Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Every Knee Shall Bow

1 Samuel 5:1-5
by Daniel Harrell

Many of you ask how I’m surviving my first winter in Minnesota, by which you mean all the snow. You’re worried, I know. Especially after this past week. Some of you have gone as far as to apologize, as if this winter is your fault. Please don’t worry. I’m a minister. I forgive you. I’m also a Kierkegaardian existentialist suffering a chronic and cresting midlife crisis, especially as I cross the mid-century mark. So I embrace winter. I hope it snows on Easter.

Speaking of snow, I’ve dealt with my midlife crisis in various ways over the years—predictably with escapades designed to delude myself into thinking I’m 20 years younger. Not too long ago I joined in a hike up the twin peaks of Mount Osceola, a double 4000 footer in New Hampshire. Now I know that sounds like a walk in the park to the Coloradans in the room, but still, the White Mountains can be adventuresome, especially on this particular day with 5 feet of snow on the trail. With temperatures at eleven degrees. Hiking up a severely steep grade. With howling wind and more snow forecast to fall.

No problem for true mountain men. In fact we were so confident in our eventual success that we didn’t start hiking until noon. After leisurely coffee and Danish, we laced up our crampons, strapped on our ice axes and commenced our steep ascent, soon to find ourselves heaving and scrambling on all fours, the wind starting to whip as the temperature plummeted. Finally atop the first peak, we were plainly hypothermic, worn out and flirting with cardiac arrest. Not that true mountain men were willing to admit debilitating fatigue. Better to freeze than to give in to the reality that two peaks were impossible on this day; that getting up one had been practically miraculous. No, we fully intended to complete our quest; anything short would be failure. Fortunately we had a woman hiking with us. “You guys are idiots if you think we’re going after another peak today,” she said firmly and motherly. “Turn around and let’s get back down this mountain before it’s dark and we’re dead. You can’t win at everything.” “Yeah,” we men joked, “we knew she couldn’t hack it. Let’s get girly down the mountain.”

Failure is hard to accept in American society. We live in a culture that adores success and never tires of raising expectations. Success substantiates our self-worth, whether its bagging twin mountain peaks in the snow, making straight A’s, landing the best-paying job, being happily married to an attractive person, raising well-adjusted children or losing weight. Watch the commercials and pop-ups and you’ll find success equals driving the right car too, as well as drinking the right beer, having the perfect skin and popping the best pills to ward off depression and pain while promoting sexual dexterity and hair growth (on your head). Such absurd markers of success not only make it hard to accept failure, they make it difficult to say the word.

Even for Christians. Among the many things we ought to be able to offer the world is an adequate theology of failure. But alas, we’re as enchanted as everybody else by cultural mirages of success—despite participating in a religion that prominently displays as its calling card failure’s most resonant symbol. Indeed nothing symbolizes failure more extremely than the cross, for the cross signifies the failure of God himself—a failure displayed in the Old Testament too, explicitly in 1 Samuel 4. I devoted the first two Sundays of Lent to exploring 1 Samuel 4, as dismal a chapter of Scripture as exists. It’s so dismal that some of you have expressed worry that if this keeps up all Lent, you might not make it to Easter. Especially if it doesn’t stop snowing soon.

Failure pervades chapter 4. Naturally there’s human failure: The sons of Eli fail in their roles as priests of the Tabernacle, exploiting rank to embezzle sacred offerings and sexually abuse female sanctuary workers. Consequently they draw down a fierce curse from God on their entire family. The armies of Israel fail not once but twice, arrogantly overestimating their battlefield prowess. In turn they suffer massive casualties to the Philistines. Israel’s elders and leaders fail in their presumptuous attempt to force God’s hand by manipulating the sublime symbol of God’s presence, the Ark of the Covenant—that gold layered box with a model of heaven’s throne on top that contained the Ten Commandments inside. They hauled the Ark out of its sanctuary at Shiloh presuming that would guarantee their army’s success because God never loses.

As I pointed out last Sunday, these human failures fell into the category of explicable loss, failure that assigns blame, failure that makes sense. But 1 Samuel 4 also features the failure of God himself, a categorical failure that defies categories. It that makes no sense. Obliged onto the battlefield due to the presence of the Ark, God lost the battle. The Ark was captured and hauled off to Ashdod. It is failure writ large, so large that it actually fails as an “adequate theology of failure.” By itself, 1 Samuel 4 is no more than a dirge, an downhill slide into perpetual despair. With God defeated, what hope is left? With God defeated, life is random and meaningless. With God defeated, evil wins, death is the last word and pitch black darkness is all the hope that remains.

For centuries, theologians have tried to account for God’s defeat in the face of evil, be the face that of the oppressive Philistines in 1 Samuel or the everyday evils of disease and disaster. The attempt warrants its own theological category—we call it theodicy—it’s the effort we ministers make to explain how an all-powerful and good God can allow so much suffering in the world. It’s a question of particular interest to me as it pertains to biology. Given the vast immensity of death endemic to the evolutionary epic, how does this square with faith in a Creator who made the world as good? I’ve gone public in print and recently on video suggesting that somehow death must be a part of God’s character.

Kierkegaardian, I know, but what I mean is that death has two sides. On the one side it serves as the negative paycheck for sin, as the apostle Paul put it, but on the other, according to Jesus, it’s also the utmost expression of sacrificial love. Thus rather than viewing eons of evolutionary death as purposeless waste, what if we saw it somehow as God’s sacrifice? My little video was picked up by a couple of anti-religion bloggers last week who with ferocity labeled it “abhorrently and contemptibly mindless” and my assertion “vapid idiocy.” “Reverend Harrell’s god is a psychopath,” one commenter wrote. “No mentally sane god would do such sick things.” And then from the estimable Richard Dawkins himself, “How utterly obscene. How loathsome. How Christian.”

And if that’s all there was to it, I might have to agree. By itself, labeling death “sacrificial love” is nothing but a euphemistic obscenity, especially given how badly love already gets twisted in our society. Sacrificial love is not love without some kind of redemption. Jesus himself said that “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” More than stating the biologically obvious, Jesus makes a much larger point about the way all things are. Just as the death of an organism will allow for its flourishing reproduction and continued genetic existence (not that the Bible would put it this way), so would Jesus’ death redeem the negativity of death due to sin and lead to a new and flourishing continuation of life. Forgiven sinners still die, but in Christ death no longer has final say. The way of the cross becomes the way of new creation.

