Wednesday, September 09, 2015

What Defiles the Body: Oliver Sacks and Jesus

Dean Andrew McGowan's sermon at the first Berkeley Community Eucharist of the new term at Yale Divinity School, September 2 2015; Deut 4:1-2, 6-9; Ps 15; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

How difficult a thing it is, brothers and sisters, to have a body!

Bodies are the source of great joy, but also of pain. They seem at times to have wills of their own, and can lead us into strange places; and as some of us discover increasingly with time, they break and fail. They become messy and difficult things to deal with.

Because we are self-aware, we can think about our bodies as objects, and as somehow separate from ourselves. This is especially the case when physical need or desire or failure find us in hard places. The body can then be blamed or spurned. There are times when the apostle Paul seems to speak for us all, saying "Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Rom 7:24).

This isn’t the whole of what Paul says about bodies or people, but the sentiment is honest and important. It is tempting to see ourselves as spirits who are merely temporarily and inconsequentially embodied, piloting our fleshy vehicles around until we leave them, our very selves unaffected by the material shells we had to inhabit. This is a sort of “beam me up, Scotty” theology of life and of redemption.

Oliver Sacks (from
Oliver Sacks died recently. There are not many researchers and clinicians who have had multiple bestsellers, let alone one of them made into a movie starring Robert DeNiro. But when I heard Sacks was dead, it was not Awakenings that came to mind first but his collection of essays, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Sacks presented there a series of case studies which, without in any way diminishing the humanity of the subjects, indicated how profoundly disease or injury impacts our very selves. The essay that gives the story its title concerns a man with Agnosia, whose sight was fine but who was unable to recognize or make sense of what he saw. It is reminiscent of another Gospel saying, where Jesus explains the purpose of parables as that people may “look and look, but not see.” Self, it seems, is not independent of the body. Our minds, our selves, are not mere inhabitants of bodies - we, including those remarkable parts of ourselves that are brains and that give rise to minds, are bodies. It is not just how difficult or joyous to have a body, but to be a body.

Sacks' Twitter account a few days before his death had drawn attention to a New York Times article summarizing the work of two other researchers, including Yale SOM colleague Nina Strohminger, on the effects of debilitating conditions like ALS and dementia on the self. Strohminger and Paul Nichols offered, to begin with, the attractive and surely widespread notion that loss of memory was what might most deeply impact the self. I have seen more than one movie in the last couple of years that suggested a self could be uploaded or moved to another body simply by the transfer of data, which seems to reflect that same idea. Strohminger and Nichols however suggested a different conclusion; memory loss could be very significant, but for those around the afflicted person the self was not as dependent on it as we would imagine; rather “the single most powerful predictor of identity change was not disruption to memory — but rather disruption to the moral faculty.” It is what we do that makes us who we are.

Our selves, then, are deeply embodied, and through our bodily choices, our actions on the lives of others and the wider world, we show ourselves to be who we are. In the Gospel, Jesus enters into an inner-Jewish debate about defilement that makes the moral self, our actions and words and their impact on others, the place of opportunity and risk. It may appear that what goes into the body, voluntarily or otherwise, is what defiles. Drugs, bullets, nails, are all apparently sources of defilement. This may be less true than it seems. Hatred and violence, acts of sexual exploitation or of casual injustice, purport to be ways of controlling the other. In truth they, coming from within a person, defile the perpetrator.

What happens to the body of the other, the degraded or disregarded, is nonetheless important; it is important because it is the treatment of a self, not of a shell. This is why black lives matter. It is why the bodies of Coptic martyrs and Syrian refugees matter. It is also why it matters when they nail your God to a cross; because he is not merely pretending to be there, having taken flesh as a convenient marketing and communicating strategy, but as the Gospel also tells us, “the Word became flesh."

The world may yet conclude that it has mastered and defiled the bodies of the innocent and the oppressed by what goes in to them; but the Gospel suggests otherwise, and that the would-be defilers are themselves defiled by such actions. It also suggests that our hope in the body does not end even at crosses and corpses, but affirms the bodily self even to a future that is God’s own. For our hope is not the disembodied persistence of souls, but the renewed embodiment of the resurrection, and a future life where there is neither oppression nor defilement, but the redemption of bodies; "for the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Colonialists and Explorers: Commencement 2015

[From Commencement Evensong for Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, Marquand Chapel, May 16 2015; Ezek. 3:4-17; Luke 9:37-50]

In June of the year 1770, the English explorer James Cook and the crew of his ship Endeavour arrived off the north-east coast of what was then known to Europeans as New Holland, or Terra Australis Incognita – the unknown southern land. Needing to forage for food and water, Cook and his men ignored the explicit instructions they had from the British authorities to seek permission of the inhabitants before landing, and went ashore not very far from what is now the tourist mecca of Cairns, on the Great Barrier Reef.

