The Seven Samurai, er, Brothers

Trees in Autumn

Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost  |  Luke 20:27-38

It is a queer tale, odd, to our modern ears, this business of seven brothers marrying the same woman one after the other as each died and left her a widow, each trying to leave a son to carry on the name of the first brother in the line who died childless. It is a story based in a society so removed, so alien to us that it makes little sense.

In modern western culture, where married women often do not change their surname and where single parents are not an oddity, we cannot fathom these ancient thought processes. We don’t get the idea that producing an heir, even a surrogate one, was more important than the wishes of the brothers or the rights of the woman. The men and the woman were all, albeit unequally, bound by an archaic set of social laws that we cannot fathom.

These archaic religious practices weren’t even the point of the story. Luke only uses the doozy of a riddle posed by the Sadducees as the setup for Jesus’ answer. Still, it’s worth a little reflection.

Trees in SunsetThe Sadducees did not believe in eternal life nor any resurrection of the dead. This life is it, and when it is over, it’s over, a view that did not lament mortality so much as hold our brief lives all the more precious. They weren’t poking sticks at the notion of a string of brothers and one beleaguered woman following an odd bit of Mosaic law. They were trying to debate the notion of resurrection, the idea of life continuing beyond this life, by holding it up to ridicule.

We might struggle with both parts—the riddle and the answer.

We view the ancient religious marriages as peculiar, serving an end that we no longer understand, treating a woman as inheritable as any family heirloom—cherished, maybe, but property nonetheless. We might stop to view it from the perspective of the Garden of Eden.

After all, there are other views of the creation narratives of Genesis than the explanations of mainstream Christianity. One alternative to seeing the expulsion from Eden as punishment is to view this first exile experience, and the prescription of child bearing and work, as representing a passage into the adulthood of humanity, the realization of mortality, and the appreciation of the only two things that remain after us—our work and our children.

From that perspective, we might appreciate the ancient idea of a man fathering a surrogate son for a brother who died childless. Dying childless was to die indeed. A child meant that one’s life continued generation by generation. (There was also the transfer of property to consider, though the question at hand is life, not the deed to the farm.)

The answer Jesus gave should do more than enlighten us about the afterlife. He didn’t offer it, and Luke did not bother to record it, just so that we could dangle his words in the face of modern Sadducees: see, Jesus said there is an afterlife.

For that matter, I don’t think it is ever safe to use the words of Jesus to prove what we believe. There are lots of reasons, but the best one is this—we’re probably wrong, as wrong as the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Romans, the disciples, as wrong as every single group that comes along in the gospels. It’s what all of them had in common—being wrong. It is likely the single thing that all of us have in common.

fallpumpkinsChristians, particularly American evangelicals, like to be right. Right about gay rights, human rights, pro life rights. Right about who can marry whom. Right about sex, drugs, alcohol, music, art, literature, movies, and political candidates. As right as the Sadducees, who were very good people. As right as the Pharisees, who were also very good people. More right than most of the disciples, who were fairly good people most of the time.

At the end of this gospel passage, Jesus says something interesting about God and about people who died in ages past. “Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living, for to him all of them are alive.”

To God all of them are alive. Not right. Not voting for the right candidate, opposing the right (or wrong) positions. Alive. Which suggests there is something more important that being right: being alive in God is the point.

As I write these words, I see a tree, the leaves slowly turning from green to orange and brown for autumn. It is not bothering to sort out the people around it, the birds, or the squirrels. It is simply alive, alive to them, alive to the sunlight, alive to the shifting seasons, and it is alive to God. It is not giving a great deal of thought to the future spring, that final spring, when no green leaves will emerge from its branches.

The voices on our televisions, computer screens, radios, churches, government, grocery stores, and even in our heads can tell us a great deal about who is right (usually us) and more about who is wrong (usually them.) That tree can tell us more about being alive to God.

If we get the part about being alive to God, the rest will take care of itself.

Trees in Autumn

Ideas on the Way to Resurrection

Easter — Resurrection of the Lord  |  John 20:1-18 or Luke 24:1-12

Ideas on the Way to Resurrection

What if we don’t buy into this whole story about Jesus coming back to life? What if people made it up? What if we only believe it because of our upbringing, or fear of dying, or simply habit?

We wouldn’t be alone. There is plenty of precedent, maybe even including the original, odd, abrupt ending¹ of the first and oldest gospel, the Gospel of Mark. Women come to the tomb to add spices and perfumes to the body of Jesus, an embalming, only to find the tomb empty except for a stranger who tells them that Jesus has risen from the dead, and they flee in fear and ecstasy. That’s it. No elaboration. No explanation.

IM000871.JPGYet the early Christians (they called it the Way² — still a better name, I think, after all the centuries) flourished. They did it without a systematic theology or chocolate bunnies. They didn’t know that we would call this celebration Easter, the celebration of the story that Jesus died, was laid in a tomb, and rose again.

