St Michael and All Angels

They were not created on the first day.
They are not light, nor dark; they live
in bright shadows in between.

They do not rise nor set; they were not
created on the fourth day.

They are not reputed to seed themselves
or to slither or creep, neither to swim;
they have been mistaken for men,
but they are not we, and we are not them.

Either they were made between
the cracks in time,
outside of day or night,
so that only when we fall through
do we seem them in the bright shadows
of dying, dark light;

or else, perhaps, on the seventh day,
as God was resting,
the divine mind dreamed of angels.

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Year B Proper 21: the hell with it

From this morning’s gospel:

If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell., And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

Well, that escalated quickly…

The apostle Paul said somewhere to the Corinthians:

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” (1 Corinthians 12:21)

And in Genesis we are told:

So God created humankind in his image; in the image of God he created them. (Genesis 1:27)

Paul to those Corinthians again:

Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? (1 Corinthians 6:19)

And finally from the Gospel according to Luke:

While he was still speaking, suddenly a crowd came, and the one called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. He approached Jesus to kiss him; but Jesus said to him, “Judas, is it with a kiss that you are betraying the Son of Man?” When those who were around him saw what was coming, they asked, “Lord, should we strike with the sword?” Then one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him. (22:47-51)

It is dangerous – and we do it all the time, but it is dangerous – to take snippets of chapter and verse away from the context of the Gospel message that God created us for God’s own delight, in God’s own image; that we are temples, vessels of God’s Holy Spirit; that Jesus came to strengthen, and to heal us, body, soul, and spirit.

It is only in that context of that Gospel message that we dare to read this morning’s chapter and verse, from the Gospel according to St Mark. Because the Gospel makes it clear that Jesus did not come to frighten or to punish or to wound God’s people; quite the opposite.

But then what do we make of these verses?

The first words of Jesus in Mark’s gospel account are a call to repentance, but that call is couched in gospel terms, placed firmly in the context of good news:

Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:14b-15)

For Jesus, repentance is really, really important, and a vital part of his gospel message. And it is good news.

And placed in that context, I don’t think that we hear Jesus trying to frighten his friends into being on their best behaviour. On the contrary, I believe that he is recognizing aloud how hard their road to holiness is. His own road will go through the cross – Rome could devise no more exacting and prolonged torture for its enemies.

He knows that the disciples are already finding it hard to hoe the row that he is leaving them – instead of humility and service of God and neighbour, instead of love they exercise jealousy, and entertain arguments about who is the greatest, and about who should be allowed to own and to use the name of Jesus. It is difficult to repent of the ways of the world, having been thoroughly raised in them. And Jesus recognizes this and names it for them.

When Jesus talks to his disciples about hell, he uses the name Gehenna. Gehenna was a real place, a valley outside Jerusalem formerly known as a site of child sacrifice and horror, now a rubbish dump where fires did burn without ceasing and worms did live continually and without end. It had become a byword among first-century Jews for eternal torment; but it was a byword based not on the imaginings of Dante and Milton that we have inherited, but on the reality of a rubbish dump, burning eternally on the site of old atrocities. [1]

His disciples are not afraid that Jesus will throw them onto the city rubbish heap. That is not why they follow him so closely, to the end.

It is, unfortunately, we, the church, who have turned Jesus’ words into threats instead of promises.

But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear, and healed him.

Amy-Jill Levine, prominent Jewish scholar of the Bible, writes,

If the body is in the image and likeness of the divine, is torturing it to be celebrated or condemned? What purpose does eternal punishment serve, other than certain revenge fantasies of those who are not being tortured? Schadenfreude may be a source of emotional pleasure, but it is not nice. [2]

Nor is it theologically correct. “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you,” admonished Jesus. Not once did he say, “Give them hell!”

Repentance is difficult. It involves giving up our fantasies of revenge, in this life and the next. It involves forgiving ourselves as God forgives us; it involves forgiving others as God forgives them. It involves, as Bill Countryman puts it, giving up “the right to have higher standards [for forgiveness] than God.” [3]

It involves submitting ourselves to the grace and mercy of God, letting go of greatness, setting envy aside, living truly in love. It is not easy. Giving up a grudge is about as painful a process as cutting off a foot. Learning to see someone in a new light feels like clawing out our eyes to borrow a better, brighter pair.

The disciples were not afraid that Jesus would throw them on the rubbish heap. They did not hear a call to self-mutilation; they had seen, over and over again how Jesus would rather heal than hurt, would rather rescue than condemn, sit at table with sinners than sit in judgement over them.

And none of this removes our responsibility to repentance; but not for the sake of harming our bodies or our souls, but for their healing.

Richard Holloway, one-time Bishop of Edinburgh, puts it this way:

There is a powerful metaphorical truth in the idea of hell and eternal burning, because shame and guilt can burn into our very souls and destroy our peace of mind; but it is this very burning that Jesus wishes to rescue us from, not plunge us into. [4]

The fires and the worms no longer dominate Gehenna. The valley today is a green and pleasant place; even hell has been redeemed.

