Text Study for John 6:59-71(Pt. 4); 13 Pentecost B 2021

You Too?

Jesus lays out the “hard” word of the Incarnation in the Discourse and raises the stakes with the Ascension to the seat of Abundant Life. Malina and Rohrbaugh note that the Greek of verse 60 can be taken in a couple of ways. It could be, as in many translations, “that the teaching was hard to accept,” they write. “It could also mean that because of the hard teaching, Jesus was difficult to accept. The latter,” they conclude, “makes more sense in terms of the demands of group loyalty” (page 137). It’s not just his words that are hard. Jesus is hard to take without conversion – then and now.

“The outcome of this,” the narrator reports, “was that many of his disciples abandoned the following after bit and no longer were walking around with him” (John 6:66 my translation). Jesus sounds somewhat bereft as he asks whether the Twelve are leaving too. “Then Jesus said to the Twelve, ‘You aren’t also leaving, are you?’”

Photo by Bob Price on Pexels.com

My experience as a pastor tells me that many people come to churches looking for comfort, tranquility, and reassurance. The last things many people come to churches looking for are discomfort, disruption, and deconstruction. When those are the things that happen at a church, many folks start heading for the exits. There will always be a shop down the road that offers a placid place for passive piety.

Like many pastors, I have watched over the years as neighboring congregations wooed members from one flock to another with promises of precisely such spiritual still waters. “Come to our place,” they say. “We won’t bother you with any of that uncomfortable politics from the pulpit, expectations of responsible membership, sacrificial giving, hard thinking, and daily dying and rising.” They haven’t put it in precisely those words, but the message has always been clear.

It’s nice to know, at least, that there’s nothing new under the sun. Many of us pastors can empathize with Jesus’ wistful question. “You aren’t leaving as well, are you?”

Peter responds with words that are well-known in my liturgical tradition as our response to the weekly reading of the gospel text. “Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68-69, my translation).

Malina and Rohrbaugh note that this text is “often assumed to be the Johannine equivalent of the confession in Mark 8:27-30” (page 138). They note that in Mark’s account “the issue is Jesus’ concern about his proper role and social identity.” But the agenda in John’s account is different, they argue. “Is Jesus the genuine broker of God or not?” The question is not, as in Mark, whether Jesus is the Messiah. The question is whether the Messiah is Jesus (see John 20:30-31). After all, he’s making it pretty difficult to come to that conclusion. And it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

Karoline Lewis compares this response to Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi in the Synoptics and points to a significant difference. “It is important to note that what Jesus has revealed in this discourse, which is found to be difficult and ultimately rejected,” Lewis observes, “is not predictions of suffering and death but visions of eternal life. Perhaps there is only so much of a good thing we can take” (page 101).

There is something to be said for that, but I don’t think that’s why many of the disciples gave up on Jesus and went home. The good news of the Incarnation means that everything we think we know about God, about life, and about ourselves needs to be turned upside down and inside out. God is closer to us than our breath, not watching us from a distance. Jesus is the human face of God, full of grace and truth. The cross is a throne, and the grave is a beginning. The reign of God is living and active among us now.

This encounter with the God who changes everything creates a “crisis,” to use the language of John – a moment of decision, of judgment. “Given the setting of the feeding of the five thousand and the provision of food and water by God for the Israelites in the wilderness,” Lewis writes, “critical is how God’s people respond to God’s desire for relationship. For the Fourth Gospel, encountering God in the Word made flesh, Jesus, is a crisis moment” (page 102).

The Christian church in North America and individual denominations and congregations face a crisis moment. That’s no great insight. But what is the nature of that crisis? I recently read an article by Dwight Zscheile called “From the Age of Association to Authenticity.” Zscheile had noted in an article two years ago that some projections show the ELCA virtually disappearing as a denomination by 2050.

If that’s not a crisis (at least for the institution known as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), I’m not sure what is. In the current article he notes that the pandemic has likely accelerated this trend and the disintegration it represents, not only for mainline denominations but for many other religious institutions in this country. “This is not to say that Christianity itself is going away,” Zscheile writes, “but rather its dominant institutional forms of the past two centuries.”

Zscheile refers to and riffs off of the 2021 Sprunt Lectures given by Ted Smith at Union Seminary, Richmond, this past May. Smith talks about the history of denominations, seminaries, and congregations in this country. He describes the move from the “Standing Order” that existed from 1600 or so to about 1815. That “Standing Order” was gradually replaced by the “Age of Association,” the model of doing church and professional ministry that shaped American religious experience from 1815 until at least the 1960’s.

Now the Age of Association is being replaced by what Smith calls the Age of Authenticity. Smith is a fine historian, and he knows that “ages” and taxonomies and typologies never really reflect reality. But his heuristic description is a helpful and penetrating analytical tool. You can find the lectures on youtube.com just by searching for “Sprunt Lectures 2021.” I’ve also posted a link to the playlist below.

Zscheile gives a useful summary of Smith’s argument. “In the Age of Authenticity, individuals become increasingly dis-embedded from voluntary associations and institutions without re-embedding. Identities are understood not to be ascribed but constructed and performed by individuals through a series of choices. Economic and social burdens and responsibilities are displaced from institutions onto individuals…People feel less and less of a need to affiliate with an organization to find meaning, community, and purpose; that is understood instead as a highly personalized journey.”

Smith argues that we have not fully left the Age of Association. Nor have we fully entered the Age of Authenticity. We are living between the times. One of the reassuring notes of his lectures is the observation that we’ve been here before. There was a beginning to the Age of Association as well, when the Church had to find a new way of being in a changing cultural setting. We can do that again.

The facts that we can do this and that we’ve been here before do not reduce the crisis we face. I sense raw panic in the voices of pastors and judicatory officials these days. As we come out of the Covid crisis, we are finding that somewhere between one third and one half of our folks may simply not return to our churches as they were. They have had a significant time to discover that the Christian social clubs that “closed” during the pandemic are not institutions they now miss.

I struggle with that issue myself these days.

How will we respond? It appears that the “middle” is disappearing from the Church. Mid-sized congregations are less and less sustainable. Megachurches and megachurch wannabes are doing well enough so far. And very small congregations and communities do not have the same economic and social costs as the mid-sized institutions. A problem for the ELCA is that many of our shops are mid-sized.

Smith wonders if the future of the church in the Age of Authenticity looks more like networks of micro-communities. Perhaps that will be the case. Regardless, we will need to try new things. Many Church institutions are imitating businesses as they divest themselves of property, physical plants, and paid staff no longer needed in the new system and situation. I imagine that trend will continue and accelerate.

What does this have to do with the Bread of Life Discourse? The Discourse finally asks us to reflect on the nature of the Incarnation in our lives and in our settings. Can we American church folks figure out how to separate our sense of being the Body of Christ from the buildings and properties the Body has inhabited for the last two centuries?

Can we mainline Protestants in particular get over our “edifice complexes” and find ways to be authentic communities of faithfulness? Can we divest ourselves of our neoliberal market values, rampant individualism, and commitment to the myth of redemptive violence long enough to find a different way of being Church? Only time will tell.

I’m not sure Smith’s typology works all that well, and neither is he. If the Gospel of John is to be our guide, then our call is to form and sustain “Authenticity Associations.” We are called to gather around the Real Presence of Jesus in our midst and to be that Real Presence for the life of the cosmos. We are invited to be authentic followers of Jesus and to cling to him for the “words of eternal life” here and now.

I return to the words of William Cavanaugh, quoted earlier in this study. “The eucharist is not a mere symbol, a source of meaning which the individual reads and then applies to social issues ‘out there’ in the ‘real world,’” he declares. “There is nothing more real than the body of Christ. The eucharist is not to be applied to political issues; rather, the eucharist makes the church itself a political body. The church practices the politics of Jesus,” he argues, “when it becomes an alternative way of life that offers healing for the wounds that divide us” (2002, page 177, my emphasis).

Unless we refuse the healing and become The Devil…

Resources and Reference

Clark-Soles, Jaime. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-21-2/commentary-on-john-656-69.

Hoch, Robert. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-21-2/commentary-on-john-656-69-5.

Hylen, Susan. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-21-2/commentary-on-john-656-69-3.

Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 1998.

Matera, Frank J. “Christ in the Theologies of Paul and John: A Study in the Diverse Unity of New Testament Theology.” Theological Studies 67 (2006): pp. 237-256. http://cdn.theologicalstudies.net/67/67.2/67.2.1.pdf.

Peterson, Brian. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-21-2/commentary-on-john-656-69-2.

Sprunt Lecture Series youtube.com playlist — https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLq1zKD6DFrpTHqt1_QA6hcSWLRADAWrJe.

Wright, N. T. Surprised by Hope. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Zscheile, Dwight. “From the Age of Association to Authenticity.” https://faithlead.luthersem.edu/from-the-age-of-association-to-authenticity/?fbclid=IwAR2bhFD6AZxnu9dmBbrU6puAYCWz79M4QhN9SV7cPtn0iRNZUvz0F2balJ4.

Text Study for Mark 6:1-13 (Pt. 3); 6 Pentecost B 2021

Inside Out(side)

One of the major themes in Mark’s gospel is how to move from being an “outsider” to becoming an “insider” in the project of God’s reign. Our reading this week gives us some insight for how not to make that move.

First, insider status does not come from a prior, “impersonal” connection to Jesus. The folks in Nazareth seem to be guilty of some combination of the “charter member” and “genetic” fallacies of insider status in the Messianic community. The sheer fact that they are from the same place as Jesus and have been part of that village for generations does not qualify them for special status. Nor does the fact that they know (or are) Jesus’ close relatives. Those facts do not translate into elevated status or privileged position.

