Leaf Candles

photo by Katherine Brown

“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so 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.”

John 20:30-31, from John 20:19-31, lectionary text for Sunday after Easter.

The dogwood is emerald-candled.  Its leaves are new and small, precisely shaped, slightly flared. Glowing green.  Each leaf-pair is poised at the tip of a slender branch.  The sun shines, and the leaf-cups appear each a lit glim held aloft.   The light seems to be radiating from the leaves themselves as if they, not the sun, are the source of their shining.  Then clouds pass across the sun, and the light dims, and the leaves are again leaves.  Just leaves.  New, small, precisely shaped, slightly flared.  Flat green.

Easter evening, Jesus came and stood among the disciples, and the disciples who saw him rejoiced (John 20:19-20).  Christ-light had shone, and I imagine them radiant in its glow.

Thomas, one of the twelve, had not been with them that night.  ‘We have seen the Lord!’ the others told him.  Thomas refused the news.  See the insistent shake of his head, the stubborn hunch of his shoulders?  Thomas recites the litany of the sparks necessary to kindle his belief:  he must see, he must touch.  Not his lord — the one they said they had seen (20:25), the one with whom he had been willing to die (John 11:16) — but the marks of the nails in Jesus’ hands and side.  As if the proof of resurrection is in the marks of suffering.  Only if Thomas can encounter the body that he knows was broken will he believe that his Lord has risen.

So obdurate is Thomas’s resistance to his fellows’ joy that I wonder at his presence when, a week later, the disciples are again in the house (20:26).  Thomas is with them.  He had seemed to feel their resurrection report of Easter evening was more injury than invitation.  In the face of their joy, he had insisted on his loss.  But the following week, he was among them.  Did he come because of the others’ witness or in spite of it?  Did they welcome him in hope their joy would spark his own or because all of them together, in joy or in pain, were Christ’s own?  Is it their welcome, even?  Or is it reunion, and Christ the welcoming host?

Is it about the leaves or the light?

A week after Easter, Jesus stood among them and told Thomas to see and to touch.  ‘Do not be unbelieving but believing,’ Jesus says (20:27).  Thomas is shaken out of the fixedness of his disbelief by this encounter with Jesus’ nail-marked body.  ‘My Lord and my God!’ he exclaims (20:28).  ‘You have seen me,’ Jesus tells Thomas, then Jesus tells all of us after, ‘Blessed are those who have not seen but believe’ (20:29).  John’s gospel continues Jesus’ address to us with a reference to its own body, the thing ‘written so that you may believe …’ (20:31).

A body pierced by nails, twisted on a cross; broken by the world to overcome the world.  A community still claiming more than it lives, striving to live what it claims, falling short and having to try again and again.  Things written in a distant idiom — vocabulary, grammar, imagery — that must be learned and studied and read again and again.  A world of bodies.  Each in some way marked, twisted.  None complete.

Don’t mistake the leaves for the light.  Don’t mis-order the priorities.  Do recognize the relationship.

The clouds pass away, and the sun shines full.  Again, the dogwood is emerald-candled, each leaf-pair lit from within, seeming to show its true self, its very life.  

The daylight lets me see the dogwood leaves.  The leaves make that light visible as it otherwise would not be.  The leaves let me see the light.

People; pages.  Inadequate bodies all around.  Yet somehow the proof of Easter shows through these bodies that together — written, reading, lit, radiant, alive — make resurrection visible.

Gracious encounter.  That you may believe and, believing, have life.

Touch

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” 

Matthew 17:1-9; lectionary gospel for Sunday, Feb. 26, 2020.

This morning at church, a baby gripped my proffered finger, and I did not resist.  It’s been a while since I’ve had baby fist wrapped around my forefinger, I told his mother, and I tugged ever so gently, more to enjoy the feel of tiny fingers tighten their soft grip than to actually pull away.  Baby fingers have a different weight than a handshake.  I appreciated not only the treat of the baby’s hold but also how well the contact fit today’s text, as I’ve spent the week thinking about touch, and its significance.

