Not the Jesus I know: thoughts upon having the Hell scared out of me

“Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?”

The young man took my hand in a gesture of friendship as we stood next to one another in the middle school auditorium. All around us, other pairs of strangers asked one another the same question.

We had just finished watching a performance of “Heaven’s Gates and Hell’s Flames,” a travelling evangelical road show that has been touring the world for over thirty years. The play consists of a series of vignettes acted out by local volunteers. In each scene, an individual achieves or fails to achieve salvation before dying abruptly, by violence, accident, or overdose. Those who succeed ascend to a glittery silver-lame heaven, where they are greeted by Jesus. Those who fail get dragged off into the flames of hell by Satan, who in this production bears a striking resemblance to Darth Maul.

The entire production is designed to scare the hell out of you, literally.

In this particular performance, the saved include an American soldier, a battered spouse, a bullied teen, a church-going family, and a pair of construction workers. The damned include a drug abuser, a murderer, a porn fan, and a working mom too busy to attend church.  Are skipping church and murder really comparable in the eyes of God?  Maybe; for as the playwright frequently reminds us, it is not on the basis of our good or bad behavior that we are judged, but solely on whether we have accepted Jesus as our personal savior.

Hence the question.

The young man asked with such evident kindness that I smiled and replied, “Yes.” He smiled back, but I felt a twinge of pain at my well-mannered dishonesty. I had told the truth, but not the whole truth. A more honest answer would have gone something like this: “Yes, I know Jesus. But if you are asking about the figure I saw depicted here tonight: No, I do not know him. This is not the Jesus I know.”

Before I proceed, I would like to make clear that my comments here are in no way meant to be critical of my many neighbors who appeared on stage last night. I could tell that they were earnest in their desire to serve, and to save. There was both faith and talent on stage; and I appreciated the joyful exuberance of the play’s Jesus, as he sprinted on stage, newly liberated from the tomb. My issue is not with the actor’s interpretation of Jesus, but with the playwright’s interpretation of Jesus.

First of all, the Jesus of Heaven’s Gates is oddly passive; after that initial joyful sprint, he is pretty much confined to heaven, aka backstage. He appears at the top of the stairway to paradise, to embrace those prudent souls who are saved; but he is notably absent when the damned are dragged off screaming into hell. At these moments, it is the devil alone who commands center stage, as projected flames flicker on a large screen.

I find myself fighting the urge to shout at the stage: WHERE IS JESUS? I am left wondering: is he deliberately absent, or just powerless before the devil? He is always in the wings, never a witness to the torture. The stage directions preserve plausible deniability, and we are never permitted to question him directly.

Indeed, the Jesus of this play has apparently been silenced by death; he is given no dialogue. If he were allowed to speak, what might he say about these terrifying scenes? I found myself imagining the play’s Jesus suddenly shouting out, interrupting the script with his own words from the gospels: Not everyone who calls me ‘Lord’ will enter heaven, but everyone who does the will of God…Whatever you do for the least of God’s children, you do for me… Those who seek to save their own life will lose it… Do not be afraid! Instead, a silent Jesus appears only briefly before being whisked backstage again behind the silver lame curtains – like a hostage trotted in front of the cameras but not allowed to speak for himself for fear that he would denounce his captors’ beliefs.

The ultimate power in Heaven’s Gates is neither Jesus nor Satan but rather the “book of life,” a magical tome in which the names of the saved are inscribed, at the exact minute when they first pledge themselves to Jesus. The playwright evidently gets this idea from the visions of John of Patmos in the book of Revelation, because as far as we know, Jesus himself never spoke of such a book. Yet in the play, the book looms large, overshadowing the testimony of the four gospels or the letters of the apostles – including the letters of John, who wrote that whoever lives in love lives in God, and the letters of Paul, who wrote that nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ. Not even a silver lame curtain.