I think immediately of experiences I have had in congregations over the years. I served a congregation where charter members of that community were still alive and active. It was not unusual, in the midst of some controversy, for one or more of those folks to stand up at a meeting and begin a small speech with the phrase, “As a charter member of this congregation…” That historical fact was intended to overwhelm any other arguments and to grant the speaker and associated members a special authority in the debate.

Photo by Julia Volk on Pexels.com

Even in congregations where charter members were long dead and buried, longevity is often regarded on its own merits as grounds for authoritative veto power. I think of congregations where, early on in my ministry, I was taken aside and told that “we” do or don’t do things that way here at X congregation. The “we” was clearly made up of an insider group that claimed special authority due to the average length of tenure in that group.

The genetic fallacy contains a measure of longevity privilege by default. But the real clincher is an appeal to authoritative and (sometimes) honored forebears. The most egregious example of this in my experience came in a conversation with a leading conflictor in a congregation. “My family has been part of this church from the beginning,” he declared, “four generations so far. My grandfather ran out a preacher who got too big for his britches. So did my dad. And if I have my way, I will too. That’s our job in this church.”

I can report that in this instance, the conflictor in question failed in his (self) appointed task. But my real focus is on his assumption of privilege through inheritance and biological connection. His authority did not come from the content of his argument or even his moral standing in the congregation. It was a simple function of being related to the right people and sticking to the standards of that genetic heritage.

Congregations are often structured as concentric circles of relationship and status. The “inside insiders” make up about twenty percent of the active adult membership of a congregation. They are the ones who do everything and then complain that no one else does anything. The “outside insiders” are in the next circle from the center. They complain that the insider insiders control everything and won’t listen to reason. The next circle is the outside outsiders. They are the ones who are glad the inside insiders do the work, that the outside insiders do the complaining (policing?), and that both insider groups generally ignore them.

One of the interesting aspects of Mark’s gospel is that the assumed “insiders” are not insiders at all. Jesus’ family and neighbors have no special status. In fact, they are actively resistant and hostile to his Good News campaign. The Jerusalem authorities and their Galilean delegates are the first who become last and who are cast into “outer darkness.” The Twelve seem to be insiders, but they just can’t “get it.” They take the authority they receive and use it for self-aggrandizement rather than self-sacrifice.

As I noted in the previous section, it’s the outside outsiders who actually get it and are portrayed as non-failed disciples in Mark’s account. The real target of this whole conversation is the audience of Mark’s gospel. There is some deep concern in that audience about how one becomes an authentic “inside insider,” a genuine disciple, a real member of Jesus’ “family.” I have to wonder if there were audience members who claimed privileged positions and special authority based on either the charter member or genetic fallacies. What does it take, according to Mark, for an audience member to become an inside insider?

“What it takes for the audience to become insiders,” writes Stephen Ahearne-Kroll (hereafter AK), “is not just more knowledge; it takes discipleship. Discipleship for Mark is not construed as assent to a series of faith propositions or the full acquisition and understanding of divine mysteries,” AK continues. “It is predicated on becoming connected with Jesus by following him after his call and acting like him because he is the manifestation of the kingdom on earth” (page 734).

What does this say about the original audience for Mark’s gospel? Commentators continue to debate about the place for which the gospel was composed – somewhere in Syria or Asia Minor or in Rome. I find the tradition of the church most convincing in this regard – that Mark’s gospel was composed for and presented to the churches in Rome in the aftermath of the Jewish War of 66-70 CE.

The congregations had been in some measure of turmoil since the return of Jewish Christians from the exile imposed during the persecution of the mid-40’s. The Gentile Christians were left on their own and developed ways of life and worship that deviated from traditions they had received. When the Jewish Christians returned, there was a power struggle for the “soul” of the congregations and a debate about who was “inside” and who was “outside.”

Paul’s letter to the Romans addresses this situation about a decade earlier than Mark’s gospel. Paul’s solution to the problem is for the Gentile Christians (who were in charge) to welcome and embrace their returning Jewish-Christian siblings. One of the arguments made in those churches, it would seem, is that the Jewish-Christians were more Jew than Christian and thus had been rejected for their unbelief. Paul disputes this argument, especially in Romans 9-11.

Mark’s gospel may well be evidence that Paul’s words did not put an end to the debate or the struggle. I wonder if Mark’s “solution” was a sort of “pox on both your houses” approach. Neither the “charter members” nor The Twelve come off at all well in Mark’s account. As noted earlier, it’s the minor characters who get the Gospel right and are commended for their faith. It’s the outside outsiders who repent and put their trust in the Good News of the Kingdom of God. Perhaps Mark wants his squabbling saints to realize that the same thing is true of their life together.

AK notes that “one learns the mystery of the kingdom through the action of following after the one who manifests it. Insider status comes from following after Jesus,” he continues. “Additional knowledge of the kingdom does not determine insider status but flows from it…” Even though Mark’s gospel account excludes the audience from insider status at several points, AK concludes, it also “simultaneously entices the audience with enough inclusion to want to seek the status of insider where they can live the mystery of the kingdom with others of the same mind” (734-735, my emphasis).

In his book, A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community, John Pavlovitz writes one of those paragraphs that I can only wish I had composed. Let me quote it here.

“Organized religion and organized crime can be frighteningly similar at times. Both tend to rely on unwavering loyalty and on participants passionately defending their own. In ministry and in the Mafia, when things are going right, you’re well fed and fiercely loved, but make one bad move, cross one wrong person— and it’s horse heads in the bed and concrete sneakers. In either house there’s often a startlingly narrow line between a holy kiss and the kiss of death and learning how to stay on the boss’s good side becomes a matter of survival” (page 25).

I’ve worked with enough conflicted congregations over the years to know that Pavlovitz’s description is hardly hyperbolic. In congregational systems where the inside insiders are thoroughly embedded and emotionally enmeshed, physical violence and death threats can be a feature of the pastor’s experience. Short of that, efforts to cut salary, reduce hours, slash benefits, and attack family members are somewhat typical. Please remember that in Luke’s gospel the home folks want to pitch Jesus headlong off the nearest cliff.

Reminding congregations that the outside outsiders are typically the ones who get the gospel the best is often a way to organize a move from one pastoral call to the next. “Despite their claims of gracious hospitality, churches are often far more aggressive than they’d like to admit,” Pavlovitz writes. “Regardless of our language about being part of the greater body of Christ, the truth is that most local faith communities feel that they are doing religion better, smarter, more biblically, more faithfully than everyone else— most especially the other churches in the neighborhood. In this way,” he concludes, “the table is almost always going to default to self-preservation, to competition rather than collaboration” (page 27).

The outside outsiders in our time are getting hammered in certain parts of the Christian universe. In our ELCA part, they are just gaslighted. After all, we have documents that say the outside outsiders are “all” welcome. In Marks’ terms, authentic disciples do that welcoming rather than merely writing about it. And I hasten to add, I am often chief among sinners in this regard.


References and Resources

Bruce Malina; Richard L. Rohrbaugh. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.

MOLONEY, F. (2001). Mark 6:6b-30: Mission, the Baptist, and Failure. The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 63(4), 647-663. Retrieved June 23, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43727251.

Pavlovitz, John. A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community. Presbyterian Publishing. Kindle Edition.

VAAGE, L. (2009). An Other Home: Discipleship in Mark as Domestic Asceticism. The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 71(4), 741-761. Retrieved June 25, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43726614.

Walker, B. (2016). Performing Miracles: Discipleship and the Miracle Tradition of Jesus. Transformation, 33(2), 85-98. Retrieved June 23, 2021, from https://www.jstor.org/stable/90008863

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Pot-Lucky Worship (for Holy Humor Sunday)

(I first shared the report below in 2015. It was a collation of accounts from a variety of firsthand witnesses. The names and some details are changed in order to protect…well, you know. I’m not really sure if it happened this way. But if it didn’t, it should have. LRH)

It was the Sunday after Easter at old Christ Lutheran Church. Three Lutheran churches in town went by the name of “Christ.” The congregations owed allegiance to separate and mutually suspicious theological tribes. So none of the insiders saw a problem with the duplicate names. After all, why would any decent person pay attention to those other undesirable and disreputable places?

Normal people, however, needed some way to keep all the Christ Lutherans straight. Old Christ Lutheran stood at the corner of Main Street and Central Avenue. So for years it had been known as “Christ on the Corner.”

Photo by ArtHouse Studio on Pexels.com

Christ on the Corner was the only one of the three that would consider having a woman pastor. The Reverend Joy McDougal was the latest such candidate to fill that venerable pulpit. She was a freshly-minted seminary graduate. That first year in parish ministry had been a challenging blur for her.

In particular it had been a long and trying Lent and Easter marathon. Multiple services, three funerals, two synod meetings, numerous hospital calls and some broken water pipes in the parsonage had made the season even longer. So Pastor Joy decided to take a post-Easter vacation.

The idea didn’t occur to Pastor Joy until about midway through Holy Week. As a cost-saving measure, pastoral vacations were covered by having a Laity Sunday. So the congregation didn’t usually need all that much warning about impending pastoral absences.

Typically the pastor wrote a message and planned the liturgy in advance. This meant that these Laity Sundays weren’t exactly compelling worship experiences. But not this time. As the pastor drug herself out of church after the final Easter service, the worship committee chair grabbed her. “Pastor, what are we doing next week?” Pastor Joy turned and said, “I have every confidence that you folks will figure something out.” An hour later she was headed for parts unknown.

