Killing God

Reduced to absurdity,
the burning bush caught flame and I,
caught in the inferno, perished,
though its leaves still furl.

There is no moderation to divine love;
It is all or nothing; and
giving all, it takes all

Reduced to smoulder, then, I choose
the anger of the embers, the hot rage of the ashes,
left behind,

I shall engulf you, flare and flame until
my sun burns brighter than your pale fire,
until my desire for you runs cold,

And as the hart pants for the water,
you will use even that against me.

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Year B Lent 5: love with the lights on

I don’t know how many of you read the Revd Canon Percy Grant’s Lenten reflection yesterday. She wrote about the universal experience of childhood – or not even only of the young; the experience of waking in the half-night and the quarter-light, to shadows backlit by darkness to represent to us our deepest fears, our monsters, our pursuers. She remembers, in a moment of that frank bravery of which the young are capable, flicking on the light to catch it in its act of being a cardigan slung across the shoulders of some furniture.

I recommend that you hunt down and read Percy’s words for yourself, but in the final analysis, my take away was the identification of a mutually confessional community with the turning on of the light; the notion of the opening up of ourselves and our sin and our salvation to one another as that which illuminates our lives, drives out fear, lets the truth shine through in comfort.

Jeremiah looks forward out of the darkness of his days in exile to the days of the new covenant, when all is so illumined by the light of the Lord that “No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”

And Jesus appeared in Galilee, and by the Jordan, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand, has drawn near.” The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. But I do not think that we are yet at the point of Jeremiah’s paradise where we no longer need one another to say to each other, ‘Know the Lord;’ where we no longer need to share our faith to be sure of it; where we no longer need the encouragement of others to help us to find our way to Christ, and to the community of God.

In fact, isn’t that the very heart of the Incarnation God’s acknowledgement of our need for flesh to flesh contact, community, witness? The prophets were one thing; messengers of God, acknowledged and recognized for their access and ability to pray and to preach God’s truth. But Jesus was something else; the very embodiment of God’s Word to us, God’s love for us, God’s mercy to us, God’s solidarity with us. The high holy days of Christmas and Easter are so important to us because they commemorate God’s participation in the unique experiences suffered by all of humankind: birth and death, and whatever is beyond it. By their witness, we are assured, that God knows us as well as anyone could, and knowing that, God recognizes that it takes one to know one; takes one of us to know one of us truly.

Even at the beginning, in the creation stories, God knew that we needed one another: “It is not good for the man to be alone,” God said, even though Adam was never alone, with God walking beside him in the garden. Yet God knows our need for one another.

So while Jeremiah might be right that it is open to all to know God, from the least of us to the greatest, still we, with the Greeks, tend rather to sidle up to one another and ask to be introduced, if we are bold enough; or wait an eternity on the sidelines, looking for a break into the conversation, if we are not.

I think that perhaps the reason that the Greeks chose Philip to approach is that he wasn’t himself over-confident, over-familiar with the centre of attention. The first thing that Philip did when Jesus called him was to go and get his friend Nathaneal, for back-up and for a buffer. It worked: Jesus’ conversation with Nathaneal, as recorded, is much longer than anything he got out of Philip. And now, approached by the Greeks, he runs to get Andrew, for back-up and for buffering, so that, even now, he doesn’t have to do the introductions by himself; even now, in the final stretch, Philip is still a little shy. He needs his friends, his back-up, his buffer, his security blanket, his night light.

I think that what Philip might have been forgetting was just how much more afraid, nervous, shy, anxious, excited, adrenalin-driven those Greeks must have been! How long had it taken them to pluck up the courage to speak? How many of the disciples afterwards asked, “Why had none of us ever invited them in before, to meet Jesus?”

It would, after all, have been the Christian thing to do.

But I get it. It’s a big decision, to turn on the light, invite someone into your face, into your space, into your truth, your way, your life.

