Hearing Voices

Easter  |  John 20:1-18

Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb, the last place she had encountered Jesus, and she cannot find him.
Dogwood flowers 011God is dead, in her heart, in what she has seen—Jesus beaten, wounded, dead on a cross, his body placed in a tomb hurriedly sealed with a stone. Now, as she returns to the tomb, she can not even find the body of the man in whom she has learned to see God. Her loss is so disorienting, so crushing, that she does not comprehend that she is speaking with angels and with a resurrected God among us, Jesus alive once more.

Early sources do not deny that the tomb was empty. Even those groups antagonistic to the new Christian faith did not deny that the tomb was empty. Instead, the question was how—what had these followers of Jesus done with his body?

It is odd that the gospels make no attempt to describe the process of resurrection. In each case, the story skips instead from God-incarnate-dead-in-the-tomb to God-incarnate-alive-once-more. Arguably the most powerful moment in the gospel, the moment in which Jesus returns to life, is never described. They left out the special effects.

There is much in John’s resurrection narrative (and in those of the other gospel writers, and in the references in Acts and in the letters of Paul) to cause us to wonder.

When Lazarus was called from his tomb, everyone recognized him, and not simply because the tomb was marked. When the resurrected Jesus appears, the stories include the difficulty of recognizing him. It is only when Jesus calls Mary’s name that she knows who he is.

Why upon rising from the dead does Jesus not parade through the streets of Jerusalem to demonstrate the power of God?

Why were the first witnesses of the resurrection, in all four gospels, women? In the extraordinarily male-dominated first century world, would not men have made more convincing witnesses? And out of all of the women available, why always Mary Magdalene?

I find myself seeking reason and certainty when it comes to God and the resurrection. I wonder why it is that God did not, does not, proclaim God with all of the convincing power of God. Why are we left with only these odd gospel stories and these strange brief passages describing the post resurrection appearances of Jesus?

It is strange, this way of God. The Almighty, creator of heaven and of earth, choosing the path that leads to crucifixion and death. God slipping quietly from death and the tomb to speak to Mary Magdalene. Almighty God, able to catch the attention of all creation in a flash, choosing to leave us pondering stories.

I want answers. God gives us questions.

I want certainty. God offers us faith.

Faith cannot be mapped. It cannot be measured, or even understood, and it is often characterized more by our doubts than our beliefs.

We want answers. God must want something different for us, something that we might not even recognize when we see it. We may only recognize it when we hear God call our names.

Kingdom of the Least

Fifth Sunday After Epiphany  |  Matthew 5:13-20

There is no privacy around God.

God is in our houses and in our Salt Fireyards, on the sidewalk, at our offices and workplaces. Worst of all, God is in our minds, the little corners and dark boxes of our hearts where we thought we had hidden the things that would make other people think less of us. Or point at us. Or at the very least pretend that they are better than us and would never do, never think, never feel the terrible and the petty things that we have done and thought and felt.

God has known them all, and that may be the most terrifying aspect of God.

If Jesus is to be believed, God knows these things and loves us, without reservation. Knowing all of it, God loves us.

For some, that is great and well received news, the gospel itself. For the rest of us, not so sure about receiving unabashed love from an unseen God, it takes some getting used to.

Salt. Light. Cities on hills. These are tasted, seen, entered into, or they are of no purpose. Jesus says that if we are not seen,  if our lives cannot be touched and tasted, if we are not open to other people, then we are of little use.

There is so little privacy around people anyway, we say. Our lives are open, we are seen, and more than we care to know is known about us. Most of us may be read as plainly as these words may be read, if a person has learned the skill of reading.

The law was clear. Leviticus and Deuteronomy. (That should be an exclamation—“Leviticus and Deuteronomy! — along the lines of “Jumpin’ Jehoshaphat!”)

We read all of those rules the ancient people lived by — what to eat, what to wear, most of all how to act toward other people, toward God — and we hear Jesus saying that if we have broken the least rule, then we are the least soul in God’s kingdom, at the bottom of the great heap of souls.

We are all on the bottom of the heap. This heap has no top, not even a middle, just flat bottom all the way.

Yet the law itself was not meant as a burden. The law was a way of life, the way of life, the way to live in this life. It was not a means to an end, not a key that fits the gate of the next life.

How then could this man Jesus be the fulfillment of the way to live? What does it mean to fulfill the way of life?

Life was never about the rules. It is always about the love.

Do not murder, since it is against the rules, we say? Love one another, and we will not cause harm.

They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. — Isaiah 11:9

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.

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.