Transfiguration Sunday.  It’s a familiar story.  Jesus and his three closest disciples ascend the mountain; Jesus is transformed — shining like the sun.  The disciples and he together are enveloped in an overshadowing bright cloud, and together they hear the heavenly voice, ‘This is my Son … Listen to him!’  

What are they to hear?

Matthew captions the mountaintop event as occurring ‘six days later,’ as if it should be read in light of whatever had happened six days before.  Jesus had asked the disciples ‘Who do you say that I am?’ (Matt 16:15) and Peter had promptly replied, ‘You are the messiah, the Son of the Living God’ (Matt 16:16).  Yet Peter — having correctly named Jesus’ identity — refuses Jesus’ explanation that messiah means rejection, that death comes before resurrection (16:21).  Peter cannot hear this word, protests its utterance, and Jesus rebukes him, ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ (16:23).

Maybe this is the word they need to heed:  that having acclaimed Jesus’ lordship, Peter and the rest need to listen to their lord’s explanation of what lordship means.  Suffering.  Rejection.  Death.  And beyond ….  The heavenly voice may be heard as if its primary injunction is retrospective.  But the story continues on.

‘Listen to him!’ the voice sounds from that cloud so dense in its brightness that it casts a shadow, and the disciples fall on their faces in fear.  And the next word that comes is not aural but haptic.  Jesus comes and touches these men collapsed in terror on the ground.  Jesus touches them.  Then Jesus speaks, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’

Jesus’ touch strikes me (pun only belatedly realized) because it is unique to Matthew’s telling.  Mark and Luke tell Transfiguration.  But only Matthew tells that the disciples’ terror caused their fall.  And only Matthew tells that Jesus touched them before telling them to get up.  Matthew, the gospel of Emmanuel, God-With-Us (Matt 1:28; 28:20), is the gospel that tells Jesus come so near to the disciples that he can stretch out his arm, reach with his hand, and touch these confused but beloved followers of the Beloved Son.  ‘Get up,’ Jesus says, and because he has touched them, they can.  ‘Do not be afraid,’ Jesus says, and because they have gotten up, they can be not afraid.

I am standing in the aisle in church as Christ’s Peace is passed — handshake by handshake — all around me.  I am clinging to the baby’s hold by letting the baby cling to me.  His mother and I both watch his face and smile.  His gaze is concentrated on my finger in his fist, on the slight motion of our hands connected.  His face lights in pleasure at the play, then falls as mother and I both realize the interval is ending, and I must truly pull my finger from his grasp.

Jesus touches his disciples.  Jesus’ hand on shoulder or back or cupped around the crown of the head.  Comfort in the contact giving strength to heed the speech.  Peter and James and John get up, and they go back down the mountain with Jesus.  Their understanding is still muddled.  They will again be afraid.  But they will have ever after the recollection of that mountain and its brightness and the voice saying Beloved Son (2 Peter 1:16-18).  And maybe, persisting as well, held in skin and flesh, the weight and warmth of Jesus’ hand.  

Through confusion and willful misunderstanding, through news and rumors, through affliction and joy, through fear and boldness and doubt and conviction — from generation to generation — Christ’s touch handed on from beloved to beloved, given and received even this Sunday morning, as a baby gripped my finger.

Uncorrected Astigmatism*

Now after [the wise men] had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

Matt 2:13-18; excerpt from Matt 2:13-23, lectionary text for Dec. 29, 2019

Our Christmas tree was a drug-store purchase 28 years ago.  It is small, with wire branches and stiff paper needles.  We trim it with tiny lights and decorations.  Once the last is placed atop the whole (an angel made of a starched doily, formerly white), we turn off the overhead and take off our eyeglasses and ooh and aah as the tree is haloed with the chrysanthemum-rayed glow that comes of uncorrected astigmatism.