When I was seven, there was a new girl in our class, Sally Brannigan. I still remember the exact moment, sitting at my desk with Charlotte as usual, doing sums, about ten minutes till playtime, when I decided that when the break came, I would say “hello” to Sally. Just that. Simply say, “Hello.” It was – you will laugh at me – but it was a huge decision, the choice to go first, to flick on the light and find out what was lurking in the shadows, for good or for evil. It was a momentous decision, for a seven-year-old; because, of course, she wasn’t Sally Brannigan yet, this new girl, come to change everything, the size of the class, the moments divided between one more of us, the smiles stretched one person further to go around. It was a huge risk, to turn on the light, acknowledge her presence, and the cataclysm of jealousy, change, friends fired and freed up, that she might bring behind her. It was, honestly, a bold move, plant my feet before her, look her in the eye and say, “hello.”

I was quite pleased with myself afterwards.

But like the Greeks, like Philip, I hadn’t even begun to consider how much easier it was for me to reach out, with my friends behind me and my teacher looking on approvingly; I hadn’t even begun to consider how much harder it would have been for Sally, left to her own devices. I only knew that someone had to go first, and for once, miraculously, I thought it might as well be me. Here I was; send me.

In two weeks’ time, it will be Easter. This place will greet people it hasn’t seen in a while, maybe some who are brand new. They are the Greeks, looking for someone to introduce them to Jesus, because no matter what Jeremiah says, we still need back-up, a buffer. They are Sally Brannigan, wondering what this life will be, what her place will be in this community, whether, in fact, we will make room for her at the table. They are Philip, and Andrew, best friends of Jesus already, still leaning on one another.

Each of them will see the shadows of this place in their own way.

Which of us will be brave enough to flick on the lights, show our faces, our true form, undisguised? We don’t need to be Jesus or Jeremiah. We don’t even need to be Andrew or Nathaneal. For some, it will be just as well to find us Philip, hanging on the edges, demonstrating by our own deference our fellow-feeling, our understanding of the threat and the shelter of the shadows. But just this once, Philip, don’t leave them hanging there. Be brave. Be bold. Throw on the lights and dazzle them with your smile.

Because we know that we can all know God in our own way, from the least to the greatest. And still, we have come to this community, because, God knows, we need one another. We need faith Incarnate. And we are the inheritors of that glorious Incarnation, God made manifest, Christ’s Body in the world, offered for the sake of all; love with the lights on.


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Year B Lent 4: snakes alive

“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”

So says Jesus, and we have heard it so many times before that it’s easy to miss the intro: “Jesus said to Nicodemus.”

You may ask, what does it matter to whom Jesus was speaking? God so loved the world whether Jesus was telling Nicodemus or Peter or Pilate or us about it. The audience doesn’t change the measure of God’s love. Well, that’s true.

The thing about it being Nicodemus who gets this message is that Jesus is trying his level best to make this man understand the good news, the gospel, that Jesus has brought right to his doorstep: that God so loved the world that God would give to him, to Nicodemus, eternal life, and Nicodemus is making it really hard work for Jesus to get his point across.

To be fair, Nicodemus wants to hear Jesus, see Jesus, but he is also afraid of his fellow Pharisees, of their ridicule or disapproval; he is embarrassed to be seen with Jesus, so he comes under the cover of darkness, in the dead of night to find him; he barely gives himself a chance to see the light.

So Jesus tries to talk to him in ways that he will understand. Good Jewish boy that he is, Nicodemus knows the story of Moses in the wilderness, and the serpents, and the stick.

After God created the world, and all that is in it; after God created people in God’s image and in close relationship with the divine; after God spared the world from the end that the Flood could have made of it; after God promised not to do that again; after God called Abraham, and made many nations, and sent Joseph dreams, and spoke to Moses out of a burning bush; after God rescued the people of Israel, delivering them from the threat of death through the night of the Passover and parting of the Red Sea; after all of this, when the people were in the wilderness, they got a little perturbed that God had not done more for them lately. Specifically, they wanted better food, and fewer snakes.

Again, to be scrupulously fair, the snakes were a problem, because they bit, and people died. So God came once more to the assistance of God’s people, telling Moses how to use his staff – the shepherd’s rod that God had turned into a serpent during Moses’ first encounter with the burning bush, one that had become a serpent in the contest against Pharaoh’s magicians; the one that he had used to part the waters of the Red Sea – God told Moses to fit his staff with a bronzed snake so that the people would look once more upon this shepherd’s rod, this symbol of God’s power and authority and mercy for God’s people, and remember that God would also save them from the snakes. For God so loved the world, and the people.

