Witness to Love

Sermon for Chicago Community Mennonite Church

Good Morning,

It is good to be back with you this morning after an absence that is longer than I’d like. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, and I guess that’s the case in the relationship between the licensed theologian and his congregation. It’s not that I’ve lacked for good church; the community in Ann Arbor that Susan and I frequent and have become involved in is a solid good group. And I’ve found that playing in the chapel band at Bluffton has given me a connection to the worship that happens in that space that is deeper than in my first six years there. If it sounds like i’m romanticizing my relationship to you a little bit, well, that’s exactly right. For, like someone who reflects on his first kiss, I have fond memories of how you have taught and continue to teach me how to love.

Soon I want to spend some time reflecting on how EB will teach us and be taught love here. But first let me share, as an aid to memory for some, and as a story for others, two stories about intense realizations of love that I have felt in this church. The stories both end the same way and I’ll give away the ending to both up front. I end up bawling, crouched in that pose of retreat that only men who never cry assume; having been wrenched out of composure by a power which leaves me without control over anything. This happens in the middle of Sunday morning worship and no one knows what to do so people just keep on worshipping. Someone holds me, probably Susan, but in that moment I wouldn’t be able to tell you. I only know that it is a member of this congregation.

The first story happens here on a morning when we are celebrating the realization that we are a good church and that the persecution that we as a group have been receiving during some unpleasant conference meetings is not something which needs to define us. We are a church who has as its job to be the church and that means much more than defending ourselves on any particular issue. We are about welcoming, providing sanctuary, and loving each other. On that day we knew that Jesus was in God, and that we were in Jesus, and that Jesus was in us. We knew that they who have Christ’s commandments and keep them are those who love Christ; and those who love Christ will be loved by God, and Christ will love them and reveal Christself to them. I can remember a palpable sense of relief and new purpose that seized us when we decided that we could be the church even in a world, or more heartbreakingly a church, which seemed sure that we weren’t. Anyways, on that morning Joanne Zimmerly and Julia Friesen, accompanied by music, danced into the sanctuary from that door to the altar with our quilt. I didn’t recognize the quilt at first as the back, which was what we could see at first, is quite plain. But then they opened it; tentatively at first, but then in its full glory.

The brightness of the quilt struck me the heart and I started crying filled by a sense that I belonged to something so precious that only God’s grace could have brought me into it. I learned that morning that love finds a purpose in communal celebration of the possibility of being the church. That while it may not seem like it sometimes, the church really is the body of Christ. That this is a body that lives and breathes and loves and dances. This is a body that woos us, offering us a love that we do not deserve but that is nonetheless vulnerably extended like the tender embrace of new lovers. The church is a tender witness to what is possible when we love God.

The second story is a story that happens at Camp Freidenswald during the church retreat. It’s about 10 years ago. Seth Andreas-Wiebe has just been born and it is time for his dedication. It is also just after Susan and I have given birth to the shape of the knowledge of our family. That’s not a phrase that you hear very often so let me explain it.

Susan and I are unable, biologically, to have children. We, at one point, underwent a variety of fertility treatments, up to and including two in vitro fertilizations, but never accomplished a pregnancy. During the time before, during and after these treatments we sought out the wisdom and support of this congregation. We received a blessing at the beginning of these treatments, slept under the quilt while the treatments were happening, and after the treatments we had not given birth to a child, but we had given birth to knowledge of the shape of our family. We were not people who had children but we would have opportunities to build relationships with others, like my students at Bluffton for instance, in ways that could be more deliberate that people with children can. So since we had given birth the church threw us a shower. We received plants which grew outside our Chicago home, our Bluffton home and are now growing in Ann Arbor. We had a cake, chocolate, which was crumbled up, put in a flower pot with gummy worms and had a bunch of mint planted in the top. It was hard to eat but it was the perfect cake for our shower.

So, a month before, or after this shower, I’m not sure which, Seth was dedicated. Pastor Phil Waite took Seth and lifted him up and I saw him shining in the light that was pouring in the big windows of the A-Frame at Freidenswald, which is incidentally the same space that Susan and I were married 17 and a half years ago.

The brightness of Seth’s skin struck me to the heart and I started crying filled both by the sadness that my child would never be held up in the same way, but also by a sense that I belonged to something so precious that only God’s grace could have brought me into it. I learned that the love a congregation shows its members can transform itself fitting each person in ways that are best suited to that person. This is a body that is made up of many different parts and at its best knows that about itself. We don’t always succeed at doing this but in moments when we can value the birth of babies and knowledge in the same way we offer people a love that is deserved but rarely found in a world that values certain types people, certain types of knowledge, and certain types of love more than others. Very different things become the same when God is the author of our love. Or perhaps put better, very different things are authored by the same God through love. The church is a bold, bright witness to what is possible when we love God.

This is at least part of what Paul is after at the Aeropagus when he connects worship of an unknown God to the God of Abraham, Esau, Rahab, and Ruth. Paul asks the Romans to rewrite their history in today’s scripture passage. The God that they have thought of as unknown he now wants to make known. Paul’s suggestion is revolutionary. The world that the Romans have known is turned upside down. Each of the stories I am telling you this morning are revolutionary in this way.