I think of our silly self-delusion as I read this text.  The Slaughter of the Innocents. Every three years, this is the text for the Sunday after Christmas – some years the very next day.  I have been at that worship:  children are invited to wear pajamas; we all sing carols, again, as if to hold the sentiment of the season that bit longer.  The worship service is nice.  We feel it so. 

I can’t imagine reading this text at such a service. It is too horrible a contrast to Christmas — to the holy wonder of late-night candlelight, the giddy excitement of morning gifts.  Yet the calendar holds both together: the remembrance of the slaughter comes just after the celebration of the birth.

The juxtaposition shocks.  It should shock.  Our guts should twist with the horror; our hearts be pierced with the pain – with the way violence follows so naturally from the fear that grasps at power, that refuses consolation, that lashes out in self-defeating self-protection.

There’s no depth of field to sentiment’s glow.  To neglect Rachel’s wailing is to ignore the brokenness of the world, the sick of our own souls, the need that the Creator came into creation to suffer and to cure.  Still there is dark; still we are being born; still we hurt and – God forgive us! – still we hurt each other.  We don’t need tender sentiment; we need astringent love.

The Jeremiah text that the gospel quotes continues on past Rachel’s lamentation into promise:  “keep your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears … there is hope for your future, says the LORD.  Is Ephraim my dear son?  Is he the child I delight in?  … Therefore I am deeply moved for him; I will surely have mercy on him, says the LORD” (Jer 31:15-20).

Jesus escaped that particular slaughter.  But God did not.  God suffered the frightened cries of the children, the frantic cries of their parents.  God suffered it then and later and still.  

God was deeply moved.  God is deeply moved. God will surely have mercy on us all.

Glasses on. See as clearly as I can.

I must look full at the bitterness of Rachel’s refusal to see the strength of God’s saving love.

*Devotion revised from original written in 2010

Root and Branch

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.  His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.

Isaiah 11:1-3; excerpt from Isaiah 11:1-10, lectionary text for Sunday Dec. 8, 2019

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” […] But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire

Matthew 3:1-2, 7-10; excerpt from Matthew 3:1-10, lectionary text for Sunday Dec. 8, 2019

When are we in God’s work as a dresser of trees.  How far along?   That’s what I wonder as I read these two texts together.  I am struck by the confluence of images and the dynamic possibilities between.  Isaiah writes of a shoot springing from Jesse’s stump, of a new branch growing from old roots.  Matthew recounts John the Baptist’s threat that ‘even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees.’    Is God is the middle of hat-racking the bush that out of it a new branch might grow?  Or is God rigorously chopping at the very root, cutting down the fruitless tree to burn the wood?  Or are these perhaps the very same when:  is the ax John describes as lying there at the root, set on the ground for work yet to come, as if this ‘even now’ is not yet the last moment.  In which case, what is the next now to anticipate?  And what do we do with this one?

To ‘hat-rack.’  A verb I did not know until a few years ago when Paul so extensively chopped back our overgrown holly bush that only bare branches remained, branches looking unusually naked without their usual dress of leaves and berries.  Not a single leaf was left; nor any twigs.  Not even a single leaf.  Surely the bush was as good as dead.  But it was not so.  The sturdily bare branches broke out in bouquet-like clusters of twigs; leaves reappeared, as dark and glossy a green as any of those that had been hacked off; the bush’s life seemed revived.

Jesse’s stump is no shrub, of course.  An oak is a tree which is felled, rather than hat-racked.  Yet now when I read Isaiah’s text the memory of that hat-racked holly shows through the primary image of the rough-cut stump.  Jesse’s stump is not desiccated and dead, with the new shoot an unexpected miracle, so much as the tree cut back to allow or encourage that new shoot to appear.  The branch is a promise not as a surprise.  It is springier than the old wood, and a slightly brighter color, and once it appears, the deep green leaves are soon to follow:  wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and fear of the LORD.