I remember vividly a sermon I heard three years ago, the last time these snakes came into town. I emailed the preacher, the Revd Katie Wright, this week, and she kindly confirmed what I remember her saying:

“It sounds so easy, and yet how often do we not allow ourselves to look up, to claim the healing that is there for us.  Instead we keep kicking at the snakes at our feet.”

But that, the letter to the Ephesians tells us, is just when Jesus comes to us, when we are lying as good as dead in a heap of snakes and sin; that is when grace is needed, and God will provide it, lifting us up to the high places and seating us with him in the presence of God, of grace, of glory, if only we will look up long enough from our pit of snakes to see it.

There comes a time, Jesus tells Nicodemus, to look up, and to trust God, even though you know there are snakes snapping at your ankles, even though you know there is more work to do, more wilderness to slog through, more sin to solve, more than you can shake a stick at; there comes a time to look up and to trust God, even though what you see looking back is the serpent that bit you; even though what you see is the Son of Man crucified, dying on a cross. For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

The world has trouble with the way of the cross. The world would rather that the Son of God came for condemnation, of all that is other, unsavoury, unwanted. Remember how angry Jonah got when God forgave Nineveh, just because they repented. See how a city on the brink of peace poisons the oil with random acts of violence. See how the relics of racism resurface over and over again to spill their venom into a new generation, how tightly we hold on to our right to discriminate, our right to condemn rather than to love one another.

The world always pushes back against the way of the cross, that radical and redeeming love, as though the snakes are everywhere, spreading their poison.

For Nicodemus, seeing Jesus a couple of years later lifted high on the hillside, it must have been as though the poison of the Romans was expected to become the promise of God’s mercy after all; it made about as much sense to him as a snake on a stick, before he came to believe in the resurrection.

But, Jesus told him in the darkness of that night, there is a time even in the wilderness, even in bewilderment, to look up, to see God’s shepherding staff, still leading and comforting God’s people. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff comfort me.”

I hope that you know me well enough by now to trust that I am not telling you to look on the bright side when the snakes are biting; God forbid, I wouldn’t dare. I will say, if you can, look up.

If you can, hold on to the promise of love, of life, of the lifting of our lives out of the poisonous pit of snakes, out of the wilderness; the promise of resurrection. If you can, look up, and see even from the cross God’s love looking right back at you.

Even Nicodemus, when he left Jesus that night, if he chanced to look up would see in the darkness the light of the sun reflecting off the moon; he would see the stars, unimaginably far away, the light from them rushing from ages ago, just as fast as it could, to fall into his eyes, looking up; looking for eternity.

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Prayer drought

A reflection for the Lenten collection of the Diocese of Ohio. From the day’s readings: “Jesus was casting out a demon that was mute; when the demon had gone out, the one who was mute spoke, and the crowds were amazed.”

Prayer drought

The one who was mute spoke.

The one who had locked away voice, expression, self and soul broke free, broke out; the one who had been oppressed, silenced, sidelined, parched of prayer was released by Jesus back into a new way of being, knowing, and being known by others;

what would that one say first?

Were the words of astonishment, or fear? Did they embarrass, or assault the ear?

How long had it been since words first were learned, then unlearned; the language of love, of community?

Perhaps the first would be a word of prayer: “My God!”

But then, how would you know, at first, that you could? You might not think to try it, after so long silent, after so many failures to speak out.

The first word must almost be an accident, an exclamation aimed at the back of Jesus, walking away, “Wait!”

Wait. Stop. Come back; chasing Jesus with an untried voice and rasping tongue.

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Year B Lent 3: Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us; therefore let us keep the feast

There’s something unusual about the way that John’s gospel tells the story of the cleansing of the temple. Each of the four gospels tells some version of this event, and they are, for biblical accounts, surprisingly close in detail to one another. As usual, John is the outlier, but even he keeps to the regular format of the other three for most of the story. The kernel in common seems to be that Jesus entered the Jerusalem temple in the days preceding the Passover, drove out some people, probably overturned some tables, and made some kind of prophetic statement to explain his actions to the angry, astonished and frankly frightened bystanders.