Seth’s dedication brings me to the dedication that we have just witnessed. What kind of love is EB learning this morning.

EB? What is your idea of love?

Do you know it as the unfurling of a quilt? As the shining of skin?

Probably not. And this is appropriate. The stories that I’ve told this morning are crucial stories in my understanding of what love is, but they are my stories. They are woven into my particular life and make up my particular understanding of what love is.

EB you are a month old. Love consists mostly in feeding and related events, perhaps in the gentle rotation of a black and white mobile. You do learn something about love today, at minimum, and however fleetingly, you learn today that this room is a place where your parents might give over your care to other people. (You learn this in a bodily posture that is identical to the bodily posture that I adopt when I learn about love. Bawling. We don’t have control over how we learn do we EB?)

But love won’t always mean this for you EB, love will start to mean other things. Soon you’ll have a sense that your parents love you almost or even entirely unconditionally. The things you’ll get away with! Your love with your brother might take a different tone, at least at first. You’ll learn about the love of friends, of this community and perhaps others. At some point, love will take on the new meaning as you’ll be hit in the gut by the attractiveness of a new singular person. You’ll contrive to spend time with them. And, in all likelihood, your heart will also be broken. This will also be a learning about love.

Herbert McCabe says, “A large part of of the business of growing up consists in recognising the complex forms that love may take and – this is important – being open to the possibility of new forms. ‘Love’ is thus what we might call a growing word, one whose meaning changes and develops … Knowing how to use this word is an essentially historical or autobiographical matter. I mean when you have achieved some skill in the use of the word, you cannot simply hand over your results to someone else; (that person) has to live through the whole business (them)self, starting with the simplest and crudest understanding … there are no short cuts to understanding what love is.”

Each of us needs to undergo the work of understanding what love is. Does this mean then that the meaning of love is totally random? That love will simply be the sum of my experiences with it? Partly this needs to be true. Only my sister also has Grace Bechtel for a mother; no one else is married to Susan Hunsberger; and only I have my set of unique and particular relationships. But love, this growing word, is rooted for me in experiences that other people share. Other people shared the unfurling of the quilt and Seth’s shining skin. Love is about the content – about what love is – but importantly perhaps the meaning of love is perhaps more about how it is given witness to. The meaning of love is the meaning that a community shares. So perhaps what is so significant about love is not its intensity or its way of binding people together. The significance of love is how it can take on deep meaning for a group of people and for individuals and how it can do this in revolutionary ways.

The best example of this is of course Christ’s death. Jesus come to earth to teach how to love and to love in the most perfect way possible. The inevitable consequence of offering perfect love in a sinful world is death. The remarkable and revolutionary aspect of the crucifixion is not in the shape of Christ death but in the resurrection in the revelation that a lived live in love is in tune with the deepest purposes of God’s universe.

I’ve told you two stories about my journey and how it has been turned inside out by learning about love that are peculiar. The resurrection provides the paradigm of this kind of deep meaning making. The church, in its rituals, also finds reliable ways of doing the same things again and again that attempt to elicit the deep meaning for its members. We are doing both of these things this morning. We have dedicated a child into the care of the church. This is a commitment to again and again provide opportunities for EB to make choices to follow Jesus.  The depth of the meaning of this commitment is it’s orientation towards death but the kind of death that represents perfect love. It is strange that we would dedicate a baby towards death, and if we were infant baptizers this meaning would be intensified. Perhaps one of the reasons that adult baptism stuck as a practice for us is because we recognized it’s inevitable orientation towards death more acutely than church who weren’t experiencing the same kind of persecution that we were. Perhaps not.

The other practice that reliably orients us towards the deep meaning of love is communion in which we remember Christ’s life, death and resurrection. We’ll celebrate it now and as we do we could also remember our own histories and revolutions in understanding love. I could tell you the story about the time I was responsible to bring communion bread and the only loaf I had was frozen onion bread which didn’t thaw and burnt my hands as I struggle to offer it up on Sunday Morning, but I still haven’t found the meaning of that one. Amen

How to solve the budget. (the budget doesn’t need solving, we just need new media)

All corporations and individuals, except for those making less than $20,000 a year, pay 10% tax on gross income (whether it is from salaries, wages or investments). All corporations and individuals who make more than a million dollars pay a 2% tax on gross income above a million dollars. If you get caught cheating you pay 30% for 3 years.

Defense spending is pegged to GDP and you aren’t allowed to spend more than 25% on it.


Health care costs get split into two systems: one public, one private. Creating these systems is easy. The hospitals that the government already owns (including through state universities) are the public ones. Public health care has some costs that are fixed. Everybody that works at a public hospital makes between 50 and 250 thousand dollars. Everyone who makes less than $20,000 gets free health care. Everyone else can enroll in a government sponsored high deductible plan. Government subsidies for health care can’t exceed 20% of GDP. High cost end of life care and high cost lifestyle care (treatment for your cancer if you smoked etc.) are the first things that gets rationed in the public system.