There is an apocryphal story (often the best kind, of course) regarding what happened when crew of the Endeavour did encounter some of the Australian indigenous people who lived in that area. The sailors supposedly tried to ask them the name of the curious upright jumping beasts who provided some distraction, as well as some nutrition, for the Englishmen. “Kangaroo,” they were told, “Kangaroo.” Later, after the British returned and occupied the continent, further enquiries were made in the area, but linguists never found evidence that this familiar word was ever used by the aboriginal people of that place to refer to those marsupials. The closest things to “kangaroo” in the local dialects were the phrases “I don’t understand you" and “Go away.”

Subsequent history bears out rather clearly that these were not the most promising exchanges with which to begin a relationship between peoples, even if this etymology was not authentic. And yet these definitions from a people of, as the Book of Ezekiel puts it, “obscure speech and difficult language” can function as a sort of backhanded blessing to those of you who are leaving this place. Go away. And be prepared to say “I don’t understand."

Since you do have to go away, there is perhaps a temptation for speakers at events like this to see if they can offer last minute advice that will compensate for the inevitable gaps even in a demanding curriculum such as you have undergone. The things you do not understand will sometimes plague or embarrass you as you go, but there is also a gift in them, or in the recognition of them at least. We are not sending you out as repositories of theological knowledge whose effective banking of wisdom over two or three years can allow others to make withdrawals thanks to you, nor as theological colonialists whose knowledge acts as an excuse for your failure to listen to the “obscure speech and difficult language” of others.

Rather we are sending you out as explorers - people whose limits, whose “I don’t understand” has been shaped in particular ways but which exists. It would actually be a very good test, both of the Yale curriculum and of your use of it, if there were areas where you realize that now you have to go away, that you actually understand less than you did (or thought you did) when you started, and hence that you need to consider new learnings and new journeys to undertake in order to learn afresh.

This choice between colonialism and exploration – overpowering the other and learning from it - flows through our daily office readings. The task given Ezekiel (in a sort of divine Commencement speech?) before he is sent away involves both a commission to proclaim the word of God but also some awkward qualification about how hard understanding is likely to be, both for him and for those to whom he must proclaim God's word. He will preach to literal hard-heads, and so is divinely equipped to match them, thick skull for thick skull. Ezekiel takes his Master of Prophecy degree and the spirit drops him off among the exiles, where he sits stunned for seven days. God had already told him that compared to this, speaking to people of "obscure speech and difficult language" would have been easy. This is the hard work of solidarity; of being not merely the prophet dropped in and then airlifted out, but the fellow hard-head who must sweat it out in exile with the rest.

The disciples of the Gospel reading are also would-be colonialists, who have to be taught about exploration and about difference. Just follow the plot thread: they are unable to cast out a demon; they cannot understand the prediction of the passion; and then on the strength of these triumphs, they argue about who is the greatest. Then when they find someone else who is actually managing to do the deed of exorcism even without having attended their colloquium, they are appalled. Jesus’ words are telling: "Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you.”

This is of course a different way of understanding difference itself; does difference demand the conformity of the other to our own theology, or does it invite mutual acceptance, partnership, and unanticipated wisdom?

This choice between colonialism and exploration is one that affects us as we face the seemingly intractable challenges of diversity in national and international power relations, and in daily living in community too. We can all use diversity as window-dressing; but the willingness to question our own forms of privilege and really, and to be changed by the difficult truths we hear in the obscure words of others that we could not otherwise understand, is the test of whether we will progress.

Like the disciples, we need to know what we don’t know, and to be ready to accept what they may learn from others who didn’t study as many obscure languages and texts. Like Ezekiel we need to go where the Spirit takes us, and speak difficult truths not out of our own privilege to make the other like us, but out of true solidarity.

You don’t know everything you need to. Yet there is such a thing as holy ignorance. Ignorance is not, of course, holy in itself, for wisdom is an attribute of God. The one who makes their own ignorance into false wisdom is the colonialist; what makes ignorance truly if provisionally holy is knowing, as the explorer does, that wisdom is God’s and not ours, and hence that we may find her in what initially seem unlikely places.

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Problem of Worship, Revisited; Thoughts Shared at St Hilda's House

[Last week I met with the interns at St Hilda’s House and we talked about worship, starting with some thoughts from the first chapter of my book, Ancient Christian Worship (Baker Academic, 2014). Here are some of the ideas we shared. This is cross-posted at their blog here.]