John’s is the longest account, and the only one to mention sheep and cattle. In this retelling, Jesus unties the animals and makes of their tethered a kind of whip to drive them out. Contrary to some artistic illustrations, there is no need to infer that Jesus whipped the people. Still, this is a fiercer Jesus than we have seen elsewhere. Yet other aspects of John’s Jesus are gentler. Instead of upending the seats of the dove sellers, he simply tells them to take up their birds and leave. Doves were the sacrificial choice of the poorest people, those who couldn’t afford a lamb, let alone an ox; perhaps that is why Jesus pulled himself back from the brink of his rage and treated them kindly; the little people who were only doing the best that they could.[i]

In the other gospels, Jesus calls the temple a house of prayer for all nations, and the money changers robbers. In John, it is enough that they have made it into a house of trade, through a few innovations in the temple turned marketplace. Finally, as is typical for John, the whole incident becomes the basis for a theological explanation of just who Jesus is, and just what he has come to do.

But the most jarring difference between this account and the others has nothing to do with the details of the way the story is told, but when it is told. In the other three gospels, Jesus enters Jerusalem in the days leading up to the Passover just once, in the week before his death, and this exchange in the temple happens right after Palm Sunday, by our calendar. But this is only the second chapter of John’s gospel. Jesus has only just finished his first miracle, his first sign, as John calls it, turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana of Galilee. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, this outrage in the temple is the beginning of the end for Jesus. According to John, he is only just getting started.

Of course this is also the author who begins his gospel not with the nativity, but with the creation story, who writes his gospel against the backdrop of eternity. And really, his whole gospel is devoted to explaining just who Jesus is, and just what he has come to do.

In John’s gospel, Jesus goes to the Jerusalem Passover festival three times, and it is only at that third celebration that he meets death on the cross, at the same time that the lambs are being slaughtered for the Passover feast. John doesn’t have a Last Supper at this last Passover, because Jesus is the meal, the feast, the sacrifice, the celebration, the Lamb of God.

The whole of Jesus’ life of ministry, his death and resurrection, happen in this telling in the shadow of the Passover, the night of deliverance from death for the people of God. John Shelby Spong writes this:

“In the Jewish tradition it was the sacrifice of the paschal lamb that was said to have had the power to banish death from among the Jewish people on the night of their escape from Egypt and slavery. The death of Jesus was said to have lifted human life beyond the boundary that death had previously imposed.” [ii]

All of Jesus’ life, death, and ministry are written in the gospel of John in the context of the Passover, under the shadow of this first Passover in Jerusalem, where Jesus the sacrificial lamb drives out the sheep and the oxen. For John, and for his readers, this chaotic escape is the echo of the first Passover of the Jews, where death was suspended, outwitted, outrun, because of the realization that life is eternal, the life we live with God, with one another in the heart of God.

Of course, Jesus did not outrun death, lamb that he was he went to the slaughter; but death could not keep hold of him, because God that he was, he rose from the dead and demonstrated eternal life to the world.

Our Jewish brothers and sisters continue to celebrate Passover, year after year, just as we celebrate our own deliverance from death in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, year after year. It is not enough to leave it in the past. We need our Passover, our deliverance, our resurrection to live and be remembered and renewed year after year.

After Columbine, after Aurora, after Chardon, after Newtown we saw the Angel of Death pass over us, and we knew our need for the lamb of God to take away the sin of the world, to deliver us from our own deathwish.

I was struck this week by the coincidence of the fiftieth anniversary of the marches at Selma and the release of the Department of Justice report on the racist problems of the police force at Ferguson, Missouri, with its own similarities to the report we read about Cleveland last year; deliverance from racism, deliverance from oppression does not happen once and all is well. In his speech at Selma yesterday, President Obama recognized not only how far we have come, but how far is left to go: “Fifty years from Bloody Sunday, our march is not yet finished. But we are getting closer.” Still, we feel that need to remember what went before, in order to renew our commitment to the march towards love for one, another because we recognize that death still haunts the edges of our lives, and we need our Passover Lamb to help us to banish it from among us.

