Pondering Connections within God's Story and the Biblical Story and Our Various Human Stories
Author: Charlotte Vaughan Coyle
Charlotte lives and blogs in Paris TX. She is ordained within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and developed Living in The Story while doing doctoral work at Brite Divinity School in Ft. Worth. Charlotte also blogs about intersections of faith, politics, and culture at CharlotteVaughanCoyle.com.
A significant turning point in The Story: Abraham.
The three main Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – are claimed and practiced by over half the world’s population. All honor Father Abraham and tell his story of faith and faithfulness.
This week we will read the original Genesis version of the Abraham story first related within the Hebrew Scriptures, then we will read some of Paul’s theological reflection of Abraham’s significance in light of the Christ event, then we will consider how John (maybe 40 years after Paul) described the relationship of Abraham, Abraham’s descendants and Jesus the Messiah.
Week 3 Living in The Story readings are uncomfortable. Talking about sin is unpleasant. Unless, of course, it’s someone else’s sin! And isn’t that some sort of default for us humans? Condemning the failings of others while we excuse our own transgressions?
There is a deep brokenness in this world. Even those who don’t like the religious terminology of “sin” must admit that there is a bentness about humanity that just won’t go away.
If God declared creation “good” then why are we humans so broken? Thoughtful people have been pondering this dilemma for all of human history.
Here are some biblical passages penned by people of faith across the ages; some passages that speak to the problem of sin from several different perspectives.
In the vocabulary of faith, we talk not so much about “nature” or “the environment;” rather we speak of “creation.” The very word reminds us: all that is is created by the creativity and will of the Creator.
The first two chapters of the first book of the Bible gives us two separate creation stories. The ancients purposely arranged these two quite different stories side by side. There is theological purpose in the ways they tell us stories of beginnings. Each story tells us something significant about both the Creator and creation.
But ancient Israel didn’t only tell the story of creation in these opening chapters of Genesis. Look at their hymnal: the Psalms. See how they sing the story again in yet other ways, in praise and poetry. See also how they speak of creation and Creator in powerful metaphor in the Wisdom literature, in the book of Proverbs.
Fast forward and leap across the centuries to the New Testament, especially the Gospel of John. Again it is no coincidence that John begins with the words: “In the beginning…” His pondering of the mystery of creation is profoundly theological and christological. John re-thinks the meaning of Creator and creation in light of the meaning of the Christ. Let John’s opening Prologue startle you as his original readers must have been startled: the Creator became for awhile a flesh and blood part of the creation.
The letter to the Colossians is soaring in its beautiful descriptions of the Cosmic Christ who is Source and Goal of all creation; the Christ who holds all things together.
This week’s readings are some of my favorites. I hope you enjoy them too.
Another new year. A good time to begin a fresh cycle reading through the Bible. This year, let Living in The Story guide your reading. And as you read, you are invited to read Charlotte’s blogs and consider my reflections on the weekly passages.
We will spend the first week pondering what kind of book this Bible is. Think about that for a bit. How do you understand what kind of book it is? Is it a history book? A rule book? Is it fact or fiction? Literal or legend? Story or science? Is it true? And what does that even mean to say it’s “true”? (We’ll talk about that as we go along.)
Within Christianity, the Bible is generally taken to be “Scripture.” But even the notion of Scripture can mean a variety of things to various Christian groups and denominations. During public worship in many churches, a reading from the Bible concludes with the reader proclaiming: “the Word of the Lord” and the congregation responding: “Thanks be to God.” What does it mean to call the Bible “the Word of God?” (We’ll talk about that too.)
But now, today, especially as we begin – think about what the Bible is for you. Name some of your assumptions and presuppositions before you begin reading. Has your understanding of the Bible changed over the years? Mine sure has! My own journey with the Bible is what prompted me to create Living in The Story and to share it with other fellow travelers. I am ever so grateful for this journey of change that has been happening within me for most of my adult life.
Change is good; it means we are alive, thinking, growing, becoming. I am grateful you are willing to read the Bible with me this year and I am hopeful we all will be changed by the experience.
Each week, the Scripture passages will be drawn from across the entire Bible. One from the Old Testament (the Hebrew Scriptures); one from the Psalms (the hymnal of ancient Israel); one from the New Testament (the Christian addition to the Hebrew Scriptures); and one from the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – the foundational narratives of the meaning of Jesus).
Each week, I will send you the weekly Bible readings and link them to Bible Gateway. I will send them in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible but you can easily choose a different version in the Bible Gateway settings.
Or – of course – you can read these passages from your own Bible, underlining passages of interest and marking the verses in whatever way is helpful.
Or you might want to listen to these weekly readings. Bible Gateway also has audio Bibles available online at no charge.
Each week, I will also send one or two of my blogs: one (my Living in The Story blog) will be a reflection on the passages we are reading. Another As You Read blog will give you some background on history or geography or how the Bible developed and evolved over these many centuries of its existence.
I really hope you will feel free to engage me in conversation over the course of the year. Ask questions, challenge my interpretations, share your own insights… There are countless ways all of us with all our various stories intersect The large, overarching Story of the Creator’s ongoing engagement with creation.