I have always read John the Baptist’s words as a description of God’s wrathful judgment: the ax already set to its work; the tree already being cut down; the end already begun.  But this year, I read Matthew’s text in conversation with Isaiah’s, and I realized the ax is ‘lying’ at the root.  It is not striking wood.  It is not being swung.  It is lying there.  Waiting.  It will be used, John says, to fell the fruit-less trees for burning.  It will be used to fell the fruitless trees.  So bear fruit, John urges.  Yes, John calls the religious leaders viper’s brood.  Yes, John speaks of wrath and of flame.  The gospel is not a gentle text.  It is violent in its urgency.  ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’  Bear fruit.  Bear fruit.  For the kingdom.

Because the shoot from Jesse’s stump has sprung, with the spirit of the LORD upon him.  But we are not yet in that peaceable kingdom that the prophet describes.  The wolf and the lion do not live peacefully with the lamb and the calf and the little child.  We do not even live peacefully with each other.  We hurt and destroy ourselves and our world, and the earth is not yet full of the knowledge of the LORD even as the sea levels are rising.  Isaiah’s vision is full of grace if it’s read just in itself.  But Isaiah’s vision is judgment when it is read against the world, when it is read against we who call ourselves the body of the branch which sprang from Jesse’s stump.

Then I go back to the violence of John the Baptist’s proclamation and hear that the divine dresser of trees is not done.  Even now the ax is resting at the root.  Maybe it will cut back the fruitless branches for new growth.  So that we may do as we can, as we are charged to do.  Bear fruit.

The shoot from the stump of Jesse has sprung, the branch has grown out from his roots.  The kingdom of heaven has come near.  Even now.

Bear fruit.  

Smelling Memory

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

John 12:1-8; Text for Sunday April 7, 2019

Memories are tagged by senses as well as words.  The sight of a particular blue, the sound of a musical note, the feel of a knitted blanket, the taste of a familiar dish.  Of all of these sense-triggers, smell goes deepest, evokes the most.  The smell of bread baking, of beef stew simmering.  The library smell of old books, wood and wax. The milky smell of a baby.   The fall tang of wood smoke.  The sharp green of fresh-cut grass.  Hyacinths honey-sweet and lavender astringent and blue.

What did Mary remember when she uncorked that perfume?  What did she remember as she anointed Jesus’ feet, wiped them clean with her unbound hair?  Did Mary think of Lazarus her brother, so lately dead and buried?  Did Mary think of Martha, her sister, who had called Jesus Messiah and Lord?  Did Mary think of Jesus ordering the stone to be rolled back in spite of Martha’s warning of the foul smell of four-days-past death?  Did Mary remember that what had emerged from the tomb was her living, walking grave-cloth-bound brother, coming out in response to Jesus’ call? Did Mary remember what those grave-clothes smelled like, when Lazarus emerged? Had she clung to her brother through the musky-sweet scent of decay? Or had he smelled instead like new-born life?

The whole house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

What did Mary remember at the end of it all, whenever after she smelled the fragrance of the nard?  Did she remember Lazarus sitting host again to the one who had hosted his return to life.  Did she remember Martha paused in the doorway, bringing in the bread and wine, smile of joy turning into an O of surprise?  Did she remember Judas’s question?  Did she remember the rest of them gathered there?

Or did she only remember him?  Did she only remember the hem of his robe and the shape of his feet as she washed them in perfume and wiped them with her hair?  Did she only remember somehow knowing that this would be one of the last times he would be with them.  Did she only remember that this was her last time to make her thank-offering for one life returned, her gift-offering for another death coming?  

Six days before the Passover.  The third day after that.  Whenever after Mary smelled the perfume, what did she remember of the love-offering she had given? What did she experience of the love-offering she had received?

revised from 2010

Bearing Figs

Then [Jesus] told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

Luke 13:6-9

text for Sunday March 24, 2019

What was wrong with the tree?  Why did it not bear fruit?