In the world of Heaven’s Gate, prudence is the primary Christian virtue. The most important thing is to get in the book in a timely manner, so as to avoid personal catastrophe in the event of unforeseen demise. Faith is sold as a form of personal hell insurance, and the only unforgivable sin is to be caught unprepared.

But surely it is not prudence, but love, that is the key to eternal life? Extravagant, unconditional love, love for enemies as well as friends, love for sinners as well as saints, love for neighbor as well as self, love for strangers as well as siblings? Fearless, imprudent love?

In one of the play’s more harrowing scenes, a young woman dies of an accidental drug overdose. When she appears at the gates of heaven, she is denied entrance. Remembering her late father’s faith, she cries out in terror for him to help her – Dad, I’m scared! Dad, help me! – but her father never appears. He is apparently too busy enjoying heaven, to be concerned about his daughter’s fate.

As I watched the scene, one phrase repeated itself in my head: how much more. It is a phrase that Jesus used more than once, to describe the love of God. As in: if you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your father in heaven give good things to those who ask?

And so as I watched the actors, I found myself thinking, if we, who are merely human, love our children — even when they make mistakes, even when they rebel against us, even when they fall into addiction  — how much more must God love them? If a parent’s love for their child can continue, even after the child’s death, how much more must God continue to love them? If the resurrection means anything, it means that death is no obstacle to God’s love.

So, yes, I know Jesus. He’s the one who loved us all the way to hell and back again.

Photo: Petr Kratochvil

Eppur si Muove (or, the Gospel According to Galileo)

“Who will roll away the stone for us?” (Mark 16:1-8)

They were the witnesses, these women who came to the tomb on Easter morning. When the other disciples turned and fled, these were the ones who remained to the very end, to bear witness to Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. How long would it be before those images stopped crowding out all the others? How long would it be, until they could think of Jesus and remember him in life, instead of in death?

Only a few days have passed.  These women are still in those first numb, surreal days of grief, when the heart struggles to absorb what the eyes have seen.  And so, as people do at such times, they take comfort in the rituals of mourning.  It makes them feel less alone. It gives them something to do. And so early on Sunday morning, they go together to the tomb. They are going to anoint Jesus’ body for burial. They know that, after this, there will be nothing more they can do for him; but this morning, they are going to care for him, one last time.

But there is an obstacle to overcome. Who will roll away the stone for us? they ask. Who will clear away the barrier that seals Jesus in, and keeps us out? For it is very large.

As large as barrier between the dead and the living.

But they come to the tomb and find, to their surprise, that the task has already been accomplished.  Someone, or something, has already rolled away the stone. A mysterious stranger at the tomb tells them Jesus has gone on ahead of them, to Galilee. Not only has the stone rolled away; Jesus himself is on the move.

So, who did roll away the stone? How did it move? We don’t know. We never see it happen, have you noticed that?  It’s not a part of Mark’s gospel – or Matthew’s or John’s. All we know, is that the rock is there on Friday, and gone on Sunday, but no one sees it move. Luke speaks of an earthquake, and of angels, but no one else seems to remember that, so it seems likely that Luke is just guessing.

We just assume that it happened. But no one else was at the tomb when it happened.

Did it suddenly burst open, raising up dust and startling the birds? Or did it move so slowly and imperceptibly, that no one passing by noticed its motion? We don’t know. Did Jesus himself rise, and put his shoulder to the rock? Or was it moved by the hands of angels? Did those angels look just like us?

All we know is we arrive there on Easter morning, and the stone is already gone.  While we are still sleeping, still grieving, still despairing, God is already changing the landscape.

The gospel of Mark ends abruptly at this point. The other gospels tell how Mary saw Jesus in the garden, how Peter ran to the tomb, how Jesus appeared to the other apostles. But Mark tells us just this: that the women ran away and told no one, for they were afraid.

What were they afraid of? These were not easily frightened women. These were the ones who stayed the course, even when the men in Jesus’ company fled.  These were the ones who had faced the cross, and marked the tomb, and returned to honor the body of a man that the Roman authorities viewed as a dangerous subversive. They were not a timid crew. So what were they afraid of?