“Worship” in English-language Bibles refers to something quite different from the activities or ideas for which contemporary Christians use that word. Most of the time in the New Testament it is used to translate Greek words referring not to prayer, or singing, or community rituals, but to literal acts of physical obedience and submission - like prostrating oneself on the ground. “Worship” is not what goes on in temples or synagogues, or even in homes where Christians meet, but happens wherever social relations of dependence and obedience are expressed. It has more to do with politics and ethics than with what we would call worship, although it has a necessary physical and embodied aspect. It doesn’t mean religious practice, and it doesn’t mean faith either - but both could be part of it.

This isn’t necessarily a problem - words do shift in meaning. The problem is that we may tend to ignore the shift, and just project our experience onto theirs as we read, or vice-versa. We tend to think, I suspect, that “worship” in our sense is an obvious thing, that connects us with the scriptures and the early Church; in fact our concept doesn’t exist in the ancient world.

That sounds rather startling, and someone might quickly object that there are things about “worship” in our modern sense that do connect us with the scriptures and the early followers of Jesus. I agree; and I can see two ways we could trace those continuities.

The first is to leave the word “worship” alone for a moment, but to acknowledge that we have a set of communal practices of prayer and ritual that do stem from the NT roots of the Church: daily prayer, Eucharist and baptism are all characteristic of the Christian movement, and always have been. These are a distinctive set of actions, a habitus, that along with dispositions of love and justice to the community and to the world makes the Church what it is, just as surely as the confession that Jesus is Lord, i.e., that he is the one worthy of obedient service, of worship. But “worship” of Jesus, while it includes these characteristic actions of communal obedience, is not actually more about them than it is about actions in other parts of life.

The other way we could work is to grasp the “worship” language, instead of avoiding it, and to think about Christian life (including its communal and liturgical aspects) as a pattern of obedience and service. This leads us again to baptism, eucharist, and prayer; not because they are Christian versions of some wider phenomenon called “worship” (i.e., not in the modern sense) but because they are our concrete and distinctive forms of obedience to Jesus (think “pray thus” [Matt 6:9]; “do this in memory of me”; “go, make disciples…baptising them…”).

Staying with this second approach, what I have just provided is a fairly protestant version of a rationale for the Christian sacraments, in keeping with the Calvinist tendency to call them “ordinances”. We could however come to these actions with language and concepts slightly less rooted in the giving and receiving of orders, but from notions of dependence and love, which are equally valid or arguably far better ways of characterizing the Christian relationship with the God of Jesus Christ who no longer calls us servants but friends. Thinking in these terms, we can reflect on the sacraments not only as ordinances but as gifts, the embodied enactment of our grafting in to the beloved community.

This still leaves the faintly puzzling language and concept of “worship” today. As I have already implied, we have this language not because it is an inconsequential name for corporate religious ritual, but as a specific product or vestige of Christian notions of obedience and service as the heart of communal sacramental action. This is also why we still have events called “services,” by the way, although we have mostly forgotten the connection, and the now-common phrase “worship service” is surely a feeble attempt to make two meaningless words stronger by combination.

The accidental products of this shift or loss are profound, and often tragic. If we start with the notion that “worship” describes whatever is customary or entertaining or even edifying to do for an hour on Sunday, we certainly miss the point. The idea, for instance, that music (or a particular genre thereof) is the essence of corporate worship is curious at best. Of course music, like buildings and food, can be put in service of God (not least in conjunction with Eucharist and prayer), but not because music is inherently more about worship than are other types of activity.

There are however two good places from which to start and which might lead us to diverse, engaging and challenging liturgy: first and unavoidable is the characteristic Christian sacramental habitus; the onus is on anyone who professes faith to say why this is not the center of communal gatherings. Second, and quite differently but leading to the same goal, there is the recognition that while all life is service, community is the focus of presenting our whole selves to God in love and obedience; the communal gathering then serves to build up, equip, re-inforce, express, etc., the reality of the Church. This however does not make it “worship."

I was recently at a Church which ended its liturgy with the words “Our worship has ended, let our service begin.” It’s a worthy thought, even if a cheesy line, but it actually underlines the problem of the language and the practices more than solving it. The fact that this is supposed to be a sort of pun or play on words reveals the tragic loss of significance of “worship” (and of “service” too). In fact you could better reverse the terms and make the point intended, if as I have been suggesting “worship” is not the Sunday morning part of Christian life more than the rest. Ideally we should understand that worship is not liturgy, it is life; which does not make liturgy less important, but clears the way to ask what it is for, and what then we must do to engage in it well and faithfully.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Eating our Words

[Originally preached at Trinity College Chapel, 24th April 2005; published in memory of Homaro Cantu, d. 14th April 2015]

The sushi made by Mr Homaro Cantu, the executive chef at Moto restaurant in Chicago, looks a lot like that served at other upscale restaurants, appearing on the plate as round coloured disks; they also, by all accounts, taste deliciously fishy and seaweedy.