The worship chair had two ideas at once. After all, desperation is the grandmother of invention. “We’re great at potlucks and parties,” he thought. “How about if we just invite people to bring their worship ideas and see what happens?”

He had also heard about some congregations that had a “joke Sunday” the week after Easter. That sounded like a good focus for the “potluck worship.” He composed the theme on the spot—“A Pot Full of Fun!”

The first problem arose when the local newspaper publicized the worship service. The editor left out the initial word of the theme. The headline read, “Christ Lutheran Declares Pot Full of Fun Sunday.” The church office received several calls from local law enforcement agencies and several groups in favor of the legalization of marijuana use. But, as it turned out, that was the least of their worries.

The potluck worship idea spread like a juicy rumor. Emails, phone calls, coffee talk—people were enthusiastic in their approval. “No one is going to fall asleep this Sunday!” the worship chair told his wife. His faithful and longsuffering spouse was one of the few pessimists — realists — in the crowd. She was also the accompanist for Sunday worship. She looked like she had an upset stomach.

The day came, and several people arrived early — a notable occurrence in itself. The chair of the youth committee put a big tub on the baptismal font and filled it with water. A relatively new member of the altar guild brought chips, salsa and sodas in hopes of a “culturally diverse” communion. Two high schoolers laid down a temporary hardwood floor in the chancel area and laced up their tap shoes.

The worship chair was an enthusiastic master of ceremonies. He had rented tails, a top hat, and a cane for the occasion. His spouse was exceedingly grateful that the organ was located in the balcony. The tap dancers led things off with an athletic routine to the melody of “You Ain’t Got a Thing If You Ain’t Got No Swing.” The swing was unfolding nicely until the climactic cartwheels at the end.

One of the dancers hooked a heel on the parament hanging from the lectern. Fabric, Bible, brass rods and cough drops were launched into the congregation. Worshipers dove for cover. No one, however, was injured. Most people assumed it was just part of the act. A few of the front-row folks thought that perhaps cough drops should be distributed gratis at every service.

An older member who didn’t attend much offered up a joke. “A minister, a priest and a rabbi walk into a bar,” he began. No one heard the rest of the joke due to the heated and whispered conversation that ensued between the man and his horrified spouse. All anyone heard was when she said, “Leon, shut up! I have to kiss that filthy mouth of yours!”

The chair of the youth committee glimpsed an opening and sprang into action. She grabbed an industrial-grade squirt gun and filled it from the tub on the font. “Now it’s time for us to remember our baptisms!” she shouted. She pumped out a couple of gallons before the crowd shouted back, “We remember! We remember!” The next year she was promoted to the Property and Grounds committee and put in charge of the lawn sprinklers.

As people dried themselves off, the worship chair said, “Who has a favorite hymn?” Multiple suggestions came from both sides of the sanctuary. Suddenly the strains of “Amazing Grace” collided with a heartfelt rendition of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” In a panic, the organist began to play “Jesus Loves Me.” And a few of the less-regular attenders were humming “In Heaven There is No Beer.” Eventually they carried the day. Two couples launched into enthusiastic polkas in the aisle.

When the chaos subsided, the finance chair suggested that it was time for the offering. Several ambitious teens tried to toss quarters in the plates from thirty feet away. It was the only time the ushers had ever considered wearing crash helmets and Kevlar vests. On the other hand, it was the highest cash offering ever received in that congregation on the Sunday after Easter.

In spite of previous concerns, communion was the calmest part of the morning. The chips were shaped like scoops, so the spillage was minimal. The soda portions were, to say the least, generous. The rest of the service was punctuated by burps and “excuse me’s” from several locations.

A member of the evangelism committee had been a college baton twirler. She saved her routine as the climax of the service. She performed beautifully—complete with flips and full turns. Then she tossed one of the batons toward the ceiling. The next several seconds seemed to unfold in slow motion.

The baton clipped a fire-sprinkler head on the ceiling. The head snapped off. Water began to fly in every direction. Parishioners fled the sanctuary with hair dripping and shoes squishing. The property and grounds chair sprinted to the emergency shut-off to minimize the damage. Coffee and treats waited in the fellowship hall. So the service was officially ended. The local volunteer fire department was grateful for the break in their Sunday routine and a chance at free snacks.

Pastor Joy suffered an appropriate attack of pastoral guilt that afternoon. She called the worship chair from an undisclosed location. “So,” she stammered, “did things go all right?”

“Couldn’t have been better, Pastor!” the worship chair exulted. “I think you should take a post-Easter vacation every year!”

But alas, she did not.

The Call to Continue — Saturday Sermon from the Sidelines

John 20:19-31; 2 Easter B 2021

Life after the Resurrection is rough going. Mary Magdalene suspects tomb raiders and gets abandoned to grieve alone. Peter and The Other Disciple (aka TOD) race to the tomb, inspect the linens, and retreat behind locked doors. Jesus passes through their security measures and nearly scares the life out of them. Thomas is off somewhere on his own and misses all the fireworks. He demands physical evidence. Jesus says in response, “Stick out your finger, smart guy!”

Yes, it all turns out well in the end. Mary hears her name and greets her Lord and Friend. The disciples rejoice when they realize it’s Jesus. Thomas shouts his confession of faith for the Church to hear down the centuries – “My Lord and my God!” We salute one another with the good news of Easter. Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Then another Monday comes. And the broken world is right where we left it on Saturday. So much for Easter bringing in a whole new cosmos, right?

Photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich on Pexels.com

Life after the Resurrection is rough going. The writer of John’s Gospel knows this all too well. When we follow Jesus, we need booster shots to buck up. We need Resurrection refreshers to keep us going. It’s not Easter that’s the challenge. The challenge is what comes after.

At the end of today’s gospel text, we read the conclusion to John’s whole gospel story. I know there’s another chapter after this. But think about John 21 like the epilogue or afterword to a book. There’s important stuff there. But the punchline of the whole Gospel of John is chapter twenty, verses thirty and thirty-one.

We tend to miss that because the whole “doubting Thomas” thing sucks all the air out of the room. So, let’s spend some time with those last two verses today. “Therefore, Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book,” John writes. “But these are written in order that you may continue to believe that the Messiah, the Son of God, is Jesus, and when you are believing, you may have life in his name.”

That’s my translation of those verses. I know the New Revised Standard Version says all these signs are written “so that you may come to believe.” The NRSV translation makes it sound like John’s gospel is written for those who don’t yet believe. I think John intends to write mostly for those of us who have come to believe but are in danger of losing our faith.

There’s a theological cottage industry built on the debate about how to translate “believe” in this passage. Nothing would make me happier than to walk through the data and arguments. If I did that, however, I’m pretty sure I’d be walking alone. So, here’s the deal. The evidence from manuscripts and grammar is solidly in favor of the “continue to believe” option. So, I’m going with that reading.

Life after the Resurrection is rough going. The writer of John’s gospel knows that. For the first audience, the problem may be that these predominantly Jewish Christians are being forced to choose between a more “orthodox” Judaism and a faith that says the Jewish Messiah is Jesus of Nazareth.

That’s why another part of the translation matters. Most translations of verse thirty-one say, “Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.” There are very good reasons, however, to translate it as “the Messiah, the Son of God, is Jesus.

I know, I know. It sounds like six of one, and a half dozen of the other. But each translation answers a different question. Is Jesus the Messiah? That is, is the most important question about Jesus’ identity?

Or is the Messiah Jesus? If you’re a Jewish Christian having debates with your more Orthodox in-laws over a Sabbath dinner, that’s the question that matters. Yes, we are waiting for the promised Messiah. But why in the world would you think that some crucified fool from Nazareth is the One?

For John’s readers, the answer was getting them disinvited from those dinners and booted out of their synagogues. It was a big deal.

We might have trouble empathizing with this problem at first. But think for a moment. How many friendships have evaporated because you can’t see eye to eye on current politics? How many family meals have been disrupted by political – or religious – disagreements lately? How many people do you or I ignore or avoid because we aren’t on the same political or spiritual page?

It would be a lot easier to let go of our contested opinions and priorities. It would be a lot simpler to go along just to get along. What if hanging on to Jesus meant letting go of your family or friends? That may be the sad reality in some families. I hope the more frequent outcome is a hard but rewarding journey back toward relationship and respect. That sounds a lot like new life.

Life after the Resurrection is rough going. We exit this Resurrection week looking forward to some return to “normal,” some measure of “getting back to the way things were.” But what does that mean? Will going back to normal require us to let go of the new world Easter brings?

Esau McCaulley wrote a great book called Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope. I recommend it to anyone. McCaulley has an op-ed column in the New York Times called “The Unsettling Power of Easter.”

In that column he writes, “To listen to the plans of some, after the pandemic we are returning to a world of parties and rejoicing. This is true. Parties have their place. Let us not close all paths to happiness.” Yes, I can’t wait to hug my grandkids without anxiety.

“But,” McCaulley continues, “we are also returning to a world of hatred, cruelty, division and a thirst for power that was never quarantined. This period under pressure has freshly thrown into relief the fissures in the American experiment.” That is certainly true for our country. It also happens to be true for our churches.

Recently, I read a piece by Pastor Steve Brackett. Brackett is an Assistant to the Bishop in the Northeastern Iowa Synod, ELCA. Pastor Brackett has responsibilities for the congregational call process. And he sounds worried to me. I am sure these worries are not exclusive to that synod or to that denomination. I suspect Pastor Brackett speaks for large parts of the American Church.