Update: disregard everything in this post and read this: http://www.thepeoplesview.net/2011/08/paul-krugman-is-political-rookie-or-how.html

August 1

Today’s august 1st. I hate august for the way it heralds the new school year and the end of summer. I like coffee. I don’t enjoy my coffee as much during the school year as I do in the summer. I’d intended to start blogging again today because I think that I just might really be a blogger, but my computer is almost out of powe…

My brief introduction to ethics. Chapter 1

Happiness: An introduction to the Good Life

Happy are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. – Matthew 5.4

The Beatitudes, a set of short statements that Matthew reports Jesus as saying at the very beginning of the sermon on the mount, will form the backbone of this section on ethics in a biblical worldview. Each one of these statements is about a person or group of people who are surprisingly happy as in the beatitude which opens this chapter. At least as far back as the Greek philosopher Socrates happiness has been at the heart of how wise people have understood ethics.

My favourite story about happiness is told in the film Life is Beautiful. It is a story about an Italian Jewish family in the second world war. In Life is Beautiful the family has much to mourn, but through the father’s persistent happiness his son is able to find comfort. I believe that stories are the most useful way for us to begin to learn about ethics in a biblical worldview. I believe this because I believe that the Bible is itself first and foremost a story and so if we want to think about the Bible we need to learn to think in stories.

In the rest of this chapter I want to tell this story and connect it to Jesus’ Beatitude about mourning and comfort. I also want to introduce the rest of this section of the book. But first, let me say a bit more about the thesis of this chapter, which I’ll restate here: I believe that stories are the most useful way for us to begin to learn about ethics in a biblical worldview.*

Introduction: Believing with/in Authority

Stories other than Life is Beautiful might be useful too, but I believe that we need to think in terms of a story when we are learning about a worldview because worldview are stories that we tell ourselves about our world. I also believe that as often as we can we need to let ourselves be guided by stories when we are trying to be ethical. In particular, I believe that stories are more useful than goals or rules for the person or community who is trying to be ethical. I believe this because I believe that only stories have the richness to help us think about the complexities in our lives. Stories have the strength to sweep us up in their narrative or flow of events so that we could imagine ourselves actually living in the story. In addition to being strong in this way stories are also non-coercive. That is, a story very rarely forces us to think or believe or do anything. Stories are so useful for people who want to think about ethics because they are strong (complex) and voluntary (non-coercive).

Not everyone believes that stories are so useful for ethics. As I hint above there are at least two other ways (goals and rules) of thinking about ethics are in reference to the Christian religion. We’ll explore these in more detail later. For now, I simply want to note that while I am stating what I believe to be true other reasonable people disagree. Furthermore, I can not prove (in what we might call a mathematical or scientific sense) that it is true. The world of ethics is not black and white. Does this mean that there is then no truth or that truth is merely a private matter so that what I believe is true for me but can not be made to impinge on other people’s lives? This is an important question and we will take it up again and again in different ways in the chapters that follow in this section. For now let me state simply that you the reader and I the author work together as a community of sorts to create truth. We are responsible to each other. And of course, this extends far beyond you and I. At the limit everyone who learns about or attempts to inhabit a common worldview has a responsibility to each other to consider the truth they share.

Therefore the claim that stories are the most useful way for us to think about ethics is a claim I am making and you are reading and it is an important claim which attempts to ground our reality. The way that the Gospel writer Matthew begins and ends the sermon on the mount is a good example of the strength and voluntary nature of stories.

Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes. – Matthew 7.28-29

It is interesting to note that nowhere in the Sermon on the Mount does Jesus claim authority for himself. He simply speaks as if he has authority. But it is not Jesus who claims authority, nor the disciples who claim authority on Jesus’ behalf. However, Jesus does have authority at the end of the Sermon on the Mount for the crowds give it to him in their astonishment. Jesus works together with his audience to establish his claims.

Of course, Christians do not simply believe that Jesus was a good teacher. Christians believe that Jesus is the son of God. Interestingly, Jesus himself, at this point in the story, is not particularly interested in having the good news that he is the son of God spread about. Matthew reports,

When Jesus had come down from the mountain, great crowds followed him; and there was a leper who came to him and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.’ He stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ Immediately his leprosy was cleansed. Then Jesus said to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’ – Matthew 8.1-4

Teaching is something that anyone can do. Jesus teaches with authority and lets the crowd with their own reaction give credibility to his teaching. Healing is something that only God can do. It might be the proof that Jesus teaching is God’s teaching. I have spent so much ink on belief and authority at the very beginning of this section because I believe that it is very important to recognize that Jesus is more interested to have the crowd validate his teaching than to validate it himself, even though he could have! Jesus, even when he acts with authority at this point in the story, is not interested in having people blab about it. I believe that Jesus is also interested in working with his audience to create truth.

In fact, we get another clue to this at the very beginning of the Sermon on the Mount.

