Least Expectations

Saudade (Longing) by José Ferraz de Almeida Júnior, 1899

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost | Luke 12:32-40

Some of us may find that we are not as intelligent as we once were. I am not, I am afraid. I cannot remember so well or so quickly as once I did. I cannot make new associations, realize connections, or work through problems so well as in years past. In learning some new skill, I find that while I once may have sought mastery, I now settle for sufficiency.

One grows old.

Still, there are compensations. Perhaps I am not so quick witted, but I may be wiser. It may take me longer to work out a problem, but I have a better idea of which problems are worth working out. There are the things that matter, and there are the things that merely distract. There are many more distractions.

The things we own begin to own us, if we are not careful. Sometimes it happens even if we are. Jesus makes radical suggestions in Luke’s Gospel account—sell your stuff, give it away. Treasure eternal things. (If you are not sure which things are eternal, there is a simple test. If you can touch it, taste it, see it, hear it, or smell it, it isn’t.)

Then, he says, get ready.

Ready for what? He tells a story to illustrate, full of servants and an absent master, people dressed and waiting in the middle of the night, a master who puts on a servant’s garb and upends all expectations, a master serving his servants.

Be ready, Jesus is saying, for the presence of God.

Though the Spirit of God is not named in this passage, and though most people understand these verses as referring to the return of Christ himself, we might understand these sayings better if we consider that Jesus is talking about the Spirit of God, another aspect of himself, another person of God.

In John’s later Gospel, Nicodemus is bewildered to hear Jesus say that the wind blows where it chooses, though we do not hear the sound of it, and we do not know from where it comes or where it goes. Or when, John might have added.

Saudade (Longing) by José Ferraz de Almeida Júnior, 1899
Saudade (Longing) by José Ferraz de Almeida Júnior, 1899

“The Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour,” says Jesus. We always cast our minds forward when we hear it, wondering when the most unexpected hour could be. In the middle of the night? At our death? Long after we are gone?

How about already?

I suggest that is the most unexpected hour of all—already. We almost never expect the thing we anticipate to have already happened.

I don’t mean like when we expect the meeting to start at 2:00 in the afternoon, only to find that it is already 3:00, or that it was scheduled yesterday when we thought it was today, though these things sometimes happen with age.

Live long enough, and anything is likely to have happened, or nothing at all. Wonderful things, important things, happen, and we do not notice. A child’s smile, or a friend’s grief, eternal things happen, things that we should have noticed if we had been paying attention, if we had not been distracted, if we had not thought that all of the things gathered around us were so important. We miss the eternal things, the things we cannot touch but that would have left a mark on us had we bothered to notice.

Maybe Jesus did come at the unexpected hour. Maybe the Spirit of God has been present all along, the entire time, waiting to upend our world, to turn over our expectations, to join us at the moments of our real, eternal, need. We just haven’t been paying attention.

We want trumpets and angels. The more harsh minded among us want plagues and famine, judgements and end times. Maybe some people get those things. I do not know; I do not want them.

I know that Jesus is telling us that God is like a thief, always anticipated but never expected. Just as a thief might already be standing quietly in the back room of a house, undetected, so God may be already waiting in the back rooms of our minds, waiting and watching from the corners of our souls.

When the Dead Speak

Ducks

Luke 7:11-17 | Third Sunday after Pentecost

Jesus tells a dead man to get up, and he does. Luke writes it that plainly — the young man was dead, and he sits up and starts talking.

It was an uncommon experience, even in those first century days when miracles were often reported. The crowd, witnessing this resurrection, were astonished. We would be, if we saw a thing like this.

IMG_2703We live in an age of wonders and of amazing invention, astonishing discoveries. We have modern medicine, science, centuries of art. We read about space travel on hand held computers, and we watch entertainments on flat screens of digitally enhanced glass, but we are somehow bereft of miracles. No one is healed with a touch, and those who have died, no matter how much we love them, are not given back to us.

The dead do not speak to us. At least, they do not speak to us the way this young man rose and spoke to his mother. Still, sometimes, we hear them.

Perhaps the trick is not to look for the miracles that are described in these gospels. We do not have them — prophets healing our sick, a messiah raising our dead. We may have miracles, though. Different ones. Miracles we do not notice or that we take for granted, because they do not meet our expectations of the sort of thing a miracle is.