It is prepared on a Canon i560 inkjet printer. Cantu prints images of sushi rolls on pieces of edible paper made of soybeans and cornstarch, using organic, food-based inks of his own concoction. At least two or three food items made of paper are likely to be included in a meal at Moto. Even the menu is edible; diners crunch it up into a bowl of gazpacho, creating Mr Cantu’s version of alphabet soup.

The Revelation to John reminds us that eating words and images is not an altogether new idea:
So I went to the angel and told him to give me the little scroll; and he said to me, ‘Take it, and eat; it will be bitter to your stomach, but sweet as honey in your mouth.’ So I took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it; it was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it, my stomach was made bitter. (Rev 10:9–10)
In using this image around the year 100 of our era, the author of the Revelation was actually reviving a traditional recipe going back further centuries to the prophet Ezekiel, who had a similar vision wherein he was instructed to eat a scroll as a prelude to taking its message to Israel (Ezek 3:2). Ezekiel’s scroll however was and remained sweet, and not bitter. This later scroll in Revelation contains a paradox; it is sweet because true, but bitter to the stomach, since the experience of the one who knows the truth will often not be uniformly pleasant.

If Chef Cantu with his Inkjet sushi is one postmodern inheritor of that tradition of eating words, another and more self-conscious one is Umberto Eco, whose novel The Name of the Rose hinges on the quest to uncover another ancient scroll—the lost book II of Aristotle’s Poetics, the section on comedy. Eco clearly has our Revelation passage in mind when, in the climactic scene, the evil Brother Jorge who has hidden this dangerous treatise lest it encourage the dire sin of laughter, eats it and dies in a final act of suicidal defiance, knowing that its humorous content has actually been written with a poisonous ink; the sweet words turn bitter in the stomach.

What Eco and his biblical predecessors are all playing with is the power and paradox of making words into flesh. Each of the eating protagonists seeks to make themselves one with the text: the evil Jorge to destroy both, and the seers Ezekiel and John to give both life.

Thomas Cranmer’s 1549 collect for the Second Sunday of Advent from the first Book of Common Prayer works with the same idea:
Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
But the story does not always seem like comfort food, as the seer John knew. Those of us who are concerned with texts—not so much literally eating them, I say to mollify any anxious librarians lurking among us, as studying them and seeking to internalise them—can hear in the idea of eating the text—prophecy, treatise or menu as it may be—the problem and the promise of how words and stories and images impact on us, or not. It is not enough merely to ‘learn’, if learning means that we compartmentalise what we learn into a purely theoretical knowledge. The metaphor of eating words expresses this well; truly to learn is to make what we learn a part of ourselves, not just the object of the mind’s activity but part of the actual means by which we will go on learning. Put thus, wisdom is not just about words and minds; it is about bodies and actions. Truly to learn, truly to be wise, is to make knowledge human, to make it flesh. What others have known with their hearts and hands, as well as minds, must become real in our own lives if we are to be wise.

Today is Passover; this evening, Jewish households outside of Israel celebrate the second of two Seders, the festive meal of the Passover, to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt. The Seder is a sort of eaten story too. One of its principles, expressed in the Haggadah or narrative order of service, is that participants should not simply remember historical events that took place in their ancestors’ times, but understand that they too, as they eat and drink, were brought out of Egypt.

In Christian tradition this motif of making words flesh has its fulfilment in the incarnation. John’s Gospel speaks of Jesus not merely as a divine being who has ‘beamed down’ on an ‘away mission’ to impart propositions to earth-dwellers, but as the ultimate personification, the making human, of God’s Word and wisdom.

In this Easter season for Christians, we affirm that something similar to the logic of the eaten wisdom of Passover can and must take place. Hearing the story again, we are invited not only to examine its propositions but also to consume it, to make it our own. In this last and longest chapter of the resurrection narrative, in the absence of the risen body of the Word once made flesh, we who feed on his story, his wisdom, and make it real in our own flesh, may thereby become that body in the world.