But let us let Jesus have the last word, as he was the first:

“The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the Good News.”


[1] Richard Holloway, Another Country, Another King (HarperCollins, 1991), 130-131
[2] Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: the enigmatic parables of a controversial rabbi (HarperOne, 2014), 265
[3] L. William Countryman, Forgiven and Forgiving (Morehouse Publishing, 1998), 23
[4] Holloway, op cit., 140-141

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After the visit

Then they had left,
the front door slamming like
a rapidly deflating balloon.
The house looked to fall an inch or more.

Into the silence that fell with
the shroud of exhaust over its face,
her home dropped the creaks and pops
of its ancient joints and props;

as though taking her cue,
she shed her shoulders,
unlocked her knees,
gratefully embraced the floor.

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It started out easily enough: I shaved off my hair,
my pride and my vanity, and cast it in the fire.
Trouble was, I just looked too damned good that way;

so I broke the mirror and used the shards
to prick out my eyes;
after that, it became more tricky.

Unseeing, I stumbled.
While I was down anyway,
I removed my feet.

Having involved my hands in
such violence, they, too,
had to go.

They gasped when they found me,
they covered their eyes,
they cried, ” Curse God and die!”

To remove the temptation I took out my tongue,
but the Spirit interceded with groans,
with sighs too deep for words,

my own lungs betrayed me,
the very air I breathed
had to be expelled, permanently.

At last,
only a beating heart
remained to remember how he

lifted away leprosy,
loosened legs,
breathed life in and sucked sin out,

strengthened hands
and sinews and souls,
and to wonder

when this would get better.

From this Sunday’s readings:
If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better fr you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched. (Mark 9:42-48)

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Year B Proper 20: all the questions you were afraid to ask

A typical conversation with a toddler turning from two to three might go a bit like this:

Let’s put on your shoes.   –   Why?

Because we need to go shopping for food.   –   Why?

So that we have food to eat.   –   Why?

Well, because it’s tasty, and it’s fun, and we need it to grow big and strong and healthy.   –   Why?

Because that’s how God made us.   –   Why?

{I’m beginning to wonder} Why don’t you ask God?   –   Why?

{Lord have mercy!} Ok. Never mind. Let’s just put on your shoes, shall we?    –   Why?


Jesus has gone from speaking “quite openly” about these things – about his impending betrayal, and arrest, and execution – he has gone from speaking openly to taking his disciples to one side, away from the crowds, and trying once more to explain things to them in ways that they might understand. But still they don’t understand, and worse, they refuse to ask questions, they resist explanation. They are not sure they want to hear the answers. They are anxious, and irritable, and argumentative, all because they are afraid to sit down and ask, “Jesus, what the devil are you talking about?” All because they refuse to ask, “Why?” (Mark 9:30-34)

James says,

Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you. (James 4:1-3,7-8a)

Wisdom dearly bought. It’s worth noting here, by the way, that the letter of James has traditionally been believed to be the work of James, a brother of Jesus, who did not travel with his brother in his lifetime, but was converted later by an encounter with the risen Christ, and became a strong leader in the church.*

This James knew what it was like to fail to ask his brother the important questions: “Who do you think you are? What do you think you are doing? Can I help?” He had failed to draw near to his brother while he was in this life, and that must have been a source of bitter regret to him. Yet his brother, Jesus, had drawn near to James in his resurrection, and James had drawn nearer to him, and had understood what it was to find God within him, through him, with him.

It is no accident that James became an arbiter in the Jerusalem council’s disputes over inclusion and exclusion, over circumcision and uncircumcision, over who might be invited into covenant with Christ and which commandments they must follow (Acts 15*). He had learned how to ask questions, how to seek understanding, how to submit his own soul for conversion.

Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from?

If the disciples had asked Jesus a few more questions, they might have understood a few more things. They wouldn’t have embarrassed themselves into further silence debating who was the greatest. But they were afraid to ask about what they didn’t understand.

It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to ask questions that we already know the answers to, or to ask only about those things we already understand. Failing to stretch our understanding leads to all sorts of trouble and violence. Ask a fourteen-year-old in Texas how much effort was made to ask and to understand his intentions in bringing his invention to school, and what the fear of asking questions led to for him and his family.

We crave connection, but we want to stay as we are. We want to understand, but we don’t want to change. We want to draw near, but we do not want to be converted. So our cravings are at war within us; and we fail to draw near to God, and we fail to notice God sidling up to us.

To be fair, there is danger in asking questions, gaining understanding, undergoing conversion.

For James, there was the danger of death by martyrdom.* For most of us, the danger is having to change our minds about someone we thought we had pegged. Change our hearts about an issue we thought we had resolved. Change our spirits from one of fear to one of joy. Not easy; not comfortable; but worth a try.