For a theology of failure to be adequate, a corresponding theology of redemption is required. The cross requires an empty tomb. 1 Samuel 4 requires 1 Samuel 5. After their triumphant capture of the Ark of the Covenant, the nefarious Philistines giddily paraded the Ark twenty miles south to the shrine of their chief deity, Dagon. Mortal enemies, the Philistines were spiritual enemies too. They situated the Ark beside a stone idol of Dagon so to exhibit Yahweh’s proven inferiority. But they also did it to exhibit appreciation to Yahweh for contributing to Dagon’s triumph. As polytheists, the Philistines were always happy to welcome helpful deities into their pantheon.

 However such sacrilege would not be tolerated. So that night, once the victory celebration subsided and the lights were shut off on the Ark and idol of Dagon. The next morning, when the Philistine clerics reported to work, eager to continue their gloating, what they discovered was the idol of Dagon fallen face first, prostrate on the ground before the Ark of the Lord. Was this an act of worship? Of submission? Or just clumsiness? Likely the Philistines chalked it up to the latter, figuring that somebody partied too heartily the previous night and bumped the stone idol too close to the edge of its pedestal. Just set it upright and let’s get on with the trophy celebration.

It’s important to note that the Philistines would not have considered the stone idol they crafted as actually being Dagon itself. They could see that the stone idol was a rock which was why having to set it back onto its pedestal did not provoke a crisis of faith. That occurred the following morning. Though the Philistines knew the idol was a rock, they nevertheless believed that it represented the actual presence of Dagon, just as the wooden box of an Ark represented the actual presence of God. Which is why the subsequent events raised such alarm. 1 Samuel 5 reads that “Early on the next morning” (which if you’re counting would be the third day), the Philistines returned to Dagon’s Temple fully expecting to find Dagon and the Ark as they’d left them, with the Ark displayed in submissive defeat before the idol. It was just like the women who came to the tomb at Easter fully expecting to find Jesus as he’d been left: dead and buried, laid out in submissive defeat to his enemies. Despite being the most faithful of the early disciples, the women still came to the tomb carrying burial spices.

However to everyone’s utter shock, a reversal had occurred. The tomb was empty. Dagon was not only bowed but broken this time, his head and his hands cut off. This was no accident. Dagon had been executed military style. He’d been literally disarmed in the dark; rendered impotent within his own stronghold. As Old Testament commentator Walter Brueggemann puts it, “Dagon learned through the night, we know not how, that Yahweh is the God before whom every knee shall bow and every nose shall be pressed low to the floor.”

Whether Dagon the deity actually existed (or exists), I do not know. Scripture is clear that there are “cosmic powers over this present darkness, spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” against which we wrestle. But Scripture is also clear that all evil in whatever form it takes is ultimately rendered powerless before God. Thus the Psalmist can confidently taunt the hand-crafted manifestations of such powers as “having mouths, but not speaking; eyes, but not seeing. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; they do not make a sound in their throats.” Idols are ultimately nothing but not not not because the evil they represent is ultimately nothing too.

And not only the idols but the people who worship them. “Those who make them are like them;” the Psalmist continues, “so are all who trust in them.” In toppling Dagon, the Lord takes aim not only at the idol but at idolatry. The existence of powers and forces contrary to God is one thing, paying homage to them is another. While there are those who still worship actual idols (be they iPads, nice cars or hockey trophies), idolatry in our day also takes a more subtle strain. Our captivation with success—the right school, the best job, the perfect person, the perfect body, popularity, power, approval, financial security—the pursuit of all these things only succeed in supplanting our worship of God as the sure source of identity and worth.

Which is why an adequate theology of failure is so necessary. United Methodist Bishop William Willimon recounts a story of a favorite professor named Paul Holmer who taught a class on Søren Kierkegaard (at the University of Minnesota where he was considered the expert of Kierkegaard). There was a divinity school debate on “the role of the preacher” featuring Professor Holmer, which was surprising since Holmer, like Kierkegaard, was generally contemptuous of clergy. The debate opened with another professor, the famous William Slone Coffin, presenting an exciting image of the pastor as agent of social change. Coffin asserted that “Because you visit and work with people in a variety of settings, you can organize them to [successfully] work for justice. You will have important people in your churches—bankers, lawyers. You can do much good getting folk motivated to get together and work great change in your community.”

Professor Holmer replied, “I disagree with everything that professor Coffin has said. The pastor’s job can’t be to organize people, to bring them together. People hide [in organizations]. It’s one of their best defenses against God. Your job as a pastor is to break up the [clubs and] groups, render them exposed and vulnerable, force them to confront their failures. That way God can get to them. Besides, Jesus despised bankers and lawyers.”

Failure compels a dependency on God who shows himself most dependable in exactly those moments you find yourself most needy and exposed. There is redemption in this. Failure brings you down to earth that is solid beneath your feet. Failure links your broken heart to others just like it. Failure delivers you into the everlasting arms where you find the solace that eluded you during your success. Failure provides the pathway to genuine faith.

Ironically, in the toppling of Dagon, like the resurrection of Jesus, God redeems those avenues of defeat we so frantically seek to avoid—those failures we desperately fear and don’t dare risk. And yet it was the capture of the Ark that overturned captivity. It was the death of Christ that reinterpreted death. It is the cross of failure that became the crux of life. Such ironic divine double negations remain at work everywhere: one person’s loss placed alongside another’s is what provides the most heartfelt empathy and comfort; humility in response to humiliation is what results in integrity; acceptance of failure redeems feelings of failure providing hope and courage to try again. The resurrection of Jesus through death provides true lasting hope and even joy that no personal achievement or accomplishment can match, all to the praise and glory of God alone.

By the way, the only thing worse than having to swallow our middle-aged pride atop snowy Mount Osceola was having to trudge back down its steep face. Had we possessed the youthful stamina to traverse to the second peak, (not to mention the mature wisdom to have started on time) the descent down the other side would have been a gradual delight. But now we were never going to make it down by dark. We would be forced to suffer the consequences of our stupidity as we slowly maneuvered down the dangerous, icy slope. Of course we weren’t 50 yards down before Tim, one of us macho mountain men, slipped. Clad in slick Gore-Tex from head to toe, he predictably slid for the next mile and a half, all the way down to the bottom of the mountain. Soon we were all right behind him, of course, spinning and sliding as collective losers, descending in 20 minutes what had taken us three hours to climb.