Friday, April 03, 2015

Washing Feet: Maundy Thursday

Two years ago Pope Francis raised eyebrows when he performed the Holy Thursday ceremony of footwashing, not at St Peter’s Basilica but at the Chapel of the Casal del Marmo juvenile prison outside Rome. More striking still for some was that two of the twelve young inmates whose feet he washed were women. Last year the Pope played it relatively safe by comparison, washing the feet of aged and disabled people at the Don Gnocchi residential center. The internet reveals, thanks to time differences, that today he washed the feet of six male inmates of the Rebibbio prison and six women from a nearby detention center, as well as the infant child of one of these latter.

The Pope had courted controversy in these cases, because the tradition which he was enacting and which we will follow this evening in our own way, had in recent memory usually been performed in St Peter’s Basilica, with the participation of twelve well-scrubbed choirboys, seminarians – although sometimes seminarians are admittedly likened by themselves or others to inmates! - or priests. Over time, Roman Catholic papal theology had presented the event more and more as a sort of celebration of the institution of the priesthood itself. Yet this is not where the roots of the ceremony actually lie.

The story of Jesus washing his disciples' feet in John 13 is powerful, but has often left Christians scrambling to make sense of it and the attendant command: "So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you."

But do what exactly? Powerful as it may be, the earliest Christians seem not to have performed a rite quite like this one with footwashing acted out communally and symbolically in Church. What we do know, however, is that members of the Church community - and perhaps Christian women in particular - went not into Church but out of it, to the housebound and to prisoners, to wash their feet. They went not with crosses or choirs, but more or less privately, although certainly with reverence and a sense of evangelical and even I dare say sacramental seriousness.

The First Letter to Timothy hints at footwashing as related to social outreach in its job description for  what we could call the oldest religious order, the community of widows:

"Let a widow be put on the list” the author of the Letter says," if she …has shown hospitality, washed the saints’ feet, helped the afflicted, and devoted herself to doing good in every way."

Just a little later, around 200, the African writer Tertullian laments the fate of a hypothetical Christian woman mismatched with an unbeliever; what pagan husband, he imagines, would "put up with her creeping into prison to kiss a martyr's chains, or for that matter to meet with the community to exchange the kiss, to offer water for the saints’ feet, to share a little of her food, from her cup…"

Again we sense the connection between foot washing and concrete human need, and with courageous service - but with controversy too, in this case. It is, I think, acts of service like these to which Jesus is referring in the Gospel of John, rather than to any imagined ceremonial foot washing.

Consider also that the Gospel of John also knows of a woman’s controversial footwashing, told only a few verses before this: "Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair” (John 12:3). You will recall that this story provokes Judas’ opposition, ostensibly in connection with charitable purposes for which the cost of the perfume could have been deployed; but Jesus here defends Mary’s own charitable action towards him. So too in tonight’s Gospel Jesus teaches his disciples to overcome their scruples against either offering or receiving the washing of feet, not as a communal performance but as the prosaic reality of getting some feet clean, and some hands dirty.

This ancient ritual and practical action, not a liturgy in our formal sense but arguably sacramental nonetheless, did not survive quite in this form but took on various more symbolic guises through the middle ages, often still associated with charity; kings and bishops were known to offer such service to the poor on given occasions for instance. And despite its ancient roots, footwashing did not find a place in the public eucharistic liturgy of this day until the 1950s. When it did, it soon fell victim in some quarters - including the thoughts of some of Francis’ predecessors in the chair of Peter - to the idea that it figured the ministerial priesthood first, rather than the call of all Christians to humble service.

But you caught the resonance between ancient footwashing and the recent papal examples, I hope. I doubt that Francis was thinking of ancient evidence for footwashing when choosing his partners and venues these recent years, but the man has good instincts on this front at least. Going out to wash, and keeping company with women and prisoners in doing so, puts him in far better company from the point of view of apostolic tradition than are his modern critics.

But what of this evening and our own ceremonial washing? We wash feet here just as we break bread; no, the mandatum or footwashing ceremony does not have the status for us that the sacrament of the Eucharist does, but there is a connection - apparently one that John’s Gospel makes by giving us this story in the place where we might expect the institution of the Eucharist.

Augustine of Hippo spoke of the Eucharist in these terms, which we can apply to washing as well as to eating and drinking: "these realities are called sacraments because in them one thing is seen, while another is grasped. What is seen is a mere physical likeness; what is grasped bears spiritual fruit.” When we grasp and wash feet here symbolically, we are committing ourselves to loving service of humanity when we go out from here, and the truth of actions performed by hands and feet tonight will be judged by the ways we walk and work outside; so too, the Eucharist itself demands a fulfillment in our lives that shows it to be truly sacrament, effective sign.

