Category: Lent

Who is ‘abject’? A Good Friday reflection.

TRIGGER WARNING: mentions of rape, death, physical violence.

The radical Good News of the Messiah Jesus, according to John (12:27-33, brackets mine):

[Jesus said:] ‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’ The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, ‘An angel has spoken to him.’ Jesus answered, ‘This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

Abject and Crucified One:
Give us the grace and the courage to walk as children of light,
and include us now in the life of your coming Kingdom,
where you reign for ever and ever.
Amen.

Critical theorists use the term abjection to refer to things that “disturb identity, system, [and] order”—the abject is “what does not respect borders, positions, [and] rules.” Something is abject when we feel so threatened that we have a visceral, gut-level response: fear, vomiting, revulsion. We know something is abject when we fear the world as we understand it will end—or even explode! Abjection, paradoxically, makes our worldview coherent, but only by making it the repressed centre of our understanding.

Who is ‘abject’? A young wife abused by her drunk husband so that he can maintain some delusional sense that everything is under control. A man with severe physical disabilities rolling down the street in an automated chair, drool glistening on his chin—deemed ugly and asexual. A gay man or trans* person beaten, a lesbian woman raped, by some local straight boys as their understanding of gender identity implodes and their internalized male privilege erupts. A child working in a sweatshop somewhere in Southeast Asia as a strapped-for-cash student (raises hand) thanks his lucky stars he can afford to buy shoes that won’t break the bank at the local super-corporate everything-in-one-place store. Abject: Out of sight, out of mind. If it, if they, came to mind, we would be faced with our refusal to face reality—so we don’t let them come to mind, and shove them under again, with our words–or our boots. Careful now—we might be faced with the sheer, stinking and rotten realities created by our own hearts and systems.

Jesus says in John that the world is under judgment, and “now the prince of this world will be driven out.” Jesus has been poking holes in the system by performing signs and wonders, and the keepers of the system, the ones helping to reinforce business-as-usual, want Jesus dead. If they face the reality of what Jesus represents, the whole system will come apart. So they want him to die, and Jesus knows it.

Interestingly, critical scholars who write about abjection say that we face it most in the presence of death or dying. We might be able to process death if a friend tells us about it, or if we see someone’s heartbeat flat-lining on a computer screen—these are things that exist in the symbolic order, things that are more-or-less manageable because they are at one remove from death and dying itself. But if we are present at a death: the death of a friend after an illness, or the implosion of a friendship, romance, or marriage—that moment often breaks something inside us. Reality, or at least the Shadow, comes in like a flood, sweeping to one side everything we thought we knew, everything we thought kept us safe.

According to John, Jesus has recently raised his beloved Lazarus from the dead. Let’s get specific, here: Jesus has raised Lazarus’ corpse to life again. For one incredible moment, the reality of human mortality in a world under the influence of the Satan has been utterly disrupted by the Voice of the Word made flesh calling him to life. And now the world—meaning the system under the control of its prince, the Adversary—is going to put Jesus to death. Jesus is about to become the abject, the shadowy “not-quite-a-thing” that the system has to ignore and suppress in order to continue.

BUT. (When we hear about disaster in the context of the Gospel, there’s always a ‘but’)

Hear the words of Jesus: “But when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.” Without violence, without fanfare, the stark reality of Jesus death has destroyed, is destroying, and will destroy Satan’s ability to keep humanity and our Earth under its control. In the foolishness of God, God makes the Abject One the light of the cosmos and the path to eternal life. The glory of God is the utterly despised and foolish Man hanging on a Roman cross. The ultimate symbol of death and the victory of the world becomes—because it is Godself who hangs there, subverting it—the gateway to the New Creation and the resurrection of the dead.