Were they afraid that no one would believe their witness? After all, they were women. It wouldn’t be the first or the last time a woman’s witness was discredited.

Or maybe they were afraid to believe it themselves. They had witnessed the shattering of their hopes, when the stone sealed the tomb. Maybe it was too much for them to absorb the shattering of their despair, when the stone rolled away.

And there, after all, something reassuring about immobility. The stones in our path are reliable landmarks. They tell us where we are. They define where we can go. They divide what’s on this side, from what’s on that side; what’s possible, from what’s not.  When the very stones start rolling away, when the earth itself begins to move, well, anything is possible. All hell can break loose. Literally, in this case.

Sixteen centuries after that first Easter, Galileo Galilei was condemned by the Church for daring to suggest that the earth moved around the sun, rather than the other way around. He was forced to recant on his knees, but there is a legend that as he rose to his feet afterward he whispered, “eppur si muove” – “nevertheless, it moves!”

Whether we know it or not, it moves. Whether we like it or not, it moves. The very thing that we thought was immobile, impassible, impervious to change — it moves.

It moves, and all those beliefs we thought were set in stone, move with it. All of our assumptions, about life and death, about victory and defeat, about power and weakness – they all begin to crumble.

After all, those who condemned and executed Jesus were confident in their belief that God was on their side of that stone. And those who mourned him believed that he was on the far side of the stone, and lost to them forever. Neither group considered that the stone itself might move.

Neither group suspected that God’s version of the story might end, not in death for some and life for others, not in triumph for some and defeat for others, but in reconciliation. The reunion of the condemning and the condemned.

I think many of us — maybe most of us, lately — live in a pre-resurrection world, a world of impenetrable barriers and insurmountable obstacles. We have all seen enough crucifixion lately to believe in Good Friday, and we know just how large the stones are that separate us from one another.

And so we find ourselves living in that time in between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, when the world seems permanently divided — between the winners and the losers, between the privileged and the poor, between the insider and the outcast. When find ourselves on the sunny side of the stone, it is still tempting to believe that God is on our side. And when we find ourselves in buried in darkness, we wonder if God has abandoned us forever.

But it was on that long bleak Saturday, on that day between Good Friday and Easter, that the rock began to move, and the world began to turn. And so it is today. Whether we know it or not – whether we believe it or not – even in the darkness, Love can still find the leverage to roll that stone away.

Just how that will happen, we may not be able to see right now. Perhaps God will send angels. Perhaps those angels, will look just like us.

But know this: that even now, God is at work to change the landscape.

Eppur si muove.

Alleluia.

 

Easter Sunday Sermon by Liza B. Knapp for the First Church of Deerfield, Massachusetts.

(photo: Wikimedia. One of the sliding rocks of Racetrack Playa. Read more about this wicked cool phenomenon here.)

The Stones Cry Out

I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out. (Luke 18:28-48)

This is the day that will seal his fate.

He does not enter the city quietly. He does not try to blend in with the crowds. Instead, he makes an entrance, much as a military general might enter in triumph, riding upon a his steed, surrounded by loyal soldiers, greeted by a cheering crowd.

But his ride is no war horse, and his disciples are no army. Their only power, is the power of their testimony. Luke tells us that as Jesus came into the city from the Mount of Olives, “the whole multitude of his disciples began to praise God with a loud voice, rejoicing for all the deeds of power they had seen.”

That loud voice is their only weapon. But it is threatening enough, to the powers that be.

Those words — blessed is the King who comes in the name of God – are enough to convict Jesus and his disciples as enemies of the state. No wonder the Pharisees in the crowd urge Jesus to silence his disciples. After all, they know how the Romans deal with public dissent. They have seen the crosses before.

And so the Pharisees say, Teacher, order your disciples to stop! But Jesus replies:

Were they to be silenced, the stones would cry out.