Turns out hikers have a technical term for this. Glissade. It’s basically just a fancy French word meaning “slide on your butt.” Although you are supposed to use your ice ax as a brake, I found that the occasional trees I crashed into worked just as well. I’m convinced the term glissade was invented by some pathetic hiker too embarrassed to admit he had miscalculated his capabilities. Nevertheless, we got off of the trail before dark. And once there—humiliated, frozen solid, sore and beaten—all we could do was praise the Lord.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Stages of Grief

1 Samuel 4:12-22
by Daniel Harrell

The Lenten season thus far has provided a disproportionate share of funerals for Colonial Church. We’ve mourned the death of a charter member, a passionate and creative businessman, and a young child. Even in the most merciful scenarios, death remains an unwelcomed intruder. Presiding over my grandfather’s recent funeral—his was a timely but nevertheless sudden passing—I reminded those gathered how easy it is to believe that we are in control of our lives. We believe it so strongly at times that when something bad happens, we describe our reaction to it as losing control. That’s what you’ll say, “I’ve lost control.” That’s what you think, but it’s not true. You didn’t lose control. What you lost was the illusion that you ever had control in the first place.

I was saddened to read of another death this past week, a member from my previous church named Bill. A devout Christian, Bill held an endowed professorship at Harvard Law School. He’d endured chronic pain over the past ten years following an innocuous fixing of a flat tire. Two operations, dozens of injections, physical therapy, psychotherapy, and thousands of pills later, his back and right leg hurt every waking moment. Bill described how “Living with chronic pain is like having an alarm clock taped to your ear with the volume turned up—and you can’t turn it down.” Then came the cancer. Doctors found a large tumor in his colon; and then tumors in both lungs.

At the time he wrote, “Cancer will very probably kill me within the next two years. I’m 50 years old. … And yet the question we are most prone to ask when hardship strikes—the question we want to ask—why me?—makes no sense. That question presupposes that pain, disease, and death are distributed according to moral merit. They aren’t. We live in a world in which innocent children starve while moral monsters prosper. We may see justice in the next life, but we see little of it in this one.” Not words you want to hear from a law professor.

Some of the little justice we do see shows up here in 1 Samuel 4 on this dreary second Sunday in Lent. I’m devoting these Lenten weeks to a disturbing narrative that runs from here through 1 Samuel 6. The dark undercurrent through this passage is the sin of two priests: Hophni and Phinehas, the sons of Eli. Called to mediate for the Lord on earth, they abused their calling—financially embezzling sanctuary offerings and sexually abusing sanctuary servants. Bad enough when anybody steals and exploits; worse they did it as priests of God. Eli sternly rebuked his sons, but they would not listen. Therefore the Lord pronounced judgment: both of them would die on the same day.

As for the congregation of Israel, their sin was a willingness to take God for granted; to treat him as one whose power they could control. Their reasoning had to do with their possession of the Ark of the Covenant, the visible symbol of God’s tangible and abiding presence. Not to be confused with Noah’s Ark, the Ark of the Covenant was as a gold-covered box, carried by poles containing the Ten Commandments inside, the law for living a righteous life. Atop the box sat the mercy seat, the symbolic judgment throne of the Lord modeled after his throne in heaven. Throughout its earthly sojourn; wherever the Ark was present, God was present too.

The test came on the heels of a skirmish with the Philistines—the avowed enemy of Israel and paradigm of all things profane. The Philistines beat the Israelites, which wasn’t supposed to happen, causing the elders to ask “where was God?” It’s a question that ranks right up there with “why me?” Only here the answer was easier. Ergo the solution: bring out the Ark of the Covenant from Shiloh, the sanctuary of Israel during the time of the Judges. Force God onto the battlefield and guarantee victory. But can the Lord be manipulated? Can his hand be forced? Would parading the Ark in battle compensate for the failure to obey the ethical commandments contained inside? This last question was especially applicable given that the Ark was accompanied by Hophni and Phinehas, the two wicked priests. This could not be good. And it wasn’t. The battlefield losses with the Ark present dwarfed those suffered during God’s alleged absence. 30,000 soldiers were killed including Hophni and Phinehas. The brothers’ demise came as no surprise; they received their just desserts. But what of the 30,000 others? The Ark was there. But where was God?

There are those who suggest that Israel’s manipulation of the Ark compelled God to remove his glory. But such separation of Ark from aura would have proved a breach of promise. God was definitely there alright—just not in the way that Israel wanted. God suffered defeat alongside his people. But how was that possible? God never loses.

This passage invites us to consider categories of loss. The deaths of Hophni and Phinehas and the Israelite army both fall into categories of explicable loss; loss that makes sense, loss that can be accepted, loss where the fault is plain. Hophni and Phinehas reap what they sow; they receive the just desserts for their blatant disregard of God’s law and their refusal to repent. As for the Israelite army, their defeat can be attributed to Israel’s national arrogance, but it also came on account of the Philistines’ brutality. We live in a world where innocent children starve while moral monsters prosper—no matter the number of UN resolutions. In this seemingly arbitrary world we inhabit, the bad guys sometimes win.

Up to this point in 1 Samuel 4, the losses have all been explicable. Not until we finally get to our passage for today do we confront an entirely different category of loss; a category that supersedes guilt and blame and defies explanation. We read, “The ark of God,” has been captured.” How do you explain the defeat of God?

A Benjamite soldier escaped the battlefield slaughter and ran 20 miles uphill to Shiloh. He blew right past Eli seated by the road watching, we’re told, a surprising word choice given that Eli was blind. We wonder whether the juxtaposition alludes to Israel’s endemic spiritual blindness; seeing but never perceiving. Yet Eli does perceive that something was desperately amiss. The narrator reports that “his heart trembled for the Ark of God,” another surprising word choice given that the Ark was the source of Israel’s courage. It is because the Ark was so deemed that the Benjamite’s report incited such a riotous, citywide lament.

Last Sunday night we had the congregation write on note cards what it was they wanted God to do for them. These were ceremoniously placed on a black draped altar that at the end of the service was revealed to be a shredder. Our wants were then ceremoniously shredded to signify the reality that what at times God gives what nobody wants.