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: – Matthew 5.1-2

Note that it is not at all clear who Jesus is about to preach to. There are crowds, and Jesus goes up a mountain (so that they can hear him? or at least see him?). There are also the disciples who come to Jesus. Jesus could be teaching the crowds but why then does Matthew report that the disciples come to Jesus? Jesus’ teaching could be just for the disciples but then why does he teach now when there are so many people around? It is likely that Jesus aimed his teaching at the disciples but was happy for any in the crowd who wanted to listen to be able to. In some ways Jesus has a double audience. He is a bit like a tour guide in a museum who does not mind attract a crowd of unpaid guest who voluntarily want to learn.

In this way, when I state that stories rather than rules or goals are where we should look for authority I recognize that I must convince you of my thesis. You may be convinced or you may not be convinced. In a very real way we are looking at the question of ethics in a biblical worldview together and are responsible to each other in this process. The material in these chapters is my best attempt to truthfully convince you about what I believe the best way to live a human life is, the best way to be happy. I hope that in your reading you will hold me accountable to that high goal. With this introduction in hand, let us move together to my favorite story about happiness.

Happiness in a Concentration Camp

As Jews trapped in the holocaust, Guido and his son Joshua find themselves on a train from Italy to Germany facing likely extermination in a concentration camp. Their uncle Eliseo is immediately gassed upon arrival. Guido hides Joshua from the Nazi guards and then works to convince Joshua that life in the camp is really just a game. The rules for game are these: if Joshua cries, complains that he wants his mother or complains that he is hungry he will lose points. Quiet boys who hide from the guards earn points. The person who wins the game will win a tank.

So the stage is set; Guido and Joshua are in what is surely one of the saddest places our world has ever seen but Joshua is primed to think that this is a game. Even though they are surrounded by sickness, misery and death, Guido gives such a good performance that Joshua experiences the camp as one of the most fun experiences of his young life. When the guards yell at the prisoners Guido “translates” their commands into instructions in the game. When Joshua despairs at his situation and asks to quit the game and go home, Guido lifts his spirt by telling him he is in the lead. At the end of the movie, Guido is lead by the German prisoners to his execution. With Joshua watching Guido comically mimics the actions of the guards much to Joshua’s amusement. American tanks roll into the camp soon thereafter and Joshua wins this game.

Happiness can mean many things to many people. It can be a state of contentment, of humor or amusement. In this story it is also an activity. Guido works very hard at happiness, perhaps for himself, but surely for Joshua. Everything he does has the goal of creating, maintaining and sustaining Joshua’s happiness. Joshua is willing to trust his father that this concentration camp is in fact a happy place, or at the very least a place where a fun, if very wierd, game can be played. Joshua’s trust that his father understands what can count as happiness is what I think makes Life is Beautiful so beautiful. That trust animates the world that his father is creating for him. The world that Guido creates is on one level deceitful–concentration camps are not happy places–but on other levels it is more truthful than the concentration camp itself. That is, and this is I think the important lesson that we can learn from Life is Beautiful, happiness is not so much dependent on the harsh realities of our situation, nor is it a simple emotional state that we simply will (as if we can decide whether to be happy or not), instead our happiness is connected both to our actions and to the actions of those around us. For Joshua happiness is the activity of trust.

What is happiness then for Guido? Guido must also experience many other feelings (despair, anger, mourning) but he rigorously maintains an amused attitude. This is certainly partly because it is necessary in order to build the fiction of the game up around Joshua, but it also seems that Guido is authentically and constitutionally a happy person. It is not just a deceit that Guido remains happy throughout this story. It is also just who he is. Finally, Guido’s energy is a testament to a happier world that really does exist underneath even a concentration camp. This happier world is the one ruled by God which scripture refers to as heaven. One of the biggest questions that will arise for us as we move through this unit is the question of what heaven is. Jesus refers to heaven again and again in the beatitudes. For now, let us just notice an important claim that I have made; that heaven is a deeper reality than a concentration camp. Inside this claim happiness is also an activity of trust for Guido. Just as Joshua trusts in Guido, Guido trusts in heaven.

Let us move more deliberately into the realm of ethics. Is Guido an ethical person? Is Joshua? I believe that they both are. Guido and Joshua are moral people because they imagine a world in which things are as they should be and they actively pursue that world. Both Joshua and Guido live as if heaven were already here. They have a view of their world, a story that they are telling themselves, and it is that story which in this extreme case allows Joshua to survive. I believe that this is exactly what Jesus proclaims in the Beatitudes at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. Here are the beatitudes as they are found in Matthew 5.3-12,

Happy are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Happy are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Happy are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Happy are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Happy are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Happy are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Happy are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Happy are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Happy are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

At first glance it seems like Jesus is up to exactly the same kind of deception that Guido perpetrates in Life is Beautiful. Jesus takes many of the hardest aspects of human life and says that the people who experience life in this way are happy. Is this intellectually or ethically dishonest? Is Jesus selling us a world in which we should be happy when we mourn, when we are poor, when people revile us and persecute us and utter all kinds of evil against us? If so then we should want nothing to do with this world. Mourning, poverty and persecution are not reasons to be happy. Anyone, even Jesus, who tells us something different is wrong. We know this because we know that Jesus again and again shows that he cares deeply for the mourning, the poor and the persecuted. I believe that instead of tricking us or expecting something impossible from us that Jesus is revealing for us the way that the world really is at its core. Again, God’s reality (much like Guido’s) is much better, much happier than the world we see around us.