This is the scandal of the Gospel—“Christ crucified—a stumbling block to Jews” (because the Messiah can’t be a Roman criminal cursed by hanging on a tree, it makes no sense!) “and foolishness to Greeks” (the body is disgusting and corrupt, how could flesh ever save the world? It makes no sense!), “but to us who are being liberated, the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

When we remember the events of Holy Week, and especially when we gather at the foot of Christ’s cross on Good Friday, we find that we are standing in the presence of God, waiting for new life to erupt seemingly out of nowhere, from the very Centre of things. Perhaps the wrong sorts of people: the abused, and the disabled, and the Queer (along with anyone who finds that they, too, are partly responsible for the death and rot in the world), find the favour to walk as children of light. And let us make ourselves available, friends, to let God’s scandalous love, flowing through us, disrupt—if even for a moment—the hold of the Prince of this World over God’s beloved creation, which, in his Cross and Resurrection, Jesus is drawing to completion in Himself. May God grant that we find it so.

(I preached an earlier version of this reflection on Tuesday of Holy Week 2010, at Trinity College Chapel, Toronto.)

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Not What We Expected (Palm Sunday)

From my book O Beautiful Dust, written Palm Sunday, 2013.

Triumphant Lord:
Today you came into Zion on a donkey—
your friends pimped out your ride because
they sensed in their bones
that you were the King,
come to liberate the people from oppression:
“Save now!” their—our— cry.

But why didn’t you
cross swords with the Romans, Jesus?
People started to fear.
This wasn’t what we expected of you, Jesus!

The progressives didn’t like you—
and they still don’t.
Those Pharisees with their oral tradition
and bodily resurrection
and angels and demons, thus:
“What do you mean, we’re abusing the Torah?
What do you mean, we don’t need the Temple?”

The conservatives didn’t like you—
and they still don’t.
Those Saducees with their Temple taxes
and Biblical literalism
and political posturing?
“What do you mean, we’re fleecing the poor?
What is this nonsense: a ‘non-violent’ Kingdom?”

And we—pulled back and forth,
harassed like sheep without a shepherd—will cry,
only a few days from now,
agreeing with the agendas of the powers-that-be:
“Crucify Him! Crucify!”

O Triumphant Lord,
going to a cross-throne
wearing thorns-as-crown:
You are not what I—what we—expected…

Selah.

On blogging as a spiritual practice.

As an Anglican Christian with pentecostal roots, I have been introduced to Lent as part of the cycle of the Church Year. It is a period of 40 days meant to assist Christians in amendment of life and intentionally making space for a deeper experience of Christ and his good news. This year, I “gave up” drinking (soda) pop, but also added the practice of blogging every day. So far, I’ve “missed” two days of writing, but I feel I have been learning a lot.

The subtitle of this blog is “experiments in faithful Christian formation.” I think three things have been growing on me about blogging as a spiritual practice. First, it is a relief to feel that writing everyday is a relief. There are so many times when I would start a project like this and quickly lose steam. It seems to me (I say with deep gratitude) that I was ready to try something like this in a way that I haven’t been before. Second, I don’t need to say something brilliant or profound. Remembering this has helped me to avoid writer’s block. Third, “prompted” writing and “inspired” writing are both powerful–I learned this rubric from a new friend. Sometimes the ideas just flow–I am reacting, in a way, to something new in my experience. But “prompted” writing–like responding to the upcoming lectionary readings, helps feed the discipline of writing without the self-imposed burden of re-inventing the wheel every morning.

Mostly I am just grateful. I have the opportunity to see my writing hitting people at odd angles, moving them, provoking them. And I am astonished that words can be so powerful (even though, as I writer, I count on that power). Sometimes thoughts that seem simple are the most powerful, and sometimes I hope that something I’ve put deep soul into resonates as much for others as it does for me. I often sense that words have power beyond anything I could expect. And in that beyond, I often sense the surprising flight of the Holy Spirit.

That’s just like her: my Little Sister teaching me to be like my Big Brother. Who knew blogging could be good for that? I had a suspicion, but…

On silence and solitude.

  1. Silence and solitude are spiritual practices or disciplines that develop relationships. Silence is not the same as being silenced or rendered voiceless. Solitude is not the same thing as loneliness. Jesus understood both as he went about his ministry and to the Cross.
  2. God is not in the life-denying or harmful realities of life. God is the “sheer silence,” the “gentle whisper” that quells the chaos and creates the spaciousness to allow us to hear God’s voice, and thus to become friends of the Divine. Friends of the Divine have the call to oppose the life-denying or harmful realities of life as ambassadors of Christ.
  3. Something inside me sings as I write these things. But I admit I barely know what they mean. Would you give me more experience, Lord?