Eli, expecting the worst, inquired about the uproar. The Benjamite unfurled his increasingly dreadful news: “Israel routed, your sons dead, the ark of God captured.” Notably, it was the mention of the Ark’s capture that knocked Eli back off his chair and broke his neck. Expecting the worst is one thing. Experiencing it is often more than we can handle; especially when the worst is even worse than we thought. Eli knew his sons were goners, but no way would he have thought God to be gone too. The news reached Eli’s daughter-in-law, pregnant with her dead husband Phineahas’ child. Yet it was not the news of her husband’s demise but mention of the Ark’s capture that induced her into early and deadly labor. With her dying lips she named her newborn, orphaned son Ichabod, which meant “no glory.”

It’s still customary in some cultures for parents to name their children names like “no glory,” or “ugly” or “loser” as a way of discouraging evil spirits from taking them by malaria or some other disease. I met a Mozambican pastor whose name, Campama, literally meant “no good.” However the name of Ichabod was not given to ward off loss, but because of loss. She named the child Ichabod, saying, “‘The glory has departed from Israel!’ for the ark of God had been captured.” God was defeated. How do you explain it? You can’t. Such loss is inexplicable.

Many inquired about the age of my grandfather when he died—89. I know for some this was sort of like when we read the obituaries and checking the ages there. We all get to a point in our lives when we need to do the math. 89 is a good, long life. There’s genuine comfort in that. But what comfort is there for the non-smoking law professor who contracts lung cancer at 50, or for the playful child’s paralysis, or the athletic swimmer’s drowning, the layoff just days short of vesting, or the spouse’s affair out of nowhere? How do you explain the missionaries to Mozambique whose daughter dies of malaria? Or the relief workers whose plane crashes as they fly to assist others. Asking “why me?” may make no sense, but at least asking “why God” leaves you one in whom to possibly hope for an explanation; one from whom there may yet be possible comfort; a God toward whom you can at least shake your fist and shed your tears.

 But what do you do when God has departed? When God is defeated? All you’re left with then is a funeral service where the minister can only shrug his shoulders and wish you luck. All you’re left with is a doctor who reads the x-rays and acknowledges how that’s just what genes and viruses do. All you’re left with is the fact that tectonic plates shift, that planes and cars malfunction, that businesses have to cut costs, and that people fall out of love. It’s a category of loss that makes no sense. It is unbearable loss that we must nevertheless bear because the Bible is unmistakably clear. God’s glory has departed. The Ark of God has been captured. God has been defeated. Crucified, dead and buried.

And yet that last phrase, the centerpiece of the Apostle’s Creed, does not leave us with the same despair. Inexplicably, it is on the cross of Jesus that we experience true grace. It is in God’s own unbearable loss that our unbearable losses become bearable. On the cross of Jesus, all categories of loss get confronted.

On the cross, God’s loss confronts that category of loss for which we alone are to blame. The cross does the work of atonement. St. Peter declared that “Christ died for sins, once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.” Through Christ, God reconciled to himself all things, Paul added, “making peace by the blood of his cross.”

On the cross, God’s loss also confronts that category of loss we suffer due to the evil of others. Here the cross does the work of poetic justice. As will be the case with the Philistines, the avowed enemies of Jesus were certain they had won; only to experience in time the humiliation of their own delusion. By the cross, Paul wrote, God “disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in Christ.” “When Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins,” wrote the author of Hebrews, “he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting for that time when his enemies should be his footstool”—when the devil himself, Revelation declares, will be hurled into a lake of fire and tormented forever.

And finally, on the cross, God’s loss confronts categorical, catastrophic loss; that loss for which there is no blame to assign, no explanation to understand, no sense to make. God’s loss occurs in solidarity with our own. On the cross, Jesus joined our plight; “he bore our grief and carried our sorrow,” Isaiah said. Through the cross we have a God who shares our affliction, exudes compassion, a God who by His own suffering never leaves nor forsakes us in ours. Experiencing this first hand, Bill, the law professor, wrote how “Jesus’ life and death change the character of suffering, giving it dignity and weight and even, sometimes, a measure of beauty. Cancer and chronic pain remain ugly things, but the enterprise of living with them is not an ugly thing.”

Yet most significantly, even beyond empathy and solidarity, God’s loss redeems our losses. “We may be hard pressed from every side,” Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “but we are not crushed. We may be at a loss, but we are not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.”

We can never recover from catastrophic loss—if by recover we mean return to the way things were before. Nor can we forget the losses we suffer. To try is both unrealistic and potentially harmful. Redemption is not about recovery or forgetting. To be redeemed is to be changed. Unlike anything else, redeemable loss has the capacity to enlarge us and to deepen us. And yet to experience this change, we must let it to happen. As the cross of Jesus teaches us, we must sit with our darkness rather than try to outrun it. We must yield to our loss in order for it to transform us. But rather than passing through it in order to emerge a whole person on the other side, to yield to loss is to absorb it into your soul—like the dirt that absorbs death and decay—and from that rich soil to then emerge as new person, a new creation. Somehow deeper. Somehow fuller. Somehow larger. Somehow like Christ, because of the cross.

Bill recognized this as “our God’s trademark. Down to go up, life from death, beauty from ugliness: the pattern is everywhere. That familiar pattern is also a great gift to those who suffer loss—the loss may remain, but good will come from it, and the good will be larger than the suffering it redeems. Our pain is not empty; we do not suffer in vain. When life strikes hard blows, what we do has value. Our God sees it” and remembers. And we remember too. Perhaps in the end this is what makes memory sacred. Frederick Buechner once observed that in dissolving the distinction between past, present and future, memory enables us at some level, in our loss, to inhabit the same eternity where the Lord himself dwells. It is in God’s own unbearable loss that our unbearable losses become bearable.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Descent Into Loss

1 Samuel 4:1-7
by Daniel Harrell

Our prayers go out to those suffering the immense devastation, loss of life and now nuclear threat after last week’s massive earthquake and tsunami in Japan. We inhabit a very powerful planet that like the God who made it, shows no partiality. The redeeming news is that human loss of this magnitude mobilizes compassion from across national and geographical boundaries—all the more rapidly with the capacity to text and email donations. And yet despite huge outpourings of concern, recovery from natural disaster remains slow even for a country as well prepared as Japan or as developed as the United States. A good friend heads down to the Gulf Coast this month with members of his church to continue helping with the clean up from Hurricane Katrina which struck almost six years ago. If recovery is this slow in America, how much worse for a country like Haiti still deep in the rubble from its own earthquake of more than a year ago. In an effort to help there, our church launched an effort last night to partner with an organization called Impact Lives that will pack and deliver close to 300,000 meals from us for those who remain hungry and displaced.