**

I used to imagine that this as a something miraculous and joyful – maybe loud, rocky clapping, or a ringing of bells – the sound of creation itself bearing witness to the presence of God.

I used to imagine it that way, but now, I’m not so sure.

Luke doesn’t say, the stones will shout for joy – although some Bibles translate it that way. Luke says, the stones will cry out. It’s the same Greek verb that Luke uses for the blind man, who cries out to Jesus for healing. It’s the same verb Luke uses for the possessed man, who cries out to Jesus for deliverance. They cry out, save us.

Which, by the way, is the meaning of the word Hosanna.

Jesus speaks of the stones again, in his very next words. Jerusalem, he says, if only you knew the things that make for peace.  But the days will come upon you, when your enemies will surround you, and crush you, and there will not be one stone left upon another.

Is it then, I wonder, that the stones will cry out?

**

Palm Sunday is one of those holy days that move around from year to year. Like Passover, and Ramadan, and Easter, it falls on different calendar dates in different years.

In the year 2011, Palm Sunday fell on April 17th.  It was on that date, in the year 2011, that a group of peaceful protestors gathered outside their mosque in the city of Homs, in western Syria. They were calling for an end to nearly five decades of martial law. They carried no weapons, except their voices. But their voices were threatening enough, to the powers that be. They were met with a rain of bullets that killed twenty five people.

The next day, more protestors filled the streets. One of them told a news reporter: ‘I am forty-five years old, and this is the first time in my life that I have broken the barrier of my silence.’  

For weeks, the protests continued — but so did the gunfire, until eventually the protesters took arms themselves, and the government responded by laying siege to the city, and bombarding it with artillery.

On Palm Sunday, in the year 2011, Homs was a city of 1.4 million people. Today there are less than half that many living there. Drone footage over the city shows block after block after block of walls ripped off, roofs collapsed, rubble littering the streets. In the oldest part of the city, there’s barely a single intact building. There are just stones.

But the stones still cry out. More forcefully and more eloquently than any words, the stones bear witness to the injustice done there.

The people who took to the streets of Homs on that Palm Sunday took the same leap of faith that Jesus and his disciples took on the very first Palm Sunday, nearly 2000 years ago. Speaking truth to power is never without risk.  The cross, the tear gas, the fire hoses, the bullets, the bombs — the tools of empire may change, but the rationale is the same. Then as now, the oppressor offers a choice: silence, or violence.

But then as now, the words of Christ ring true: Your violence cannot hide the truth, for God is our witness. Silence these voices, and the very stones will cry out.

***

Today it is Palm Sunday, when Jesus and his disciples take to the streets, shouting Hosanna. By the end of this week the disciples will have been driven into hiding, and Jesus himself will be dead and buried, beneath the rock. Yet even then, the stone will have its say.

But that is a story for next Sunday.

Today it is Palm Sunday, when the streets ring with the voices of those who will be silent no longer.  And we cry out with them, for this is our work this day: to find our voice, to speak our truth, to risk the cross for freedom’s sake. To take the step that may seal our fate.

Let us bravely cry Hosanna today, so that in the fullness of time, we may shout Alleluia when the stones at last roll away.

 

 

Sermon by Liza B. Knapp at First Church of Deerfield, MA, on April 9, 2017

Photo: Destruction in Homs (20120, photo by Bo Yaser. Published on Wikimedia Commons.

Matthew 5:45

The man stood on the mountainside
and turned to face the crowd.

Son of Man —
Child of Earth —
speak to us of God.

Whom shall God bless with warmth and sun?
On whom shall sweet rain fall?

On every one, both good and bad,
for God so loves us all.

Whom shall God curse with plague and storm,
with fire, and with flood?

I came to save, the stranger said —
It’s you that call for blood.

