not only unworthy but also religiously unclean. Thus Jesus is rejecting both social and religious convention.”

[17] Green 550, “To accept an invitation was to obligate oneself to extend a comparable one, a practice that circumscribed the list of those to whom one might extend an invitation. The powerful and privileged would not ordinarily think to invite the poor to their meals, for this would (1) possibly endanger the social status of the host; (2) be a wasted invitation, since the self-interests of the elite could never be served by an invitation that could not be reciprocated; and (3) ensue in embarrassment for the poor, who could not reciprocate and, therefore, would be required by social protocols to decline the invitation.”

[18] Green 553, “The behaviors Jesus demands would collapse the distance between rich and poor, insider and outsider; reverting to anthropological models of economic exchange, such relations would be characterized by ‘generalized reciprocity’—that is, by the giving of gifts, the extension of hospitality, without expectation of return…”