It is appropriate to begin Lent with loss. This season of the church year has always been about human desolation and despair. And yet, paradoxically, as I mentioned on this past Ash Wednesday, the word Lent derives from the Middle English word meaning spring. Lenten desolation gives way to resurrection every time. The ashes rubbed on our foreheads reminded us that we are but dust and to the dust we shall return. But that the ashes took the shape of a cross also reminded us that through Christ death paves the way to eternal life. This is the Christian hope.

Wednesday was the first time I’d ever had ashes imposed on my forehead in a Congregational Church (though all those other Congregational churches still called it Ash Wednesday). Most Congregationalists don’t do ashes due to Jesus’ warning against practicing your piety in public so to be seen by others. Of course these days wearing ashes on your forehead feels less like displaying your piety than it does displaying a lack of hygiene. It can be kind of embarrassing. But this too is appropriate for Lent. Donning ashes has historically served as a mark of shame and humility rather than pride, attitudes essential to the Lenten disciplines of self-examination and repentance.

Every Christian links Lent with repentance. All are sinners who deserve to wear ashes. Yet as the apostle John thankfully wrote, “If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” But forgiveness is only one side of grace. Grace comes as free gift, not as a free pass. As John goes on to write, “By this we may be sure that we know God, if we obey his commandments.” The ultimate aim of a grace-filled life is not one on the hamster wheel of sin and forgiveness and sin and forgiveness. The ultimate aim is righteousness—or at least learning to sin a little less.

The last time I had dust on me in a church, the dust was on my feet. You may remember my telling you last fall about a trip to Mozambique Dawn and I took a few years back. Like Haiti, Mozambique is among the poorest countries on earth. It possesses a per capita annual income of $210, an average formal education of 2 years and a life expectancy of around 43. I preached in a church there quite different from ours. The roof was thatch and the floor was dirt and the walls nonexistent. The 200 or so people gathered crammed onto short, hewn wooden benches and mats on the ground. That so many people were there was in part due to curiosity. For Mozambicans living in rural bush communities, visitors from America are rare occurrences. I actually wasn’t planning on preaching, but they insisted because the way they had it figured, anyone willing to come so far to visit must have something to say.

My mediocre sermon was vastly improved in translation. My interpreter, a longtime missionary, was impressive in his ability to translate not just the words but also the idioms and nonverbal aspects of the local language. Still, I strove to make it easy as I could, attempting to keep my sentences simple and clear of American colloquialism. Not that I succeeded. Dawn and I had departed for Mozambique the day after a blizzard, so I mentioned to the Mozambican church how happy we were to be able to enjoy the warmth of their climate, adding that we were also happy to enjoy the warmth of the people. My interpreter commenced to spend about five minutes translating this one sentence. As it turned out he was trying to explain to the perspiring congregation why I was so glad they were hot.

I learned a couple of interesting things about Mozambican Christianity. I learned that their favorite Bible stories are Noah’s ark and Sodom and Gomorrah, stories generally unavailable in print. They like the emphasis placed on God’s judgment. Given a Mozambican’s short life expectancy along with their daily acquaintance with death due to malaria, AIDS, high infant mortality and poor access to health care; the need to have your affairs in order for heaven in a very present concern. Stories of judgment serve as spine-tingling incentives to shape up and get right with God. However, getting right with God in Mozambican Christianity places little emphasis on grace, stressing instead the necessity of good works and paying your dues. This meritorious tendency might be blamed on the residues of colonial Portuguese Catholicism; but a bigger culprit is probably Mozambican Christianity’s infusion with traditional African spiritual values and customs. It’s not at all unusual for a Mozambican Christian to say their prayers in church only to make a donation to the local witch doctor on their way home, simply to make sure all the bases are covered.

While easy to criticize such practice as primitive or unenlightened, the truth is that Christianity’s infusion with local customs and values crosses all cultures. Here in America, our Christianity is plainly entwined with political allegiance, celebrity worship and consumerism—all despite Jesus’ emphasis on the Kingdom of God over political kingdoms, humility over celebrity, and generosity toward others over storing up treasure for yourself. The funny thing is that we recognize the contradictions, but hey, grace is free, why not stay on the hamster wheel? At least we’re getting our exercise. Grace serves as a cover rather than as a catalyst for change.

In 1 Samuel 2, two sons of Eli the priest—and thus priests in their own right—used their priesthood to cover their bad behavior. Hophni and Phinehas were indicted as “scoundrels who had no regard for the Lord.” Their embezzled offerings intended for God; compounding this with sexual misconduct as they “slept with the women who served at the meeting tent.” Then as now, the sins of greed and lust characteristically come as a matched set.

Eli sternly rebuked his sons, but they would not listen. Therefore the Lord pronounced judgment: “a time is coming when I will cut off your strength and the strength of your ancestor’s family, so that no one in your family will live to old age. … The only one of you whom I shall not cut off shall be spared to weep out his eyes and grieve his heart. The fate of your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, shall be the sign to you—both of them shall die on the same day.”

Evil and its consequences provide the backdrop for 1 Samuel 4-6, atypical fare for Lent to be sure, but nonetheless apropos. 1 Samuel is primarily devoted to the elevation of David as King of Israel, but in these three chapters which we will examine through Easter, the central actor is not human but wooden: that 2x2x4 foot box known as the Ark of the Covenant, now an indelible part of popular culture due to its starring role in a Harrison Ford movie thirty years ago. Not to be mistaken for an ark like Noah’s, the Ark of the Covenant was covered with gold, carried by poles and contained within it the Ten Commandments, the covenant code for living a righteous life. Atop the box sat the mercy seat, the symbolic throne of the Lord modeled after his throne in heaven. The Ark signified God’s assured, palpable covenant presence guiding and governing Israel. Throughout its earthly sojourn; wherever the Ark, God was there too.

