The thing with feathers …*

photograph (c) Katherine Brown

Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.

Luke 13:10-13, excerpt from Luke 13:10-17, NRSVUE, lectionary gospel for Aug. 21, 2022

‘Bound for eighteen long years,’ he said (Luke 13:16). She heard, and she paused in her praise. Had really been so long. From when would she count it? From when her body’s bearing had become fixed contortion? Or had the binding begun farther back, when the first spider-thread of unease ensnared her? She had dismissed the twinge, whenever it was. Told herself the day’s load had been too heavy, she’d twisted something trying to keep up. But she kept twisting herself trying to accommodate each next sure-to-pass-soon circumstance. Not denying the ache, exactly, but ignoring it. And each day she kept going, that day’s thread twisted together with its fellow until she’d found herself bound by a sticky, wrist-thick rope that kept her hunched in the world, bent over by the spirit’s weight.

When had she last stood straight before this day? The crowd rejoiced at the wonder they had seen. And she in the midst of their sounding joy, was suddenly cast back in her memory.

A goldfinch had caught her eye, and she’d turned her head to follow its flight into the thicket. She’d lost sight of it then. Stood herself still and peered closely until she glimpsed its lemon yellow deep within the tangled branches. A smile had spread wide across her face. She’d had to share the wonder. ‘See!’ she pointed out to passersby. ‘See! A finch, right there!’ Two had paused their own progress and followed her pointing finger with their own eyes. They did not see. She watched their expressions turn from expectancy to puzzlement, then a slight withdrawal towards doubt. ‘See! There!’ she repeated, as if words alone could make it visible. Her insistence kept them there a beat longer, but neither her words nor her pointing finger made them see. The bird was too well hidden to be noticed if you hadn’t already known where it was. Then the goldfinch moved, and its motion made it visible. ‘Oh!’ they all exclaimed together as it flew up from the bush. Another finch flew too, two small brightnesses flitting around each other, darting through the air. ‘Look!’ they exclaimed, “See!’ The sound of their delight drew another from the doorway to see its reason, and so it spread.

How long since she had seen a flying brightness that made her smile? She had walked hunched in the world, bent over by the spirit’s weight, her gaze on her own feet moving along the dusty road. She hadn’t thought of birds. But maybe a tiny thing with feathers had been set within her own soul, too hidden to be noticed unless you knew it there, yet in its own subtle way resisting the rope that had bound her so firmly, working to unwind even one cobweb thread. For she had come here this Sabbath, as she had before, treading the path worn by others’ feet before ever her own had started their journey of persistence.

She had not come asking or expecting birds. She had come in fidelity to the unsuspected feathered thing hidden in the thicket of her own self. The insistence of habit had drawn her there without her knowing why. Then hope had flown and shown itself. Had seen and called her over, pronounced her free and laid hands on her. It had felt as if one hand pulled on her shoulder and one hand pressed the small of her back and together the hands reshaped and stood her straight who had not stood straight for eighteen long years.

She stood now in the midst of the crowd’s sounding joy. Wonder was among them — a bird darting up from the constriction of cares quotidian and extraordinary, delighting with its brightness and its airy flight, delighting even she herself who was its sign, re-awakening her to its presence and its power. A smile spread wide across her face. She had been waked again to demand. ‘See!’ she said, ‘See!’ She had been waked again to the promise that there is something to demand.

Demand the vision. Demand the movement that makes visible hope and joy and life — on the Lord’s day and every day.

* First line from Emily Dickinson

Life asked back

photograph (c) Katherine Brown

Someone in the crowd said to [Jesus], “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly.  And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’  But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

Luke 12:13-21 [NRSVUE]

‘Life is short,’ the worship leader reminds us. Her benediction is a summons to lovingkindness and a statement of blessing. ‘Amen,’ we say, and stand as the family recesses with the urn that bears their mother’s remains.

