Get Behind Me — A Different Kind of Roller Coaster

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Mark 8:22-38  |  Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost  |  Get Behind Me: A Different Kind of Roller Coaster

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.

“Who do you say that I am?” asks Jesus, and that’s when things go sideways for Peter.

“You are the Messiah,” Peter says. It’s the right answer, but in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus rewards Peter with a stern warning not to tell anyone. (Over in Matthew’s telling of the same event, Peter gets a blessing—Matthew 16:17-19—an interesting addition to Mark’s account.)

Then Jesus begins explaining about getting himself killed, and Peter tries to talk some sense to him. It doesn’t go well. Jesus rejects him and calls him Satan for his trouble.

This is when the disciples realize they are on a different sort of ride.IMG_2044

Stunned by seeing Peter rebuked, now they hear Jesus describe the inverted value system of the Kingdom of God—denying oneself as gain, pursuit of wealth as spiritual poverty. To be human is to resist the divine. Then Jesus calls a crowd to him and starts talking about carrying one’s own cross. These are people who have first hand experience with Romans and crucifixion. The speech is less than inspiring.

Maybe his words ring true for them. Jesus isn’t giving them the happily ever after version. He’s telling them the hard truths: we sometimes live difficult lives and carry heavy burdens. The Gospel he is preaching is no easy path, no promise of prosperity. He doesn’t even ask them whether there is a cross lying within reach. He assumes they each have one and know where to find it. Take up your cross, he tells them, and none of them ask where it is.

Mark, ever mindful of the order of his story, puts this passage just after one of the oddest miracles in all of the Gospels, the miracle of the second touch. A blind man is brought to be healed, and Jesus touches his eyes and asks what he sees. People, says the man, but they are misshapen, like trees. It sounds as though Jesus does not get it right the first time and has to touch the man again, adjust the miracle, tweak it a bit. If we think the story is about Jesus performing miracles, it can make us uneasy.

It is a story about taking a second look, about trying to see clearly or at least about having the sense to know when we do not. Taken that way, it is the perfect introduction to what happens next.

Peter and the other disciples had a pretty good picture of how this messiah thing was supposed to work. So did most of the religious folk around them. It was just that their systematic theologies didn’t match up with God’s idea of messiah.

They had to stop and take a second look.

Religious people can be some of the most stubborn, closed-minded, arrogant, opinionated people on earth. Being one myself, I know something about them.

IMG_2464We have developed minutely differentiated beliefs, refining them to the point that we label and condemn one another by our theological and ideological differences. (“Your thoughts about God are not as pure, or right, as my thoughts about God. In fact, you may be a heretic…”)

We do not see clearly. Some of our theology no doubt looks as odd to God as a tree walking.

We would all do better to take a second look, or a third. God may still have some very different ideas about this messiah business.



Entrance to the Carousel


Proper 13 (18)  |  John 6:24-35

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.


Bread is evil, or so the internet tells us. Never mind that we humans have looked upon bread as our most basic foodstuff for millennia — now we hear that eating bread makes us fat, inclines us to diabetes, and perhaps even to worse things than that.

I do not intend to give it up. I like bread. Any food so central to the human experience as to become a symbol of life itself is worth keeping.

FreshBread_wideBread is the metaphor that Jesus repeatedly uses for himself and for God’s relationship to humanity. “I am the bread of life,” he says in the Gospel of John. Later in the same Gospel, Jesus uses even more vivid language, declaring that his followers must take and consume his broken body. Some Romans — not surprisingly — wondered whether early Christians were cannibals. These words of Jesus, combined with descriptions of the ritual of communion, raised doubts.

None of it was meant literally, of course. Jesus was not urging people to take a bite out of him. He may not even have meant to limit the metaphor to himself. So much attention goes to his claim of being the bread of life that we gloss over the preceding statement: “For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

That which comes and gives life — that is a much broader statement. It is no longer just bread, no longer just Jesus. How about light and warmth? How about the air we breathe, the water we drink, the trillions of atoms, molecules, interactions, and energy sustaining us?

What about the touch of a loved one, the smile of a child, the kindness of a stranger? What are they but a trail of breadcrumbs leading to God?

They sustain us as surely as our daily bread.

Daily bread — it is a phrase we have from the prayer Jesus taught his followers. The Greek word is επιούσιος, epiousios, and it is a peculiar one. It is a hapax legomenon, a word or saying found only in one context, in this case the Lord’s prayer. Matthew and Luke each contain versions of the prayer, drawing on the same source and preserving this odd term.

επιούσιος might mean daily, or needed, or necessary. It might mean something else altogether. We have nothing for comparison, no other use of the term.

Perhaps it means “that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world”— that kind of bread.

For people of faith, everything that sustains us is the gift of God. Such faith-speak puts off those who are wary of the not-yet-known, and anything dressed in God-language is rejected by the devoutly non-religious. Nevertheless, what we couch in the language of faith does not loose its reality or power.

