Killing Jesus, Part 2 — A Cliffhanger

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany  |  Luke 4:14-30

Killing Jesus, Part 2 — A Cliffhanger

“Kill him,” they said. They must have, though Luke does not record their words. Kill him, stone him, throw him off the cliff. And of all of their options, beating, stoning, and throwing a man off a cliff, they chose the cliff.

Why, we might wonder. Was it the simple convenience–a man killed and the body disposed of all at the same time? Deniability? So that though everyone involved would know the truth, the death of Jesus might look like an accident to outsiders?

God knows. People in groups behave differently, though seldom better and never smarter, which is the explanation for modern politics.

And what did they mean to do with the others, his friends, his followers? It seems unlikely that Jesus managed the trip without someone tagging along, but it is possible that he was alone. Luke names none of the disciples before this point in the narrative. In fact, it is only afterward that Luke tells the story of Jesus healing Simon’s mother in law, and that comes even before Simon choosing to follow Jesus. The details of Luke’s Gospel differ from Mark’s earlier account, and Matthew skips over some of the story altogether.

John’s Gospel, well, is different. John is telling a theological narrative, not an action story. Where we might say Mark, Matthew and Luke tell us much of what happened, what our eyes might have seen, John tells us what his heart understood. The truth a blind man sees may be greater.

Gottlieb_Christ_preaching_at_Capernaum
Christ Preaching, by Gottlieb

The congregation in Nazareth looked at Jesus and saw a native son, the child of Mary and of Joseph the carpenter, all of whom they knew. They knew as well that Jesus was respected in Capernaum where he had gone to live. They expected great things of their returning son. They expected to be flattered, included, thanked, to be seen as great themselves by association with this so called teacher and miracle worker.

Why was he even there at all? Forty days of struggling with demons in the desert, forty days of hunger and exhaustion, and Jesus comes here, to his boyhood home, to read in the synagogue surrounded by the faces of old men he knew from childhood. Why make the journey here, when he could have stayed home in Capernaum to rest and gain back the weight he had lost in the wilderness?

Maybe he wanted them to be the first to hear the good news, After all that ordeal, he came to tell them that the promise of the prophets had been fulfilled.

Today, he told them. In your hearing, right now, this moment, the promise is fulfilled.

Then Jesus sat in the synagogue surrounded by these good, faithful people, and he began to tell them how much God loved other folk. Foreigners. People who did not even understand how to worship God properly. People whose religion was suspect. People who were different. The strangers in their midst.

They were disappointed. Perhaps they forgot their own story.

Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.

That was the word of the Lord, forgotten in their anger and indignation. They were willing to share their scraps, but not their place at the table.

It was bad enough to think that God might love the stranger as well as themselves. To think that God might love the stranger first or, God forbid, more, that was unbearable. It offended their faith. It offended their sense of order. It offended their pride.

This was no prophet. This was no one speaking in the name of God. This was only Jesus, and had they not known him from boyhood? Who was he to teach them? The stories from Capernaum were only stories, though some people here in Nazareth had seen and heard strange things around the boy. No, this was not the boy they had known. He had become a stranger to them.

Better to kill Jesus than to hear that God did not love them first, better, more than strangers. Better to kill Jesus, to kill the God who did not meet their expectations, and then they would be free to worship the god they created, the god made in their own image, the god who met their expectations perfectly. Better to kill Jesus and be right, than to listen to his words, to consider the possibility that even with their house of worship, their robes, their prayer books, their traditions, that they might be wrong.

Well, who likes to be wrong?

Better not to consider the stranger in their midst. In welcoming the stranger, might not they also welcome into their midst the God whom they had not made, the God they claimed already to know? Somehow they knew that God was dangerous, that God had ideas about helping the poor, embracing the stranger, taking risks to help someone else.

When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

They rejected Jesus. They tried to kill him. When they shoved him out to the edge of the cliff, they were pushing the stranger along with him. They had God out there on the edge, but they didn’t know that is where God always lives.

We shouldn’t be so hard on them. Be honest. Most of us would have done the same thing.

The story is that Jesus turned and passed through the middle of the mob. They had lost sight of him, after all. And just think, any of them could have reached out and touched him, probably were touched by him, could have stopped and turned and gone with him, but they plunged on without him. They were more interested in following their own ideas than they were in looking for a word from God, and they were left alone, on that cliff, gazing down into the abyss.

Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.

The truth is that we are always on the edge, our lives balanced precariously at the top of a cliff, and God is always passing through our midst, usually unnoticed, untouched. We are watching the wrong things, loving the wrong things. Sometimes God comes to us as the stranger beside us, and sometimes as the stranger within us, the thought that comes unbidden, the idea that leaps into our mind.

Perhaps we might recast the words of the prophets: Love ye the stranger in your midst, for so comes God among us all.

When we accomplish this much, to love the stranger we meet and the stranger within, then we will know that this day the scripture has been fulfilled in our hearing, the messiah is at hand, and the good news has already come to pass.

Great_Isaiah_Scroll
The Great Isaiah Scroll, found at Qumran. Israel Museum. http://dss.collections.imj.org.il/isaiah

 

This post is part of an ongoing three year project based on the Sunday gospel passage from the Revised Common Lectionary.

Killing Jesus, Part 1 — A Cliffhanger

Third Sunday after the Epiphany  |  Luke 4:14-30

Killing Jesus, Part 1 — A Cliffhanger

Everything started so well. Jesus stood in the synagogue of his childhood home, Nazareth, reading from the scroll of Isaiah.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

All of this, all of these good things, have come to pass, Jesus tells them. So far, so good. If he had stopped there, things might have been ok. He could have gotten up and walked away, but no. He had to elaborate. He had to tell these people that grace extended to other folk. Different people. Foreigners.

Brooklyn_Museum_-_Jesus_Unrolls_the_Book_in_the_Synagogue_-_James_Tissot_-_overall
Jesus Unrolls the Book in the Synagogue, by James Tissot

That’s when they dragged him out and threw him over a cliff. Well, almost.

They bum rushed Jesus, frog walked him to the edge of a cliff, and they made to throw him over. It didn’t take a lot of planning on their part. Nobody had to stand up and say, Hey, here’s what we can do to him. No, they just did it, as though they had done such a thing before this occasion, these religious folk with an inclination to violence.

It makes you wonder what one might have seen at the bottom, what kind of bones and rags were bleaching in the sun down there. Somehow their reaction feels modern, like something one might hear on the news, an incident involving a fringe religious group, except that the people in this story are not fringe lunatics. They are mainstream, church folk, salt of the earth.

Incidentally, the Lectionary gives the same passage of scripture to both the Third and Fourth Sundays after Epiphany, though the story is split between them. It’s a cliffhanger.

Mark, not Luke, is the Gospel known for using halves of one story to bookend another one. Still, it is worth considering where Luke places this story. Before Jesus visits the peculiarly violent congregation of Nazareth, he was in the wilderness, being tempted by Satan himself. After escaping from the mob, Jesus goes home to Capernaum and so to the synagogue there, only to be met by a man “who had the spirit of an unclean demon.”

It is an odd sandwich, with the faithful people in the middle and demons on either side. Jesus escapes his meetings with demons unscathed, but the religious folk nearly kill him. There is no peace, says the Lord, for the wicked. (Isaiah 48:22)

Temptation in the wilderness, violence in the church–it is no wonder that Jesus did most of his teaching while walking out in the open, along the seashore and in the streets, more like a Greek philosopher than a Jewish rabbi. The people he found there did not think themselves to be so special, so important, in the eyes of God. They knew the real thing when they saw it, and they knew they weren’t it. The congregation gathered on the pews were different than the congregation called together on the street, which leaves us with questions.

Why does one group get so angry so quickly, to the point that they try to throw Jesus off a cliff, unwittingly trying to kill God himself? And perhaps more to the point, to which congregation do we belong?

Next week–Killing Jesus, Part 2

Christ in the Synagogue in Capernaum
Christ in the Synagogue in Capernaum

A Story About Ordinary Things

Marriage at Cana by Tintoretto, c.1560

Second Sunday after the Epiphany | John 2:1-11

A Story About Ordinary Things

It was only wine and water, nothing you wouldn’t expect to find at a wedding, nothing to grab your attention. The first great sign, the first astounding miracle Jesus performs, at least according to the gospel story as John tells it, is done with such ordinary things, changing water into wine, and for an audience who have already drunk enough to make their testimony unreliable.