I was converted to asking questions by the questions of others, who stretched me and called me to account for myself and the faith that is in me, and encouraged me, literally gave me the courage to reach out to others when I didn’t understand, when I felt disconnected or discouraged.

The person who came to me to ask straight out, “Do you have a problem with me?” gave me the gift of the opportunity to say, “What? No! I was just so struck by what you said and that I had never thought that way myself that I had to do a lot of hard thinking and that’s what the frowny face was all about. What did you mean, anyway?”

She gave me the gift of asking me to explain myself, so that our relationship could not only limp along with sideways glances but deepen to where we could walk together, and discuss our differences and ask our hard questions. She gave me the gift of allowing me to admit that I didn’t understand her. To submit myself to God and to my fellow Christian, in faith that we are all relying on the grace of God to skate over life’s thin ice.

Since then, I have become better at asking questions, of God, of people, of myself. When I stop asking questions, I notice myself becoming more fearful, more withdrawn, more disconnected from God, from people, from myself. And I become less open to the questions of others.

Submit to God. Resist the devil, the father of fear and lies. Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you.

Part of our baptismal covenant asks that we seek and serve Christ in all persons. Seek Christ in the other. Ask the questions that the disciples were afraid to ask: Who are you? What do you mean? How can I help? And be prepared to answer for the faith that is in you. For the good of our community, our common life, for the good of our souls.

Draw near to Christ, and Christ will draw near to you.

You have heard that Jesus said we must become like children to enter the kingdom of heaven. To his silent and grumbling disciples, he said,

Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me. (Mark 9:37)

And the child answered, “Why?”

*Rainer Riesner, ”James: Introduction,” in The Oxford Bible Commentary, John Barton and John Muddiman, eds (Oxford University Press, 2001), 1255-7

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evening, midweek,

overwhelmed and underprayed,

counting blessed sheep.

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Year B Proper 19: Jesus, losers, the cross, and The Donald

Not that Donald. That Donald isn’t keen on losers. But Jesus is a total loser, and we like him all the better for it. Don’t we?

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan!…”

He 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. …Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:31-38)

Donald MacKinnon (aka [my] The Donald) wrote that

It is commonplace in theology to speak of the Resurrection as the Father’s Amen to the work of Christ; yet it is a commonplace to whose inwardness writers on the subject often attend too little. For if it does anything, it drives one back to find the secret of the order of the world in what Christ said and did, and the healing of its continuing bitterness in the place of his endurance. (1)

The secret of the order of the world in what Christ said is that those who want to save their life for later will lose it in the present; those who save their love for later will find their hearts hardened to stone when the moment comes; those who save their best for special occasions will watch it crumble to dust; and that those who squander their lives, their love, their best on the least, the littlest, the laughable and the loathsome; those who are not ashamed to weep for the lost and welcome the lousy, to waste their despair on the hopelessly wretched; they will be the ones who recognize life, the light of Christ, when they find it.

Those who are not ashamed to love recklessly, indiscriminately, foolishly, mortally wounded by opened hearts.

Because Jesus is a loser, betrayed by a friend that he knew he should know better than to trust, to whom he turned his cheek for another kiss.

To speak of Christ’s readiness to embrace failure and defeat is familiar in the almost casual language of traditional piety. In consequence it is easy to forget that the words should be used and should be understood as being used to state simple fact. (2)

Are we ashamed of the continuing bitterness of the world, and Christ’s endurance of it? Do we wish in our hearts that he would come down off that cross and smash it with their mallets and pile the pieces into a funeral pyre for all death and suffering, all grief and strife?

Of course; the crucifixion is a waste, and a shame. The Donald again:

It is sheer nonsense to speak of the Christian religion as offering a solution to the problem of evil. (3)

Even Jesus fell in the face of it. And yes, there is Resurrection. Thank God!

After which I refer you back to The Donald’s first comment above.

No, it isn’t easy. No wonder Peter took Satan’s side instead. Yet our hope is in Jesus, who fell on his face in the garden of Gethsemane, as human as we, and unashamed.


He is the child rolled up like a rug,
carried away in the night by parents
harried by war and fright;
he is the child that died;
he is the child that survived.

He is the earnest young man
cross-legged at the feet of his temple teachers,
a zealot with extreme dreams.
He is a radical:
                                       he is
love in a time of war; he is
laughter at a funeral;
he anoints the joyous with tears.
He despises misery and squanders charity.

He is the heart of the riot,
upsetting the apple cart,
pushing his luck.

He is the grand romantic gesture, rejected.
He has made a mockery of us all, and in
the marred, scarred mirror of his final shame,
we see that we would burn our own cross
before we would hang on it.


(1) MacKinnon, Donald, “Order and Evil in the Gospel”, in Borderlands of Theology and Other Essays, by Donald MacKinnon, and edited by George W. Roberts and Donovan E. Smucker (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2011), 96

(2) MacKinnon, “Atonement and Tragedy”, op.cit., 103

(3) MacKinnon, “Order and Evil in the Gospel”, op. cit., 92

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