Presumably, having God in your midst could only be good. His presence could only mean blessing and protection from harm. However, human nature being what it is, it didn’t take long before presumptions of divine presence warped into presumptuousness. Gratitude gave way to entitlement as the goodness of God became treated as insurance rather than incentive; a cover for sin rather than catalyst for change. After all, if I have the Ark in my hand, do I not have God in my pocket?

1 Samuel 4 opens with the Israelites encamped at a place called Ebenezer. A short distance away were their pesky adversaries, the nefarious Philistines—paradigmatic of all things wicked, profane and irreverent. As usual, the Philistines were ravenous to expand their territory at Israel’s expense. The Philistines picked a fight and the Israelites, confident of God’s presence, stepped out to take on the big bully face to face. Yet to their shock and dismay, the Philistines won the fight, killing four thousand Israelite soldiers.

Back at camp, tails between their legs and licking their wounds, the Israelites did not for a second ascribe their defeat to the Philistine army’s superiority. There was but one obvious explanation: God had not shown up. The elders of Israel asked: “Why has the LORD put us to rout today before the Philistines?” Some translations prefer not to place blame so squarely on God’s shoulders. The New Living Translation asks “why has the Lord allowed us to be defeated by the Philistines?” Either way the question’s the same: “Where was God?” It’s a question asked whenever inexplicable disaster or tragedy strikes; whether in the wake of monstrous tsunamis or the lesser yet no less distressing waves that pound our personal lives. Had God been with us we would have been safe, we would have succeeded because God never loses.

 The solution was as easy as the explanation: Get God onto the battlefield. Haul out the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord Almighty, the undisputed guarantee of God’s presence and thus the undisputed guarantee of victory. So the Israelites brought out the Ark. And with it comes a flare of ominous foreshadowing, the text reads that: “Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the Ark.” The implication is that somehow these wayward priests were in charge of the Ark itself.

We’re prodded to wonder: Can the power of God be manipulated? Can his hand be forced? Would parading the Ark in battle compensate for the failure to obey the ethical commandments contained inside? Does righteousness conveyed by faith mean righteous conduct no longer matters?  Jesus said ask and you shall receive: Does that mean that the Lord must do whatever I want? Can I expect goodness from God if I ignore or despise the good of my neighbor? If I tip the witch doctor on my way home from church; if I rely on popularity, political or purchasing power, can I be said to “trust in the Lord alone”? Can faith diluted by contrary cultural, social or personal practices still be called Biblical faith? As long as I have the Ark in my hand, do I have God in my pocket?

The Israelites thought so. They paraded the Ark into the camp and there arose such a celebratory shout that the ground shook. The Philistines heard the roar and were plainly rattled. “Gods have come into the camp,” they said with fear in their throats. The Philistines knew enough about Israel’s deity to know he had smote the Egyptians with all sorts of plagues. But though this scared them silly, it did not scare them off. “Stand up like men!” they encouraged one another, “lest you become slaves to the Hebrews as they have been to you; be men and fight!” And fight they did. Israel was whooped. Every man fled to his tent. Thirty thousand foot soldiers were killed this time. That first defeat had been decisive; this one was disastrous.

What to make of it? This disaster cannot be blamed on God’s absence. The Ark was on the battlefield. Hophni and Phinehas were among the casualties. We’d been set up to expect their demise; God’s promised justice came to pass. But was their punishment the cause of the other 30,000 deaths? Such justice would appear disproportionate. Better to lay blame for the greater slaughter at the feet of Israel’s national and corporate sin—their collective disregard for the Lord. But how do we explain the defeat of God Himself? As this chapter will further unveil, the incomprehensible slaughter of Israel’s army is dwarfed by the unthinkable. Five times in this chapter beginning here, heads shake in utter disbelief as the unspeakable is spoken: “The ark of God has been captured.”

Hophni and Phinehas reaped what they sowed. 30,000 battlefield casualties, while tragic, are outcomes of war we’ve begrudgingly learned to accept. From a faith perspective, we view it as due consequence for Israel’s arrogance. But how does faith make space for God’s defeat? How can such a Lord be regarded as reliable? Is He not in control? Does He not care?

These are familiar questions. As the marriage unravels, when there is no job to be found, when the kids are in trouble or something bad shows up in the blood work, we instinctively wonder where God can be found. Rather than 1 Samuel 4, the lectionary assigns the desert temptation of Jesus for this first Sunday of Lent. Better preachers preach this passage today and invite you to identify with Jesus. When you find yourself in life’s deserts, tested by Satan, rely upon God and his word and you, like Jesus, will prevail. Unfortunately for you, I’m not one of those better preachers. I’m not preaching about Jesus’ temptation, but if I was, I’d probably invite you to identify with the other main character in that narrative. Rather than the one being tested, I’d probably invite you to identify with the tester—for the sake of accuracy.

Don’t we put God to the test all the time? We say, “Jesus, if you are really there—if you really are God—then show yourself to be real. Help me. Get me out of my predicament. Do what I want. Fix my marriage. Find me a job. Fix my kids. Heal my disease. Repair my life. Do that and then I will believe in you. Show your power. Call forth your angels! Turn stones into bread! “He saved others,” they said, “can’t he save himself? If he’s the King of Israel, let him come down from the cross, and then we will believe.” What kind of God responds to evil and scorn by subjecting himself to it? What sort of God allows himself to be taken by his enemies as if his people’s sins were his own? C’mon Jesus. Stand up like a Messiah. Save me like you’re supposed to.

And Jesus replies, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” And then more forcefully, “Get away from me Satan.” It’s the same phrase Jesus uses to rebuke his closest friend, Peter who wanted Jesus to use his power for power’s sake. Instead of victory, heads will shake in utter disbelief as the unspeakable is spoken: “The ark of God has been captured.” “The Son of God has been crucified.”

Granted, as Easter people, we know that the defeat of Jesus is not the end of Jesus. Resurrection happens. And marriages get fixed. Jobs get found. Children come home. Diseases get healed. But even when they don’t—even with divorce and unemployment and trouble and earthquakes and nuclear radiation and poverty and hunger and death—even with all that, resurrection still happens. This is the Christian hope and this is what makes the gospel genuinely good news. When you totally and completely lose your life, that’s when, Jesus says, you find your life.