Ask any good defense attorney whether party people make good witnesses, or whether a jury will believe a mother testifying for her son.

The Marriage at Cana by Gerard David c.1450/1460
The Marriage at Cana by Gerard David c.1450/1460

Still, in telling the simple story of a wedding, this Gospel opens our minds to the idea of God—the God of “Let there be light”—at work in the lives of ordinary people like ourselves. Thought about long enough, it is a little odd, a little unsettling.

And why do we get this story? Why all these stories at all, instead of just a list of assertions, ideas about God, rules about living, that sort of thing? What is it about telling stories, even all these short stories stitched together, that makes the gospels so compelling?

If you tell people what you think, they can agree or disagree or perhaps ignore you altogether, forget about it. On the other hand, if you tell them a story, the story gets into their heads, and they are stuck with it.

Stories we tell people, whether they believe us or not, have a way of getting past the firewalls in their minds. It is what we are hardwired for—ever since the first camp fires, we’ve listened to stories, and we’ve told them over and over to ourselves in our minds.

So on this passage for this week, I’m going to cheat. I’m going to tell you a story, the same story, actually, just told a little differently from the way it sounds in the Gospel of John.

Here it is, as retold in my novel I,John. I hope you enjoy it.

Water

I did not know the family, but we had been invited. We were gathered in the courtyard, a group within the group, although Peter was going around talking and laughing, his great shaggy head easy to spot. I was sitting near Jesus in the shade of a fig bush just tall enough to offer a screen from the sun, and I saw Mary making her way toward him before he saw her, although I was never sure what Jesus knew about his surroundings. He picked people from the crowd when I had not seen them, ignored others who were standing in front of him.

Mary could not be ignored. She waved at people across the courtyard and smiled at them, then came and knelt beside Jesus. She reached up and rubbed his shoulder, and I supposed she was happy to see her son. That’s when I noticed two servants had followed her from within the house.

“They are running out of wine,” she said.

Jesus sighed.

“What do you want me to do about that?” he said. “It is not my party, and it is not my time. This is their day. Their party.”

Mary ignored him and waved the servants over.

“Do what he tells you,” she said. Jesus just sighed again, looking around the courtyard. It was only a little theatrical, enough to say, ‘See how much I love her, even when she annoys me.’

He pointed at some large stone jars standing at the wall of the house.

“Go and fill them with water,” he told them. It was not a small task. Each jar would hold a number of buckets of water, and the process would be tiresome in the heat. The servants looked at him, then at Mary. She nodded and shooed them with her hand.

“Go ahead,” she said. “Do what he told you.”

They did not look happy, but they hurried over to a well and began pulling up buckets of water and carrying them to the stone jars. It was warm enough in the courtyard that the sound of the water was welcome. When they had filled all of the jars, they stood waiting to see what idiotic task they would have next. I knew that if this ended badly, we would be leaving quickly, but things never ended badly around Jesus, at least not until that very last thing. I sat still and quiet, waiting like the servants.

Jesus appeared to be lost in thought. Mary nudged him in the side, and he turned to look at the stone jars, wet with the water splashed on the sides and along the tiles near them.

“Draw some out, and take it to your steward,” he said.

They stood with backs straight, looking first at Jesus then across the courtyard at the head servant who already appeared displeased with all the water carrying. Then, dour and resigned, one of them took a dipper and filled it from a jar. Drops fell dark on the ground. With round eyes he stared at the liquid all the while that he walked across the courtyard. The head servant took it and tasted it, the disgust on his face shifting to surprise.

Quickly he sent the man back and told them both to draw more from the jars and to serve it to the guests. Some of them had been watching as well, and the rest certainly noticed when they began to drink the new wine. We would not be leaving quickly after all, it seemed. Mary was enormously pleased and went off to talk to someone, probably to say that she was the mother of the one who had brought the wine they were now tasting.

As I said, things tended not to end badly with Jesus, not until that very bad ending itself. That was a different sort of event anyway, more something that Jesus endured than something he did. This was like the people at the pool, the blind man who stared at my face in amazement. It was a sign, a sign for us, for Mary, and for as many of the people who realized what had happened. At the same time, it was ordinary, just wine being served at a wedding. What was miraculous about that? It was only a miracle if one saw it as a miracle.