In our own little lives, our repeated fights and failings, bad habits and harmful patterns require the intervention of a spirit of sacrifice, forgiveness, resurrection over and over again. Day by day, we know our need for the grace of God, to pass over us, banish death from the heart of our lives.

Perhaps that is why John had Jesus go up to Jerusalem not once but three times for the Passover, because he knew our need for repeated deliverance, and he knew that Jesus had promised to be with us not once, but to the end of the age, so that whenever we remember the Lamb of God, Christ our Passover, sacrificed for us; whenever we do this in remembrance of him, we will know that he has already given himself for us, marked us for the Passover, delivered us from death into eternal life. So that we, with him, by him, through him might drive out death from the heart of the temple, and renew a right spirit within.


[i] Derek Tovey, Narrative Art and Act in the Fourth Gospel (Sheffield Academic Press, 1997), 249

[ii] John Shelby Spong, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic (HarperOne, 2013), 180-1

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I like to hang around the fountains,
water coolers of the city, where traffic intersects,
dropping crumbs of cake and gossip, lies and lives.
Few notice me, but in the moment that it takes
their breath to fall I have named them all.

It all began with water. I surfed the wind that
whipped the waves of creation,
tossed the ark like a toy; I brought them
an olive branch to make them feel better.
I am known for carrying messages long distances.

Once, I fell in love, dropping headlong from the sky;
they tried to tame me, but he turned the tables,
broke the cage. Spooked, I flew the coop.

I like best the kind that spring up
unsuspected from the ground,
surprising squealing children;
water should always be astonishing,
considering where it came from.

The saddest sight that I have seen,
a fountain cracked and empty, dry and bitter
fallen angels face-down lying broken in its basin.

(This Sunday’s readings include the table-turning temple scene where the dove-sellers are rebuked and the sheep and cattle set free, although the fate of the doves is not clear.)

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Year B Lent 2: putting a spin on the gospel

One of the good things to come out of the trials and tribulations of Brian Williams and Bill O’Reilly, in hot water over the accuracy of their memories of reporting from dangerous places, accused of polishing their credentials, of burnishing their badges of courage; one of the good things to come out of their difficulties is the learning that we have acquired about our memories, and the stories that we tell ourselves.

Scientists say that when we remember an event, we lay down a narrative which, the next time we remember, is what we recall instead of the original event. So each time we remember, we remember not the event but the story, and its editorial flourishes and polishes, until we end up with a pearl of a tale to tuck away and pull out whenever it’s needed, whether it still rings true or not.

I remember the first time I realized that, hearing my mother relate her end of a phone call that I’d overheard, sharpening and brightening her responses; she sounded good! Then she appealed to me to confirm her story, and I thought about the difference between what I had heard, with its hesitations and prevarications and backtracks, and the story she had told, and I said, “It wasn’t quite like that.” She was outraged, not because she had been caught in a lie, but because she knew that it happened the way that she told it, and she couldn’t understand why I was lying, throwing her under the bus. One of us, at least, had edited the memory of that phone conversation. I may even have edited this memory; it is, after all, a little too neat.

We all do it, burnishing the truth up to a brassy finish, spinning a yarn. Are we ashamed to be ourselves, to be human, made in the image of God?

Jesus said, “Whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in glory.”

It is not a new phenomenon. Even saintly Paul got to telling the story of Abraham in a seriously revisionist fashion.

Paul says that Abraham didn’t weaken in faith nor waver when he considered his own body nor the barrenness of Sarah’s womb, which is simply not the case. Abraham might have believed that God could work with his old bones, but he wasn’t so sure about hers, which is how Ismael came to be born to Sarah’s slave woman, Hagar, because they did not trust God with Sarah’s old womb. And then there’s the matching pair of incidents in which Abraham gave up Sarah, pretending she was his sister, because he was afraid of the foreign king. Of course he got her back, both times, but even so. The only time Abraham truly showed no doubt, he nearly killed his son. What kind of faith was that?