So here we go. The first week’s readings are short and pretty easy in order to get us started. Here are readings for Week 1: We Begin with Faith.
Galatians 3:23-29 Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.
Jerry and I recently returned from a week in New England. It was a nearly perfect vacation. The trees were just reaching their peak: the bright red of the maples, the golden yellow of the birches, the deep green of the firs. Every bend in the road revealed some new breathtaking beauty.
Our host told us about a book she had read called The Hidden Life of Trees. A career forester began to explore the way forests grow as a community and when he did, he discovered some amazing things.
For example, each individual tree interacts with every other tree so that a unified community lives together with an impressive interdependence. Trees need each other, they nurture and protect each other; they even communicate with each other, feel pain and carry memories, the author tells us.
Their roots function as a kind of elaborate nervous system, a kind of communal brain that supports the fabric of their remarkable shared life.
I couldn’t help but remember this life of trees when I was reading again Paul’s description of the church here in his letter to the Galatians.
Baptized into Christ.
Clothed with Christ.
One in Christ.
There is no more Jew or Gentile, Paul insisted to a congregation that had been immersed in this deeply held ethnic division for their entire lives.
There is no more slave or free, Paul reminded this church made up of people who owned other people and those who were the property of other people.
There is no more male and female, Paul countered the pervasive conventional wisdom of this impervious patriarchal society.
We are one, Paul insists.
One fabric of a new humanity.
One forest of interdependent, intersecting beings with our life-sustaining roots grounded all together in the Ground of all Being.
One family of God.
We are one in Christ Jesus our Lord.
But unfortunately this was not entirely good news to some of the Christians at Galatia.
Jerry and I have been teaching a Bible study at Holy Cross Episcopal Church and we’re unpacking the dynamics of the church at Galatia and Paul’s message to them. It’s a powerful, passionate letter.
Here was a congregation founded on the gospel that Paul had proclaimed from the first that – in the Christ – God had accomplished reconciliation, unity, wholeness, oneness for all creation.
God did this.
Without our help.
Without our advice.
Without our permission.
Oneness is a done deal, Paul proclaims.
That is the unadulterated gospel.
But some Jewish teachers, some faithful passionate Christians from Jerusalem interpreted the gospel differently than Paul.
Now you have to remember that at this stage of church history, most all the Christians were Jews who had claimed Jesus as the Christ; Jews who named Jesus as their promised Messiah. At this stage, Christianity was still a sect of Judaism.
And so the “oneness” these teachers described, the gospel these evangelists proclaimed relied upon non-Jews coming to identify themselves as Jews in order to be properly Christian. For them, it was the bloodline of Abraham that made up the children of God.
But Paul had a different vision. Paul was given a vision by the Risen Lord himself that this new people of God had been radically expanded.
Paul believed that – in the Christ – the community of God’s people now included not just the orthodox Jews but also the pagan Gentiles – any and all who had been baptized into Christ were made equal partners in the community of Christ.
And so Paul’s missionary work incorporated non-Jews into the church of Jesus Christ without any prerequisites of circumcision or Sabbath keeping or kosher eating. Paul believed that faith – like the faith of Abraham – was the only prerequisite to inclusion in the family of God.
We are brothers and sisters.
We are each and every one of us part of the fabric, part of the forest, part of the family of God.
Now this whole discussion in Galatians may sound strange to us because since Paul’s time, the church has become thoroughly Gentile. As a matter of fact, you and I as Gentiles can now be Christians because Paul won this argument. As 21st century Christians so far removed from the life and times of 1st century Christians, we don’t always remember how radical it was for Paul to preach a fundamental unity and equality between Jews and Gentiles, slave and free, male and female.
But then, on the other hand, the discussion is not at all strange to our ears, is it?.
Because this same argument continues in the church,
in ever new manifestations,
in our own day.
Listen again to the words of Paul updated for the American church in 2016.
As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Black or White or Brown or Liberal or Conservative or Republican or Democrat or rich or poor or gay or straight or old or young or citizen or alien; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
Does that make any of us uncomfortable?
If so, now you know how the first century Galatians felt.
Besides my Living in The Story blog, I also blog into a fairly wide secular cyberspace audience as I ponder some of the intersections of faith and culture in our current society. And what I continue to discover in these interactions with people of no faith or people of damaged faith is that the church as a whole has a very poor reputation out there.
Jesus Christ is still honored across a wide spectrum of religious and non-religious people, but the church of Jesus Christ is generally seen as a group that doesn’t live up to the life and teachings of Jesus.
I confess I have lived most of my life in a church bubble and I had no idea how people “out there” picture those of us “in here.” Now I know. And it breaks my heart.
In all my years as a church pastor, I have thought deeply about what it means to BE church.
Is it what we do? Our good deeds?
Is it what we believe? Our creeds?
Or is it who we are?
Number 3 is where I have landed.
I stand with Paul on this. In the church of Jesus Christ, it is who-we-are that defines us, that is core and unique about us. Our identity as the church of Jesus Christ IS that we are one in Christ.