As we wash and are washed, we signal our willingness to serve and be served, which in turn tells us what the reality of the Eucharist effects in us; Augustine went on to say to his congregants, seeing the Eucharist, “be what you see, receive what you are.” Washing and eating alike tonight, we bear witness to our faith in the one who has served us in both; and we hope, feasting and serving alike, to become who we are.

[Maundy Thursday Sermon from St Mary the Virgin, Times Square, New York City]

Monday, March 30, 2015

"Everybody Loves a Parade..."

There is a sense of anticipation in the crowds lining the streets of the great city. Word has spread among the crowd that the one they have come to see is nearly there. To some he is a figure of myth; but for others there is no one more real. In the distance they can hear music now - there is singing. The parade eventually comes into sight, a crowd in the street as well as the one along the way. They are visibly joyous; some are carrying strange objects, signs of the festival. And at the end there rides the one whose coming will change the times.

You know of course of what I am speaking...

...Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Every, they say, loves a parade. Processions are indeed a very widespread phenomenon; there is hardly a culture or a city that does not witness some sort of parade that expresses its people’s beliefs and express their aspirations.

But as the earlier example I gave shows, in its contrast with today’s feast, there are many reasons people may take to the streets.

And there are I think quite different kinds of processions in form as well, even across cultures and causes. Consider the procession we have taken part in already today. It went from here to… Hmm. You are sitting exactly where you were to start with. We went precisely nowhere. Yet this was not pointless. In walking together, singing and praying, we embodied our faith and hope, and made a living statement of who we are. We become a people, a community, in the act of procession.

But there are other kinds of processions. Two weeks ago if you were in this place you might have been able to hear the end of New Haven’s St Patrick’s Day parade. That parade went from A to B, through the city and out again, starting from a place out further on Chapel St than I have ever been, out to a place on Grove where nobody seems to have been. There is, again, a risk of this seeming pointless, but the truth is different. When such parades began, the Irish were a marginalized group in many parts of this country, and to march through the streets was to assert the pride of a community, to claim its place in the sun and in the streets. Perhaps when I put it that way you think also of the marches that took place fifty years ago, from Birmingham to Selma, where a group asserted the right of people of color to vote by embodying their right to walk from A to B, even when many or most of them neither came from A nor remained at B.

There is still one more kind of procession. In the third case, the procession enters a new place and stays there; something changes because of the arrival that takes place. This is the character both of the first example I gave, and of the ancient procession we are commemorating today. Jesus comes to Jerusalem, and nothing will be the same again.

And yet, if we think a little further, his procession may actually be of a different kind. For there is another procession hidden under the historic one into Jerusalem, of which Paul speaks in our Epistle reading:

Christ Jesus...was in the form of God
[yet] did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross (Phil 2:5-8)

This is the real journey, the one into human life, into our vulnerability and morality; this is the journey that we will commemorate as the week goes forward. Yet that is not the end of the journey:

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father (9-11).

So in fact this journey, too, ends up precisely where it began; Jesus has gone nowhere, yet has done everything. For we have joined this parade with him, and as Paul says elsewhere, he leads us in his triumphal procession (2 Cor 2:14).

Jesus’ procession is thus all processions drawn together. He comes into his city and changes everything; walking through its streets, he claims them for his kingdom where all are welcome and none are marginalized; and in the end he has come to the place he began.

Will you join his procession?

[Sermon from Palm Sunday 2015, at the Episcopal Church at Yale, Dwight Chapel, Old Campus]

Friday, March 06, 2015

The Hungry Jesus

Asaraton mosaic, Chateau de Boudry
Across the spectrum of theological and historical opinion, one thing most pictures of the historical Jesus share is that he was a good eater, participating in meals with diverse company and a lack of ascetic restraint. But the same variety of portraits, from N. T. Wright to John Dominic Crossan, tend to share a more specific and curious claim, namely that Jesus was somehow a radical and inclusive host. One of the above-named authorities may suffice as a representative, as well as confirmation of the consensus:

“The tradition of festive meals at which Jesus welcomed all and sundry is one of the most securely established features of almost all recent scholarly portraits.”[1]

There is really just one, quite large problem: such meals are a fantasy, not (or not only) for those who are sceptical about the historicity of much of the Gospel meal material, but even at the canonical, literary level. Jesus is simply not depicted as welcoming diverse guests to festive meals.

Since I may seem to have just uttered nonsense or heresy or both, let me explain. Jesus is indeed depicted, at least in reports attributed to his enemies, as an indiscriminate eater, both with regard to company and to quantity, and perhaps also as playing fast and loose regarding different kinds of foods. None of these however amounts to “Jesus welcoming all and sundry to festive meals."