Was it that the tree had been planted in the wrong place?  Was there was too little sunshine, or too much?  Was the soil was too acidic, or not enough?

Surely the tree longed to bear fruit.  

Maybe the tree looked at the other trees in the orchard, saw all of them bent with the happy, heavy weight of fruit.  Some trees bore fruit that was round and red; others longer and green; some trees were hung with fuzzed-globes of warm yellow while others bore smaller globes, with a purple-blue haze to the skin.  But no fruit hung from her branches.  The tree wept for her own barrenness, for the wrongness of her planting in this place, for the fruit she had been meant to bear but had not.

The master came to look at her, “Three years I have looked for figs,” he said, grieved to find the branches empty.

Figs?

‘Sir, let it alone for one more year,” said the gardener.  “I will dig around it and put manure on it.”

Figs?  The tree heard and wondered.

The gardener came to the tree. “Figs,” he murmured, soft as a breeze.  “You are meant to bear figs,” he told the tree, “You have always been meant to bear figs.  Be fruitful.  Bear figs.”

The tree listened and began to hope.  Her barrenness was not the master’s design; it was a grief to him as well as her.   The gardener dug around the tree, and put manure in the soil.  The gardener put new heart in the tree. “Figs,” the gardener whispered blessing to the tree.  To her neighbor, he whispered “apples” and to another “pears” or “peaches” and “plums.” The tree listened and began to understand.  She was meant to bear figs – not the fruit that every other tree bore, but figs, green-skinned, purple-fleshed, seeded and sweet.  The tree had blamed the planting, blamed the garden, blamed her own inability to be something she was never even asked to be.  Now she realized her true purpose.

“Bear figs,” the gardener promised.  The tree heard and believed.  The tree put away her tears and began to bud.  The tree bore figs for the master’s joy, and her own.

*originally written 2010

The Meaning of Beloved

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, …’ 

Luke 4:1-3; full lectionary gospel linked below:

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+4%3A1-13&version=NRSV

Sunday March 10, 2019, Lent 1

If love has the last word, then why is the devil speaking? 

Jesus has just been baptized with water from the river and with word from on high (Luke 3:21-22).  Jesus is Son.  Jesus is Beloved.  Jesus pleases well.  And Jesus, full of the Spirit, is led by that same Spirit into the wilderness, and there Jesus is tempted by the devil for 40 days.  Jesus will be famished by the days’ end.  How should this be? 

If you are the Son of God,’ the devil prods.  Is the phrasing a taunt, casting doubt on the prior experience, the wonder of blessing having given way to wilderness stress?  Is the phrasing a challenge, ‘since you are …’* — testing the bounds of how that claim will be lived?  Does the devil seek to cajole or to provoke?

In any case, why should Jesus be there, in the wilderness, accosted by such active, persistent, personal temptation?  Why should the Spirit have led Jesus to this?

Or is this, yet again, what the Spirit does:  makes plain what beloved-ness is, what blessing means, what inspiration leads us to see.  Encounter with God necessarily requires encounter with neighbor.  People are hungry — how shall they be fed?  People search for meaning — where shall they find it?  People long for community — how will they create it?   The people are not pretend nor their needs imaginary.   They are flesh and blood and desperately real.  They are famished.  As Jesus becomes.

Luke presents the test with a fable-like setting and pair.  Jesus and devil both are well-versed in the written word of God and well-acquainted with the needs of the world.  But the devil disguises the needs as a set of hypothetical tests, as if the claim of beloved-ness is proved in accurate quotation and pure speech.  Jesus refuses the hypothetical.  Jesus turns to the real.  Jesus will not use the world to prove the Word but will live the Word to heal the world.  Jesus — still filled with the Spirit (Luke 4:14) — will ‘return to Galilee’ and begin to teach and claim for himself Isaiah’s anointing to ‘bring good news to the poor’ (Luke 4:18).  Isaiah the prophet who, seeing God in glory, saw himself and his people with new-opened eyes (Isaiah 6:1-5).