Abraham was our father in faith and it was reckoned to him as righteousness, but to say that his faith never wavered is polishing the truth a tad, spinning the story for Paul’s own purposes. We all do it.

Peter even tried it with Jesus. Peter did not want the story told as Jesus was telling it; he pulled Jesus aside and rebuked him, told him off, told him there was a better story to tell, a better way to tell it. And Jesus said, “Whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in glory.”

Was Paul ashamed that even the most unassailable role model for faith was a flawed and fragile old man, fully human?

Was Peter ashamed of the gospel that Jesus was proclaiming: that the kingdom of God had drawn near, but that didn’t mean an end to Roman rule, corruption, crucifixion; that there would still be the cross to consider?

Are we ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified? Does the sight of the cross make us waver? Are we ashamed of the gospel?

Can you imagine turning your face and your feet toward Jerusalem, knowing what was coming, telling your closest friends, confessing your deepest fears, and then one says, “Ach, don’t worry about it! It’s not going to be so bad! God won’t give you more than you can handle!”

Actually, that’s a spin on a verse in 1 Corinthians: “No temptation has seized you except what is common to all. God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.” (1 Corinthians 10:13)

The promise that God is faithful is true, but it is not a promise that no misfortune will ever befall, that no suffering will overwhelm our spirits, still less that God carefully measures out suffering to each of us just to the point of breaking. That’s a spin on the gospel I could do without. The gospel does entreat us not to despair; but it also acknowledges that we all bear that temptation; that it is common to all; and Jesus knew it. He was disappointed, angry, maybe even ashamed when his good friend Peter tried to wash it all out with denial and spin. Peter, of course, did a good line in denial.

Devoid of spin, the gospel is not a promise that we will all live happily ever after. The flood did not wash the earth clean of all suffering and sin, and the cross; the cross may have put a stake through the heart of evil, but its death throes are not yet done. And a gospel that denies the cross, the death of God, that skips straight to glory; that is a gospel that will ring untrue when it is tested beyond what it can bear.

The gospel of the cross is that God has, in the person of Jesus, taken our suffering into God’s self, and redeemed it, transformed it, remade it into resurrection. The gospel of the cross is that God has not forsaken us, even at the time of deepest crisis; even at the pinnacle of pain; God is there with us, and will raise us up, has raised us up with his resurrection. The gospel is not a word that denies or dismisses our suffering, but one that redeems it.

In We Preach Christ Crucified, Kenneth Leech says,

“To remember Christ in his dying is to become his members, his limbs and organs, to be his body crucified and risen.”

When we, like Peter, want to forget about the crucifixion, pretend nothing bad ever happens, and skip straight to glory, we miss out much more than the hill of Calvary. We miss out on the whole Incarnation, on God becoming human enough to die with us, for us. When we deny the cross, we miss out on the comfort of a God who is close to us, who has suffered for us, who stays with us. We miss out on the closeness of a God who can understand and empathize with our darkest hours. We miss out on the re-membering, the putting back together of a life which ends not in death, but in resurrection. We miss becoming Christ’s body, broken and resurrected, for the sake of the world.

Is it enough? Are we ashamed of such a gospel?

Peter and Paul each had their moments of doubt, as did Abraham, and yet God was faithful to them. Peter’s denial, ashamed to acknowledge Jesus in the courtyard, is countered by Jesus’ kiss of peace. There is nothing to fear from confessing that we have our moments, too. And in them, in those moments of doubt and despair, what polish do we apply to our stories, our faith, afraid to tell the unvarnished truth to ourselves and to one another? Fortunately, God has heard it all before, and God bears with us graciously.

Because the simple, unspun truth of the gospel is this: the kingdom of God is drawn near. God is as close to us as our own bodies, and even when our bodies fail us, God won’t. God will not let us down, will not let us go, in our hour of need; and we will need that assurance. God will stand by us, stand with us, and God will raise us up, even if it takes until the last day. And if it does, then there is no shame in that.


Kenneth Leech, We Preach Christ Crucified (tenth anniversary edn) (Church Publishing, 2005), 6

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