Jesus was accused of eating with tax collectors and sinners (Mark 2:16 etc; Matt 10:3, 11:19/Luke 7:34, Matt 21:31-2, Luke 15:1-2). This single repeated accusation of guilt by association has its simplest narrative form in Mark 2, and its most elaborate in Luke 19 (the story of Zacchaeus), although the identification of one of the twelve as a tax collector may be a separate and solid tradition. Historical critics generally, if not universally, acknowledge a core of likely fact underneath these narratives, although the stories (especially in Luke) are artful compositions that reflect the literary genre of the symposium rather than mere historical reminiscence. Note however that Jesus is always the guest in these stories, not the host. He is welcomed, not welcomer.

Jesus is also accused of being a “glutton and a drunkard” in a Q saying (11:19/Luke 7:34) linked there with the first accusation, and which serves to contrast Jesus and John. This reads like a stock piece of abuse, echoing Deut 21:20, but the slur is itself unlikely to have been invented by later Christians, just because it is so awkward. How much it tells us about Jesus’ real eating and drinking habits practice is another question; but there is no reason to think Jesus emulated John’s asceticism.

The question of just what he ate can also be difficult, with Mark 7:23 as a sort of crux: “in saying this, he declared all foods clean.” This is however an explicitly editorial interpretive comment, and does not allow even the most conservative or credulous commentator to think Jesus himself rejected Jewish dietary laws in his teaching, let alone that he ate in disregard of them.

So we can still accept that Jesus was neither discriminating about company nor ascetic about food choices. But all this material has to do with his acceptance of invitations, not his welcoming anyone. This is a hungry Jesus, not a hospitable one.

Whence the welcoming Jesus then? From at least four other sorts of meal story or tradition, also interesting but more problematic as evidence of a historical Jesus who could be agreed upon by the usual standards of critical scholarship.

First, Jesus could be read into the role of host in parabolic or eschatological banquets attributed to him as teacher - not as literal eater. Is he the King and/or host of Matt 22 or Luke 14? If so, he is not a very inclusive host – but in any case he is a literary or imagined one.

More promising for the welcoming Jesus, but problematic for historians, are the miraculous feeding stories found in all four Gospels (Mark 6:34-44 etc.). Here Jesus does take the role of a host, blessing and feeding the multitudes. But these are not presented as typical or characteristic events, whatever we make of them historically. They point to an eschatological reality more than a present one; and while the size of the crowds suggests some sort of inclusiveness, bread and fish are not really festive (where's the wine?), and these stories are not connected with Jesus’ problematic associations with sinners. They depict Jesus as an impressive caterer, not as inclusive host.

Third there is the most famous meal story, the last supper. Here again we can acknowledge Jesus as host. Is this an inclusive meal? While assumptions about the exclusion of women from the meal can be challenged, the makeup of the twelve - including the tax collector and the zealot - is the clearest form of inclusivity here, but amounts to a representative rather than an “all and sundry” selection. There are of course many scholars who doubt the historicity of the supper at least in the familiar terms, although some of us think that the existence of quite distinct versions of the so-called “institution narrative” in Paul (and Luke) as well as Mark (and Matthew) makes a case for its authenticity.

Last, there are resurrection meal scenes where Jesus is host (and cook - John 21). Despite formal blessings in one case (Luke 24:13-35), these are not really festive, and not at all inclusive. And it must go without saying that whatever their force for readers with eyes to see, they will not serve to establish the practice of the historical Jesus.

This sort of hospitable Jesus may well be a common feature of many scholarly portraits, but is not, despite that, a strongly-based historical one.  Jesus appears as host in quite different material from that where he is depicted as keeping bad company and being a wine-bibber. The “host” material tends to be the product of later reflection rather than the best-attested traditions that scholars would attribute to the historical Jesus.

So the inclusive welcoming Jesus is the product of creative theological reflection, some in the Gospels and the ancient Church to be sure, but a remarkable amount of it simply modern fantasy. It is yet another instance of how picturing Jesus, we seem to picture ourselves or our wishful thinking. Theologizing is not, I hasten to add, a bad thing - but it is bad to confuse history and theology precisely when one is supposedly in the act of distinguishing them to assess their relative roles and functions.

Why so many scholars believe or assume this Jesus suggests a problem of the social psychology of knowledge as much as of historical criticism, but there have been other similar cases where the obvious has turned out to be false, in NT studies and elsewhere. What was thought obvious about Paul’s attitude to Judaism, or about Jesus and Jewish purity, have had to be deconstructed and rebuilt in recent times; this may be another case.