We think miracles are a break with the natural flow of the universe, and perhaps that is so. We think that the laws of nature are immutable, therefore there can be no miracles, and maybe we are right to say so.

No miracles, we say. Not any more. Maybe we have no faith, that we should receive a miracle, some say, or maybe there never were any such things. Are we children, believing in fairy tales? Let us believe in what we have seen with our own eyes, that which our hands have touched.

Still.

It seems to me that there is a natural law that I forget things — where I put something, the day of the week — and so when I remember, is it a miracle? And sometimes, in my memory, when I hear the voice or the laughter of someone I loved but who is no longer alive in the way that you and I are alive, is that a miracle?

At my parents’ home there is a pond, and from time to time a mated pair of ducks, or geese, will come and stay for a season. We first noticed such a pair shortly after both of my father’s parents were gone, and it seemed to us that these birds had come in their place, to remind us of them, in some way to be them, so that my grandparents were still with us. They are birds, of course; they are not my grandparents. Still, in some way that eludes the mind and makes sense to the soul, they are the people we loved, and as they waddle and splash and talk to one another in their bird honks and hoots and chattering, we hear the voices of people who loved us.

And it is a miracle.

No one is raised from the dead, no one is healed of a terrible disease. The water in the pond remains water, not wine, to the relief (or maybe disappointment?) of the fish. If we find comfort in the quacks and honks of waterfowl, it is a small enough miracle, you say.

Still, for us, it is miraculous. It is healing. And perhaps it is all the miracle required, and it does whatever it is that a miracle is sent to do. That is something worth considering. We think that a miracle is when we get something we want, but maybe that is wrong. It could be that a miracle is receiving something God needs for us to have.

Fishing on the Pond

A Borrowed Donkey

Liturgy of the Palms | Luke 19:28-40

A Borrowed Donkey

The story is that Solomon rode a donkey on his way to become king. People are forever comparing Jesus to him, pointing out that kings rode burros, that Jesus entered Jerusalem in a kingly procession, and all of that is true, so far as it goes. We may be sure of one thing: Solomon never had to borrow a donkey.

The path ahead of Jesus was strewn with the robes of common folk and whatever else they had at hand, palm branches and the like. They were poor, and they could have used some deliverance. As Alan Culpepper wrote, “Jesus was a king, but no ordinary one—the king of fishermen, tax collectors, Samaritans, harlots, blind men, demoniacs, and cripples.”¹

Entry Into Jerusalem. Pedro OrrenteA raggedy, raucous, tumultuous crowd, and a borrowed donkey—it was a spectacle. Some of the better folk urged Jesus to calm the multitudes, but he answered that were the crowd silenced even the stones would start shouting. There’s an image. No doubt his answer did nothing to endear him in the hearts of the religious folk.

Is it surprising that religious people wanted the procession quieted? The people who were following Jesus believed in him, believed in the things they had seen him do, believed that they needed a new king to get rid of Caesar, but they were not the religious establishment. They were the fringe, the outsiders, the odd folk Jesus drew to himself over and over. They were the sort of people who make churchgoers nervous.

The religious leaders had told everyone what the messiah would be like, and none of what they taught from their reading of scripture said anything about this man riding into Jerusalem on a borrowed donkey.

All that learning and study and preparation, and God surprised them. They had read the same scriptures that early Christians used to portray Jesus as messiah, and they still expected something different. This man could not be the messiah, could he?

They didn’t miss the signs because they were bad people. They missed the signs because they had traded their sense of wonder for forms of worship, had begun to believe their own ideas about what God is doing instead of believing God is doing something.

We are no better. Some of us think God does nothing, not anymore, and maybe never did. Others are so fervently and devoutly lost in our own expectations that we would not recognize God riding up to us on a borrowed donkey. We’d probably miss the shouting rocks, too, or tell them to hush while we closed our eyes to pray.

We should keep our eyes open. After all, God has better things to do than listen to long prayers. Anyone who’s ever ridden a donkey knows that much.

Pietro di Giovanni d'Ambrogio. Entry into Jerusalem. 1435-40. Pinacoteca Stuard, Parma

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¹  R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, ed. Leander Keck et al (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 370.

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

Dust Beneath Our Feet

Mark 6:1-13  |  Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.