In the Christ – God has accomplished reconciliation, unity, wholeness, oneness for all creation.
Oneness is a done deal.
That is the unadulterated gospel.
But of course – one of the problems we humans have is that we all too often do not live up to who we are. Too often, in the church, we are willing to live with divisions instead of living into the unity God has created among us in the death and resurrected life of Jesus Christ.
Our vision becomes blurred to the radical gospel of equality.
Our ears become deaf to the call of true community.
Our hearts become hardened to our Christian brothers and sisters who think differently or vote differently or look different than we do.
And the world keeps watching us.
And keeps waiting for us to practice what we preach.
To become who we are.
To finally figure out how to clothe ourselves with Christ and to truly be one in Christ.
The trees in the forests of New England are both brilliantly and beautifully individual and at the same time they are one, rooted and grounded in the Ground of all Being. As Jerry and I drove from one gorgeous vista to another, we kept repeating this word over and over again: Glorious.
God created our diversity and God created our unity.
And this Unity in Diversity IS glorious.
It is this gracious, grateful, grace-filled unity that brings glory to God in the highest and peace to God’s people on earth.
This is my dream, my hope, my challenge for the church: May we become who God has created us to be – One in Christ.
Preached October 16, 2016 at Central Presbyterian Church in Paris TX.
“Ground of Being” is a famous phrase of Paul Tillich as he sought to describe God.
Luke 19:29-40 When Jesus had come near…the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them.
As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.”
Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying:
“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.”
Jesus answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
Luke is the only one who tells us this odd little story about Jesus’ odd claim to the Pharisees in this raucous Palm Sunday crowd.
“I tell you, if these shouters were silent, then the stones would shout out.”
Jesus made quite a few odd claims, didn’t he? Luke’s entire Jesus story is filled with them.
Blessed are the poor…
Blessed are the hungry….
Blessed are you when people hate you, exclude you, revile you…
Love your enemies…
Do good to those who hate you…
Pray for those who abuse you…
The last shall be first…
The least shall be the greatest…
Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me…
It’s an odd, upside down way of looking at the world.
It’s an odd, inside out way of living in the world.
But that was Jesus’ way, wasn’t it?
For example, this story of this triumphal entry into Jerusalem is itself an odd, upside down, inside out event.
There is no other recording of Jesus ever riding on the back of an animal except here. Even though we love our Christmas card pictures of the Holy Family traveling with a gentle donkey, still that scene is not described in any of the gospel stories. As far was we know, Jesus walked everywhere; except when he boarded a boat on the Sea of Galilee.
But here, in this story, Jesus is very intentional about choosing a donkey to ride through the impressive gates of Jerusalem; a colt to ride through the crowded streets of Jerusalem.
Triumphant entries happened fairly often in the cities of the Roman Empire. Conquering heroes astride prancing white horses would orchestrate their entrances so as to gain the most attention from the people. Enough adoration from the common folk would hopefully get the attention of the elite power brokers in the city.
And so pomp and circumstance, glittering swords and rich brocades, stern soldiers marching ahead and behind announced how important they were. And the people would cheer and praise, happy for the spontaneous celebration that brought a welcomed break from their regular routine.
But now, here, this was different.
A poor rabbi, not a conquering hero.
Simple disciples, not hardened soldiers.
The colt of a donkey, not an elegant steed.
Even so – the crowds cheered as if he were a king.
“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” was their shout.
This is treason, you know.
Their bold clamor turns their allegiance to Rome on its head.
Their brazen confession says that:
Jesus is my King and Herod is not.
God is my Lord and Caesar is not.
The kingdom of heaven is coming and this iron-fisted Empire will soon be passing away.
And Jesus didn’t even stop them.
Didn’t silence their shouts.
Didn’t disagree with their claim.
Sometimes Luke’s Jesus would tell his enthusiastic followers to be quiet; sometimes he would say to the people he had healed: “Don’t tell.”
But not today.
Today is the day for bold confessions, for loud hosannas, for unmistakable counter-claims to the claims of every earthly empire.
Because this simple man on the colt of a donkey is King of kings.
This humble rabbi with the upside down view of the world is Lord of lords.
And if we people don’t see it, recognize it, name it and proclaim it, then Jesus tells us: the stones will shout it out.
In every age – not just in Jesus’ day and not just in ours – in every age there have been alternative worldviews. In every age, people have to decide: what is True? What is Right? Which way of seeing ourselves and the world is Real?
Is the haughty hero on the prancing white steed real?
Or is the humble rabbi on the colt of a donkey real?
I have to say: both.
Within our human family, there is a pervasive reality of self-centeredness, self-promotion, self-protection.
I’m afraid “selfish” is who we are at some core of being – within ourselves as individuals, within ourselves as groups. We look out for ourselves and for our tribes, for the people who are most like us. We protect ourselves and isolate ourselves from people who are most “other.” It’s as if this is part of our human DNA.
Of course people are good too; lots of people do good. Religious and non-religious people alike can be kind and honest and generous. But there is a deep way of being truly human that we yearn for but never can quite manage.