A biblical worldview is a view of heaven. Being ethical inside a biblical worldview is acting as if heaven were already here. We expect this to be very difficult and it is. This is due to the fact that we do not know what exactly what heaven looks like.  It is therefore very hard to live our lives as if heaven is already here. But if we look back to the story of Guido we do get some guidance about this first basic point.

Living as if heaven were already here is as hard as being happy in a concentration camp. If we imagine ourselves in Guido or Joshua’s place, we may even think that it is irresponsible to expect happiness in that kind of situation. We will want to spend more time reflecting together on what is psychologically, materially and ethically responsible (and by this I mean what is responsible for ourselves in terms of our mental health, in terms of our bodily health and in terms of the health of our actions) as we learn together about heaven and happiness together. For now, let’s again recognize another claim that I have made. The shape of what heaven is really like should have an impact on our actions now. That is, what we really expect ourselves to do in difficult situations really matters is connected to broader ideas of what is good for minds, bodies and actions. Let me summarize this discussion in the simplest way that I can. Heaven is the deepest reality that there is. Our imagination of what heaven is like should shape our actions in the here and now.

When we look back over these beatitudes we see that they have much to do with a picture of heaven. They don’t paint the picture in the same way that the author of Revelations does, (although I would argue that they are not in fundamental conflict either), but a picture of heaven emerges nonetheless. In the chapters that follow in this book I want to move through these beatitudes one by one and flesh out this picture in a larger story. I will do this by interweaving important lessons from the story of the development of Christian ethics with individual beatitudes. I hope that by doing this we will be able to learn together both the salient features of ethics in a biblical worldview as well as have a sense of the story of how Christians have tried to lead happy lives.


Careful readers will have noticed that in the listing of the Beatitudes above “Happy” is used rather than “Blessed”. The greek word, makarios, which is the word that Matthew used, can be translated to mean either blessed or happy, but most bibles use blessed because Jesus would have been referring to a state of being rather than a subjective emotion.* We have already seen an example of happiness as a state of being in Guido’s character, a person who is constitutionally happy.

At least since Socrates, who lived 400 years before Jesus, one of the main goals of ethics has been happiness. How can people lead a good life? How can people be happy? These are some of the most basic questions in ethics. For this reason, it makes sense to structure our learning about ethics around happiness, but since we are interested in ethics in a biblical worldview, it makes sense that we would want to let Jesus define what happiness is. The beatitudes do this and that is why I have structured these chapters around them.

There were other beatitudes before (and after) Jesus in both Jewish and Greek culture. We can learn more about how Jesus used the structure of the beatitude if we pay some attention to the different meaning that the greek word makarios held in the different cultures it was used in. In ancient Greek times, a thousand years before  Matthew, makarios referred to the gods. The blessed ones were the gods. In the Greek usage of Matthew’s time, makarios came to refer to the elite, the upper crust of society, the wealthy people. We have some of this meaning in our time as well. We sometimes think of movie stars, or professional athletes, or other celebrities as blessed. Makarios was also used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. There it referred to the results of right living or righteousness. Jesus uses this word in a totally different way. It is not the elite who are blessed. It is not the rich and powerful who are blessed. It is not even the righteous, necessarily. Rather, Jesus pronounces God’s blessings on the lowly: the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the meek, the mourning. When Jesus blesses these people what is he trying to do? What does it mean to tell someone who is mourning that they will be comforted? I believe that Jesus’ beatitudes are ethical, performative and indicative.

The beatitudes are ethical statements in that they are intended to inspire action. When we hear that the mourning will be comforted we should seek to comfort the mourning. In this way the beatitudes include an ethics. The beatitudes name those people who should be the focus of our actions. If we want to be ethical, Jesus suggests, we should take action for, with and on the behalf of the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the meek and the mourning.

The beatitudes are performative statements in that they accomplish action in being spoken. When Jesus says that the mourning will be comforted, the mourning themselves may feel comfort from the words. Perhaps a better example of performative language are the vows spoken at a wedding. When the bride and groom say to each other, “I do,” they accomplish their marriage. The action of marrying is performed by speaking the words. In order for performative language to be successful three things are necessary.The words must be spoken in the correct context, there must be an audience, and the audience have uptake; they must understand the words in the right kind of way. If I were to turn to someone on a crowded subway train and say, “I do,” I have not married them. At least context and uptake are missing from this example. If the subway rider is listening to their iPod audience is missing as well. The beatitudes have an audience and a context for believing that what Jesus is saying is true. In that a group of people formed around Jesus and around the disciples who were interested in living their lives according to the beatitudes we can suppose that uptake also happened at the Sermon on the Mount.