Knowing that the effusive light bathing our world is flung to us in particles and waves from the star at the center of our planet’s orbit does not harm my faith. Light, energy emitted by the sun, is natural. As the warmth on my child’s face, it is miraculous. The one thing does nothing to lessen the other.

On a hot August day, understanding how ice cream is made does nothing to lessen the wonder of it. Knowing the science of baking bread does not diminish the taste of it.

The ritual of communion has been explained by theologians so many ways. For some, the bread is miraculously, if metaphysically, the actual body of Christ. For others, God is present in some way that is just beyond expression or comprehension, somehow behind or with the bread. For still others, the bread is merely a symbol, a way of imagining the simple and sustaining gift of God’s presence.

No matter how we explain a symbol, the reality behind it remains. No matter how long the trail of crumbs that lead back to the origin of life on this planet, all that sustains us is of God. Explanations of love need not stand in the way of experiencing it.

"The Last Supper" by Leonardo da Vinci
“The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci

God is George

Fifth Sunday of Easter  |  John 15:1-8

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

Some things really do get lost in translation.

John gave us this remarkable image-filled passage—Jesus talking to his followers, a long last discourse before he is silenced in arrest and crucifixion—and we miss some of the good bits simply because we cannot hear the words.

GrapevineVertTake that first verse. More or less literally, we get this: I myself am the vine, the true one, and the father of me is the george. Oh, sorry, that is to say γεωργός, transliterated georgios. The word means ‘farmer’, and from it we get the modern name of George.

Maybe it does not change our understanding much, but knowing that God is called a farmer, that the word and the work are not limited to tending grapevines, helps somehow. It broadens our imagination. There is something cheerful about imagining God in baggy pants and knee high rubber boots, galumphing around tending to sheep and goats and olive trees.

Let’s try another one. In most English translations, verse two speaks of God the farmer, good old George, ‘pruning’ a grapevine. Then verse three, in the English, starts talking about being ‘clean’. Ok, we make the logical connection, a pruned vine and a clean heart, but the words John uses are not the ones we hear.

In verse two God prunes, from καθαίρει, kathairo. In verse three, we are clean, καθαροί, katharoi. Hear the echo? Not ‘prune’ and ‘clean’, which may be synonyms at a stretch. John uses kathairo and katharoi, words from the same root, that sound alike, and that have a little different meaning.

Ask anyone who has had a catheter. It leaves a different impression, and not just on the outside.

One more word: μένω, meno. It is the verb that means ‘to remain’ (we might be seeing the remnant of it in the ‘main’ part of our own English word.) It could also be translated as ‘to abide’ or ‘to stay’.LookingInSurf

That is what the whole passage is about. Abiding. Remaining. Being. What comes out of our lives depends on where we choose to abide, on the inside.

We can choose to remain where we are, dwelling on past injury and failures, maintaining our self doubts and fears, focused on ourselves, pitching our tents in the midst of a wasteland of negative thinking. We can dwell on the broken notions that we are too fat, too skinny, worthless, deserving of abuse. We can remain self centered, self serving, self worshipping, abide in our own pettiness, become huge fish in the tiny ponds of our minds.

Or we can get clean. Prune our thinking. Open our minds. Catharsis. That is an act of genuine faith: opening our minds to the possibility of something greater.

Real power is not something we hold. Power is what flows through us, passing on to something else, to someone else. The power flows from the somewhere that faith calls God. Our task is simple—be.

Origami goldThis is where Christianity lost its Zen.

The Church, sometimes more focused on the doctrine of forgiveness than on real living, often forgets that religion created most of the guilt in the first place. The circle of failure-forgiveness-more failure-and-guilt can be baffling to people looking into Christianity from the outside and seeing only an endless loop, a package of guilt and absolution, sprinkled with an aversion to science and wrapped in a roster of rules.

What we have made of Christianity sometimes does not resemble what we read in John’s Gospel. The first role of the Church is simple. To abide. To live. To be. To open our minds to the possibilities of God.

We’re not the end. We’re the path. Let the Spirit flow.

Running into surf wide

Flesh and Bones

Third Sunday in Easter | Luke 24:36b-48

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

Resurrection is such an odd business. Each of us imagines it differently, from shining ghosts to the walking dead.

Many of us imagine Jesus resurrected in some spirit form–how else did he later rise, disappearing from everyone’s sight, right? The four Gospels, particularly this passage from Luke, go out of the way to insist on a bodily resurrection. There is surely a spiritual significance, but the Gospels insist that Jesus was encountered in a very human form, eating and touching and walking and speaking, days after his public crucifixion. He was flesh and bones.

So much for explaining Christianity as a purely spiritual path.

White Azalea

That’s the good news. It means that Christianity is not just a someday thing, not just a future to be hoped for, though that hope is not nothing. It means resurrection is also a here and now thing. Resurrection is part of everyday life, practical theology.