Life is short. It turns in a moment. I study the gospel text. Inheritance and division. Abundance laid up for future years. The expectation of ease. It’s almost too apt. This morning’s funeral. Others before it. Death come after illness; death come in an accident. I’m turning the age my mother died. Our house is filled with things brought here from our parents’ households and things we accumulated ourselves.

I read Jesus’ parable carefully. The rich man sees the abundant harvest and imagines his future settled. Now he will enjoy the fruit of his husbanding, the bounty his fields have produced. (Notice the phrasing. The fields have produced this plenty, not the man, however diligent his efforts.) The man speaks to himself, tasting already the delights of further speech with himself, ‘I will say to my soul, Soul… Psuchē … Life …

Then God interrupts his intimate anticipation: ‘Fool! This very night your psuchē they ask back from you.’ That’s the literal translation of the Greek. ‘They demand’ the man’s psuchē, his soul [12:19], his life [12:20]. ‘They…’ — third-person plural — ‘… demand’ — present tense.

Who are the demanding ‘they’? Perhaps the undefined pronoun is a substitute for the passive: ‘Your life is demanded of you,’ a circumlocution for divine action, for God recalling the life-breath given but for a time on this earth. God is, after all, the speaker. God’s next word may suggest that ‘this night’ marks a transition from present tense to eternity: ‘And what you have prepared, to whom will it be?’ All the possessives the man had gloated over — my crops, my barns, my grain, my goods, my soul — suddenly untethered from identity in relationship to him. Whose will they be?

Or reconsider the question. Who belongs to whom? Is the man the one who possesses or the one who is possessed? The Greek allows the possibility that the things prepared are the insistent ‘they’ which ‘this night’ demand? The man preoccupies himself with projecting prodigious barns as if abundant harvest and gathered goods demand this planning, as if it is not undertaken for himself alone but is exacted of the possessor of such abundance.

I try to hear the tone in God’s interrupting ‘Fool!’ Does God thunder judgment, the man’s overnight demise, or does God’s mouth twist wryly as he recalls the man’s attention (our attention) to the present that very moment unfolding? Listen to the rich man’s gloating over abundance and recognize its skimpiness. The man speaks to and of himself and construes his self as possession (‘my psuchē’). God’s interjection recalls the man to relationship — the relationship that actually is (the rich man and his riches), the relationship being constructed (the possessor possessed) by the attention absorbed.

Life is short. It turns in a moment, and it comprises all those moments’ turnings. The preoccupations of our days. The plans we turn over in our minds and those put to action with our hands. Each of these moments demands of me my life. God’s interjection recalls me to this. Not just eternity in-breaking overnight, with the shrill of a telephone bell, but eternity unfolding in all those incremental turnings. My life is demanded of me. This very night, and tomorrow, and the night and the morning after. Resist the preoccupations that increasingly diminish the self of me. (Building bigger barns for my own soul only.) Turn towards those that risk the possibility of self opened and enlarged, enriched towards God.

Life is short. Life’s brevity is vast. Let me be increased as experience and expectation interleave to ground myself in this very now. Ask what it demands of me. Attend to its answer. Listen for the word that tugs me forward to meet it, then go to meet and be met by the presence in the summoning present.

Prayed for.*

‘Seminary Sisters’ photograph courtesy Kendra Joy Photography

And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.”

Luke 11:5-8, excerpt from Luke 11:1-13, lectionary gospel for July 24, 2022

‘The Lord’s Prayer.’ We title it a stand-alone piece, but it comes enmeshed in story, a pattern of request and response. The disciple asks for words, the neighbor for bread, the child for good gifts.

A warm evening in July. It is too hot to sit outside, but we do. The air is close, the garden lushly grown. It’s a Thursday night, and there are few others on the patio. The friendly waitress brings us menus and ice water. We order drinks and bites. The light is quiet, the air calm. The sky glows, then sinks into dusk. We eat and drink and talk and laugh. And if sometimes the talk is sarcastic, well, we hear the ache behind the snark, know the tears that lie just the other side of that brittle laugh. We’ve been meeting for 13 years, since seminary, through endings and beginnings and children coming on for grown.