 

 

Love and Anarchy

Yes, love is free; it can dwell in no other atmosphere. In freedom it gives itself unreservedly, abundantly, completely. All the laws on the statutes, all the courts in the universe, cannot tear it from the soil, once love has taken root.–Emma Goldman

You wouldn’t think that Saint Valentine and Emma Goldman would have a whole lot in common. Saint Valentine, after all, was a 3rd century Christian priest, while Emma Goldman was a 20th century Jewish anarchist. Valentine gave his life in support of Christian marriage, while Goldman was an advocate of free love unfettered by marriage. And yet when it came to love, they agreed about one thing: Love cannot be legislated. We can neither be forbidden, nor forced, to love.

It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame.
Many waters cannot quench love;

rivers cannot sweep it away.
(
Song of Songs 8:6-7)

In Valentine’s day, the emperor Claudius forbid soldiers to marry, just as the state of Alabama would later forbid interracial couples to marry, just as the US Congress would later forbid same-sex couples to marry. But in each case, there was absolutely nothing the state could do to prevent them from falling in love. As songwriter Holly Near puts it, “Kids are gonna love who they damn well please.”

The love we are speaking of here is passionate, sensual love, the love shared by lovers. There are of course, other kinds of love: love among friends, love among family. The ancient Greek language had different words for each: Eros, Philios, Storge. They are not wholly separate things, of course — lovers start families, friends become lovers – but there is a different quality to each. Both state and the church typically endorse and encourage familial love and friendship; but Eros – that one’s a troublemaker.

The Christian church has never really known what to do about Eros. It is never mentioned in the New Testament, although it is rapturously and lyrically celebrated in the Song of Songs. Jesus remained silent on the subject; the apostle Paul was famously celibate and urged others to follow his example. The church has historically been conflicted as to whether sexuality was a blessing or a curse. For this we can perhaps partly blame Saint Augustine, who came up with the idea that Original Sin was somehow passed on to each generation via sexual reproduction.

Yet here in the Bible we find the Song of Songs, these lush verses of scripture, extolling Eros – sensual, passionate Eros – in metaphors so sexually charged that the book would doubtless have been banned by some well-meaning school board, had it not been, you know, sacred.

Jesus did speak constantly of Love, exhorting us to love our neighbors, to love God, to love our enemies, even, but the love he spoke of was not romantic love, but unconditional love – not Eros, but Agape. The love of God, the Love that is God – that’s Agape.

Yet Eros, too, is a form of love, and bears the marks of divinity (as CS Lewis once said).

The love between lovers awakens us to beauty. It gives birth to joy and gratitude. It stirs us to generosity and tenderness. In this, it is like that Love which is God.

Love blesses that which the state condemns. It permits that which the law prohibits. It unites that which society divides. In this, too, it is like that Love which is God.

As Valentine and Goldman both knew, Love does not follow the rules. It does not stay within the lines. Love can blossom between black and white, Jew and Gentile, Arab and Israeli, native and immigrant, Muslim and Christian, Montague and Capulet. There is an element of anarchy in Love. Love is a law unto itself.

Jesus understood this, for he told his disciples that love of God and love of neighbor was the sum total of the law. Saint Paul, that confirmed old bachelor that he was, understood this also. Even Augustine of Hippo – yes, the same Saint Augustine that I just blamed for that whole Original Sin thing –even Augustine knew this to be true. Augustine lived with a woman for many years, had a child with her, but never married her, because his mother forbid what she saw as an “unsuitable” match. One wonders what might have happened, had Augustine met Valentine.

Years later, Augustine preached this sermon:

Once and for all, I give you this one short command: love, and do what you will… Let the root of love be in you: nothing can spring from it but good.

And so, beloved, let these words be our benediction and our charge this day:

Love, and do what you will.

Both Emma and Valentine would agree.

 

by Liza B. Knapp, for February 12, 2017, ‘Love Sunday’ at First Church of Deerfield, MA

image credits:
Emma Goldman photo by Chicago Daily Tribune, September 8, 1901 – Life and Conflict in the New World, Emma Goldman Papers, UC Berkeley, Public Domain.
Saint Valentine window cc.Flickr.TheRevSteve

 

MLK Day Prayer

Still-speaking God:
We give thanks to you
for the prophets of the past,
but we confess:
your modern-day messengers
make us uncomfortable.
Forgive us, God, and disturb us.
Send your Spirit among us,
that we may hear your Word for us,
in the words of our scripture,
in the whispers of our hearts
in the warnings of your prophets,
and in the weeping of the world.