Especially as we come out of Covid-tide, life after the Resurrection is rough going. “As I write this, we have 30 congregations in the call process,” Pastor Brackett notes. “That number is likely to increase as some of our rostered ministers decide that the only way to recover from the difficulties of this pandemic is to leave and start fresh in another call.”

It’s been a brutal stretch in many ministries. I know that some of my colleagues are nearly at the end of their pastoral ropes.

“My hope,” Brackett continues, “is that rostered ministers and congregations will decide to remain in ministry together.  For this to happen, some time will need to be set aside to have honest conversations about what went well in establishing worship and ministry protocols, and what did not go well.”

A number of my pastoral colleagues are hoping for some recovery time away from the parish sooner rather than later. (By the way, I expect the pulpit supply business to boom this summer).

“Where necessary, forgiveness should be sought and granted for the times when communication broke down, or unkind things were said, or when people let their anxiety or anger get the better of them during negotiations or implementation of protocols,” Bracket wisely counsels.

“Following a crisis of any kind in a community, it is typical for clergy in the area to seek new calls shortly afterward,” he notes, “While this was a global pandemic, it was experienced locally in each congregation.  The easy way for rostered ministers and people to move beyond such a crisis is to part ways. But often the better path for the sake of ministry is to work through these difficult issues and remain in ministry together.”

Friends, we church folks must do our best to heed Pastor Brackett’s counsel and seek the healing good news of Resurrection in our lives, in our relationships and in our congregations. Honestly, in some places, the pain is too much, the ruptures too deep. In some places, a parting of the ways will be the most faithful path. In others it will not. In either case, the good news of Jesus is given to us so that we may continue to believe.

If that is the case in the Church, it is more so the case in the world. But we need more in our world than forgiveness and reconciliation. We need real systemic change and an ongoing passion for God’s justice for all people.

“As we leave the tombs of quarantine,” Esau McCaulley concludes his op-ed, “a return to normal would be a disaster unless we recognize that we are going back to a world desperately in need of healing. For me, the source of that healing is an empty tomb in Jerusalem. The work that Jesus left his followers to do includes showing compassion and forgiveness and contending for a just society. It involves the ever-present offer for all to begin again.”

Life after the Resurrection is rough going. The emptiness of the tomb may reflect the emptiness of our hearts. The retreat of the disciples may point to our own wish to hide from the troubles still out there. We may be drowning in grief, unable even to look up in hope. We may be angry, cynical, and ready to give up like Thomas.

But, dear friends, Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia! We have these stories so we may continue to believe. And as we continue believing, may we find – and share – the life we have in Christ’s name. Amen.

Esau McCaulley’s recent column: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/02/opinion/easter-celebration.html

Steve Brackett’s article: http://blog.neiasynod.org/2021/03/an-update-on-call-process/?fbclid=IwAR2Hm8zdc2fQS-amPLtLq5cAzh7nMgjotl2aNwikg5laQnkNKxZIgIrWwMw

The Arrival of the Riffraff — Saturday Sermon from the Sidelines

Read John 12:20-33

And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, I shall draw all people to myself” John 12:32

When Jesus is lifted up, expect the riffraff to arrive. That’s my main thought, so I’ll repeat it. When Jesus is lifted up, expect the riffraff to arrive.

“Riffraff” – what an interesting word! In English, it was originally a phrase – “rif and raf.” The phrase meant “one and all, everybody, every scrap.” It also meant the “sweepings” or “the refuse.” We have lost the inclusive aspect of the word and kept the insulting element. Who would have guessed?

Photo by Marcin Dampc on Pexels.com

When Jesus is lifted up, expect the riffraff to arrive. Expect the scrubs and scraps, the off-scoured and up-swept, the usable and disposable people. Expect the latecomers, the newcomers, the strangers, and foreigners. Expect the outcastes and outsiders, the rebels and resisters. When Jesus says “all people,” Jesus means “all people.”

In two weeks, we Western Christians will celebrate “Visitors’ Sunday,” also known as Easter. “Visitors’ Sunday” is how a sainted old curmudgeon described Easter to me. “I stay away from church on Easter,” he told me. “That’s when the riffraff shows up.”

I was startled. “Really? I think that’s a good thing!” My old acquaintance was unimpressed. “We haven’t seen hide nor hair of these characters since Christmas,” he grumbled, “if ever. They take all the back rows and make the regulars sit in front. They bring their kids and their breakfast cereal and their toys. They’re noisy and rude and don’t know any of the liturgy. I just stay home.”

My eyes wide, I pushed a bit further. “That’s an interesting perspective,” I said. “I’m wondering how you feel about the Sunday after Easter, when hardly anyone shows up?”

He didn’t miss a beat. “That’s when the real church people show up,” he smiled. “My favorite Sunday of the year.”

When Jesus is lifted up, expect the riffraff to arrive. My old acquaintance saw that as, at best, a personal inconvenience. I see it as the best possible news in the world.

I am riffraff. I come from the scrubs and the scraps. I am the off-scoured and swept up. I am wired to be an outcaste and outsider. I respond by rebelling and resisting. It’s not just that others treat me as riffraff. When I am honest, I admit that I see myself as riffraff too.

When Jesus is lifted up, expect the riffraff to arrive. The human way to deal with this influx of outsiders is to play the “better than” game. I may not be much, I say, but at least I’m better than “x.” X is whatever person or people group on whose backs I stand to get a bit higher in the pecking order.

The “better than” game is the basic principle of the system of white, male supremacy. In the early days of colonial America, the greatest fear of wealthy, white, male landowners was that black and white servants would join together to overthrow the power, position, and property of the wealthy.

Those fears were realized in 1676 during Bacon’s Rebellion. This rebellion was an armed revolt of both black and white servants against the wealthy white men in Virginia.

The rebels were defeated and captured. The leaders were executed. But the real result of the rebellion was the enactment of the “better than” game in the Virginia colonial legislature.

The wealthy and powerful white men created a legal caste system. Black people were at the bottom. Slavery was the primary tool in the game. Poor white people could not be enslaved. In fact, the lower-class white men gained status by enforcing the new slave laws for their wealthy overlords.

The “better than” game produced what W. E. B. DuBois called the “public and psychological wage” of whiteness. That wage says, “I may not be much, but at least I’m better than those” Black or Native or Brown or Asian or female people.

That public and psychological wage has been used to manipulate white, working-class men from 1676 to the present moment. And many of us non-wealthy white men have happily cooperated.

When Jesus is lifted up, expect the riffraff to arrive. Expect the riffraff to be welcomed, embraced, and included. Expect everything in the system to change – beginning with me and my place in that system.

Wealthy, white, land-owning men understood the disruptive power of Jesus and his message. So, they passed laws that made it illegal to teach slaves to read and write. They created schools for Native children where the stated goal was to “kill the Indian in order to save the man.” They deported 180,000 U. S. citizens of Mexican descent back to Mexico to reduce competition during the Gold Rush.

These powerful men resisted voting rights for women and lynched black men who wanted to vote. They decreed that Christian baptism had no impact on black people in this life. That impact was limited to the next life. They whittled the New Testament down to an apology for white, male supremacy.

Here’s the problem. The price of the “better than” game is that no one can be good enough.

When Jesus is lifted up, expect the riffraff to arrive – starting with me. When Jesus is lifted up, the “better than” game is over.

The system that pits humans against one another to benefit the one percent – that system is demonic. “Now there is a moment of judgment for the world,” Jesus declares in John 12:31. “Now the ruling power of this world shall be expelled outside.” The Greek words double up the “outsideness” of that ruling power to leave no doubt.

When Jesus is lifted up, expect the riffraff to arrive. Expect enough space for all – except for that system of keeping all the space for a few. When Jesus is in charge, there is no room for the “better than” game.

What provokes this assault on power and privilege? Well, there were these Greeks, you see. It was Passover time, and faithful worshipers came to Jerusalem from all over the Empire. They came to make their sacrifices in the Temple. Greek was the language of much of the Empire. So it’s not surprising that Greek-speakers were among the pilgrims.

They probably weren’t Jews. Instead, these Greeks were probably non-Jews who found synagogue worship, study, and practice meaningful. As non-Jews, they could be admitted only to the outer courts of the Temple, on pain of death. They came as latecomers, newcomers, strangers, and foreigners. They got wind of this new guy, and they wanted to see Jesus.

The Greeks flipped a switch in Jesus’ plans. “The time has arrived,” he announced to the disciples, “for the Son of Man to be glorified.” When the riffraff shows up for Jesus, expect something big to happen.

This worried the religious authorities – the system of power, position, and property in Jesus’ day. “Look at this,” they complained to one another in John 12:19. “There’s no leverage here. The whole world has gone after him!” The Greeks fulfilled their worst fears and Jesus’ final plans. The time had come.

When Jesus is lifted up, expect the riffraff to arrive – starting with me. If I am beloved, I have no need of “better than.” Not only is there enough life for all in God’s world – there is abundant life for all.

There is room for all in God’s world, except for systems that deal in death and traffic in tyranny. So, there is room for all of me in God’s world, except for my sins of self-absorption. God’s world will not accommodate the powers of anti-life among us or in me. Therefore, this journey includes some dying.

The one who lives life as it is must lose that life. There is no room, for example, for the system of white, male supremacy in God’s world of love. If there were room for that, it wouldn’t be God’s world.