Let’s face it – not many of us really want to pray for our enemies, or love those who persecute us, or deny ourselves, or take up our cross.
But this is the humanity Jesus demonstrated to us.
This is the alternative reality Jesus brought to us.
And that’s the upside down, right side up character-nature-behavior of all people who become truly human by the grace and the gift of the Truly Human Truly Divine One.
I think about the raucous crowds shouting hosannas to Jesus on that long ago Sunday.
And I wonder how many of those people joined the crowds to shout for crucifixion on that fateful Friday.
And I ponder how many of us might have joined them too.
It’s easy for me to say I would never have betrayed Jesus back in the day. But how often do I resist taking up my own cross to follow him in some way or another every single day?
Maybe one of the problems of our troubled society in these troubled times is that more of us need to be crying out for the upside down, inside out, right side up ethic that Jesus lived.
Maybe more of us need to cry out for justice and equity and peace and compassion.
Maybe more of us need to become truly human.
Maybe more of us need to become the truly good news of Jesus Christ.
Do we dare keep our silence hoping the stones will cry out in our stead?
Some years ago, a good friend of mine offered the stewardship invitation at his church one Palm Sunday. He told the story again of the disciples borrowing the donkey from the family in the village outside Jerusalem. Even if the owners were reluctant to send their young colt off with people they didn’t know, they took the risk and allowed their donkey to be taken anyway.
Watch them now in the crowd. See their faces fill with surprise when they see their donkey carrying Jesus. See their chests puff out just a little when they hear the crowds shouting: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Glory in the highest heaven!” Listen to them as they elbow their neighbor and say: “That’s my donkey! Jesus is riding my donkey!”
What if the owners had said “no”? I’m pretty sure Jesus would have found another donkey. But see how these people would have missed out on sharing in that upside down and inside out good news Jesus was bringing into the world.
We can be silent. We can be safe. We can even let our hearts turn stone cold.
But then God will find others to proclaim the hosannas and participate in the gospel.
The stones will cry out.
And it’s we who will miss the blessing.
This is Holy Week. We move from remembering the triumphal entry today to remembering the last supper on Thursday and then recalling the crucifixion on Friday. It truly is holy time, a sacred space in our over filled calendars. I hope you will take time this week to remember the passion before we get to the party on Easter morning.
So I will just leave you with this, with Luke’s words in chapter 23.
Now Joseph of Arimathea went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then he took the body down from the cross, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid. And a stone was rolled over the opening of the tomb.
As you read this week, understand that the story of Exodus lies at the very heart of Jewish identity. Throughout the centuries, as this people has endured persecution, pogrom and holocaust, the remembrance of God’s deliverance has sustained this passionate community. This story of Exodus also shaped the telling of the Christian story from the very beginning. Matthew’s gospel sees Jesus as the new Moses. Mark’s gospel characterizes the work of Jesus as deliverance and redemption. The Exodus story also creates hope for any number of communities that have experienced oppression. Liberation Theology of our own time is a direct descendant of this Exodus tradition and continues to spark a hopeful fire within Black and Brown peoples across the globe.
Whether the liberation from Egypt is a story that is set in time or one of those deeply true stories that transcends time, no one will ever know.
There is less archeological confidence in the historicity of the stories of Exodus and Conquest than there used to be, given our growing insights of historical criticism. Some scholars think of this as “paradigmatic history” whereby…
… the narrative is seen to make a claim for intense particularity, but a particularity that invites and permits rereading in a variety of circumstances (Brueggemann).
Consider again the context of the Exile and the very real possibility that this ancient story from Egypt was told from the experience of Exile in Babylon. The story doesn’t have to be what actually happened a long long time ago in Egypt in order for it to be true. The story is “true” because all kinds of people who suffer from the oppression by all sorts of tyrants are enabled to hold on to the hope that their cries will eventually be heard and the Creator-Sustainer-Redeemer of all-that-is will ultimately act for salvation and shalom.
As you read Exodus 1-15, pay special attention to chapter 3. Here is a pivotal introduction of God, YHWH, Yahweh, I Am. Recall the I Am sayings of Jesus from the Gospel of John and consider again how radical John’s Christology is.
As you read the story of the plagues upon Egypt, you may be troubled (as I have been) with the odd phrase repeated again and again: “the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” Think about this within the context of the storytellers’ theology. For the Hebrews of Egypt and the exiled Israelites in Babylon, God is the all-powerful Lord of all creation. Even the most powerful kings of the earth cannot resist the indomitable will of the Sovereign Lord of all Lords. The storytellers frame the contest between God and the Pharaoh as an opportunity for God’s glory to be seen, not just to Israel so as to build their faith, but also to the kings and kingdoms of the earth so as to demonstrate the supremacy of the one true God.
In the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, there are two different traditions of the sacrificial lamb. One seems to be more dominant in the biblical story itself and in our traditional Christian theological reflections and that is the tradition of the scapegoat. An animal is sacrificed in substitution for the sins of the people as atonement. This remembrance of sin and forgiveness is celebrated even today in the symbolic rituals of Yom Kippur. (We will unpack this particular notion of the sacrificial lamb more fully in a few weeks when we get to Leviticus.)