I have not written, I tell. Again. Still. My excuses were various, some even good, but all now expired, and I have not written. I start to feel sick when I contemplate the work. “There’s sin in that,” Gini says, “some power of darkness.” Cynthia and Lydia agree. They lean forward as if to confront and to comfort both at once. “I’ve cleared a table as an office corner in the basement,” I say, “maybe ….” “We will come and bless the space,” the ladies decide. Gini recalls the liturgy used to consecrate St. John’s; Cynthia recalls the blessing of her new house. “Powerful,” she says. “Let us come,” Lydia urges. I demur: “I don’t have a bookcase yet. The space isn’t ready to be blessed ….” What has blessing to do with this my problem, my failure, my fault, I feel. “We will come,” they promise. Maybe. We part – as always – with hugs.

“Teach us to pray,” Jesus’ disciple asks. It’s like this, Jesus explains, “if one of you will have a friend,” and having implicated his hearers with the introducing “you,” Jesus tells the parable in third person, “and he will go to him at midnight, and he will say to him….” It is awkward to read all the third-person masculine singulars: one in the house, wanting to sleep; one outside it, knocking, asking, “Lend me some bread….”

Then comes the puzzle: “Even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence, he will get up and give him whatever he needs.” The referents are unclear: who is “his friend,” the breadless neighbor or the one abed? Whose is the “persistence”? And what is this “persistence”? It’s an odd word in the Greek, less perseverance than shamelessness. Is the critical audacity that of the breadless neighbor, who knocks and knocks and will not give up? or is it that of the one abed, who rises, if only for the sake of honor, that bread may be set before the guest?

Why choose, I decide. Let the audacity belong to both of them. Ponder the practice of persistent boldness forming and re-forming each in relationship with the other.

I get a used blue bookcase and fill it with heavy texts. I hang a tea towel as a curtain for the small window. I sit in my office corner. And after yet another day of not-writing, I take a picture of the space and send it to my friends. “I have a bookcase,” I type. We will bless it, they reply.

And they do. Gini comes with her clerical collar and an aspergillum of holy water, which we sprinkle on table and chair and bookcase. She blesses my head and hands and heart with oil, prays for the work and the worker. Cynthia comes later, lays hands on the table, wraps arms around me, and talks to God on my behalf. Lydia is on the road, but emails blessing liberally strewn with emojis that I construe as midnight knocking and bold cry, “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread.”

And me? I am that not-quite-forgotten third: the traveler so far from home and wholeness that she cannot even beg bread for herself. Yet the audacious persistence of my friends and my God conspire together to set bread before me. Enough to sustain me for the night, so that I can rise for the next day’s prayer. And I write: “Give us each day our daily bread.”

*This devotion was originally written July 2016, and emailed then to the ladies named. Six years on, our children are more grown, and we’re still meeting. As the lectionary cycles back to this text from Luke, I’m posting this devo if only as a reminder to myself that being prayed for is also a prayer discipline.

My Sister’s Portion

photograph (c) Katherine Brown

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed him. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at Jesus’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks, so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her, then, to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things, but few things are needed—indeed only one. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Luke 10:38-42 NRSVUE

Oh, God, it’s Luke’s version of Martha and Mary again. I like the sisters, truly I do, but I prefer John’s portrait of them to Luke’s. John presents them as a pair, friends to Jesus, loved by Jesus [John 11:5], whom they call ‘Lord’ and welcome to their home.

Luke’s depiction sets the sisters at odds with each other. Or so it seems. Or so it often is read. One is either ‘a Martha’ or ‘a Mary,’ and Mary’s heart takes the posture preferred. Sit at the Lord’s feet and listen to what he says. Mary utters not a word in Luke’s telling. Which suddenly makes me wonder whether the story is about her. Mary’s listening silence triggers Martha’s complaint. Does that make it the point of Jesus’ response?