There is no room, for example, for all the  -isms and prejudices that block my vision and harden my heart. If there were, I couldn’t be open to God’s healing mercy. All that is not of God must die to make room for God’s abundant life.

That’s a painful process. It goes badly for those of us who are powerful, privileged, and propertied. The ruling power of this world doesn’t surrender without a fight.

Some would rather die – or kill – than be changed. Thus, we see the horrific, demonic violence directed toward Asian Americans, most recently, by a white, Christian man, terrified by change and enraged by his perceived “losses.”

In spite of that, human life is better when the “better than” game is abolished and abandoned. The zero-sum approach to life leaves us all poorer, angrier, stupider, and less human.

When our sinful self-absorption falls into the ground and dies, we discover that we are not alone. When we abandon our Western, capitalist, hyper-individualism, we discover genuine community and authentic humanity.

When Jesus is lifted up, expect the riffraff to arrive. Christian congregations must embrace this truth or die. If we move beyond our panic about power and our focus on survival, we may draw closer to Jesus alongside the rest of the riffraff.

After all, no matter what we crusty curmudgeons say, Easter is coming.

Turning the Tables

Jesus turns the tables to put things right. Obviously, I’m still working on the Temple Incident recorded in John 2. Doing a first-person sermon as Nicodemus is fun and has some value. But it’s also a way to punt on the real repentance issues in this text.

The systems of White Male Supremacy that structure white Christianity are not going down without a fight. It would be easy for us white liberal Christians if the whole issue were Franklin Graham leveraging his Operation Christmas mailing lists to fear-monger his racist, xenophobic, homophobic bullshit. If only the tables to be turned belonged exclusively to those “other white folks,” this would all be so much easier.

Photo by Ryutaro Tsukata on Pexels.com

But it’s our tables that need turning as well. Jesus turns the tables to put things right. In John 2, Jesus is clearing away the obstacles to abundant life. That climaxes in a few weeks with his welcome to outsiders in John 12. It is this boundary-busting welcome that provides the final step toward his glorification on the cross. It’s when the outsiders want in that the reign of God fully arrives in John.

Nobody really wants that kind of talk in our white, mainline churches. We don’t want to go and talk to people in our neighborhoods who don’t already belong to our churches. We don’t want to keep doing hybrid worship – both in person and online – once The Pandemic has passed. That was just an expedient to keep our insiders inside. We don’t want to take nonmembers into account when we make plans for our property that might affect them. We don’t want our tables to be turned in such a way that we are guests and Jesus is the host.

That’s all crazy talk, we think. If we go down that path, we’ll end up turning over tables just like that nut from Nazareth. If we start tossing money around like it belongs to the poor people, where will it end? After all, somebody has to pay the bills to keep the Temple in business, right?

We white folks have made God’s houses into spiritual shopping malls where we sell comfort to the comfortable, serenity to the settlers, and peace to the privileged. As long as they are paying the bills, we’ll keep selling the goods. And after a while, the last one left can turn out the lights.

Jesus turns the tables to put things right. When that happens, the system responds with violence. Abundant life disrupts the power of scarcity. Bigger pies are harder to manage and manipulate for personal gain. Good news for the poor is, at least in the short term, bad news for the rich. Zeal for God’s house will consume us, we’re afraid. So we set the tables back up almost as fast as Jesus turns them over.

Jesus isn’t arrested at the moment he enacts havoc, because the crowd approves of what he does. It’s only the powerful, the privileged, and the propertied who get their underwear in a bunch about the difference between a demonstration, a protest, and a riot. Jesus enacts a symbolic prophetic sign, but he turns over real tables, scatters real money, chases real livestock. When we spiritualize this into some merely verbal protest against a religious system, we let ourselves off the hook.

But Jesus enacts the nightmare of every entrenched power structure. The crowd might see the Matrix, might wake up from the nightmare, might come to know that the system was created by and for the privileged, rigged for the rich. The goal of the system is to make sure that poor, white men continue to blame anyone but rich white men. In our system, race makes that identification easier. So that’s where we start the turning.

Jesus turns the tables to put things right. What must be overturned in the Church to put things right?

Before we jump to that, let’s start with me. I need my tables turned regularly. For example, I was in a conversation not long ago where a Black pastor reminded us of the ways in which White Christians have debased and destroyed Black communities. He wasn’t particularly aggressive in his comments. He simply told the truth without padding it for us white folks. I was grateful for the candor (sort of).

I didn’t hear one thing I hadn’t heard or read before. Yet, I felt my face get hot. I felt my head begin to shake. My guts started vibrating in rhythm with my lower jaw. In response to just the slightest honest input, I was ready to tip into a full-blown shame storm. To compound my response, I was then ashamed for being ashamed.

That response won’t do. But it’s necessary. “For through the law I died to the law,” Paul writes in Galatians 2:19-20, “so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” I don’t like having my ego crucified any more than anyone else does. But there’s no real life without that death.

For me, turning the tables means spending more time hearing face to face from my Black, Brown, Native, and Asian American siblings. It’s not up to them to educate and reform me. That’s my work and our white folks work together. I need to continue to render myself less dangerous and more resilient in such conversations. And I look forward to opportunities not merely to become a better person but to work as a partner with my siblings in ways to make our community better.

And then there’s the Church. Jesus turns the tables to put things right. We are called to overturn the “White Liberal Limbo” game. That is the game where we ask, “How slowwwwwww can we gooooooo?” As long as we give the most fragile folks veto power over constructive change, we will continue to maintain our systems of white male supremacy. If congregations die doing the right thing, that’s faithfulness. The alternative at this point is to be whitewashed tombs filled with the bones of people who don’t know they’re dead already.

I believe that in the coming decades we’re going to end up with a number of church buildings and other properties that will simply stand empty because all the white people have either died or left. Let’s make plans now to give those properties to cheated communities or to sell them and repay the proceeds to those communities. I know we white liberals are happy about justice until it starts to cost us money. But the tables of the moneychangers must be overturned if we White folks are to be freely and fully human.

It’s easy to write that knowing that reparations are unlikely to happen on any scale in my lifetime. Talk is cheap. So, we are establishing a Reparations Repayment Calendar at our house. We will give money to a number of organizations and causes that advance the agendas of racial justice and repair. From our perspective, these are not “donations” (although the IRS would regard them as such). These are repayments of debts owed for centuries.

For example, in honor of the Great Three Days of Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter, we will give to the NAACP Legal Defense fund and to a local bail relief fund. Jesus was crucified between two thieves. He went and preached to the spirits who were in prison. The stone is rolled away, and the jail cell of the tomb is empty. We see a connection.

On Thanksgiving, we will give to the Omaha tribal organization. Our house stands on Omaha land. It is only ours because of the original theft based on the Christian “Doctrine of Discovery.” We can be grateful for how the land was loved and stewarded before we got here. And we can begin to make legitimate payments for the damage we have done to Native communities. We see a connection.

In Epiphany, we remember that the Wise Ones came “from the East.” We can give to the the ELCA’s Association of Lutherans of Arab and Middle Eastern Heritage. The strategy for that mission in our church is chronically underfunded, and we can make some small gift to address that need. During Lent we can direct our offerings to the Urban League of Omaha, since Dr. King’s birthday almost always falls during that liturgical season.

We can give a Pentecost offering to a Latinx-related cause in honor of Cinco de Mayo. In February we can support a cause focused on the concerns of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, since that’s about the time of the Chinese New Year.

You can see where we’re headed with this. It will be a work in progress. It will not be a substitute for any other efforts toward education, advocacy, support, growth, and further repentance. But it will be, we hope, a way to make “table-turning” a part of our ongoing rhythms of faith and life.

Right now, however, there’s something of particular urgency. Our racist former president has stoked the fires of hatred against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. The number of hate crimes against the AAPI communities has skyrocketed in the last year. In response, the AAPI Association in the ELCA drafted a statement that was approved within hours by the ELCA conference of bishops. You can read that statement here.

In addition, plans are being made to make March 21 a Sunday of prayer and lament in our churches around this disgusting rhetoric and related crimes. That’s not likely to be the most popular thing a pastor or other leaders have ever advocated. But it’s a way to set a few things a little closer to right.

Jesus turns the tables to put things right. In this Lenten season, we are called to be turned and to turn. How will we answer?

Text Study for John 2:13-25 (Part 4); 3 Lent B 2021

Part Four – Politics in the Pulpit

White scholars, preachers, and pew sitters squirm as we consider the Temple Incident. The squirming becomes sweating when we begin to discuss Christian civil disobedience. No, that’s not right. The sweating begins when we consider “politics in the pulpit.”

The general rule in white, mainline congregations on that one is quite simple. Don’t do it. When pastoral leaders engage in something that resembles Christian civil disobedience, such as participating in a peaceful public demonstration for Black Lives Matter, the response from some parishioners is somewhere between panic and outrage. So, this text requires us to dig deeper into such responses and look ourselves in our (white supremacist) faces.

Photo by Julia Volk on Pexels.com

The fact that this is even an issue betrays our privileged, colonial position in the culture. If we resist Jesus’ actions, we are reading the text from the perspective of the religious, economic, and political establishment, not from the perspective of the oppressed and exploited people Jesus represents. That perspective is largely the viewpoint of white male supremacy that dictates the terms of power and the pace of “change.”

I think of the words of Ijeoma Oluo in this regard. She’s worth quoting at length (as is often the case).