We cannot see God without seeing our neighbor.  And maybe, when we truly look to see and hear and love our neighbor, we will find that we have learned to see and hear and love our Lord. 

I am not strong enough to pray that the Spirit may lead me into the wilderness. But I can at least pray to see and hear and love more fully, more truly, even knowing that wilderness will occur.  And I pray that when I know myself there, the Spirit will remind me — yet again — that this new sight is the meaning of ‘beloved,’ reassure me that the Spirit is leading me through, and revive in me the conviction that the Spirit will fill me and use me toward the healing of the world. 

*The Greek can be read either way.

Transfiguration

for Sunday March 3, 2019

Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.  When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them.  Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the LORD had spoken with him on Mount Sinai.

Exodus 34:29-32

Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.  And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.  

Luke 9:28-29; full lectionary text linked below

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+9%3A28-36&version=NIV

This has been a hard week for the people of God called Methodist, the people among whom I live and work and love, to whom I am committed, with whom I have communion. Some of whom now have been dealt the blow of exclusion.   News is still too new to know if, or how irrevocably, communion has broken.  But the specter itself aches.  I feel uncharacteristically wanting Ash Wednesday, texts and liturgy that match my mood.

But first comes this Sunday, when the church recalls Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain.  The lectionary twins the text from Luke with that of Moses’ transfiguration.  The writer of the gospel evokes Exodus motifs:  dazzling white glory, shining shadow cloud, divinity speaking on the mountain.  Jesus is about to accomplish his own (literally) ‘exodus’ at Jerusalem (Luke 9:31).  Moses and Jesus. The figures are connected.  But I don’t think their comparison is the sum of the gospel’s aim.  Such reading is too facile, too swiftly exhausts the significance of the text.  If it is about no more than proving Jesus’ identity as ‘Son,’ then we the church could just recite the creed and be done.  It would be a much more efficient use of Sunday mornings.  But we’re given — yet again — a story. 

One story.  Doubly told.  A story about encounter with the LORD.  About how that transforms those who are directly there and those who encounter them.

Moses has been on Mount Sinai 40 days and 40 nights (Exod 34:28).  Moses has asked, and been granted, a vision of the LORD’s glory — an encounter so powerful that God himself must shield Moses from its full effects (Exod 33:21-23).  The LORD, who knows Moses by name (Exod 33:17), descends in a cloud and proclaims his own name:  ‘The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation’ (Exod 34:5-7).  Moses has spoken with the LORD; Moses has heard God’s own mouth proclaiming God’s own nature:  ‘I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy’ (Exod 33:19).  No wonder Moses shines with the reflection of God’s glory!  No wonder Aaron and the rest are terrified!  Moses mutes his glow, tells what the LORD had told.  Ever after, when Moses speaks with the LORD, his face again shines (Exod 34:34-35).

Do Peter and John and James shine when they came down the mountain?  Like Moses they had stood in the presence of God, been enveloped by the cloud, heard divine speech (Luke 9:33-35).  But unlike Moses, when they came down the mountain, they had nothing to say.  Not yet.  They kept silent (Luke 9:36).  Maybe because they still did not understand the encounter they had had, and until its fullness was revealed after Easter, they were unable to receive it, unable to tell it, unable to glow with the reflection of its glory.  In time that would come.  In time, maybe, they would glow.  In the presence of joy.  In the practice of love.  In the experience of communion.

I have seen that glow.  Not the overwhelming glory that tells me that I am in the direct presence of divinity but the glow that tells me the one whose face is shining has been.  And the glow of encounter has shined on my own face.  I don’t always know it, think only that I am telling of some newness I have seen, some wonder I have encountered, don’t even realize I am aflame until the person to whom I am talking lights in response and I realize.  Oh.  This is it.

