The Ice On Our Wings

Fourth Sunday After The Epiphany  |  Matthew 5:1-12

Snow On BushIt is difficult to find a passage of scripture more famous than the Sermon on the Mount, and within this passage it is hard to find verses more well known than the beatitudes, the blessings.

In Matthew’s telling (Luke differs), Jesus spoke eight blessings, or nine if you view the two mentions of the persecuted as separate. Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger for righteousness, and those who are persecuted for righteousness. Also blessed are the merciful, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers.

Five of the blessed appear weak or downtrodden. In the midst of these five, Jesus offers three who appear strong and outgoing—the merciful, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers. Are these three offered as contrasts to the other five? Or does Jesus consider all of the eight to be strong in the spirit?

Whatever Jesus considers them, these eight groups get what they desire. Because their hearts are centered in the good, they receive the good.

They get it.

As I write, a winter storm is passing, leaving the ground covered in ice and snow. The night sky is low and the wind is cold, ice flakes filling the air. Strangely, a seagull has landed (crashed?) in my yard. It lingers, chattering, before once more taking flight. Surely it is hungry, and poor, mourning the night and the ice and the cold, feeling persecuted by the weather. I doubt it deems itself blessed. It likely thought that the ground was not where it should be, but that moment of rest was what it needed to continue through the storm.

Blessed are the poor in spirit and the mournful—they recognize their neediness. Blessed are the merciful and the pure—they recognize need, and the good, in others. All of the blessed ones share the honesty to know what they are lacking, what God is waiting to provide.

Somewhere in the darkness, a seagull is still flying with ice on its wings.

The Fox’s Den

Third Sunday after the Epiphany  |  Matthew 4:12-23

Leaving home or finding one is a great theme of literature all over the world. From Odysseus leaving Troy to Hansel and Gretel in the forest, we hear stories that reflect our love and need for a home, shelter, a place of safety and of rest.

Matthew tells us that upon hearing of the arrest of John the Baptist, Jesus withdrew and made his home in Capernaum, a small town at the northern end of the Sea of Galilee. Really, the entire passage is about homes, or leaving them. In a few verses we hear Jesus calling Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John to follow him, and they leave the lives they know to do so.

Yet we have a problem. Jesus had no home. Ask almost any Christian, and he will tell you so, pointing either to Matthew 8:20 or to Luke 9:58. Foxes have dens, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.Arctic Fox Walking Away


Mark 2:1 tells us this – When he entered again into Capernaum after some days, it was heard that he was at home. The phrase is literally in [the] house, but the meaning of home is straightforward. Modern English does the same thing.

Let’s think about this a different way. Many times, Jesus says something outrageously over the top (if your right eye offends you, pull it out comes to mind), and we are happy to agree that this is said for effect, a hyperbole, an exaggeration meant to illustrate the meaning and to instruct the listener.

That line about foxes and dens, though, must that mean exactly what it says? Jesus, a Jewish man at the roundabout age of thirty living in a traditional society, was homeless? Is there no possibility that this statement, spoken in reply to a nameless character who glibly boasts that he will follow Jesus anywhere, could be an exaggeration for the purpose of teaching?

Maybe it doesn’t matter. Homes with walls are not the kind that matter here, unless we are dealing with walls of habit and of comfort.

Jesus called those men to follow him, eventually to preach and to teach. They left their walls of habit, their comfortable lives.

God may have given us the idea of doing something that takes us out of our comfortable lifestyle. Like prisons, not all homes have walls. Many are made of habit, or comfort, or routine, or even fear of change. Our challenge, or our opportunity, may take us outside our habitual boundaries.

The reward is worth the effort.

When we step outside, we may find that God has been waiting for us there.

Until Something Better Comes Along

Second Sunday after Epiphany  |  John 1:29-42Fire

John is out by the river Jordan, baptizing people in the water. According to what the Gospel of John says, this other John is only out there to call attention to Jesus. This John is out there baptizing with water, biding his time until one comes who will baptize with fire.

Seeing Jesus walk by, John sends two of his own disciples to follow Jesus. Far from growing his own following, John is sending people away.

Clearly, he does not know how to build an organization.

From the time of Constantine, the Christian ideal has focused on building bigger congregations, bigger churches, gathering more members. Most religions do.

Jesus never did. It is easier to find stories of Jesus sending people away than it is to find him calling them together. He seems to have chosen only twelve core followers, and one of them was a failure.

There are many implications in this passage from John’s Gospel. One is that Christians may have the wrong idea about how to measure a successful church. Another is that outward baptism by water may have been a stopgap measure, an introduction to the inward baptism of the spirit. A third has to do with all of this walking and following—we are more likely to think we have arrived, but the first name for the Jesus movement was not Christianity: it was the Way.

On a more personal level, we might consider whether we are pointing to ourselves or to God. John the baptizer did not believe that he was the center of God’s universe. John pointed to someone greater than himself. He even sent the men who would have followed him to the end to follow someone else.