But in our story today, there are no hints of a substitutionary death of the lamb on account of sin. Instead the Passover lamb is strength for the journey; it is the one around whom the community gathers, the sharing of whose life binds the community together. It is celebration and sustenance. This is the other thread of meaning for the sacrificial lamb that is especially appropriate theology for the Christian Communion/Eucharist. This tradition that weaves throughout the biblical texts is the tradition of community and covenant.
As you read the Psalms (24, 90, 105), you will notice that Ps 90 is attributed to Moses.
Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you.
So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.
Be sure to take time to appreciate Psalm 105 and its powerful poetic remembrance of these core stories of Israel. Compare this song with the “psalm” recorded in Exodus 15.
As you read Mark 11-16, you will notice that Mark’s description of the last supper on the night before his crucifixion was a Passover meal. The Christian celebration of Easter has always coincided with the Jewish celebration of Passover. The dates dance around each other based on the lunar calendar, but their relationship is fixed.
Some Christian churches recognize this relationship by celebrating a Jewish Seder with a Christian twist. My friend, Rabbi Jeffrey joined us at one of our Seder meals one year and led my congregation through the traditional ritual. It became very clear to us how the meaning of Passover connected across the ages to the meaning of the Christ. It was a moving experience.
As you read Ephesians, revel in the powerful poetic prayers; there are several. Words have power to stir the human soul; power that is wielded by some to provoke fear and hatred. Power that is used by others to inspire us to awe and goodness.
Notice as you read, the repetition of the persistent biblical theme of God’s deliverance from slavery, sin, and “death.” Also the theme of God’s triumph over pharaohs and tyrants, named here as “rulers and authorities” – not just on earth, but “the cosmic powers and spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places…”
See again in the letter to the Ephesian churches the Pauline passion for breaking down barriers between Jew and Gentile.
Walter Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2003).
Now that I’m not preaching in local congregations anymore, I offer here my favorite Ash Wednesday homily to my lovely, eclectic cyberspace community. Lenten Blessings, my friends…
We are earthy people – created from the dust of the earth and bound to the elements of this world. That’s why the symbols of our faith come from the earth – ashes and water and bread and wine. But even as they remind us of our connection to this world, at the same time, the symbols of our faith point us beyond this world.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
“You turn us back to dust…”
…the Psalmist declared. Ashes are an ancient symbol of our mortality – a reminder of how fragile we humans are. We would be scattered by a breath if the breath of our Creator had not been breathed us into being; if the hand of the Creator had not formed us.
And we still are held together by the on-going, mysterious, creative power of the One who is ever creating and re-creating.
In the Christian tradition, ashes also mark penitence and sorrow. The ashes for Ash Wednesday often come from last year’s Palm Sunday branches. A year before, we were shouting God’s praises and joyously waving these banners of branches. But how many times during this year did we intend to tell others about the goodness of God and the love of Jesus Christ? And then how many times did those good intentions turn to dust?
“You anoint my head with oil…”
Oil is a symbol of the anointing of God’s own Spirit; the Spirit of life that brings life…
The Breath of life that gives life – even to lifeless ashes.
“…the earth was a formless void when the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters…”
Out of the waters of chaos, God created life.
Over the overwhelming flood, the ark drifted securely and God preserved life.
From the waters of baptism, God creates new life.
I love my water pitcher that was resurrected from the trash. Some years ago my daughter found it discarded behind a potter’s tent at an art fair. It looked perfect lying there, but then she noticed a small piece broken out of the top with a gaping wound marring what had been a perfect piece of art. She brought it home, and we mended it the best we could. I think this cracked pot is lovely. For me – its scar only makes it more special.
Susan Urbach survived the bombing of the Federal building in Oklahoma City. She endured long months of therapy and she still bears the scars from that horrible trauma. She wrote in her journal:
I wish for my scars to… become a sacrament – an outward visible sign of an inward and invisible grace… A scar comes from both a wounding and a healing.
When we remember our baptism, we remember God’s promises of new life; God makes us new creatures. But we also remember that even in the newness, we may still bear the scars of our living. May we let our scars be outward signs of God’s inward grace.
Grain scattered on the hillsides is mysteriously transformed into sprouts pushing their way up through the earthy darkness. Tiny sprouts are transformed into amber waves of grain. The grain is gathered and ground into a fine flour and the flour is transformed into bread.
Bread: feeding us, sustaining us, giving us great pleasure as we gather together to enjoy fellowship and to break bread.
But when Jesus broke the bread on the night he was betrayed, he transformed the bread into a symbol of both life – and death.
“This is my body broken…” he told his disciples. “Remember…”
Grapes clinging to the branches, branches receiving their own life from the life of the vine. The grapes are gathered and crushed until they bleed into a heavy, purple juice – ready for yet another mysterious transformation. With time and patience and care, fermentation changes the crushed grapes into a rich wine. And we clink our glasses and toast each other in joy and celebration.