It makes all the difference: A reflection.

This was the shorter reflection on Luke 13:1-9, given at Morning Prayer on 28 February 2016 at St. George the Martyr Anglican Church.

What we believe about the character of God makes all the difference.

“At that very time there were some present who told [Jesus] about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices,” says our Gospel for today.  Can you imagine Jesus with tears streaming down his cheeks as he hears the news? “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

Maybe he wipes his eyes, maybe his voice shakes a little even in its strength. “Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them”—mentioning another local disaster— “do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

This is the way I hear Jesus: “Do you really think that ‘those people over there’ were bad sinners, and you’re OK by comparison? Do you really think God decided those people had it coming, but you’re going to be fine? Not a chance—it doesn’t work like that. What kind of a god is that? While there’s time—repent!”

When I was growing up–even though I would never have admitted it–I understood repentance as ‘moving in the opposite direction of my favourite sins.’ But for Jesus, it means something much more basic and comprehensive: “Leave your agenda, and join me in mine.” Repentance is about allowing God convince us of His character, and allowing him to place us in a new story and a new community—which, of course, means that God shapes our behaviours to match our new reality.

Let me turn for just a moment to the parable of the tree with no fruit. Most of the time when I hear this tale, I find it vaguely threatening: “One more year, and I’ll cut it down,” says the man who owns the vineyard.

But maybe that “man” isn’t God. Maybe the gardener is God, even Jesus himself. God in Jesus has been doing everything he knows to help that tree—to help the people of God—be the fruitful organism it’s supposed to be. But just like Luke’s story that we call the Prodigal Son, there’s a cliff-hanger ending. The question is not, while biting our nails, “Will I finally grow this year?” The question is, “Does the gardener know what he’s doing?” And I suspect that our answer has to do with whether we trust that we have a Christ-like God, that God’s character looks and smells and sounds like Jesus. Sometimes I wonder if the cliff-hanger is in God’s heart: will we repent, and trust him? What is our answer?

That answer, my friends, is why what we believe about the character of God makes all the difference.

It makes all the difference: A sermon.

Isaiah 55:1-9 Psalm 63:1-8 1 Corinthians 10:1-13 Luke 13:1-9

What we believe about the character of God makes all the difference.

“At that very time there were some present who told [Jesus] about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices,” says our Gospel for today. Can you imagine Jesus with tears streaming down his cheeks as he hears the news? “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

Maybe he wipes his eyes, maybe his voice shakes a little even in its strength. “Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them”—mentioning another local disaster— “do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

This is the way I hear Jesus: “Do you really think that ‘those people over there’ were bad sinners, and you’re OK by comparison? Do you really think God decided those people had it coming, but you’re going to be fine? Not a chance—it doesn’t work like that. What kind of a god is that? While there’s time, beloved people—repent!”

When I was growing up–though I never would have admitted it–I understood repentance as ‘moving in the opposite direction of my favourite sins.’ But for Jesus, it means something much more basic and comprehensive: “Leave your agenda, and join me in mine” (NT Wright).  Repentance is not just about leaving sin behind–though Lent can be useful for that, if we need it! It’s about allowing God tp convince us of His character, and allowing him to place us in a new story and a new community—which, means, of course, that God claims our hearts and shapes our behaviours for the Kingdom.

To my ear, the crowd wants to know: if Yahweh really is on the throne, why do evil things happen in the world? Though we don’t hear their actual words, the crowd seems to think that moral evil or random disaster is humanity’s fault—whether done by another human (Pilate) or by random accident or natural calamity (the tower of Siloam). Further, their implied questions seem to assume—with good biblical precedent, I might add—that if we can isolate and scapegoat the people actually to blame, the evils will stop! Maybe if we appease God, the Romans will clear out of here and God’s Messiah will appear to usher in a new world where Israel is the head and not the tail.

But cue Jesus: “NO!” Can you hear the disastrous picture of the character of God under these questions? What if the question God is asking—the answer to which requires trusting a new agenda—has to do with God’s invitation to fight evil alongside Him? Maybe you’ve wondered, with me: “If there is a good and loving God, why does the world look like a warzone between good and evil?”