Here’s the thing:  I have seen that glow on those who hold inclusion as dear as I do and on those who do not.  I have learned from them; they have learned from me.  We have disagreed about how God sees and yet at times — to our mutual surprise — we have recognized a glow of glory and lit a new sight of God for each other.  I believe the LORD has been delighted by the spark kindled, the light spread.

Transfiguration Sunday is not only about Jesus but about the church.  We live after Easter.  We are no longer to remain silent as the disciples did. We are not to turn away from each other’s light nor quench each other’s fire.  We are called to encounter God with and through each other, to shine in communion, to glow with the glory of the LORD, the LORD, merciful and gracious.

May God’s mercy and grace heal those hurt, guard the glow, and restore our hope of inclusive communion, that we may all look full and loving at each other whole, ascend the holy mountain, speak with the LORD, and feel our faces shine bright with God’s glory.

Living Water

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. … 
“But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. 

Luke 6:27-28, 35-36

for Sunday February 24, 2019

Wednesday it snowed.  Flakes fell fast and the ground was cold so they stuck and they stacked, and soon the sight through the window was of shades and shadows of grey — from white to blue to dove.  After the snow came some freezing rain, skimcoating the ground with an icy glaze.  By night, the streetlights seemed to show a frozen world.  All stiff and still.

Thursday it was warm.  The sun and the temperature rose together.  In the afternoon I took a walk.  The snow was much melted.  The white cover persisted in the shade, rapidly sagging, showing more and more of the color beneath.  The snow and the earth were softening into each other.  I saw the wheaty-green of wintertime grass, the squelchy brown of mud showing through.  Snowmelt gurgled in downspouts and ran along the edges of the road, glinting and glimmering as it rushed downhill.  Its motion flashed in the sunshine.

How do we have a conversation?  How do we have a dialogue, an argument — in the best sense of the word?  How do we define the issues, limit the dispute, carefully explore each point of view?  How do we come to mutual understanding even if not common agreement? 

I am a professor.  In class I talk.  I review the readings; I add information; I invite discussion.  Sometimes there is little answer.  The information feels too new or there is too much of it.  And I stand there as an expert, which itself can inhibit response.  I have learned to ask “What questions do you have?” not “Any questions?”  I try to listen and not rush to fill the pauses.  I am still working on it.  But I try, not just for the sake of my students’ learning, but for my own. Because the possibility for surprise flows both ways.  Because it is delight when the talk takes an unexpected turn, latches on to an overlooked detail, makes it new for all of us.  Makes us newly alive.

Why conversation? you wonder.  Why listening and speaking when Jesus is talking about love?  Love your enemies, do good, bless, pray.  There’s nothing in that list about listening.

No.  But Jesus’ four-fold litany — love, do good, bless, pray — is addressed to “you who are listening.”  Listening, it seems, is the prerequisite.  Listening is the beginning.  Love, it seems, starts in listening.  In listening to Jesus’ speech.  In listening to each others’ speech.  Not just passively allowing the sounds to flow past our ears, but listening with our whole hearts and soul and strength and mind (Luke 10:27).  Listening, expecting nothing in return, listening even to our enemies, those who hate us, who curse and abuse us.  For our Father is merciful to the ungrateful, even to the wicked.  Our Father listens even to us (Luke 11:9-10).

Jesus is talking to us.  Not to our enemies.  We who are listening are the ones addressed, the ones invited to respond.  Whole-hearted listening is the start of our loving; and love continues in whole-hearted speech.  We are not meant to stand frozen stiff and still in pristine purity but to turn towards each other, to soften into each other.  To listen and love and do good and bless and pray. 

May there be space for words and space for silence.  May there be openness to the possibility of mutual surprise.  May there be the delight of new sight, of unexpected understanding.  May we be each transformed by the encounter.  May we know communion.  