So. Start again. Sit at the text’s feet and listen to what it is saying and wrestle with what it might mean.

Jesus has set his face to Jerusalem. And on the way, he is welcomed by Martha. Sister Mary sits at Jesus’ feet, but Martha is ‘distracted’ by ‘much serving.’ Not the plural ‘many tasks,’ as the English has it, but a singular ‘much.’ ‘Much,’ singular, ‘diakonia,’ service or ministry, singular. ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me alone to serve?’ Martha asks, and Jesus replies, ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things.’ ‘Many.’ Jesus does not repeat the narrator’s singular ‘much’ but shifts to the plural form, ‘many.’ Is this an accident of idiom or might the number matter?

‘Mary has chosen the good part,’ Jesus tells Martha, ‘which will not be taken away from her.’ Is Mary’s portion ‘good’ or ‘better’? The Greek can be read either way. Why prefer ‘better’ if it’s not required by the grammar? What is there in us that measures the worth of Mary’s choice in relationship to Martha’s. Is ‘the good’ only good when and if it is ‘better’? Cannot the worth of both works be seen and known? Does the definite article (‘the good’) mean there is one good for all people at all times or is Jesus responding to Martha’s charge about Mary’s choice at this place in this time, when Jesus is paused to be welcomed on his way to Jerusalem.

Maybe had Martha’s effort stayed single — ‘much service’ — it would have been affirmed. She started well enough, receiving Jesus. But Martha herself, distracted, introduces the comparison in asking Jesus to re-instruct her sister. Maybe this is why the text shifts to plural: Martha is no longer set only to her singular service but has become anxious and troubled about something else as well, her own work in relationship to Mary’s. Jesus’ plural (‘many things’) draws attention to this. I listen to Jesus’ words. Does he say that Martha chose poorly or that Mary chose well? Is ‘Martha, Martha’ a caution about Martha’s own diakonia or about her judgment of Mary’s? Mary’s choice wasn’t about Martha; Martha’s choice should not be about Mary. ‘The good portion’ — the right diakonia — is about God.

What is my right diakonia? Or yours or ours? What is the single end — even comprising multiple smaller works, just as setting supper requires procurement and preparation and presentation, whether the meal is one pot or many small-plates — what is the single end, however much of a muchness, that calls? Resist worry over others’ portions, as if their worth lessens mine, as if worth is finite. God’s promise is not cut up into shares made smaller with each soul counted in. There is work for all, a work for each. Sometimes our tasks overlap in obviously mutual support; sometimes they seem so separate that their common end must be taken on trust. Sometimes the service is of long and steady sameness; sometimes it shifts in response to the spirit’s blowing.

Resist the comparison. My worth with another’s. Today’s work with yesterday’s, or last year’s, or next’s. Embrace, instead, the company. All of us aimed towards God’s common end, a grace that is greater than the sum of our varied works.

Here, you sit and listen to the talk. I will overhear the conversation as I move in and out of the kitchen, set the table to the sound of voices. I can set myself to my portion as you set yourself to yours. And when I am caught by a word or phrase suddenly rising to the surface of the talk, I will look across to you and see you looking across to me — sisters’ eyes catching — and together we will feel smiling love looking on us both. We will realize that in welcoming the kingdom-coming, we have been welcomed by its presence now.

Plowing Ahead

‘A hand to the cultivator’ (we don’t have a plow). (c) Katherine Brown

When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.

Luke 9:51; excerpt from 9:51-62, lectionary gospel for June 26, 2022

Friday the United States Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. The news was not unexpected. Even so, the decision hit hard. Vulnerabilities hoped historical were re-presenced in language that anticipated further erosion of protections; the rhetoric of power was spun in a way that inverts the reality of its exercise. It all feels too much. News on news on news, all slowly churning into history. And in the face of my enervating discouragement, Luke gives me Jesus’ face, set for Jerusalem.