But when Jesus took the cup after dinner and blessed it, he said,
“This cup is my blood poured out… Remember…”
Of course, for us Christians, the cross is the centerpiece of our symbols. The vertical beam reaching to heaven, reminding us to ever reach up to God, the source of our life. Reminding us to spend time with God in worship, prayer and study – expectant that God will reach down to us.
The horizontal beam reaching out to each another, reminding us that we humans are all connected to one another; that when one suffers we all suffer; that when one rejoices we all rejoice.
A PRAYER of Walter Brueggemann
all our Wednesdays are marked by ashes…
all our Wednesdays are marked with failed hopes and broken promises…
we ourselves are ashes to ashes, dust to dust;
On this Wednesday, we submit our ashen way to you —
Before the sun sets, take our Wednesday and Easter us,
Easter us to joy and energy and courage and freedom;
Easter us that we may be fearless for your truth.
Come here and Easter our Wednesday with
mercy and justice and peace and generosity.
We pray as we wait for the Risen One who comes soon.
“Come here and Easter all our Wednesdays”
To read more about Susan Urbach, see The Unfinished Bombing: Oklahoma City in American Memory by Edward T. Linenthal
Jerry and I read to second graders every Wednesday. We’ve done this for five years now and sometimes we argue about whose turn it is to read because we love doing it so much.
There is something magical about taking language written on a page and transforming it into spoken word. There is something mysterious about the way those sounds find their way into ear and mind and heart and are transformed into meaning.
Our second graders transcribe words like “lion,” “witch” and “wardrobe” and – in their lively imaginations – craft something real, something wonderful.
This is a good reminder for those of us who don’t believe in magic wardrobes anymore. This whole enterprise of making meaning – of finding what is truly real – is mysterious process. Grown ups forget that sometimes.
When we consider the wonder of this every day common occurrence of words, then the layers and layers of wonder we find in the words of John’s Gospel surely must spark our imaginations.
In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God. And the Word was God…. And the Word became flesh…
How does one transcribe that into meaning?!?!
John’s Jesus is unique in the Gospels.
Of course all the Gospel writers crafted the Jesus story in a new and unique way for their time. Mark first and then Matthew and Luke wanted to do something different than the Apostle Paul had done before them.
Paul had proclaimed the clear, bold, luminous gospel that God’s redeeming love had entered into the human experience in Jesus the Christ. Paul had preached that Something brand new had happened in the cosmos – something real, something wonderful.
And across the Roman Empire, Jews and Gentiles, monotheists and pagans came to believe in this remarkable truth Paul proclaimed: Jesus – the Crucified and Risen One IS the One in whom all Creation holds together. The One who calls disciples to peace and unity and hope and love.
But then the gospel writers wanted to do something Paul had not done. They wanted to gather the many varied stories of Jesus’ life into one large narrative; one story that pondered the meaning of his life, death and resurrection.
They communicated the good news – not with credal statements or propositional truths or church doctrine – but rather with the unique power of the story.
They weren’t writing history – even though Jesus is absolutely historical.
They weren’t reporting as for a newspaper – although Jesus is certainly newsworthy.
They weren’t telling “just” a story – but they were telling truth in the profound form of story because story is one crucial way that we humans make meaning.
What does it mean that Christians confess this one Jesus to be both Son of man and Son of God?
What does it mean to believe that Immortal Divinity is present within the simple common life of a mortal man?
Mark and Matthew and Luke – in their genius – told their stories in such a way that this one Jesus is always both/and. Both fully human and fully divine.
And then John comes along with his own unique spin on the gospel genre. John’s gospel is shot through with symbols and signs. John’s gospel ponders theology WITH poetry. John’s gospel allows us to see this truly human truly divine Jesus with new eyes.
John’s Jesus is Light, Life, Truth, Bread, Way.
John’s Jesus is Word.
And this Eternal Word – spoken in the very beginning of Creation, John proclaims – has been transcribed into flesh and blood.
One of our mottoes as Disciples of Christ, our stated mission is that we want “to be and to share the Good News of Jesus Christ, witnessing, loving and serving from our doorsteps to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
It’s a really interesting statement of what we are about. Not only do we want to share the good news, to talk about it and write about it, but we say we also want to BE the good news.
Here is another Word made flesh. Here is another incarnation. Here is another way the gospel becomes embodied in the body of Christ.
This is truly remarkable. Remarkable opportunity. Remarkable responsibility.
One of the things I get to do these days is to write. An opportunity fell into my lap to write essays about intersections of faith and culture and politics and to post my blogs for a wide secular cyberspace audience.
I confess I have lived in a church bubble most of my life and I’ve not been exposed to the vast array of people who live outside that bubble.
So the comments that come back break my heart. There are so many people out there who completely distrust Christians because of their negative experiences with people of faith.
For them, Christians are people who say one thing and do another. For these folks, Christians are people who don’t live up to the words of their own Bible.
Does that break your heart?
Because people actually think that about us.
And because it’s actually too true too often about us.
When our word is not our bond and we carelessly break our word.