Saturday, March 12, 2011


We’re off again
with forehead freshly smeared
and spirit seared/ anew by
memories of dust, rumors of all
or nothing up ahead.
These frigid days and weeks lean
inward, huddling for warmth, and
disciplines attempt in vain
to shape them toward value, meaning,
promise. Warmth will, of course,
return bearing its customary,
temporary blossoming.
But all remains a stay of execution
till the stone is rolled, those sentries flee,
            and startled women run with aching news. 

J Barrie Shepherd

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Go Transfigure

Matthew 17:1-9
by Daniel Harrell

Alongside expected topics of significance on Twitter this past week—such as the crisis in Libya, oil prices, Justin Bieber and Charlie Sheen—the Twitterverse also lit up with a theological controversy about heaven and hell. Though nothing new as far as theological controversies go, what was new was the remarkably high volume of Twitter traffic the controversy generated. The reason, I’m sure, had something to do with the popularity of the opponents. In one corner was hipster pastor Rob Bell and his new book entitled Love Wins: A Book About Heaven and Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. In the other corner was the rock star reverend of high Reformed theology, the ever-popular John Piper. Piper joined a throng of Twitterers and bloggers who leveled scorn against Rob Bell’s apparent wade into the murky waters of universalism. Universalism holds that everybody gets to go to heaven. Sadly, the whole thing took on the ugly tenor of a heresy hunt. As one observer of the mêlée noted, “There can be no meaner, more hateful person on Earth than a Christian who suspects you have gotten your theology wrong.” Though this same observer also added that he wished his own books could draw similar contempt. The controversy rocketed Bell’s book to the top of the Amazon best-seller list and it’s not even published yet.

While not a universalist myself, I do hope and pray everybody goes to heaven. Especially given the way that Jesus describes the alternative. “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off,” he says (the same goes for your foot and eye too); “it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.” That Jesus would issue such warnings raises troubling implications for many. I remember a young man approaching me once to tell me how he was an agnostic, a non-believer basically, who had rejected Jesus because of hell. He said, “I can’t believe any God who is good would send people to burn forever.” “Yeah, we Christians struggle with that too,” I admitted. Though ironically, hell used to be more of a reason for believing in Jesus.

While hardly a concern for liberal theologians, conservatives worry that a younger generation is straying from biblical doctrine. Postmodernity is often blamed as the culprit in this shift, with its practice of deconstructionism serving as the chief troublemaker. The dictionary defines deconstructionism as “the critical analysis of language and texts that emphasizes internal workings, meanings and assumptions” rather than authorial intent. Popularized in the 1960s by French philosopher Jacques Derrida, he defined it as “affirmation rather than questioning, but in a sense which is not positive; [since you] distinguish between the positive, or positions, and affirmations leaving deconstruction affirmative rather than inquisitive” … all of which hopefully makes more sense in French.

Deconstruction is also blamed for greasing society’s skids toward relativism. Detractors argue that deconstruction dismantles Absolute Truth; and in some ways they are right. Though more than dismantling Absolute Truth (which by definition would be un-de-construct-able), postmodernists take aim at the human capacity for absolute knowledge. It’s one thing to say there is absolute truth. It’s another thing to say I absolutely know it. The difference is between that of “having faith” and “being sure.” To have faith is to believe you cannot know everything for sure, while to be sure is to believe that you know everything. As Brian so ably put it last Sunday, having faith has to do with questioning what you believe while continuing to believe what you question.

I once attended an interesting lecture at Villanova University entitled “What Would Jesus Deconstruct?” The lecturer simplified deconstruction as basically two steps. Step One takes on a commonly held assumption by reversing it (we call this being ironic). Jesus said, “You have heard it taught, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” The commonly held assumption was that the Levitical injunction to “love your neighbor” allowed for a boundary line whereby hating an enemy could be condoned. Arbitrarily define the notion of “neighbor,” and you’re free to love and hate whom you want. Jesus deconstructed this power move first by reversing the assumption: “I tell you,” he said, “Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors.” The second step goes deeper by exposing the irony itself as ironic. Jesus took step two when he went on to say, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” The irony of the irony was that the crowd to whom Jesus spoke presumed they were already sons of their Father in heaven. But by exposing the way they hated evil and unrighteous people (in contrast to their Father in heaven), Jesus exposed the inherent instability of their assumptions. He deconstructed them.

What I find interesting, however, is how often Jesus deconstructed himself. The crowds consistently projected onto Jesus their own wants and wishes of what a Messiah should be like—a revolutionary prophet, a nationalist political leader, a conquering King, an invincible Superman, a doting universalist, a sovereign predestinator. We do this still. Democrats portray Jesus with progressive values, Republicans have him as a conservative. Jesus comes off as a radical for the radicals, a corporate CEO for business types, a university professor for academic types. Rob Bell’s Jesus sounds a lot like Rob Bell, while John Piper’s is a lot like John Piper. Asked to describe Jesus in your own words, and chances are that your description wouldn’t be a long shot from how you see yourself—with your same priorities and values and friends and enemies—all the while assuming that it is you who resemble Jesus rather than the other way around.

In order to set matters straight, the Lectionary reading, appropriate for this last Sunday of Epiphany, has Jesus escorting disciples Peter, James and John up a mountain for an epiphany. Upon reaching the peak, Matthew writes that Jesus was transfigured. “His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light.” To be transfigured does not mean to be changed as much as it means to be unveiled or revealed. The cover came off. Jesus shone with the light of his true identity. As the Bible testifies to the light: “God is light in whom there is no darkness.”

Of course even in the Bible, any testimony must still have two witnesses, and so Moses and Elijah show up too. Setting aside how it was that the disciples recognized Moses and Elijah (I take for granted Jesus introduced them), have you ever wondered why Moses and Elijah showed up instead of say, Jeremiah and Isaiah? Or Ezekiel and Deborah? Or even David and Samuel? The reason was that unlike the others, Moses and Elijah occupy critical positions in the Biblical narrative. Both received mountaintop visions of God’s glory. Both anointed their successors, Joshua and Elisha, with divine power. Both walked across parted waters, both thwarted wicked tyrants. God promised in Deuteronomy that he would one day raise up another Savior like Moses—one who would deliver his people from the hands of oppression forever. When Elijah came along, given all the similarities to Moses, it was easy to think that Elijah was it. However Elijah left the scene prematurely (via that chariot of fire) and the anticipated salvation of Israel did not happen with him.