Not Joseph’s Son

The Common Cuckoo is a migratory bird found throughout much of Europe and Asia. It is less known for its appearance than for its call, made famous in songs, carols and countless cuckoo clocks. The cuckoo is famous also for its distinctive reproductive ecology: it is a notorious “brood parasite’ – meaning that it lays its eggs in the nests of other birds.

A female cuckoo watches a nest until its rightful occupants are occupied elsewhere, and then flies down and lays her eggs. Most species of birds are too dim-witted to notice that this new egg is not theirs, and so they incubate the cuckoo’s egg along with their own. But cuckoo eggs are fast incubators; the young cuckoo typically hatches before its foster siblings, and its first action is to push their eggs out of the nest. The unsuspecting foster parents feed and raise the cuckoo’s chick as their own, and the biological parents are spared all that effort.

It is from the habits of the cuckoo that we get the Old English word cuckold, meaning a man whose wife has been unfaithful, and who – perhaps unwittingly – raises another man’s offspring as his own. It was, and is, a pejorative term. It was a favorite insult of Shakespeare’s, appearing in new fewer than fifteen of his plays.

Most of us have probably never hurled this particular insult at anyone, but in the past decade the insult has had a resurgence within the alt-right and white supremacist movements. Their blogs and tweets are full of references to cuckolds — or “cucks,” for short. In alt-right parlance, a “cuck” is any man who apologizes, compromises, hor in any way puts another’s interest ahead of his own. While there are numerous alt-right slurs for women and minorities, the most shameful insult they can hurl at a straight, white male, is to call him a “cuck.”

It is in this context, that I invite you to consider the story of Joseph.

Here we have a young man on the threshold of marriage, to a young woman named Mary. He is filled with expectation for the start of their life together. But before their wedding day, he discovers that Mary is pregnant — and not with his child.

A first-century Jewish betrothal was more binding than a modern-day engagement. A betrothed woman who had sex with another man was guilty of adultery, a crime that brought shame, not only upon her but upon her entire community, and especially upon her husband. According to the Torah, an adulterous woman was to be stoned to death, in order to purge the evil – the shame – from her people.  Joseph would have been within his rights to carry out such an honor killing.

And yet, Joseph pardons Mary. Not only that – he marries her, and raises her firstborn as his own.

So we must ask ourselves:

Is Joseph a saint, or just a cuck?

Matthew tells us that an angel came to Joseph in a dream. Not in a blinding flash of light, as Joseph was walking home from his carpenter’s shop. Not as a loud voice, booming from the clouds. In a dream.  This was an intimate, personal communication, seeping in through Joseph’s unconscious as he lay sleeping. This was his inner angel, the voice of God within. Upon awakening, Joseph still had a choice to make.  Would he believe this dream? Would he follow this angel within?

The angel tells Joseph: Do not be afraid, to take Mary as your wife.

Joseph’s dream affirms for him that his reluctance to put Mary to shame is not a sign of weakness, but of courage. It takes courage, to choose compassion. It takes courage, to risk ridicule and accept insult. It takes courage, to listen to the angel within, when you are the only one to hear it.

Do not be afraid. In a culture that shames forgiveness, tenderness demands fearlessness.

A friend of mine, a devoted father of twins, once wondered aloud to me why it is that there are so few nativity scenes in which Joseph is holding the baby. Joseph is so often depicted standing off to the side, reduced to an ineffectual bystander.

Yet, alone in the stable, far from home, who was there to help with the birth, besides Joseph?  Who was there to hold the baby, while Mary slept? Joseph was Mary’s midwife. The first hands to cradle Jesus, would have been Joseph’s.