No painted eggs. No fake grass. No Easter egg hunt.

But what if we still just can’t quite believe such a thing happened? What does God do with us, if there is a God?

God starts with us where we are, I think. Actually, if God is unbounded by the spacetime fetters that define us, perhaps God starts with us where we are, where we have been, and where we will be, all at once.

And if we can’t quite accept that Jesus was resurrected, how about we just start with the idea of resurrection? It’s a pretty good idea: life where there was none, a new beginning, a fresh breath. Genesis.

What if we think of Christianity (the Way, if you like), as faith in the idea of resurrection, celebration of the notion that lives can begin again. Broken things can be mended. Lost things can be restored. New life can begin, and we don’t have to spend our lives shut away in some dark place, no matter whether we got there ourselves or were carried against our will.

Resurrection. That is something worth believing in, an idea worth holding onto. It is reason enough to claim this faith and follow in the Way.

And what of these astonishing claims that God was expressed in human form in this man Jesus, that this God-man allowed himself to die a cruel death at the hands of people like us, that afterward he rose from the dead? Surely if this happened, nothing stranger ever has?

Wormhole, digital art by Les Bossinas, via NASA.gov
Wormhole, digital art by Les Bossinas, via NASA.gov

It is interesting, the things we believe. Take Sea-Monkeys, dessicated brine shrimp that somehow return to life after being dried to dust. We watch them return to life, swimming in little plastic aquariums we order from comic books, and marvel. For fishing bait, my grandfather collected Catalpa worms (we called them Catawba worms, but they are the larvae of the moth Ceratomia catalpae), put them in a box and kept them in a box in the freezer. You could take them out later, let them thaw, and sometimes the things would begin to move again. It was peculiar, and amazing, and creepy.

Consider black holes in space, points of such dense gravity that even light itself is pulled inside. Unbelievable. Then there is the idea of a wormhole, nothing to do with fishing, the Einstein-Rosen bridge kind of wormhole forming a tunnel through spacetime. Conceptually, they are out there, though hard to locate—sort of like Easter eggs in space. We hear of such notions and nod, marveling.

God, though? Resurrection?

Maybe for this Easter, even if we are not quite far enough along the Way to embrace such possibilities, we can at least look with wonder at these notions of grace scattered like Easter eggs along our path.

Redemption. Renewal. Resurrection. This Jesus who says, “Behold, I make all things new.”

Those are thoughts worth finding.

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¹ The earliest manuscripts of the Gospel of Mark end at verse 16:8 — “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

² See Acts 9:2

The Care of Sheep

Wolf Looking Back by Lauren Bell

Fourth Sunday of Easter  |  John 10:11-18

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

Jesus calls himself the good shepherd, one who lays down his own life in the care of his sheep.

Why? Why does this shepherd care so much for these sheep? In answer, Jesus claims, “I know my own, and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.”

Knowing someone: it changes everything.

Think of a terrible news story, some natural disaster—a tornado or flood or earthquake. So long as we hear only the background, the big picture, we are safe from those people. Our hearts are free to leave them. It is terrible, we think. Perhaps we make a small donation, a few dollars in a jar.

Wolf Shadow by Lauren Bell
Wolf Shadow by Lauren Bell

Linger with the photographs, and we slip. See an image of a father trying to hold to his children, and we are lost. See tears in the wide eyes of an orphaned child, and we cannot turn away, not entirely, not without taking something of that pain with us, not without losing something of ourselves in the turning.

Likewise, imagine those people who appear to have brought their troubles on themselves. So long as they are at a distance, we blame them for their plight rather than see their needs.

No?

How about those North African migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea, getting themselves into danger? So long as they are a concept, an idea, a problem, many of us can turn away from them. Perhaps we agree that rescue operations only encourage these people to persist. Stop to gaze at a photo of a woman nearly drowning in the surf, or listen to a man’s story of why his family would take such risks, and we cannot turn away without losing something of our own humanity.

Eye of the Wolf by Lauren Bell
Eye of the Wolf by Lauren Bell

I am the good shepherd, Jesus says, because I know them.

How about boy soldiers in Africa? Far away, and none of our concern, perhaps. Refugees in Syria? They destroyed their own country with civil war, didn’t they, and isn’t the UN doing something? More than that, they are far away. Even gazing into their eyes in the photos or reading their stories in interviews, we remain removed from them.

We cannot know them, not truly. Not knowing them, we can walk away. How are we to care when the wolves come?

If we haven’t already turned away from this bit of writing, let’s try something closer to where we live.

How about a homeless person? Not the persistent panhandler with a sign, the one we are fairly certain is less than honest about his goals. Try the one quietly asking for help, or people not asking us for anything, the family living in a car, the man waiting behind a bush for the shelter to reopen. We avoid knowing them so that we can walk away. If we know them, we no longer have that option.

So here is our Gospel question: do we get to know people because we are good shepherds, or do we become good shepherds because we get to know people?