So you can imagine how the disciples must have felt when they saw Moses and Elijah vouch for Jesus. Peter exclaimed: “Lord! It is beautiful for us to be here. Let me put up three tents—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah. Let’s have a circus!” Perhaps Peter was trying to make up for rebuking Jesus earlier and all of that “get behind me Satan” mess. Or perhaps he was hoping to capture the moment by crafting honorary memorials to it. If these tents were actually tabernacles as the word suggests, akin to that mobile dwelling place for God used by the Israelites in the desert, then most likely Peter was thinking that Kingdom-come had finally come and that this was it.

Sure enough, like that desert experience, a cloud appeared and enveloped them and a voice thundered from heaven, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him!” Recognizing the voice had to be God’s, the disciples hit the dirt. However, the promised Savior would not be a reconstituted Moses (a national hero to deliver them from the tyrannical Romans) nor was he to be a returning Elijah (a miracle-worker who destroys your enemies with fire from heaven). Atop the mountain, Jesus is the only one who lights up. He alone shines as Son of God. Moses and Elijah stand as witnesses pointing to a humble and homeless rabbi as the Lord of Glory.

Still, you do have to wonder, if Jesus was trying to deconstruct their expectations of a superhuman Savior, was this the way to do it? Flashing power and glory as your credentials was hardly the way to disabuse expectations of invincibility or illusions of national (and even personal) grandeur. But this was only Step One. Jesus first reverses their assumptions of what power looked like. The glory of God shone bright alright, but it ironically shone in a poor and scandalized carpenter from Galilee.

Walking down the mountain, Jesus made Step Two: the irony of the irony. Having seen Jesus uncovered, these disciples would have thought Jesus wore his humble humanity as a disguise—the Lord of Glory in cheap clothes. But Jesus’ humanity was no camouflage. Jesus was fully human just as we are; truly human as we are destined to become. He walked, talked, breathed—and here’s the thing: he would die too. Jesus ordered his disciples, “Tell no one about what you’ve seen until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

Now they’d heard Jesus say before how that the Son of Man would rise (by which they must have thought would fly—superheroes do that). But this was the first time they’d heard him specifically say that the Son of Man would rise from the dead. Since when does Superman die? And not simply die, but suffer and be killed by the hands of his enemies? Jesus shines with the dark light of a crucified Savior. He saves by losing, he destroys evil by subjecting himself to it, he receives glory by giving it up. The roaring Lion of Judah is the humiliated Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world by taking the sins of the world onto himself.

This wasn’t what the disciples had assumed or expected. And it probably wasn’t what they wanted either. It wouldn’t be until after Easter, until after God burned it onto their brains at Pentecost, that they would finally get it. But even when you get it, it’s hard to get it right. Hike up the traditional site of the Transfiguration in Israel today and you’ll see they built a circus anyway. OK, it’s a church, but that only makes it worse. After the resurrection and Pentecost, Christians assumed that Jesus would be back any minute. They loved their enemies, didn’t worry, sold their possessions and took up their crosses because they expected Jesus to be back any minute. But once it became clear that Jesus wasn’t coming back as soon as they thought, expectations changed. Like those castaways on Lost, Christians began digging in for the long-haul. Instead of looking forward to Kingdom-come, it started to make more sense to build your own kingdom here. And before you knew it, the church of Jesus Christ didn’t look much like Jesus Christ anymore.

It’s still a struggle. As much as loss and love and humility and weakness remain the defining characteristics of God’s glory on earth, their ironic weight can be heavy to bear. We try to lighten the load by loading it up with our own wants and rationalizations, but irony of the irony, we end up making the load even heavier. Rather than living by faith, we crave certainty and thereby craft a faith so sure that no room for real faith remains. We’ll emphatically declare, “I know God would never cause disaster to strike,” or “I know God would never allow evil people to triumph” or “I know God would never make me poor or unhappy” or “I know God would never have me suffer,” or “I know that God would never condemn people to hell” no matter that in Scripture God in fact does all these things. And then when disaster strikes or evil wins or suffering happens, our structured faith crumbles under the weight because our faith was never in Jesus but in ourselves, in the Jesus we’ve made up in our minds.

I like an analogy from premarital counseling. When counseling couples who want to get married, I’ll sometimes ask what brought them to make this enormous decision. How did you decide to marry this person with whom you will promise to spend the rest of your life? Looking dreamily into the eyes of the other, the couple will usually say, “you just know.” Of course as romantic as that always sounds, any married person will tell you it’s completely bogus. Once you’re married it always turns out you didn’t know squat. This is not a bad thing, but it is a sad reason so many couples choose not to marry. They couldn’t be sure. and unless you can know everything, you can’t trust anything.

There’s an old fashioned term that people used to use about marriage: betrothal. Betroth means to “pledge trust.” Troth, like trust, is not a move of certainty, but a move of faith. This is why the marriage ceremony intentionally asks not “do you love” but “will you love each other as long as you both shall live?” It’s the same with our relationship to Jesus. The question is not “do you trust,” but “will you trust, for better or worse, no matter what?”

In Mark’s account of Jesus’ arrest, all the disciples lost faith and fled. The only person who stuck around was this mysterious young man who was strangely wearing nothing but a linen sheet. “He was following Jesus,” Mark tells us, while everyone else was running away. As the young man was following Jesus, “the mob tried to grab him.” They were unable to hold onto him though. Mark writes: “he left the linen cloth and escaped naked.” Many scholars presume the young man to be Mark himself, inserted here by the author as some sort of personal signature (albeit a weird one). More likely, I think, Mark is granting us a literary preview of Easter. The chief priests and religious teachers make a grab for Jesus, but in the end he eludes them, leaving behind only his linen burial cloth. Yet as a literary device, the naked young man also serves as a commentary on trust. Far from keeping you safe, following Jesus strips you naked.

Stripped naked we’re left vulnerable and exposed; fully uncovered. And yet Jesus fully uncovers us not to shame us, but to embrace us. It’s a hard place that we all want to be. Open and vulnerable, no pretending or pretense, needing to trust, wanting to love and believe and be loved. Jesus does that. The real Jesus rather than some silly Superman who, ironically, can only fail and disappoint you over and over again.