“How often have you heard the argument that we have to slowly implement gender and racial equality in order to not ‘shock’ society? Who is the ‘society’ that people are talking about? I can guarantee that women would be able to handle equal pay or a harassment-free work environment right now, with no ramp-up. I’m certain that people of color would be able to deal with equal political representation and economic opportunity if they were made available today. So for whose benefit do we need to go so slowly? How can white men be our born leaders and at the same time so fragile that they cannot handle social progress?” (Mediocre, pages 7-8).

Oluo’s words could be transposed quite easily into the Temple Incident. Who was resistant to changes in the Temple system of wealth extraction? It certainly wasn’t the people who had to decide between getting groceries and buying a pair of doves for the required sacrifice. It certainly wasn’t the people who had to decide between a visit from their friendly Roman legionnaires and having enough money to clothe their children. The people who reacted negatively to Jesus’ Temple intervention were those who benefitted from the system of exploitation.

With whom do we identify? And what is the place of “political witness” in the life of Christian congregations? Here we privileged, powerful, and positioned white people can learn a great deal from the experience and expertise of our sisters and brothers in Black congregations. I deeply appreciate the writing and witness of Dr. Esau McCauley in his book, Reading While Black. I want to quote extensively from that work here.

We white folks have a long history of treating Black Christian political witness as bothersome (at least) and far too extreme (most of the time). McCauley rehearses the criticism of Dr. Martin Luther King’s actions in the Birmingham bus boycott from eight white mainline religious leaders. We Lutherans have our own tales of shame as when, for example, James Forman was summarily rejected by Lutheran authorities when he presented them with a plan for reparations from the church. McCauley describes the pushback as a question. “Was [King’s] public and consistent criticism of the political power structure of his day an element of his pastoral ministry or a distraction from it?” (page 49).

In most of our white mainline congregations, the honest answer would be obvious. Pastors do spiritual things, not political things. White people generally thought that Dr. King should stay in his lane and tend to his flock. Of course, as McCauley points out, such a binary approach was not an option and would not be considered in most Black congregations. The privilege of separating religion and politics is a mark of white supremacy and not a mark of biblical Christianity. The Temple Incident is a case in point.

I can imagine some of the critiques applied to Jesus during and after the Temple Incident, especially by those in power. What does that stupid rabbi think he’s doing? He may know the Bible, but he knows nothing about the real world. Why doesn’t he mind his own business and help people deal with their problems? We liked him a lot better when he was healing people and handing out bread.

But now that damned fool has gone from preaching to meddling. Doesn’t he know the Romans are watching? What if they decide to strike back? And doesn’t he understand that the whole Temple system depends on that money? How will we keep the doors open if people stop buying the animals and using the Temple banking services? He’s going to have to be dealt with, one way or another.

McCauley then works through the “quietist” texts in Romans 13 and 1 Timothy 2. He suggests that Romans 13 cannot be used to justify violent revolt. But there’s a lot of distance between armed insurrection and doing nothing. “Submission and acquiescence,” he writes, “are two different things” (page 51). Indeed, we are called to pray for the welfare of government officials. But that is also not an invitation to inaction. “Prayer for leaders and criticism of their practices are not mutually exclusive ideas,” McCauley says (page 53). “Both have biblical warrant in the same letter” (1 Timothy).

McCauley discusses the inherently political and politically explosive nature of Jesus’ ministry. This was not Jesus’ innovation but rather a fulfillment of the trajectory in the Jewish scriptures to challenge and upset the rulers of this world, beginning with the Egyptian Pharaoh. “It was precisely inasmuch as Jesus was obedient to his Father and rooted in the hopes and dreams of Israel,” McCauley writes, “that Jesus revealed himself to be a great danger to the rulers of his day” (page 55). The Temple Incident is a clear illustration of this revelation.

McCauley reminds us that “those Christians who have called out injustice are following in the footsteps of Jesus” (page 57). This means, of course, that those of us who remain silent are not following in the footsteps of Jesus. That’s not something I’ve preached very often, nor have I heard it with much frequency in our pulpits until recently. John 2 presents an opportunity to at least point this out.

“Protest is not unbiblical,” McCauley concludes, “it is a manifestation of our analysis of the human condition in light of God’s own word and vision for the future. His vision may await an appointed time,” he continues, “but it is coming” (page 62). Analysis of the human condition in most of our mainline pulpits is limited to individual consolation and comfort. In order to avoid the political and social justice conversation, we retreat into individualized “spiritual disciplines” that may offer us personal serenity but do little to inform our social consciousness or energize our public witness. I know that in some cases such disciplines do in fact inform and energize. But my observation is that such connections are exceptional.

I come now to some real dynamite in McCauley’s chapter. I will quote the paragraph fully.

“The question that ought to keep Christians up at night is not the political activism of Black Christians. The question should be how 1 Timothy 2:1-4 came to dominate the conversation about the Christian’s responsibility to the state. How did we manage to ignore the clearly political implications of Paul’s casual remarks about the evil age in Galatians and his wider reflections on the links between evil powers and politicians? How did John’s condemnation of Rome in Revelation fall from view? Why did Jesus’ public rebuke of Herod get lost to history?”

We might add, how did Jesus’ act of civil disobedience fail to motivate white, privileged, mainline Christians to embrace such public and prophetic actions as normal for us? “It may have been,” McCauley continues, “because it was in the best interest of those in power to silence Black voices. But if our voices are silenced,” he declares, “the Scriptures still speak” (page 64).

It is not the case that radical liberal political crazy people have cherry-picked Scripture for a few proof texts to underwrite their causes. It is the case that our positions determine our reading. If we read without analyzing our social positions, we will read inaccurately and narrowly. It is not that Blacks carved an anti-slavery position out of a pro-slavery Bible. It is the case that slaveholders whittled their Bible down until the anti-slavery ammunition was removed.

McCauley’s work can help us to see that white mainline Christians do that more broadly. It is not that individual conversion is in the Bible and social justice is not. It is the case that privileged, powerful, and positioned people prefer a Bible that contains the former but not the latter. Such a pared down text then allows us to stay where we are. But if we stay where we are, we will not follow Jesus where he goes.

References and Resources

Croy, N. Clayton. “The Messianic Whippersnapper: Did Jesus Use a Whip on People in the Temple (John 2:15)?” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 128, no. 3, 2009, pp. 555–568. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/25610203?seq=1. Accessed 23 Feb. 2021.

Domeris, William. The ‘enigma of Jesus” temple intervention: Four essential keys. http://www.scielo.org.za/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0259-94222015000200038.

Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.

Jeremias, Joachim. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. Philadelphia, PA.: Fortress Press, 1969.

Lewis, Karoline. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-john-213-22-3.

Malina, Bruce J., and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 1998.

McCauley, Esau. Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 2020.

Myers, Alicia D. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-john-213-22-5.

Ruiz, Gilberto. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/cleansing-the-temple/commentary-on-john-213-25-2.

Salmon, Marilyn. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-john-213-22.

Shore, Mary Hinkle. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-john-213-22-4.

Witherington, Ben. “Jesus and the Temple Tantrum (A Study of John 2:13-17).” https://www.seedbed.com/jesus-and-the-temple-tantrum-a-study-of-john-213-17/.

White Pastoral Poverty

I have heard tell of white (like me) pastoral colleagues who weary of conversation, reading, study, and calls to action when it comes to anti-racism work. Some note that they are already hard-pressed by The Pandemic and all its related complications. Some note that they have their hands full already with partisan political posturing without adding conversations about race to the mix. Some even suggest that since they have no people of color in their neighborhood or township or county, for them the conversation is beside the point.

In the spirit of Christian charity, I hope and am willing to concede that these responses may be the results of frustration and fatigue. I know in my own case, however, that frustration and fatigue do not create new thoughts in my head. Instead, they tend to lower my inhibitions, unfilter my words, and render me unfit for decent human company.

I am not throwing the first stone of judgment since I am freed from the slings and arrows of parish ministry in my retirement. But it is painful to hear that such conversations are taking place in the white, mainline pastoral guild.

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If we strip away the superficial aspects of the complaint, the basic question is simple. What’s in it for me? Issues of racial justice don’t impact me and my ministry directly. I’m doing fine as I am. Why should I bother with this stuff when I have so many other things demanding my energy and attention?

Few of us would admit to such a jaundiced view out loud. But I have asked that question on many occasions as a pastor. I’m not proud of that admission, but it is no less true because of that.

The problem is, of course, that it is the wrong question. It is not the wrong question merely because it is so damned arrogant and selfish. It is the wrong question because it tacitly assumes that there is nothing “in it” for me as a white person to engage in conversation with Black and Brown and Asian people and their faith practices and traditions.

With a few exceptional moments, I have lived and worked that way for a lifetime. I am ashamed by my ignorance and grieved by what I have missed. The question presumes that if I am a white person with no connection to Black, Brown, or Asian people, that I am not missing anything. The question presumes that my whiteness is sufficient and self-sufficient. In fact, we White Christians are deficient and incomplete on our own and by ourselves.

Seventy-five percent of white Americans have no connections to Black, Brown, or Asian people in their lives – me included. The percentage is actually higher for White Christians. We who try to live as if Whiteness is enough have hollowed out our humanity almost beyond recognition.

That’s not a judgment merely on our white identities. It is, rather, contrary to a description of God’s intention for Creation. It is not good for us to be alone. We cannot be fully and authentically human and Christian if we whittle ourselves down to mere Whiteness.

I forget that fact almost every day. I settle for the little nub of humanity left when I limit myself to Whiteness. So, I’m grateful for the reminders that human life is about so much more. I’m grateful for the reminders that people with other experiences and social locations can enrich my life and I can enrich theirs, if only I will engage in the conversation as a partner and be willing to listen and learn.