And holding this newborn stranger, Joseph knows at last the truth of all that the angel told him: that this child is indeed a blessing, that he himself is blessed to be his parent – not by biology, but by love. And in that moment, Joseph becomes a saint indeed: the patron saint of male tenderness.

He is the patron saint of all men who love and care for children – including children who do not share their DNA. He is the patron saint of all men who understand that their honor depends on their own choices, not their ability to control others.He  is the patron saint of all men who choose forgiveness over vengeance, and second chances over judgment.

Joseph is the patron saint of Gentle Men, everywhere.

God rest you merry, gentle men. Let nothing you dismay. Remember Christ our savior was born on Christmas day – into the hands of his father, Joseph, who had the courage to listen to a dream, and love shamelessly.

(sermon by Liza B. Knapp for Belchertown United Church of Christ, December 18, 2016)

(photo: Joseph holding Jesus, from a Georgia church. CNS photo / Michael Alexander)

Were you expecting someone else?

There is no due process here, no habeas corpus. No official charges will ever be made, and no public defender will ever be assigned. There is nothing for John to do but wait.

And as he waits, he wonders. He wonders what will become of his movement. He wonders what will become of him. He wonders, perhaps, if the kingdom of heaven is really as near as he told them.

But then he remembers his cousin Jesus, who came to be baptized in the Jordan. And he wonders, if this Jesus might be the One to come after him, the One who will fulfill the promises John merely proclaimed. And so John sends his disciples to ask The Question:

Are you the One who is to come, or are we to wait for another?

It’s a funny question for John to ask.You’d think John, of all people, would recognize the messiah. After all, he was the one who told everyone that he was coming, the one of whom is was prophesied, Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead, to prepare the way before me. If John was the one who sent out the invitations, how is that he can’t recognize the guest of honor when he arrives?

**

Some of you may have heard the story of Tamika Cross, a young, African-American medical doctor who was on a flight from Detroit to Houston when one of her fellow passengers lost consciousness. When the flight attendant asked if there was a doctor on board, Dr. Cross immediately raised a hand, but as she began to rise the attendant told her: “Oh no, sweetie, put your hand down, we are looking for an actual physician.”

At that moment another passenger came forward – someone older, whiter, and male – and the attendant told Dr. Cross, “thank you for your help, but he can help us.”

My point is, that sometimes our preconceptions make it hard to recognize that the person right in front of us is the person we have been waiting for.

**

So anyway: John’s disciples come to Jesus, and ask: are you the One who is to come, or are we to wait for another?

And Jesus replies: Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers* are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.

That answer is classic Jesus.

John asks Jesus a straightforward, either/or, yes-or-no question, but Jesus, as usual, throws it right back at him. Judge for yourself, Jesus says. You’ve heard the stories about me. Is this what you’ve been waiting for, or not?

The answer, of course, depends as much on John as it does on Jesus.

Just what sort of Messiah, is John waiting for? What sort of savior was he envisioning? Was he expecting a charismatic prophet like Elijah, who would bring back that old time religion, with all of its rules and regulations? Was he expecting an avenging liberator like Moses, who would call plagues down upon those who had enslaved his people? Was he expecting a military leader like David, who would drive out the foreigners and make Israel great again?

John may have prepared the way for Jesus; but was he really prepared for this unlikely physician, this itinerant healer who shunned all power but love, and all arms but truth?

John asks Jesus, Are you the One we are waiting for? And Jesus replies, You tell me. Am I?

**

So what about us? Who are we waiting for this Advent season?

It is easy to be a Christian in the weeks before Christmas. It is easy to share in the anticipation of Advent, as we await the arrival of the baby in the manger. But what happens when the baby arrives? There is an element of surprise in every birth. You never really know, just who it is you are waiting for. Just what sort of baby, what sort of child, what sort of adult will this particular human being, this long-awaited human Son of Man, turn out to be?