That is applied spirituality, practical theology.

Backing away from the practical for a moment, there is also a theological bombshell buried in this passage: I lay down my life in order to take it up again.

What? In this season of resurrection, it is worth a second thought.

Why did Jesus die? Oh, come on, we know this one. If we’ve ever been near a Sunday school class, an evangelical sermon, or a hand painted roadside placard, we know why—to save us from our sins, right?

One problem—that is not what Jesus himself is recorded as saying, not here, perhaps not quite anywhere in the Gospels. I lay down my life in order to take it up again. I die for the purpose of living. And what do we make of that?

If nothing else, let’s agree that God may be up to something greater than our memorized explanations. We’ve built an entire system of thought to explain God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit, but our ideas about God are not God. Our explanations of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus are not Jesus.

Like the Christmas Grinch who thought of something he hadn’t before, what if the Gospel, perhaps, means a little bit more?

If we merely have ideas about God, we are still free. God remains a concept, dangerous enough but a step removed from us. We are protected from God by our own system of thought. Theology becomes a barrier, our seawall, an end in itself, our human-made substitute for a God we do not see and perhaps do not wish to see.

If we know God, if we open ourselves to the possibility of knowing something greater than ourselves, we walk dangerous ground, swim in deep waters. Knowing God, we can no longer turn away.

We may even find ourselves counting sheep.

Wolf Looking Back by Lauren Bell
Wolf Looking Back by Lauren Bell

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

Breathe

Second Sunday of Easter  |  John 20:19-31

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

There are stories of fire that fell from the sky onto the heads of the faithful. It was not a fire that burned them, not as one would think of it, not as some of the onlookers might have hoped. (Religious differences bring out the worst in people.) This fire was the Spirit of God, or so it is claimed in the book of Acts—but that will be the lectionary passage for the observance of Pentecost, May 24 of this year.

Fire that only burned within and did not scorch the skin—it sounds like a metaphor.

John tells a different story. In this Gospel a small group of believers gathered in a house, behind closed doors. Jesus, the same one who was crucified, comes to them somehow and breathes on them, telling them to receive the Holy Spirit of God. He points out the marks of his torture to remove any doubts of his identity, such as the doubts of Thomas who had the good sense to want to see this living Jesus for himself.

Jesus breathed on them, as only the living can. Air from his lungs, the Spirit of God—it sounds like another metaphor.

There is a greeting in parts of the world where two people press their foreheads and noses together to share a breath. It may have nothing to do with this Jesus story. It does tell us something about the centrality of breathing. The beating of our hearts, the air we breathe, nothing about us continues without these things.

Like the bumper sticker says, just keep breathing.

Whichever version we read, John’s tale of Jesus breathing on his followers or the story in Acts with tongues of fire falling from the sky, the result is the same. Afterward something was different. These earliest Christians went out and began talking about what they knew of God, of this Jesus, of everything they had seen and heard and touched, to everyone they met, everywhere they went, so long as they drew breath.

Something had changed in them. Something drove them out of their rooms, their homes, their comforts, their habits.

Something.A galaxy on the edge

The scripture writers claim that it was the Spirit of God. Radically differing in appearance and path, by breath or by fire or by touch of hand or sight, the New Testament people spoke of experiencing and witnessing what they described as the Spirit of God entering into themselves and into the people around them. What they described was not possession by a greater power. It was not acquisition of some greater power. It was transcendence.

Their existence changed.

They became different. The power that they believed resurrected Jesus had also resurrected their lives, lifting them from the mundane into the extraordinary. The resurrection stories of Jesus often mention that it was difficult to recognize him, though there is little explanation as to why. Perhaps that is because little or no explanation was needed for people living such transformed lives that they no longer even recognized themselves.

The breath of God. Many would dismiss such a concept as delusional. Perhaps Jesus was a good man, they say, but leave God out of it. There is no proof of God, they say, nothing to demonstrate that we did not create the idea of God out of our own need. There is no argument that can totally refute such thinking, no logic that can overwhelm such rational doubt.

Scientists tell us that when we breathe we take in elements that have come, as everything within us has, from the stars. The oxygen that sustains us may contain atoms that sustained Marilyn Monroe or George Washington or Jesus or the Buddha. In every breath we touch on something eternal.

We are miraculous. We are ordinary. We are living stardust. We are imbued with the breath of God.

At the end of the lectionary passage for this week’s reading, there is a confession, a reason given as to why this Gospel of John was written down at all: these things are written that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

That we might believe, that we may have life, is the whole purpose of the Gospel. You might say we were already alive without hearing it.

Tennyson wrote, As though to breathe were life! There is more to living than existence. That, too, is the message of John’s Gospel. Feel the wind and know it for more than weather—for you it is the breath of God. See the stars and know them for more than engines of the expanding universe—for you they are the sparks of life.

Do more than remember to breathe. Remember to live.

ExplodingStar_GKPerseiNova_NASAimage