Ok, so maybe it’s not the raise you from the dead kind of practical. We don’t get a do-over after walking out in front of a bus. We don’t get a free pass to fix everything. We do get something we can use, something that we don’t have to wait until the afterlife to apply. We get that mistakes can be redeemed. Failures can be transformed. We can awaken to a life that is better, closer to the way we thought it ought to be when we were children.

Shakespeare wrote, “Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant Bee on Azaleanever taste of death but once.” [Julius Caesar, Act II, Scene 2] There aren’t many valiant folk, at least not much past the age of twelve. Most of us die many times, of mistakes and of fear, of the tiny cuts of thousands of slights and failings, some real and many more imagined. The Gospel idea of resurrection gives us more than a future hope; it gives us a present hope of redemption, of new chances, of mourning becoming memory, of failures feathering away our hardness and harsh judgments. Resurrection means we are still alive, even if we seem sometimes to have forgotten.

We cherish the stories that help us understand our world. We remember the tale of the genie in the bottle because on some level we understand that it describes our lives. We are all genies, with amazing if untapped power, trapped in the bottles of the lives we have accepted. Some of the walls that surround us were built by other people or by circumstance. Many of us are hemmed in by walls that we have built for ourselves, walls we made out of ideas that we were given or with limitations that we believed were real.

We do not see that the resurrection story also describes our lives. Just as the genie was placed in the bottle and Jesus was placed in the tomb, we also find ourselves enclosed in our lives, mystified as to how it came to be so.

Resurrection is the power of God pulling out the stopper, breaking down our walls, or giving us the tools to do it for ourselves. We can roll away some of the stones in our path. We can fold away some of the thoughts that bind us. The genie is out of the bottle. The Lord has left the tomb.

That is the message of Easter.

Bee climb

Blind Expectations

Liturgy of the Palms  |  Mark 11:1-11, John 12:12-16

Lectionary Project

We know the story. The image is iconic, even to those who have only a passing familiarity with Christianity: Jesus riding a donkey, palms and cloaks covering the ground, a crowd calling out his name and welcoming him to Jerusalem.

The trouble is that the crowd were expecting someone else. They did not see the man they welcomed, the one riding the colt and accepting—perhaps tolerating—their accolades. Instead, they saw the person they had been expecting, a savior, a deliverer, a king.

To be sure, there were many ideas in the minds of those people, just as there were many ideas swirling in the minds of Jesus’ closest followers. The inner circle had heard Jesus pronounce enough strange and dark predictions that they were not certain what lay ahead of them in the great city. The crowd along the side of the road expected a great deal, though little of what they expected would come to pass.

They were blind to what was before them, seeing only what they wanted to see. They believed that God was going to deliver them from the Romans and restore the monarchy, and they thought this man Jesus had come to accomplish it. It is what they wanted to believe, and which of us will question our own beliefs?

Cherry BlossomsThere is our problem. People of faith have certain understandings of God, certain beliefs that we hold as true, even though we may be just as wrong as those people shouting on the side of the road two thousand years ago. Like them, we make the mistake of holding blindly to our expectations of God, regardless of what God intends, regardless of what God might do right in front of us.

We confuse our expectations of God with our faith in God.

It is a paradox. Rather than consider that we might, in some particular or major way, be wrong, we hold blindly to our belief system, thinking that it is the same as faith. We substitute our beliefs about God for our faith in God.

We are happier with a belief system that does not change than we are with a God who might not meet our expectations. Questioning our beliefs feels like questioning God.

That is why there are so many angry religious people, why there are always people who will shout and strut and do great harm, physical or otherwise, rather than question their own ideas. Their beliefs give them certainty. Doubt fills them with fear, and fear too often is expressed as anger.

Here’s the thing. If God is God, then we may lay aside our entire religious framework and rest certain that when we put our thoughts back together, God will still be there. If God is God, our opinion of the matter changes nothing.

It is another paradox of faith—we may feel undone by our doubts and still pray to a God about whom we feel we know very little, or in whom we have little faith remaining.

We think that prayer is a request, a petition, and perhaps it is. We say that in prayer we offer thanks, praise, love, as we communicate our thoughts and feelings to God, and perhaps we do. At its base, prayer is a confession of faith. We pray because on some level, beyond our doubts, we still believe God exists. We still believe that God hears us. We still hope that God responds, though it may be in ways that do not meet our expectations.

They stood by the road and shouted to Jesus. Few, if any, believed that they were welcoming God into their midst: they thought they were welcoming a king. Nevertheless, like other blind men who sat by the road and called out for help, Jesus heard them. He knew what they wanted, and he knew that in a few days he would disappoint them. He also knew that despite their mistaken beliefs, regardless of their misinformed shouts, he would far exceed their expectations.

Cherry Blossoms 3