Besides being ethical and performative the beatitudes are also indicative. We can see this most clearly in the first and eighth beatitudes. They are set in the present rather than the future. Especially here, but across all the beatitudes the purpose is to both bring about a new state of affairs that God has proclaimed and to acknowledge that that state of affairs has already been brought about. The beatitudes are simply descriptive in this way. Those who mourn will be comforted. This is simply true.

The Beatitudes as Story?

I have made many arguments in this chapter to support the idea that the bible is a story and that we need to learn to think in stories if we want to inhabit a biblical worldview. But there may be one question remaining, for Jesus is not telling us a story in the beatitudes is he? These are short performative statements. This is not a story with a beginning, middle and end. The beatitudes are curious in that they are, in important ways, simply the end of the story. When Jesus says, Happy are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted, he is saying that you should make this happen, that it is happening in my saying it and that it simply will happen. However, unlike Guido from Life is Beautiful, Jesus is not telling a story about happiness, mourning or comfort. This is true, unless we think that people in the crowd would have been mourning. If that is the case then Jesus would have been telling them their story. It is most likely the case that Jesus was preaching to people who were on the fringes of society. They would have heard his words as speaking to them. It is also the case that Jesus’ preaching is part of a larger story that Matthew is telling in his gospel. Matthew doesn’t simply give us the Sermon on the Mount as a set of good rules or a goal to aim towards (although it has elements of both of these things) but puts the sermon inside the story of Jesus’ adventures in Galilee.

Sermon at my Aunt Alma’s memorial service

That my Aunt Alma had a remarkable zest for life was not a difficult lesson for me to learn but it is one that, even at the distance that I lived from her geographically, I was able to learn again and again. In recent years, I would visit her having been prepared for her diminished state by my caring parents only to talk with her for a long time with hearty bursts of language all around. And again, over these last weeks, as I prepared to come north for her funeral, her indefatigable zest for life once again thwarted all of the best laid plans of any who took an interest in her. But this day has at last come, as we knew it would, for all that of our earthly lives must, eventually, meet death. But death is not an enemy, nor is it to be feared, for death is not an end but merely a change, a journey to a foreign country that we will all one day walk.

I say walking deliberately; for when we imagine our life after death we should think of ourselves doing the things that we do now and nothing that we do now can be done apart from our body. Paul believed in the resurrection of the body, and this is exactly the question that occasioned this part of his letter to the Corinthians. It seems like some in the church in Corinth did not believe in the resurrection of the body. The idea is relatively ridiculous after all; that we will be resurrected, that our bodies will walk again. But Paul is convinced that because this was how it was for Jesus it must be the case that this is also how it will be for us.

The Corinthians share this disbelief with many in our day. Even many Christians do not believe that the shape of our resurrection is bodily. A spiritual resurrection seems possible, just, but a bodily resurrection? And if we accept that the shape of our resurrection is bodily, what do we do with the memory of a body like Alma’s?

The challenge here is balancing hope for a bodily resurrection with the shape of current reality. This is a challenge because we know that there is no such thing as a generic body. Our bodies are our bodies because of how they give a very specific shape to our life. For example, Alma was a person who played the piano for others, gifted with nimble fingers. What do we learn from the specific shape of Alma’s body, here at the end that helps us understand our general hope for a bodily resurrection? Paul says that in the change that we will undergo our current bodies will put on new features that will make them appropriate for God’s kingdom. We do not lose our bodies but become endowed with new characteristics; imperishability rather than perishability, immortality rather than mortality. Perhaps we become new people bodily responsive to the world in new ways.

This is the point at which I derive great hope from the life and death of my Aunt Alma. For she did a very great thing again and again in her life in denying expectations. From her birth to her death her zest for life, her immovability, her great perseverance showed imperishability and the hope of immortality already breaking into the shape of her mortal life.

And this hope is not just a hope for Alma, or for us, it is a hope for all of reality. For it is not just that some are saved from death. No, death itself is swallowed up in victory! We no longer live orientated towards our death. Instead we live with zest at all times, being steadfast, immovable, always abounding in Christ’s work. This is the work we saw Alma doing again and again. Death, death becomes a mosquito. Death is irritating but now not even capable of leaving a stinger in our bodies.

This general hope is the hope that the psalmist extols. Psalm 46 is set in a world much like our world, with mountains and waters which are changing. The psalmist, much like Paul, is convinced that God will provide refuge and steadiness. The work of the God in this psalm again challenges death this time in the guise of war, armaments, and defenses which trust in human ingenuity rather than God.

God’s call is one that expects us to be still and simply know that God is God. In this knowledge, and in the knowledge that Christ has victory over sin we can, along with Alma, hope with zest, a hope that gives shape to our life and life ever after, AMEN.

wisdom and the oil spill

Wisdom and the Oil Spill

A sermon based on Proverbs 8.22-31 and Romans 5.1-5

We all have our moments of exhaustive fragility. Moments which we know, again and again, will break us. When I experienced the near proximity of three divorces a couple of years ago I found that infidelity became one of these moments.The pain caused by the infidelity in these marriages spilled, no, not spilled, gushed into my life as if pain were a new superabundant resource.