When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up’ — that’s what starts this passage: the imminent completion of Jesus’ days. Jesus does not journey of his own inclination but of necessity. It’s an imperative connected to the fulfillment, of his mission.

… he set his face to go to Jerusalem’ — the phrase rings with a flint-firmness of purpose that will not be swayed to the left or to the right, but persists because its end is already known, and its end is new beginning. Luke’s telling has taken a turn. Jesus knows it. He’s the one who’s set his face, turning the story forward. We know it — we’re told it in this verse.

It may not be so clear to those within Luke’s gospel. Even just in Luke 9, the story swings wildly from the disciples’ joys of proclamation [Luke 9:1-6] and healing and feeding [9:10-17], of recognition [9:18-20] and transfiguration [9:28-36] to the shocks of Jesus predicting his passion [9:21-22, 44], a thing they do ‘not understand’ and are ‘afraid to ask’ [9:45]. They argue over which of them is the greatest [9:46-48] and are jealous of others claiming Jesus who do not follow Jesus ‘with’ them — as if their discipleship is the sole measure [9:49-50]. Their story-middle is messy. They may not know what we know: that a new turn in the story has been told. That Jesus has set his face towards his exodus [9:31], his being taken up [9:51], his accomplishment of what he had been sent to do: bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, and declare the year of the Lord’s favor [Luke 4:18-19].

Jesus has set his face to go to Jerusalem. Which doesn’t mean he no longer has time for this world — he teaches and heals, tells parables and utters woes, shares meals with friends and Pharisees and tax-collectors the whole ten-chapter journey. It doesn’t mean Jesus no longer has time for this world. It does mean that Jesus does not forget his goal. That Luke does not let us forget it either, reminding us more than once along the way that Jesus is journeying to Jerusalem.

Samaritans will not receive Jesus because his face is set towards Jerusalem [9:52-53]? Jesus remembers why he has come. James and John might lose sight of the goal, imagining glories of revenge, fire from heaven [9:54]. Jesus’ singleness will not be scattered. He rebukes his disciples; they move on [9:55-56].

Three would-be followers approach — two offer themselves; one is invited. In each interaction, there’s a word of warning, a reminder of what’s at stake. No settled den or nest but an ongoing sojourning [9:57-58]. Kingdom proclamation a work more urgent than the highest of filial responsibilities [9:59-60]. A plow that must be pushed on forward so that the ground may be furrowed to receive the seed [9:61-62].

Jesus’ face is set. His hand is put to the plow. He will not turn back.

There will be opposition. There will be discouragement. There is both of those things.

This middle in which we live feels messy, even scary. We’re not sure where we are in the story. We’ve been mistaken before — and may be again. We’ve had moments when we knew ourselves authorized and empowered, when we went out and did amazing things for God. Fed the hungry; housed the homeless. Wrapped rainbows and hung signs and stood in witness. We’ve exulted in progress and been stunned at its retreat. The journey may be marked by our dates and occasions — 1964 or 1968; 2008 or 2016; 1973 or 2022 — but it is not measured by them, because this is not our story. It is God’s story. We cannot stop it nor turn it back. No one can. Because God has set God’s own face to bring God’s kingdom in.

To sojourn in God’s story, to plow forward along God’s way, means making time for our work in this world, recommitting ourselves to ‘resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves,’ recognize the sacred worth of all, and ‘to seek for every individual opportunities and freedom to love and be loved, to seek and receive justice, and to practice ethical self-determination.’

‘When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.’

Flint-faced certainty that the kingdom is come near. That’s what resonates. That’s what we’re called to — this singleness of purpose, aiming through all the incidents and accidents of the world towards the world’s full re-creation in liberation and in love.

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