Dust Beneath Our Feet. This Gospel says that Jesus returned to his hometown, which in the Gospel of Mark is Capernaum. That is where his house was. (Mark 2:1 — If you ever want to play at Indiana Jones relic hunting, forget about the Holy Grail. Go to Capernaum and dig up Jesus’ house. Imagine the ticket sales.)

On the sabbath, he went over to his synagogue and sat to teach, and the people who gathered there were astounded. We don’t know why. Perhaps it was because of the things he was saying, or it may be just that he took it upon himself to teach. Either way, he offended them.

Their complaint, oddly, was that they knew him, or thought they did. They knew his parents, his family, their occupation, and so they did not think to hear anything marvelous from him. As he sat and taught in the synagogue, he missed their expectations. He overshot. He was more than they thought he should be, more than any of them wanted him to be, and they took offense.

We don’t expect much out of the people we know; for the most part, we don’t want much out of them. Try it sometime. Achieve any sort of excellence, and you will be surprised by the people who want to push you down to the level of their comfort. The achievements of others remind us of our own mediocrity.

This new NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image presents the Arches Cluster, the densest known star cluster in the Milky Way. It is located about 25 000 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Sagittarius (The Archer), close to the heart of our galaxy, the Milky Way. It is, like its neighbour the Quintuplet Cluster, a fairly young astronomical object at between two and four million years old. The Arches cluster is so dense that in a region with a radius equal to the distance between the Sun and its nearest star there would be over 100 000 stars! At least 150 stars within the cluster are among the brightest ever discovered in the the Milky Way. These stars are so bright and massive, that they will burn their fuel within a short time, on a cosmological scale, just a few million years, and die in spectacular supernova explosions. Due to the short lifetime of the stars in the cluster, the gas between the stars contains an unusually high amount of heavier elements, which were produced by earlier generations of stars. Despite its brightness the Arches Cluster cannot be seen with the naked eye. The visible light from the cluster is completely obscured by gigantic clouds of dust in this region. To make the cluster visible astronomers have to use detectors which can collect light from the X-ray, infrared, and radio bands, as these wavelengths can pass through the dust clouds. This observation shows the Arches Cluster in the infrared and demonstrates the leap in Hubble’s performance since its 1999 image of same object.
This new NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image presents the Arches Cluster, the densest known star cluster in the Milky Way. It is located about 25 000 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Sagittarius (The Archer), close to the heart of our galaxy, the Milky Way. It is, like its neighbour the Quintuplet Cluster, a fairly young astronomical object at between two and four million years old. The Arches cluster is so dense that in a region with a radius equal to the distance between the Sun and its nearest star there would be over 100 000 stars! At least 150 stars within the cluster are among the brightest ever discovered in the the Milky Way. These stars are so bright and massive, that they will burn their fuel within a short time, on a cosmological scale, just a few million years, and die in spectacular supernova explosions. Due to the short lifetime of the stars in the cluster, the gas between the stars contains an unusually high amount of heavier elements, which were produced by earlier generations of stars. Despite its brightness the Arches Cluster cannot be seen with the naked eye. The visible light from the cluster is completely obscured by gigantic clouds of dust in this region. To make the cluster visible astronomers have to use detectors which can collect light from the X-ray, infrared, and radio bands, as these wavelengths can pass through the dust clouds. This observation shows the Arches Cluster in the infrared and demonstrates the leap in Hubble’s performance since its 1999 image of same object.*

It is not so much that familiarity breeds contempt, though that happens when we live down to one another’s expectations. It is more that we have contempt for the familiar. We don’t pay attention to the things we think we know, and we do not like for them to surprise us.

Jesus could show these people nothing. No great miracles, no signs of great power—he could only heal a few of the sick, this Gospel says. It was perhaps the most he could do and not push the boundaries of their expectations.

He was amazed.

It was not that God among men had no power. It was that men stood beside God and did not wish to see. If the humanity in Jesus could offend them, imagine what the God in him could accomplish.

And so Jesus called the twelve to him, the dozen closest followers, all likewise known to the people who had begun to resent him. He sent them away. He sent them out, scattering like dust, and gave them no provisions except some kind of power to face the evil that they would encounter.

Jesus told them to stay with those who would accept them, but to leave behind the ones who would not. “Shake the dust off your feet as a witness,” Jesus told them.

Leave the dust as a witness, he said, a sign. To use the exact word chosen in the Gospel, the dust beneath their feet would be a martyr.