I could not read a book, or watch a television program, or a movie, that featured infidelity, either real or imagined, without feeling my stomach lining start to degrade as if it were a marshland being crashed upon by waves of crude oil.

And now, predictably, it is images of the marshland which breaks me. I look at pictures of gulf animals and my stomach feels like conjoined lovers softly whispering, listening, to the wrong name.

When I look at pictures of gulf animals and when I read the scripture for today’s sermon. In Proverbs it says,

When God established the heavens, I was there, when God drew a circle on the face of the deep, when God made firm the skies above, when God established the fountains of the deep, when God assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress God’s command.

The waters might not have transgressed God’s command, but in the end they did, although only after we drilled a hole to release the fountains, only after we ignored the circle that God had drawn. The proverb writer was not predicting the idolatrous greed of British Petroleum, when these lines were penned. However, the proverb writer was aware of the idolatrous greed of the wealthy people of this planet who drive the greed of British Petroleum

Scripture, especially that part of our scriptures that is written in Hebrew, has a density and diversity of meaning that shouldn’t be construed in ways that constrain its relevance. So this is a sermon about wisdom and the oil spill.

And, so that I’m able to fight off the tears that might come if I force myself to continue to flirt with these black oily parts of my soul let me turn to delight and rejoicing by expressing these thoughts again in this setting of one of my favorite poems Margaret Atwood’s Elegy for Giant Tortoises.

I have slightly modified this poem, which Atwood wrote for tortoises, creatures who live in dry climates, in order that it might be made to elegize sea turtles, creatures who live in the gulf of mexico.

by Margaret Atwood (modified and set to music)
changes in italics

Let others pray for the brown pelican
the blue crab, the green heron, the cajun:

everyone must specialize

I will confine myself to a meditation
upon the sea turtles
withering finally on a remote island.

I concentrate in subway stations,
in parks, I can’t quite see them,
they move to the peripheries of my eyes

but on the last day they will be there;
already the event
like a wave traveling shapes vision:

on the road where I stand they will materialize,
plodding past me in a straggling line
awkward without water

their small heads pondering
from side to side, their useless armour
sadder than tanks and history,

in their closed gaze ocean and sunlight paralyzed,
lumbering up the steps, under the archways
toward the square glass altars

where the brittle gods are kept,
the relics of what we have destroyed.
our holy and obsolete symbols.

but on the last day they will be there;
already the event
like a wave traveling shapes vision:

This poem, at least in the way that I have rendered it here, suggests hope. Even though we have destroyed the sea turtles and deprived them of water, even though our destruction renders God and our worship of God brittle and obsolete, we look to a time, we look forward with hope to the last day when they will be there.

What is the nature of this hope? It seems foolish. The ravaged ecosystem of Prince William Sound, where the Exxon Valdez ran aground 20 years ago, is still feeling the effects of that disaster. We don’t know how much longer it will take for the area to recover. How do we move from the recognition of unrepairable damage to hope? Are we just blindly trusting in God to just make it all better, sometime?


But I don’t think that this is how the apostle Paul sees it in Roman’s 5. Paul boasts of hope because of suffering. Paul offers us a Christian grammar of virtue in today’s passage, a rule for talking about how you get from suffering to hope. It makes sense to Paul to rejoice in suffering, not because suffering is good but because the person who suffers learns endurance. Hard situations in our lives, if we use them as times to learn about ourselves and our environment, can cause growth and can make it easier to endure hardships in the future. Part of what we learn in suffering is how to pay attention to life’s difficulties. What about this hardship is going to cause me pain? why? Is there another way of approaching this hardship? Is there something that I can do? Part of what we learn in suffering, after it is over, is that we survived. We recognize that there is at least some life on the other side of our hardships. These two types of endurance, attention and awareness, lead to character. The people that I am close to who have been divorced recently do not wish that there lives had been changed in these ways. But they hope. We become the kind of people who can recognize, resist, reframe, or challenge suffering because we know that suffering is part of how we become who we are. And when we do this we realize that we can hope. We can hope because hope will not disappoint us. We know that hope will not disappoint us because of who God is.

One note at this point. Paul certainly believes that we can hope because God resurrected the crucified Christ. Christ did not survive his suffering, but in the resurrection we see that survival is not even necessary for hope to arise from suffering. God has proven that God will sustain our hope. However at this point,  in this Christian grammar of virtue Paul shows that he believes that our hope is not dependent only on the crucifixion. We can also hope because of who God is. This brings us to the Trinity.

God is not a being like we are.  We relate to other beings and things that are more or less like ourselves. But God is not a thing of any kind. God is relationship and this is why the Trinity is an important part of our identity as Christians. Paul says that we have peace with God through Jesus Christ and love from God through the Holy Spirit. The gifts that we have receive from God happen because God is always making peace through Jesus and loving through the Holy Spirit. One God, three persons. It’s unstable, but in the instability between divine identity and different persons God’s gifts gush out not just from one person of the trinity to the next but through them to us.