I need to engage in anti-racism work and relationships not only out of love for neighbor. I am not in the position of all-powerful giver here. I need to engage in that work and those relationships out of love for self. If my vocation is to be fully and authentically human, then I dare not cut myself off from the resources God provides.

My most recent reminder of this reality is Esau McCauley’s book, Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope. McCauley is assistant professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, a priest in the Anglican Church in North American, and a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times.

McCauley did his doctoral work with N. T. Wright, and it pleases me to hear echoes of that relationship in his writing. But his work is no mere echo of a giant in the field of New Testament studies. McCauley is a careful and close reader of Christian and Hebrew scriptures, a careful thinker about biblical theology, and a clear-eyed interpreter of texts from an historic and contemporary Black perspective.

I don’t take McCauley as a representative of “Black theology” as a whole. That’s not the point and would be insulting to McCauley and to Black theology – a variegated and complex field (just like White theology). I do experience him reading scripture texts from a social position I cannot occupy. I can’t read the texts that way myself, but I can listen and learn and have my eyes and ears opened to new (at least to me) insights.

This is one reason to engage in such studies. I cannot live, read, think, or act out of a social location other than my own. How can I know what the larger world is really like if I am limited to my own understanding and experience? How can I be fully and authentically human if all I know is a small, cramped, and often not very attractive slice of that human experience?

Without the voices of Black, Brown, and Asian theologians, I am stuck with, as McCauley describes it, “a certain reading of American history that downplayed injustice and a gentleman’s agreement to remain largely silent on current issues of racism and systemic injustice” (page 11). I will no longer be content with such an anemic view of Reality.

The question I want us white pastor types to ask is this? What do I need in order to be a better Christian and more fully human? And one answer I want us to give is that we need to listen to and learn from our Black, Brown, and Asian sisters and brothers. We need to do that for a very long time, especially we white males who have called the shots for too long.

We White Christians need to continue to learn that faith and politics are separated only to maintain the privileged, powerful, and propertied in their places. Black Christians have not been saddled with the social quietism that is assumed to be The Truth in most of our White congregations. “How might Jesus’ words inform a theology of political witness of the church?” McCauley asks in a chapter about political engagement in the church. “Jesus shows that those Christians who have called out injustice are following,” he concludes, “in the footsteps of Jesus” (page 57).

We White Christians need to continue to hear and practice a vital and passionate engagement with Scriptural texts for our lives here and now. We need to remember that from our social location, we are going to hear things in the texts that will convict us and demand conversion. We need to remember that others will hear words of liberation and life in the same texts. If we do not listen to the other voices, we will end up with a “slaveholder’s canon” designed to underwrite our White supremacy. And we will continue to be God-awful boring.

In particular, we benefit from the constant reminder that God is not only a forgiver but a liberator. We benefit from the constant reminder that Jesus not only welcomes the little children but challenges the powers that be. We benefit from the constant reminder that salvation is not merely about individuals but is about systems and the restoration of all of Creation.

The topics McCauley addresses in his work are, by and large, areas I have not addressed in my preaching and study over the last forty years. My ministry, education, and understanding have been impoverished as a result. He outlines, for example, a New Testament theology of policing based on an examination of Romans 13 and Luke 3. This is a deep and sophisticated discussion that opened my eyes to new possibilities in the text.

As he comments on the Magnificat in Luke 1, he asks, “Is this not the hope of every Black Christian, that God might hear and save? That he might look upon those who deny us loans for houses or charge exorbitant interest rates in order to cordon us off into little pockets of poverty and say to them your oppression has been met with the advent of God?” (page 87).

As I read that, I was wishing that someone might have preached such a gospel to my father who loved farming so dearly but was forced by federal and state policies to leave the farm and work “in town.” McCauley, as a side effect of his comments, reminds us that poverty and injustice easily cross the Color Line. We need our Black, Brown, and Asian sisters and brothers to keep rubbing or White noses in that truth until we get it.

We desperately need other witnesses to remind us that racialized “colorblindness” (even of the Christian variety) is, after all, just blindness. “God’s vision for his people is not the elimination of ethnicity to form a colorblind uniformity of sanctified blandness,” McCauley writes (page 106). A colorblind uniformity of sanctified blandness – White colleagues, that’s what we have now.

“Instead,” he continues, “God sees the creation of a community of different cultures united by faith in his Son as a manifestation of the expansive nature of his grace. This expansiveness is unfilled unless the differences are seen and celebrated,” McCauley concludes, “not as ends unto themselves, but as particular manifestations of the power of the Spirit to bring forth the same holiness among different peoples and cultures for the glory of God” (pages 106-107).

I am certain that McCauley and I would disagree about any number of textual, theological, and social issues. That’s the good news. My education is deficient, and my training is incomplete without such conversation. “What I have in mind then,” McCauley writes, “is a unified mission in which our varied cultures turn to the text in dialogue with one another to discern the mind of Christ” (page 22).

That’s one reason why we White Christians need to do this work. I thank God for the chance to be a partner in such a convicting and generative conversation.

White Male Markers

Millions of Texans went without electricity, heat, and water for hours and sometimes for days over the past week. Half a million are still without utilities, and thirteen million people are under a water boil order for the near future. In the meantime, Texas energy companies are making big bucks. “This week is like hitting the jackpot with some of these incredible prices,” according to Comstock Resources, Inc. CEO, Roland Burns.

Comstock is owned by Dallas entrepreneur and sports team owner, Jerry Jones – poster boy for white, male power, privilege and position. Stock prices for energy companies have skyrocketed while government officials blame each other for the clear failures in policy and preparation that resulted in four dozen deaths, huge physical suffering, and likely billions in property damage.

Photo by Amir Esrafili on Pexels.com

During the worst hours of the disaster, Colorado City (Texas) mayor Tim Boyd took to Facebook to make his feelings known in a since-deleted post. Boyd declared that the government is not responsible for the welfare of people who are too lazy to take care of themselves. Socialist government and bad raising, according to Boyd, have conspired to produce the situation folks in Texas now face.

All that was missing from Boyd’s post was a quote from Ebenezer Scrooge, that the foolish freezing folks should hurry up and die to reduce the surplus population.

Later Boyd issued an apology and announced his resignation. Even though he composed the entire post, and it was quoted in its entirety by news sources, he protested that it was “taken out of context.” He wished that he had chosen “better wording” (whatever that might be for such an arrogant and disgusting screed) and thought more clearly about his comments. He complains that he and his family have suffered from anger and harassment as a result of the post. And he concludes by noting that he is now a private citizen and should just be left alone.

Finally, this week we learned of the death of Rush Limbaugh from cancer at age 70. Limbaugh was the first to take full advantage of the Reagan cancellation of the Fairness Doctrine and to turn cable news into cable bullshit. I use that term in the way that Harry Frankfurt uses it in his little book On Bullshit.

Limbaugh raised the disregard of truth to a high art. He was one of the first to realize that truth is not even relevant in most current conversations. Provocation is power. Facts are a waste of time. Limbaugh was offensive, abusive, misogynist, racist, and fascist in his comments. Worst of all, he simply did it for the money, not for any principles. I am not dancing on Limbaugh’s grave. I simply report what he himself said about himself on numerous occasions.

The cavalcade of white, male supremacy continues on, even if the Marmalade Misanthrope no longer occupies the White House or has his Twitter account. It’s not a man – it’s a system. It’s a system that produces so much idiocy that I can’t even get to the Ted Cruise to Cancun or the Terry Bumstead interview that continues to make me think that he has years of dementia already behind him. White male supremacy is an inexhaustible font of foolish hypocrisy and wealthy stupidity that would be hilarious if it didn’t kill people by the thousands daily.

As this all unfolds, I’ve been reading Native, by Kaitlin Curtice. It is, among other things, a poetic summary of the nature of Whiteness and thus a commentary on events every week – not just this one. So, for my own edification, I will share some of the necessary face-slaps I have received while reading.

What whiteness cannot enslave, whiteness erases. That is not a political or ideological or theological argument. It is rather, an historical observation. This observation is for me, of course, more in the category of the privileged white male fish discovering the ocean of whiteness and maleness and privilege in which he’s been swimming for a lifetime and more. I’m late to the game and will spend the rest of this life catching up.

“A thread runs through the history of America,” Kaitlin Curtice writes in Native,

a thin line that connects people, places, moments, cultures, and experiences. This thread started when Columbus arrived and deemed Indigenous peoples savage and unworthy of life, a thread that continued as African peoples were enslaved and forced onto this continent. We see it today in hate crimes against people of color and religious minorities. It is a thread of whiteness, of white supremacy, that aims to erase culture, to assimilate those deemed “unworthy” of humanity. (page 13).

And we see it in spoiled food, broken pipes, contaminated water, and the bodies of the homeless in the streets of Texas cities.

Whiteness enslaved Black people in order to crush the life out of them like grapes and sell the juice of their labor. When that was no longer the legal system, whiteness erased Black people from the political process, from the accumulation of wealth, from quality housing, from good schools, from white churches, from our stories, and from the pages of the history white people teach, remember, and celebrate. Whiteness continues that process of erasure daily.

“Whiteness is a culture that requires the erasure of all others,” Curtice continues later in her book,

considering them less-than. It is believing in that well-known metaphor of a melting pot that we so love to hold on to in America, but erasing the value of the lives of the “other” within the narrative and in the process presenting the idea of assimilation as virtue. But really, assimilation is about power, power that puts shackles on Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color” (Native, page 45).