When our words are critical or complaining or condemning.
Remember when John’s Jesus confronted the religious insiders of his own day?
“You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”
The words in our Bibles are powerful words, good words that can teach us many important things about God, Christ, Spirit; about what it means to be human and what it means to be Church.
But that’s only the beginning.
These words of Scripture are signs that point us to mystery.
That’s the way it is with words. Our words never are the thing itself. Words are symbols for the ideas or the things we want to describe or communicate.
And that’s the way it is with words of Scripture. These holy words spark our imaginations so that we encounter something real. Something real, something wonderful. We can see invisible realities and impossible possibilities. We can hear eternal truth underneath the layers of sign and symbol.
It’s when these words leave the page and find their way into ear and mind and heart… When these words are transformed into meaning and fleshed out in acts of love and grace and hope and peace… When these words create a space where we can meet the Living Word … that’s when they become wonderful words of Life.
This mystery is absolutely astounding: that in these words of Scripture we may well be encountered by the Word made flesh. That this Word doesn’t just point to reality; this true Word is Reality itself.
How does one transcribe that into meaning?!?!
In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God.
And the Word was God.
And the Word became flesh…
You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.
I have come so that you may have life, and have it abundantly.
These words are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
A few weeks before my daughter left for university, we sprawled on my bed, giggling our way through some of my old diaries. I scarcely recognized the twelve-year-old girl who wrote those words; she now seems like a total stranger. Silly, superficial, and nauseatingly boy-crazy, this Southern-bred, naively arrogant, fundamentalist preacher’s daughter embarrasses me, astounds me, intrigues me.
Tucked away amid the oohs and aahs and the ups and downs of young love, I found this little aside:
October 3, 1962
Pretty late. Just finished h.work. There’s been a lot of hubbub about whether or not a certain Negro would get in Ole’ Miss College. Gov. went against Federal law twice. Negro got in. 2 people were killed & several wounded. Walter Shirrah went around the earth 6 times. Wow.
How did that girl feel about the two people who were killed on a cool autumn day on a Southern college campus? What did she think about a “Negro” stepping out of his “proper place” and insisting on admission to a white bastion like Ole Miss? I don’t remember. But I suspect she disapproved. I doubt that she heard the governor’s speech on television just a few weeks before her journal entry, but I know she also would have disapproved of his insistence that
…there is no case in history where the Caucasian race has survived social integration. We will not drink from the cup of genocide. … [Mississippians] will never submit to the moral degradation, to the shame, and to the ruin which have faced all others who lacked the courage to defend their beliefs. No school in Mississippi will be integrated while I am your governor.
(Governor Ross Barnett in a televised speech, September 13, 1962 in Jackson MS)
Such blatant, explicit racism shocked and disgusted that tenderhearted girl. We were Christians, after all, and Christians should be nice. My family always treated black people politely, kindly. We were never guilty of such unabashed hatred. But what about the biblical mandate to Love your neighbor as yourself? Looking back, I can see clearly that we loved our black neighbors as below ourselves, as less than ourselves, as worthy of our benevolence but not worthy of our friendship.
Our racism was benevolent.
That is what a perspective of hierarchy can do. Hierarchy says: “There is a natural up and down order to the world.” Hierarchy says: “A place for everyone and everyone in her place.” Hierarchy can even insist that those who are lower on the hierarchical tower deserve care and kindness and an appropriate chance. But hierarchy can never say that all people are equal. Even though it tries to.
Separate but equal.
That made sense to me. I accepted the explanation that people could be separate in function, yet equal in value. I accepted the argument that God loved all people equally while assigning various people to different spheres of participation within the home and church. But, years later, when I could no longer ignore the radical call of God in my life, when I realized that the identical rationale defined what I could or could not do as a woman, who I could or could not be in God’s church, I was forced to question the conventional wisdom and go back to the Bible in order to understand God’s perfect plan for all human beings.
So when this conservative preacher’s daughter broke away from the neat cultural expectations of her world and boldly stepped out of her “proper place” and into ordained ministry, I demonstrated my growing belief that equal value demands equal participation, I serendipitously discovered the relationship between my own God-ordained place as a woman and the equitable place God designed and desires for all human beings.
My own journey began when I confronted the conventional wisdom of the church of my childhood and wrestled with the biblical texts myself. Beginning in the Garden, I tried to discern what the Bible says about God’s original intention for humans, what God created humans to be before the “Fall.” The truth I discovered (the truth that changed my life) is that God created all humans to be equal both in value and in function.
Then God said, “Let us make humans in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them … (Genesis 1:26-28).
The Genesis narrative describes two equal beings, fresh from the hand of the Creator, assigned to share equally in the task of caring for the earth. Even the second story, from Genesis chapter 2, relates poetically how God took the original human (not a male) and made two humans, male and female; how God “split the adam,” so to speak, so they truly were “bone of bone and flesh of flesh,” as the astonished male proclaimed when he met his new partner. The two were blessed with the gift of procreation and the gift of meaningful work. In the beginning, in a perfect world, God assigned equal work to the humans in equal measure. The text does not support any suggestion that the male had more responsibility than the female.