Forgive me if you find me flippant, but I think Jesus and the writers of our readings today would reply: Because the world is a warzone between good and evil. The question isn’t, “Who’s to blame?” or “Is God out to get us?” Rather, seeing the world with Jesus’ agenda as our lens, we ask, “How do we resist evil? How do we align our lives with the Kingdom of God?”

If neither human fault nor the character of God can account for disaster and grave evil, is there something else going on? Let’s shift to Paul for a moment. For the saints at Corinth, he rehearses the faithfulness of God—he even uses a rabbinical story about the Rolling Stone following the people in the Wilderness which is not in the Old Testament, “and the rock is Christ.” We know God is faithful because of Christ.

Nevertheless, says Paul, God was not pleased with most of them. And God is displeased, too, if we desire evil—precisely because God is faithful as Christ is. Sometimes, the People which bears Christ’s name deliberately chooses relationship-destroying ways.

Paul asks us to remember: the Golden Calf, where we built an image of Yahweh, thinking that degrading fertility rituals were acceptable worship (maybe we should think about sex-trafficking and sexism and heterosexism, today). And remember the snakes: We often want to go back to slavery, back to Empire, back to scarcity economy—or we think that just because we win battles we think important, God is on our side.

The OT says that God sends the destruction. But though he notes that Paul is displeased, he doesn’t say that. He says, “The People were destroyed by the destroyer.” Is it possible that, because of Messiah Jesus, Paul believes something different than he used to about the character of God?

As is clear if we take time to read the Gospel of Luke as a whole, Paul also seems to suggest that the “destroyer” isn’t God—it’s Satan, the Devil, the demons, “the principalities and powers.” The Evil One often acts in the world because people desire evil—but that doesn’t mean God is out to get us. In fact, the Church is the sign of Love’s warfare against and victory over evil! For Paul (and for Jesus), there is liberation from the spiritual forces and human ways that stoke deliberate peace-breaking in our relationship with God, each other, or Creation.

The questions we ask about evil—never mind the evil that we sometimes do—flow directly from what we really believe in our guts about the character of God. Sometimes, evil happens in the world because the people of God are ignorant of the awesome responsibility God gives us under the authority of Jesus. And yes, sometimes the Body of Christ does or desires what is contrary to God’s call for us!

With all boldness in Christ, I remind us of the Truth: God is Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is the heart of God. But Rob Walker often believes awful things about the character of God because I try to fit Jesus into my established ideas about God! (None of you, I’m sure, have ever done the same!) It’s the other way ‘round: God has Christ-like character.

The Christ-like God gives to everyone what they need, even if they can’t afford it; coaxes the nations to come running, claiming their freedom; calls us to become adults who accept the consequences of our actions and desires;  and always invites us to the Feast of the Kingdom so we can stand forgiven, not worrying about the cost or the calories. That God, in and as Jesus, is fighting a real war against evil; that God is going to win because of his Passion and his resurrection, which we anticipate in Lent; that God calls us to spiritual warfare because we are his people.

In conclusion: What we believe about the character of God makes all the difference. Is God threatening to cut us down in today’s Gospel? Or is Jesus doing everything he can to help us grow and flourish? (Is God the vineyard owner, or the gardener?) But just like Luke’s story that we call the Prodigal Son, there’s a cliff-hanger–we don’t know the end of the story. The question is not, in a fear-filled whisper: “Will I finally grow this year?” The better question is, “Does the gardener know what he’s doing?” The question is not, “Why is there evil in the world if God is Love?” but rather “Does Love Win and can we join in?” Perhaps there is a cliff-hanger even in God’s own heart: What is your answer?

And that answer, my friends, is why what we believe about the character of God makes all the difference. Amen.

Sermon prep: or, choosing the other way ’round.

Wrestling with the texts
we will hear on Sunday before I preach them–
I think,
I hope,
my heart is a different shape.

How I hear the text
depends

upon what I have decided
about the character of God.

It really does matter,
my friends:
does Jesus look like God,
or is it, instead,

the other way ’round?

Selah.