It’s easy to be hopeful on Christmas Eve, when the packages are still unopened and full of promise, when Santa may yet arrive with the very thing we wished for. But what happens when we open the package? Are we ready for what we will find inside?

Are we ready for this unlikely physician, this Jesus who makes the blind to see and the deaf to hear, who preaches good news to the poor but sends the rich away empty, who embraces the outcasts and welcomes the stranger, who chastises the pious and forgives the sinner? Are we ready for this Jesus, this imprisoned, crucified and risen messiah?

Or are we expecting someone else?

My friends, this is Advent, the season of expectation. And so like John, we ask: Are you the One we are waiting for? And Jesus replies:

You tell me. Am I?

 

Thoughts Upon Going to Hell

Then I came to the story of the passion, and when I read Jesus’ death cry, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” I knew with certainty: this is someone who understands you… This was the divine brother in distress, who takes the prisoners with him on his way to resurrection. — Jurgen Moltmann

As I walked this morning from my home to my customary coffee shop, I was brought up short by a voice. The voice came from above, its source invisible. It said, with perfect clarity, “Go to hell!”

It was not the voice of God, but presumably the voice of one of the residents of the multi-story apartment building I was passing at the time. The voice of a human woman, overcome with helpless fury. 

Wondering to whom she was speaking, I scanned the sidewalk ahead. I saw only two people: a thirty-ish man feeding his parking meter, and an elderly, white-haired woman preparing to cross the street. Both were clearly just passersby, like myself. With no singular target in sight, I could not help but feel that we were somehow all the targets of the curse issued from above. 

This particular morning, I was feeling blessed, not cursed, and my first impulse was to scatter some of that blessing. The old woman was already crossing the street and too far ahead to catch, but as I passed the guy at the parking meter I smiled and said, “I don’t know who just said that, but don’t go to hell, okay?” He grinned back. “You heard that all the way down the block?” 

But I couldn’t figure out how to get that blessing to the person who really needed it.  Because it seems pretty clear that one who most needed blessing was not the guy on the street, but the woman who shouted so angrily from above. Anyone who, shouts “Go to hell!” with such venom, is probably already living there. This, I think, is the very function of a curse: it is an attempt to pull the other down into hell with us.  

I run in fairly well-behaved circles and I have seldom had anyone tell me to go to hell. I have, however, heard many people proclaim in public that people like me are going to hell. These people like to phrase this as a statement of fact, a cautionary warning for my own benefit. But really, this is just a polite way of telling someone to go to hell. If you tell me that God will send me to hell — that your God will send me to hell — how is this not your will as well? 

These words can sink in after a while. They start to seem true. They start to seem true, because this is the function of a curse: to pull another down into our own hell of judgment. Curse someone enough, and they just may believe themselves cursed — and that is hell. I’ve been there.

So I tell everyone: if you hear someone telling you to go to hell, do not be afraid. It is not the voice of God. After all, the powers that be told Jesus to go to hell. They even crucified him, just to make sure. And what happened? He broke open the gates, and took the prisoners with him, on the way to resurrection.

When you hear someone telling you to go to hell, remember they are already there. Don’t let them pull you in; pull them out instead.

(Featured image: Gerolamo di Romano called Romanino, “Descent of Christ to Limbo” (detail of Christ helping Adam to rise), 1533-34, affresco, Church of Santa Maria della Neve, Pisogne (BS), Italy. Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

Psalm 150

Praise God in his sanctuary;

praise him in the banquet hall and night club.

Praise God for his mighty acts;

praise him according to his virtuoso sets.

Praise God with the sound of the trumpet;

praise him with the clarinet and sax.

Praise God with the hokey pokey and fox trot;

praise him with the bass and baby grand.

Praise God upon the loud cymbals;

praise him with the high hat and snare drum.

Let everything with a beat,

praise the Lord.

Amen.

(in memory of Raymond “Dutch” Wolff, 1925-2016)

(‘Saxophone’, Image by schuetz-mediendesign, Public Domain via Pixabay)