The dust beneath our feet, like we ourselves, came from the ancient galaxies of space, the hearts of a billion suns. One man sees only dust where the next sees the stuff of stars.

Dust Plume Over Red Sea
Dust Plume. This astronaut photograph acquired on June 22, 2013 provides a panoramic view of most of the length of the Red Sea. The northernmost end, the Gulf of Suez, is just visible at the top center of the image and is fully 1,900 kilometers (1,200 miles) in ground distance from the International Space Station (ISS). The Nile River snakes its way northward through the Sahara Desert on the left. Much closer to the camera—but still more than 550 kilometers (340 miles) from the ISS—is a dust plume surging out over the Red Sea and reaching most of the way to Saudi Arabia. The point source of this plume is the delta of the southern Egyptian river Khor Baraka.*

We may read this Gospel and walk away thinking that Jesus meant to leave those small minded and resentful people to choke on their own dust. We may also pay attention to the word, martyr, that gives a purpose to the dust, calling on the most ordinary thing in that dry land to remain forever as a witness to the most extraordinary presence of God.

The people around us are seldom brilliant and marvelous. Most of them, most of us, are the poor, the ordinary, the small minded and the resentful. We are as unremarkable as the dust beneath our feet, as numerous and as anonymous as the sand of a desert.

If the Gospel is true, God’s love must be without end. We are nothing special. We are only bits of animated dust, specks of sand, and yet the light of the stars makes us shine.

This galaxy goes by the name of ESO 162-17 and is located about 40 million light-years away in the constellation of Carina. At first glance this image seems like a fairly standard picture of a galaxy with dark patches of dust and bright patches of young, blue stars. However, a closer look reveals several peculiar features. Firstly, ESO 162-17 is what is known as a peculiar galaxy — a galaxy that has gone through interactions with its cosmic neighbours, resulting in an unusual amount of dust and gas, an irregular shape, or a strange composition. Secondly, on 23 February 2010 astronomers observed the supernova known as SN 2010ae nestled within this galaxy. The supernova belongs to a recently discovered class of supernovae called Type Iax supernovae. This class of objects is related to the better known Type-Ia supernovae. Type Ia supernovae result when a white dwarf accumulates enough mass either from a companion or, rarely, through collision with another white dwarf, to initiate a catastrophic collapse followed by a spectacular explosion as a supernova.  Type Iax supernovae also involve a white dwarf as the central star, but in this case it may survive the event. Type Iax supernovae are much fainter and rarer than Type Ia supernovae, and their exact mechanism is still a matter of open debate. The rather beautiful four-pointed shape of foreground stars distributed around ESO 162-17 also draws the eye. This is an optical effect introduced as the incoming light is diffracted by the four struts that support the Hubble Space Telescope’s small secondary mirror.
This galaxy goes by the name of ESO 162-17 and is located about 40 million light-years away in the constellation of Carina. At first glance this image seems like a fairly standard picture of a galaxy with dark patches of dust and bright patches of young, blue stars. However, a closer look reveals several peculiar features. Firstly, ESO 162-17 is what is known as a peculiar galaxy — a galaxy that has gone through interactions with its cosmic neighbours, resulting in an unusual amount of dust and gas, an irregular shape, or a strange composition. Secondly, on 23 February 2010 astronomers observed the supernova known as SN 2010ae nestled within this galaxy. The supernova belongs to a recently discovered class of supernovae called Type Iax supernovae. This class of objects is related to the better known Type-Ia supernovae. Type Ia supernovae result when a white dwarf accumulates enough mass either from a companion or, rarely, through collision with another white dwarf, to initiate a catastrophic collapse followed by a spectacular explosion as a supernova.  Type Iax supernovae also involve a white dwarf as the central star, but in this case it may survive the event. Type Iax supernovae are much fainter and rarer than Type Ia supernovae, and their exact mechanism is still a matter of open debate. The rather beautiful four-pointed shape of foreground stars distributed around ESO 162-17 also draws the eye. This is an optical effect introduced as the incoming light is diffracted by the four struts that support the Hubble Space Telescope’s small secondary mirror.*

* Credit to NASA.gov for the marvelous images and the accompanying captions that you see in this post. If you have not visited the NASA.gov website, you should! Amazing work by entirely non-ordinary people. —C R Taylor