See!  We are having a conversation!  See how it burbles and glints as it flows!

Living water.

Hearing Healing

for Sunday February 17

[Jesus] came down with [the twelve] and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.  They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured.  And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.  Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God. 
“Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh. 
“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.  Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. 
“But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation. 
“Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep. 
“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets. 

Luke 6:17-26

I wish this text did not have ‘Woes.’  A bit ironic when last week I had been so stricken as to join Isaiah’s own and claim hope in it.  It would seem nicer if this text had only blessings.  Even if I could not claim myself among those identified as ‘blessed’ — we are not poor nor hungry, although weeping I know — I could at least hang near their fringes.  Luke’s Jesus does not seem to permit this sidling near.  There are those pronounced ‘blessed’ and those to whom Jesus addresses woes.  Luke’s Jesus explicitly addresses the extremes, as if there is no middle.  One is blessed, or one is addressed with woe.  Those are the only options.

‘Don’t spiritualize Luke,’ the commentaries all agree.  When Luke says ‘poor,’ do not helpfully complete the phrase ‘in spirit’ (Matt 5:3), think destitute, even desperate.  When Luke says ‘hungry’ do not imagine hungering for righteousness (Matt 5:6), think bellies bloated with emptiness, of daily bread prayed for more often than eaten.  Definitely do not let this thought drive you up from the table for another square of dark chocolate.  Set yourself back into your seat, staring — glaring — at this text, sorry you cannot count yourself poor and hungry, sorry to know you are rich and full, wishing there was a word in Jesus’ words that you could claim as happy, a happy word you could claim as for you.

‘Happy’ or ‘fortunate’ — these are equally apt translations for the ‘blessed.’  And the ‘woe’ is not itself a curse although it pronounces the pain to be felt when we see as God sees.   The words are powerful, blessing no less than woe. Jesus’ speech makes something plain that was not so before; Jesus’ speech makes something be that had not been before.  The poor realize their inheritance, the hungry experience fullness, the mourners hiccup past the worst of their tears and begin to feel a peace steal over their spirit.  Jesus’ words perform what they describe:  blessedness.

And the rich?  Those who are full and laugh and have the praise of ‘all’ (an inherently suspect acclamation)?  Does Jesus truly speak ‘to’ or only ‘about’ them?  Are they rhetorical figures, straw-persons set in opposition to the blessed?  Were they there among that crowd of disciples who had come to hear and be healed?  If so, what did they hear?  How were they healed?

‘Power came out of him,’ Luke writes of Jesus, and the power that came out from him ‘healed all of them.’  And then Jesus looks at his disciples — not only the twelve apostles but the whole ‘crowd’ of disciples there — and speaks.  

Healing precedes hearing, one commentator notes.  I wonder.  Maybe the power that comes out and heals is Jesus’ speech.  The sound of his voice, the rise and fall of his tone, the shapes of his words, strung into sentences of blessing and of woe, sentences that make things happen.  You listen as if he is talking to you.  You listen because he is talking to you:  ‘Blessed are you,’ ‘Woe to you.’  And because Jesus is talking to you, you yourself, you hear what you had not before. You’re not inappropriately sidling near, as if hoping blessing might trickle down.  You already are there, already trying to hear. Maybe the point is not, or not only, the proclamation of blessing, the pronouncement of woe, but the adjustment of sight, the glimpse for a moment as if through God’s eyes, of God’s judgment, in God’s reign.  A flash like lightening on a summer night that shudders across the entire sky, shows the world brighter than day, so that darkness after seems blacker than before.  But there was that moment.  When you saw.  That those consoled in their riches have exhausted all the consolation that they can know.  But those — rich and poor alike — who gather on a plain, bringing their illnesses and their troubled spirits to the source of consolation may yet be healed, may yet become a community together, a crowd of disciples, gathering and eating and sharing the kingdom of God.