This superabundance of love is what the passage in Proverbs is all about. Wisdom reflects, “I was daily God’s delight, rejoicing before God always, rejoicing in God’s inhabited world and delighting in the human race.” God’s delight happens because the Spirit rejoices. The spirit rejoices because of God’s inhabited world. The same pattern as in Paul is present again here. Delight flows from God through the spirit to humanity. Well really, delight is just zipping around all over the place and everyone is rejoicing.

It makes sense to hope because suffering leads to hope for people who know who God is. I want to finish my sermon this morning by talking about what I think that looks like in relationship to the oil spill.  I want to talk about this strange language of oil spill, the limits that God sets for us, and the ways that wisdom can guide us. I want to read the oil spill through Proverbs.

I don’t know why we insist on calling this kind of catastrophe a spill. A spill is something that happens when I can’t hold onto my coffee in the morning because I haven’t drunk enough of it to hold onto things. It’s a small mistake that has a certain kind of inevitability about it.

What we have in the gulf is not a spill. It’s a fountain. Oil is gushing forth from a device that we have made to channel and thrust forth liquid. To use the term spill is simply to show that we are in denial not just about the impact of this disaster but also about culpability for it. Fountain is a much more honest word. I believe that when we depend on scripture, scripture will guide us. It takes careful reading and a concern for responsible word-care, but it will also give us the tools to describe our world in ways that will cause God to rejoice.

The language of Proverbs 8 bears many similarities to the language in Genesis 1. There God’s spirit hovers over the face of the waters and rather than drawing God talks. But many of the same characters are there. One thing that is really interesting about Genesis 1.4 is that God’s creation doesn’t respond with rote obedience to God’s command. It’s not that creation disobeys God’s command … but creation is not simply ordered by these commands either. Genesis 1.4 reads,

And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness God called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

God creates light and likes it and separates it from the remaining darkness that had been covering the waters. And immediately evening and morning … both times when light and darkness are not at all separated. Creation is a dynamic mysterious thing, not out of God’s control, but able to move in and around God’s purposes in surprising delightful ways. No wonder the Holy spirit rejoices!

The possibility then that creation might transgress God’s limits is there from the beginning. It is the possibility of transgression that in many ways allows life to issue forth. In fact, we might even want to say that God, in God’s trinitarian nature, is transgressive in exactly these ways.

The circle on the deep then is there as a control on the waters but not as a magic rule binding the waters. It is a warning. “After this point you will need wisdom to be ready for what might happen.” I believe that this line, this circle on the deep is the depth at which humans can easily dive to. A bunch of people in diving suits are going to be able to work to mine energy differently, less randomly, with less unpredictability. We know this. It is simply common sense, which is often what wisdom amounts to. To do something else is to move beyond wisdom, into irrationality. I don’t know why made this move into deep sea drilling, but I know that we have a desire for oil that turns it into a god. And we aren’t supposed to have other gods than God. So I’m not saying that it is a sin for us to have drilled in the gulf, creation transgresses limits all the time. The transgression of limits is a part of what it means to be created. I am saying that it was unwise to drill without knowing how we would stop the fountain. It was particularly unwise given that exactly the same thing happened thirty years ago across the gulf at Ixtoc 1.

A dependence of the honesty of biblical language and a recognition that God places limits on our world are both obvious ways in which we can wisely respond to the oil fountain in the Gulf. However neither of these approaches help us with what to do now. Neither really inform our hope. We have up to a million gallons of oil in the Gulf of Mexico a disaster that we might never recover from. What can we hope for? We need more wisdom about the natural world. One of the ways that we were, for a while, very successful in cleaning up the Exxon Valdez spill was by using oil-eating bacteria to break down the oil. We learned a great deal about how to do bioremediation in Alaska 20 years ago, but one of things that we learned was that we shouldn’t depend on dispersants if we want to be able to use effective bioremediation. A real danger now in the gulf is that the oil eating bacteria will deplete the oxygen in the gulf causing a dead zone in which nothing will be able to live.

Wisdom rejoices in the natural world and learns everything it can about the wonderful ways that nature has found to heal itself. In Chernobyl mushrooms have radiation level many times the level of surrounding soils. In regularly polluted areas like harbors incidence of oil-eating bacteria and fungi are much higher than in the rest of the ocean, but they exist in more stable relationship to their ecosystem. We need more wisdom about all of the different fungi and bacteria that might be able to bring real hope to the Gulf. We need an approach to our natural world that is honest, that recognizes boundaries and that seeks to work with nature rather than against it to solve our worst problems. This wisdom is our hope, a hope that moves beyond blind trust to action in relationship with all God’s gifts. May wisdom continue to rejoice in the natural world.


Pens and Texts

So, The writer when writing with a pen is transcendent to the pen. The pen only becomes a pen in the author’s hand because the pen’s purpose is to write and it needs the writer to do so. What about texts? Does the text need me to read it? Yes. Am I transcendent to the text? Sure but at the same time the text can change me. I am made by the text, perhaps especially when that text is scripture.