Whichever story one reads, the message is clear: God expected each person, male and female, to function equally as partners, to carry his and her equal share of the responsibility for the rest of God’s creation.
So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate (Genesis 3:6).
The story goes on and the humans sinned – sinned most basically against God – but they also sinned against each other. It was in that sin that God’s original design was perverted, that the humans became twisted and deceived. The woman and the man rejected partnership, rejected God’s design, and damaged forever the relationship with their Creator and with each other. Their sin begat natural consequences that issued like thorns from their decisions.
The “curse” then was not God’s pronouncement of “plan B”; rather, the curse was God’s prophecy of the inevitable consequences of their choices. God’s intended equality was twisted into hierarchy so that the male, who was given dominion in the earth along with the woman, would now take dominion over the woman. God’s created equality was perverted into hierarchy so that the female, who was equally responsible for leadership within the created world, would now be “desiring” the leadership of a husband.
God did not change the original design of creation; we did.
This theological perspective of the Genesis narratives changed my life. When I recognized how God had created equality in the Garden, when I realized that God re-created equality in the cross, I had no choice but to submit myself to God’s design of equality. When I realized that partnership was part of the blessing and hierarchy was part of the curse, I could do no less than reject hierarchy for what it truly is – our own cultural accommodation to our sinful humanity.
Throughout Scripture, stories of how God’s people have related to each other demonstrate the challenge and the tension of living in a fallen world, seeing life through damaged lenses, and struggling to make sense of their relationships with God and with each other. Sometimes the biblical authors break free from the gravitational pull of hierarchy and demonstrate amazing insights and radical egalitarian behaviors. The Ephesian writer speaks specifically about the hostility between Jews and Gentiles, but his description of God’s reconciliation provides brilliant support for a theology of equality that applies to men and women, to slaves and free, to “brown and yellow, black and white.”
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it (Ephesians 2:13-16).
The cross. The great equalizer. Its beam reaches to heaven, reminding us of God’s amazing reconciliation that brings us back into community with God. Its cross-timber reminds us that all humanity stands equally condemned and equally redeemed. We are one in our fallenness; we are one in our salvation. In the cross, hierarchy is abolished and we are re-created into one new humanity.
For the most part, however, God’s people redeemed though we are, still struggle with twisted lenses that keep us from seeing the unity that God has created. God’s people still grapple with the powerful deceptions of culture that subtly but consistently re-create hostility instead of peace. As I write these words in 1998, hundreds of thousands of Promise Keepers are fresh from their emotional experiences in Washington, D.C. One of their most basic promises is to foster racial reconciliation; ironically, a movement that hopes to make peace between the races has cultivated division between the sexes. Noble efforts to call men back to responsibility within the home are, unfortunately, perpetuating our ancient cultural accommodation to hierarchy by suggesting that the man is more responsible to care for the family than the woman is. Even though Promise Keepers’ theology of headship preaches a servant leadership, their good intentions continue to create discomfort and caution among many thoughtful Christians because of the historical abuse of hierarchy. As these kinds of movements continue to stress the importance of keeping promises, I pray that they will continue to uncover the functional truths of God’s promise in Jesus to “create in himself one new humanity … thus making peace.”
I was a middle-aged adult before I corrected my vision to see the world through the lens of equality. Hierarchy had taken such a hold on my perspective I could not see its bankrupt deceptions. I truly believed I was an equal member of my church community, even though I could not function equally. I fully believed I was in my proper place (“separate but equal”), because God had designed it that way. Now I see how hierarchy deceived me. Hierarchy was comfortable. Hierarchy seemed normal, and the consequent sexism within the church seemed appropriate and approved by God.
The sexism I have encountered in my own personal experience has been mostly benevolent, patronizing, almost imperceptible.
But benevolent sexism is still sexism.
And benevolent racism is still racism.
Now that I have chosen the lens of equality, I can see the subtle ways that the world and the church have kept people of different genders in their separate places. Now that I wear the lenses of equality, I can begin to identify the countless ways that the world and the church continue to keep people of different races and orientations in their separate places.
We can continue to make the tired argument that all people enjoy equal value in God’s church, but until the church allows, encourages, even insists upon equal participation in the functional life of the body for everyone, we will continue to perpetuate a cultural accommodation to hierarchy. In order to be faithful to God’s original design, the church must continue to fight for complete equality – an equality that is functional and practical and visible.
The challenge for God’s church has always been to avoid being “conformed to this world, but [to] be transformed by the renewing of [our] minds, so that [we] may discern what is the will of God-what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).
Breaking away from the conforming molds of hierarchy in order to be transformed with new minds so that we may embrace God’s will for equality for all people may seem awkward at first. We are humans, after all, with a deep bias for hierarchy. But we are also “new creations,” the body of Christ, so discerning and following God’s will for equality will always be the good and acceptable and perfect path for those of us who belong to Christ.
Charlotte Vaughan Coyle 1998.
This article was originally published in 1998 in Leaven, a journal of Pepperdine University.