Of course, that was always the case, I thought. Maybe those crippled men who got up and walked out of that pool weren’t really crippled, maybe they had been pretending for the sake of being able to beg money from those who worked for a living. It was possible that the blind man was the same, pretending, and when Jesus caught him in his pretense, he had to abandon it. Of course, that would have been a sort of miracle, some would argue, just not one that required the power of God. I think that changing the behavior of men like that would require more power, be the greater miracle. Changing the mind is a greater sign than healing the body.

But I saw that blind man, saw his eyes when he could not see me. And I saw the amazement on his face when he could see me, when I was suddenly the most beautiful thing in his world. I knew things that the people sitting here drinking wine did not know, and even when we told them, some would never believe.

I got up and walked along the row of jars, and I saw my face reflected in the new dark wine.

This post is part of an ongoing three year project based on the Sunday gospel passage from the Revised Common Lectionary. You can find more about the novel I,John here.

Marriage at Cana by Tintoretto, c.1560
Marriage at Cana by Tintoretto, c.1560

Expecting the Divine

Saint John the Baptist Bearing Witness (painting)

First Sunday after Epiphany | Luke 3:15-22

Expecting the Divine

Luke claims that the people were filled with expectation. What a remarkable condition — an entire people looking forward, looking beyond themselves, expecting something, expecting the divine.

We don’t have to believe it, of course. Surely, not everyone was expecting a savior. It is hard to imagine everyone expecting anything — Christmas, an election, the sun rising. It is even harder to imagine everyone expecting the same thing, and so unlikely a thing as a messiah.

Adoration of the Magi by Albrecht Dürer
Adoration of the Magi by Albrecht Dürer

Perhaps in some different way it was true. Luke could have meant that his sort of people, the ones inclined to think about religious things, that all of these people were excited and thinking of a coming messiah, wondering about John the Baptist, thinking that John could be the one, though he denied it. He was certainly unusual enough, and he talked a lot about God and faith and repentance. He almost fit the bill.

Maybe it was true another way. Most of us are looking for something, expecting something or someone, hoping for something. Could the thing we are hoping for be some sort of messiah? Whether we define it in theological terms or not, are we hoping for something to save us, someone to save us, whether literally or figuratively?

Carl Jung wrote of archetypes, those powerful ideas, symbols, living deep in the unconscious regions of our minds—shadow, mother, trickster, hero, god. Surely a messiah qualifies? Someone to save us, god and hero and wise man in one, though the thing we are saved from varies?

Some of us want to be saved from despair, or grief, or regret. Others long to be rescued from the tedium of day to day life. Psychologists speak of needs and drives and behaviors, supplying language for our traps, cages, deficiencies, determination, desires. Just today I heard an economist talking about envy, envy of all things, as an economic force. To my mind, envy is something addressed by theology, not economists, but it makes sense as a economic principle as well.

What the ancients called sin and hubris, we call behavioral faults, to be expected in the natural order of the universe. Never mind that the natural order of the universe is violent, dangerous, ruthless, and unforgiving. Our modern comprehension of our place in the cosmos has been massively enriched, but at the same time our insight is shattered into kaleidoscopic and often bewildering bits.

Perhaps there is too much division, too much breaking up of knowledge into categories, separate rooms, disintegration. Not so long ago human lives were defined and molded by tribe or king or religion. Now we listen to voices of economists, politicians, doctors, scientists, fast food, gourmet food, all natural food, social media, real estate agents, bankers, automobile commercials, and the two hour window when a cable technician can hook up our televisions. With so many voices in our heads, it is hard to know which ones are important, which ones should get our attention. We are driving ourselves toward insanity.

The Adoration of the Magi by Leonaert Bramer
The Adoration of the Magi by Leonaert Bramer

We need something to save us from all of that, but our expectations are low.

The Christian celebration known as Epiphany is named for the showing, the revealing, of the Christ child. Some wise men found a child, caught sight of a symbol from the deepest parts of their minds, a savior figure, the messiah. They came, in the stories, with the expectation of finding him, and they did. So do we understand that the magi found the messiah because that is what they were sent to do, or did they find him because they expected him?

We call into being the things we expect. Expectations are powerful, connecting us to the divine in our hopes and dreams and aspirations. To live in expectation of redemption is an experience of faith, the practical application of hope.