A religious man would have focused on building the organization. It takes faith to send people on the Way.

Grace in the Darkness

Season of Epiphany  |  Baptism of the Lord  |  Matthew 3:13-17

SidewalkPlantThe lectionary leads us into the season of Epiphany, the showing or manifestation of Christ. Think of wise men seeing the young Jesus, and of Jesus becoming known to the world around him.

ἐπιφάνεια – ephiphaneia – epiphany – from the Greek verb “to appear” or “to show forth”: a manifestation, an appearance, a moment of realization

Consider Matthew’s account of the baptism of Jesus, an odd passage.

Jesus approaches John the Baptist and presents himself for baptism. At first, John refuses. It would seem to be a reasonable position: if Jesus is the Christ, the Lord, God incarnate, why would he need or submit to baptism? Why would such a ritual have any use for a god, let alone the God?

Not that the answer John gets is much use either: to fulfill all righteousness.

It may be that John simply threw his hands up at that point and said, “Fine.”

I have never read a single explanation of the baptism of Jesus that made any sense to me, at least none offering reasons of purity, or of a new beginning, or anything else that picks up on the customary uses and meanings of the baptism ritual—repentance, cleansing, dedication. Surely God has no need of repentance, or of cleansing, and surely Jesus was dedicated to his purpose in the very beginning (as John’s Gospel tells us).

Maybe for us the idea is closer to simple submission, or humility, even in the face of apparent meaninglessness. John submits to Jesus and performs the ritual, though he clearly does not understand the meaning of it himself. Jesus is submitting to the hands of John, though there is nothing to be gained; instead, Jesus’ submission may itself be a sign of grace. God is made known not only in human form, but humble even for a human.

We may sense God moving us to do something, though we do not understand the meaning or the value of it. Perhaps there is a meaning we do not comprehend. Humility and grace in the service of God, even when we do not see the purpose of what we do, may form the greatest experience and expression of faith.

We may not see the value of giving away our last candle. Perhaps it is simply that the other person lacks the faith to walk in our darkness and still find God.

X By Any Other Name

Christmas  |  John 1:1-18

[Alternatively, Second Sunday After Christmas, not observed in 2016]

For the second Sunday after Christmas, or this year for Christmas, the Revised Common Lectionary offers John 1:1-18 as the Gospel reading. (You may also see a passage from Matthew referenced, there being some variation among lectionaries.)chi

The prologue of John is famous. These are the words offered in advance of the more ordinary telling of the Gospel story, and they begin, as most stories do, at the beginning. “In the beginning was the Word” is a recasting of the opening words of Genesis, the penultimate “in the beginning”.

At Christmas we often see the shortened form of Xmas, ‘X’ as used for ‘Christ’ even by the ancients in the times before storefront displays and decorated trees, and ‘Xmas’ itself for hundreds of years. The X of Xmas is not the ‘x’ of modern English: it is a Chi, an ancient Greek letter and the first in the name of Christ, written as Χριστός in the Greek alphabet.

The opening verse of John is, in fact, called a double chiasm. What does that mean? The thought structure of the verse, in Greek, would form two of our letter x’s, or two of the Greek letter Chi’s. Here is what the pairing of ideas look like using the Greek word order (different than the word order of the English translation):

The Beginning (God)                                          The Word


The Word                               With God


God                                           The Word

If you connect each reference to God (left to right to left again), and each reference to the Word (the Logos, or Christ – right to left to right again), you will have drawn two x’s. Or two Chi’s. The Gospel is using the image of the letter ‘X’ to emphasize the unity of God and Christ.

And yes, people in the ancient world did listen for that kind of thing, just as should we hear a modern day speaker offering a list of Light and Love and Life, we would expect the next item in the list to begin with an ‘L’ as well.

There is another comparison here in the beginning of this Gospel. It is a comparison of Jesus, the light of the world, and John the Baptist, who we are told quite plainly was not the light. It is an odd thing, surely, for an opening passage. Why bring out such a contrast, and right at the outset, if it did not have some overarching meaning for what was to come?

John, very much a human being, came to live in the wilderness, and the Gospel tells us that all John could do was point out the light to others. There is the obvious sentiment, of course: all we ourselves can do is point to the light.

There must be something more.

Right through the end of this passage in verse 18, the Gospel writer keeps alternating between the nature and work of Christ and the nature and condition of human beings. The contrasts go something like this:

God was in the world; we did not know God; God gave us power to transcend humanity (verses 10-13).

God became as us; we have not seen God; God the Son has made God known to humanity (verses 14-18).

God is starting with us where we are and taking us where we could not go.

Christians tend to take the later verse of John 3:16 and put it on every card, bumper sticker and billboard in the world. Perhaps we might consider that John 1:12-13 as a better summary of the Gospel message.