Whiteness has an ironic and contradictory relationship with all that is not white. On the one hand, whiteness removes all that which is not white and will not become white. On the other hand, whiteness needs the Other as the “Inferior” in order to fund what James Baldwin called the “White wage.” That wage is basically, “I may not be much, but at least I’m better than someone.” Domination in the end is a perverse dependency of Whiteness on all that is not white. That perversity harms all but the most privileged of white people along with all others.

Whiteness erases Indigenous people from the land, from power, from their stories, from their cultures, and from life. Indigenous people were not seen as “usable,” so they were then seen as “disposable.” A continent was “discovered.” Land was seen as “empty” – even if the first inhabitants had to be forcibly removed by genocide and trails of terror and tears. Culture was cut off along with hair, and language was forgotten along with oppression. The imperative was to clear out of the way, assimilate to whiteness and/or die.

White people are portrayed as adventurers and explorers who “discover” a place for the first time. The land is “uninhabited” and needs to be “developed.” In fact, white people are colonizers of spaces that must be stolen before they can be possessed. The environment must be rendered friendly to capitalist exploitation and white male supremacy. That re-formatting of the place is deadly for those who were there first. And it is highly profitable to those who continue to “own” what lies under the stolen land in places like Texas.

Land and plants and animals and people are commodities to be measured and mined, sliced and diced, packaged and sold. “We lose the ability to see things clearly when colonization sets in,” Curtice writes. “We are clouded with dreams of economy and market value, and we forget that the land is still speaking, that the forgotten are still here, and that white supremacy does not have the last word” (Native, page 33). But while it speaks, people still suffer and die.

Because this story is so familiar, so comfortable, and so well-designed for the desires of white, male supremacy, we who benefit most are privileged to believe and act as if the story describes “Reality.” We can tell ourselves stories about colonization and settling, about heroic pioneers and fantastic frontiers, about rugged individuals and bold entrepreneurs. In the telling we don’t notice (and don’t want to notice) the people who suffer and die as a result, the communities that are devastated and destroyed as a result, the planet that rebels at our irresponsibility as a result.

I wish that my Christianity had been part of the solution over the last five hundred years, but I know better. “Settler colonial Christianity is a religion that takes, that demeans the earth and the oppressed, and that holds people in these systems without regard for how Jesus treated people,” notes Kaitlin Curtice. “So to be part of a colonizing religion, I have to constantly ask, Who am I following?” (Native, pages 35-36).

As we prepare to read next Sunday about the cost of discipleship, that question faces us Christians with painful urgency.

Jesus “called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?” (Mark 8:34-37, NRSV).

White, male supremacy, using the tools of unfettered individualistic robber baron capitalism, is always trying to find out what it will “profit them.” In this Lenten season, we who desire to follow Jesus are challenged to actually try that path and see where the life really is.

More on Native in future posts, I’m sure.

Throwback Thursday Books — A Simple Way to Pray by Martin Luther

“How Not to Pray”

In his little book called A Simple Way to Pray, Martin Luther remembers an old joke about a pastor who was praying one thing but thinking another. Luther says the pastor’s prayer went something like this.

“O God, intend Your ear to me (Hired hand, have you lashed the horse to the wagon?).”

“Make haste to deliver me, O Lord (Young lady, go milk the cow).”

“Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit (Get cracking, you rascal or the plague take you!).”

Luther notes that the pastor illustrates an old Latin proverb: “a person engaged in various pursuits, minds none of them well.” “A true prayer,” Luther concludes, “meditates on all the words and thoughts of the prayer from beginning to end” (Kindle Location 188).

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Many people would define prayer as “talking to God.” That’s true, but it’s a very limited definition. Talking to God puts the emphasis on what I have to say. It puts me in charge of the conversation. Worst of all, prayer as talking to God leaves no room for listening! One of the problems with the prayers Jesus describes in Matthew six is that there is so much talking and so little listening.

Prayer that makes a difference is rooted in listening. Listening happens in silence. “Silence,” writes Kallistos Ware, “is not merely negative—a pause between words, a temporary cessation of speech—but, properly understood, it is highly positive: an attitude of attentive alertness, of vigilance, and above all of listening.” (The Power of the Name, Kindle Location 27).

Bishop Theophan the Recluse put it this way: “the principal thing is to stand before God with the mind in the heart, and to go on standing before Him unceasingly day and night until the end of life.” To stand before God with the mind in the heart—that is a deep definition of prayer. That is what it means to store up treasures in heaven—to stand before God with the mind in the heart.

Prayer is not merely request. Prayer is relationship. “Prayer,” writes Anne Lamott, “means that, in some unique way, we believe we’re invited into a relationship with someone who hears us when we speak in silence.” (Help, Thanks, Wow, page 4).

Prayer does not begin with me. It begins with God. Prayer is not primarily something I do. Rather prayer is something God does in me and to me and through me. “True inner prayer,” Kallistos Ware concludes, “is to stop talking and to listen to the wordless voice of God within our heart; it is to cease doing things on our own, and to enter into the action of God.”

Praying restores us to our full humanity. The function of prayer is to place us in the presence of God. This was God’s intention from the beginning. In the garden, God strolled with the humans in the cool of the evening. They were always in his presence and happy to be there. That is the way we are made. We are restless, irritable and discontent when we separate ourselves from God.

Is it any wonder that Jesus criticizes the actions of the religious leaders of his day? What they did were not bad things in and of themselves, Alms, prayer and fasting are helpful disciplines at any time, and especially during the Lenten season. But who is the focus of these actions? If it is me, I have already gotten what I want. If the focus is God, then that’s how I need to act.

Humility is the doorway to holiness. So there is no real prayer without humility. Anne Lamott reminds us of an old riddle. “What’s the difference between you and God? God never thinks he’s you.” Those who advertised their alms, prayers and fasting indeed got their rewards. What they wanted was public applause, and that’s what they got. Arrogance leads toward applause and away from God. Humility precedes holiness and leads us toward God.

Humility is the doorway to holiness. Holiness is the real goal of being human. We were made to stand in the presence of God, to walk with God as friends in the cool of the evening.

C. S. Lewis wrote: “I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God. It changes me.” God already knows what we need better than we know ourselves.

Matthew 6 is the longest instruction Jesus gives about praying. So we should probably pay attention.  At the center of these texts is the confidence that God is our Father. We can approach God with confidence. We don’t have to prove our value in advance. Our Father sees our secret places and stays with us. So we can come to receive the ashes, knowing they are not the end. We go from the ashes to the altar. We remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. Then we remember Jesus in his body and blood, given and shed for us and for the life of the world.

Your Father who is in the secret place–this is God is waiting in the hidden depths of our hearts to speak to us. Real prayer springs us from the trap of showing off before God and others. God knows who we are better than we know ourselves. So we can be honest. We can be real people. In prayer, we can be free to be who we truly are and who we truly are created to be. “Talk to God,” says Rowan Williams, “as if you are Jesus.” That’s a startling statement, but that’s exactly right.

We were prepared for that relationship by the words of the Prayer of the Day this past Sunday. We prayed that God will “transform us into the likeness of your Son, who renewed our humanity so that we may share in his divinity…” We can pray as if we are Jesus because that’s what God intends us to be–more and more like Jesus.

After some good listening, then perhaps we are better equipped to speak. One of the challenges is simply learning how to pray in a helpful way. In 1535 Luther’s barber, Peter Beskendorf, asked Luther for some instructions and training on how to pray. Luther wrote a letter, which became a booklet, describing Luther’s personal prayer practice. I like to summarize that practice with the acronym “ITCH.”

“I” stands for Intercession — first lifting up the needs and concerns of our neighbors before God. “T” stands for Thanksgiving. God is the Giver of all good things and deserves our thanksgiving and praise for such grace, mercy and love. “C” stands for Confession. We come before God in our brokenness and lack of faith, and God heals us in the honesty of our self-disclosure. “H” stands for Help. Whoever we call on in life and in death, Luther notes in the Large Catechism, that one is our God. We are encouraged to call upon God in every time of need and to never be bashful in our requests.

Much of the book is specific examples of how Luther uses this and other methods to pray his way through the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments and the Creed. But this little book also has nuggets that are precious to me. For example, Luther urges concentration in our prayer and suggests that we refrain from multi-tasking while we pray.

“Just as a good and diligent barber must keep his thoughts and eyes precisely on the razor and the hair and not forget where he is while cutting hair,” Luther writes to Besekendorf the barber, “even though he may be chatting a great deal, he will be concentrating carefully, so that he keeps a close eye on where the razor is so he doesn’t cut somebody’s nose, or mouth, or even slice somebody’s throat.” Perhaps Luther had some mixed experiences with barbers! But his concrete illustration makes the point.

Luther encourages us to regard prayer as a necessary form of spiritual nourishment. “To this day, I nurse on the Lord’s Prayer like a little child,” he writes, “and like an old man now, I eat and drink from it, but never get my fill.” Again, Luther’s imagery is earthy and precise — one of the many things I value about his writing.

I have taught and used Luther’s prayer method for years and rely on it whenever I find myself at a prayer road block. That is especially the case when I find myself, as Luther did, under some kind of spiritual assault. Luther was convinced that these moments of “Anfechtungen” were not times to have to make up prayers on the fly and off the cuff. Instead, at such moments a tried and true discipline can be useful to allow the Spirit to haul us out of the depths and into the light.

I look forward to re-engaging with this prayer discipline in the season of Lent 2021.