What a remarkable way to live — expecting to experience the divine in our everyday lives.

 

Part of the Lectionary Project—Third year of weekly posts based on the Sunday Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary

A Thought in the Mind of God

NASA image - emerging universe

Second Sunday in Christmas | John 1:1-18

A Thought in the Mind of God

In the very beginning there was a word, an idea, a thought, the first thing that ever was, and the thought was hanging out with God. In fact, the thought, this thinking idea word-thing, was God.

P52_recto
Rylands Library Papyrus P52, also known as the St. John’s fragment, recto

That is how the Gospel of John starts. In the beginning was the logos…the thought, the idea, the word.

We say that words are not powerful. Words can’t hurt you, we hear from our elders when other children taunt us, but it is a lie—words can hurt us, more deeply and longer than any wound to the body.

They are powerful, words are. Just like God. Nothing more than an idea, really, a concept, a thought, but like God words are something that cannot be touched and cannot be destroyed, something capable of immense and unmeasurable power.

We struggle with knowing which is more important, words or actions. Most of the time, what we do is truer than what we say. What we do ultimately informs us as to who we are, as though each act is a personal sacrament — an outward sign of our own inward truth. If we say we are clean and sober while we pour another drink, our words are just the deception of an addict, the long slow con, a lie we tell ourselves in order better to deceive others.

Don’t tell me, we say. Show me. As revealing as our actions are, they are only true on the outside. It is the idea that drives the action, the thought that is the truth within us, the word that is us.

P52_verso
Rylands Library Papyrus P52, also known as the St. John’s fragment, verso

There is power in our thoughts, power in our words. There is a value to the articulation of our thoughts, and there is a truth in stories that cannot be told any other way. Give me a rule, and I’ll forget it or I’ll break it. Give me a story and I cannot forget it. We are wired to story, our brains evolving over millennia to learn from stories we heard around cooking fires, stories painted on the walls of our caves. All those clay paintings of bison and antelope are more than art: the sharing of these images was an act of communion.

The thought-that-was-God came into this world, to live in this world. That is the gospel message. The idea-that-was-God burned, shining, brilliant in the midst of dark ignorance all around, and the ignorance could not to quench it.

We read the story in the first verses of John’s Gospel, and we are no longer amazed by it. Perhaps it was a page turner two thousand years ago, an opening that caught the imagination of the ancient world: In the beginning was the Word… Imagine, the Word, the idea of God, walking as a human, standing in the wild places, listening to John the Baptist cry out his sermons to crowds by a riverside. It is an astonishing thought, but not to us. We are immured, buried and insulated by the profusion of words that surround us.

My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.
— Shakespeare, Hamlet  III, iii

That is how Shakespeare put it, and maybe he was onto something. Empty words. We have found ways to separate thought and word, to speak without thinking. Our words are everywhere, on signs, menus, T-shirts, screens, phones, emails, broadcasts. The value of our words is diminished by their pervasiveness, diluted by the ease with which we record them.

We no longer know the holy when we see it. We may no longer believe that anything is holy, let alone that words might be.

…I would think how words go straight up in a thin line, quick and harmless, and how terribly doing goes along the earth, clinging to it, so that after a while the two lines are too far apart for the same person to straddle from one to the other; and that sin and love and fear are just sounds that people who never sinned nor loved nor feared have for what they never had and cannot have until they forget the words.
― William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying

Nevertheless, ancient cities fall into the dust, and the pyramids crumble, but their stories remain. In the end, the most ancient relic and the most enduring aspect of humanity is found in our intangible untouchable diaphanous words.

In the stories of scripture, God calls all that there is, all of the cosmos, into being with a word. When speech was added to thought, when the idea was expressed, the universe exploded into being.

What we think may be more real than anything we see. What we say may be more lasting than anything we build. In the end, the words that tell our story are all that we leave behind us. The atoms that make us may spin and fly, returning to the stars that made them, nothing but stardust, but our lives remain, a thought in the mind of God.

Part of the Lectionary Project—Third year of weekly posts based on the Sunday Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary

Here’s a bonus—a short (45 second) video from NASA as part of WMAP, the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe project. In NASA’s summary: The structure of the universe evolved from the Big Bang, as represented by WMAP’s “baby picture”, through the clumping and ignition of matter (which caused reionization) up to the present.