What, if anything, does the historical Jesus really offer for further reflection on food and meals? Jesus was apparently an itinerant without direct means of support, and his willingness or even desire to be included indiscriminately is not really so surprising in itself. He will have been hungry from time to time, and hunger makes for interesting and diverse table fellowship. So his willingness (or need) to be included, rather than to include others, is the most striking and most overlooked  aspect of Jesus’ life as an eater.

Perhaps the Christian rush to do good in Jesus’ name, taking him as a supposed moral example, has fueled a stampede past this simple and I think fairly solid historical reality. Perhaps it is too hard for some Christians to think of a hungry Jesus making himself dependent on others, when we would rather use him as a model for acts of “radical welcome” that assume we are privileged host and not the needy guest. But this hungry Jesus also has his more explicitly theological and eschatological place in the tradition too: "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me” (Matt 25:40).

[1] Wright, N. T. The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was & Is. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1999. p. 45.

Friday, February 20, 2015

"Long ago..." (Hebrews 1; John 1)

Were the openings of either the Letter to the Hebrews or the Gospel of John to be depicted using the forms available in modern cinematography, the means to do so are obvious, I think. Imagine a wide screen depicting the silent depths of infinite space, evoking in the viewer a sense of awe. Then a great scroll of words - a “crawl,” technically - appears at the bottom of the screen, and proceeds across the field of view: “Long ago, God spoke to our ancestors…”; or “In the beginning was the Word…"

Both these readings invoke a perspective of the widest kind, but they do so in different ways. Hebrews will go on to spend much time in a Platonizing world of ideas, exploring a timeless picture of how heaven and earth relate. It begins, however, with a reflection on the ancient rather than the timeless, alluding to that “long ago” of prophets and patriarchs. John will soon become a historical narrative, depicting the life of Jesus as a concrete set of events in human experience. It begins, however, with this eternal cosmological reflection on just how the world is.

In our own encounter with Jesus we may find ourselves also starting at one or the other of these places. There is the concrete historical person, a man of one place and time, whose teaching and actions belong to that time, but nevertheless point beyond them. And there is that wider reality of the cosmos, the mystery, beauty and curiosity of what is, whose profound reality calls us to think differently about the concrete and the specific.

Augustine, in his Confessions, says he read 'books of the "Platonists," wherein
I found, not indeed in the same words, but to the same effect... that "in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” ...Similarly, I read there that God the Word was born "not of flesh nor of blood, nor of the will of man, nor the will of the flesh, but of God.” But, that "the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us,” was not there.
It is, however, in John, as well as in Hebrews. It is this intersection of timeless mystery and historical existence that undergirds the Gospel. These two books both tell us that the Jesus who led a concrete, enfleshed life in ancient human history is a figure whose significance transcends time; and also that time itself and the universe have mysteries whose exploration leads to back to ourselves, and to him. We can start at either place and make our way to the other; and in both journeys we encounter him who was not just “long ago,” but in whom we all find out own beginning, and our end.

[From a sermon preached at St Luke's Chapel, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, Monday February 16  2015]

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

"If your eye causes you to stumble..." (Mark 9:42-50)

Today's Gospel is of course proof that no-one really takes the whole of Scripture literally. "If your
St Lucy - Domenico di Beccafumi (1521)
hand causes you to stumble, cut if off...if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out!" Of course Jesus can't mean this literally. So we end up with a sense that this text means we have to...get serious about things, or something.

In a public lecture here at the Yale Divinity School last year however, Notre Dame New Testament scholar Candida Moss suggested that the almost universal effort to spiritualize this confronting text from Mark may not be as well grounded as we tend to assume. In "The Righteous Amputees: Salvation & Sinful Body in Mark 9" (which I am hoping may show up as part of a forthcoming book), Moss pointed to evidence that quite a few ancient medical and philosophical commentators could see the removal of an offending body part as appropriate for moral or therapeutic reasons. So - perhaps Jesus meant it too?

I don't recall Moss going in this direction in the lecture, but it has occurred to me that there were many people in a first century Mediterranean setting living in grinding poverty, without adequate health care, and subject to the systematic as well as the arbitrary violence of occupation, who would have found themselves one-handed, one-footed, or one-eyed without having faced any real dilemmas about the matter, prior to being in it at least.

For such hearers of these sayings, their significance was not merely spiritualized, but on the other hand would not in all likelihood have implied the need for further voluntary mutilation. Rather they might have functioned as a sort of beatitude: "you have only one eye? Better far to enter the kingdom with one eye than to be two-eyed and cast into hell." "You have only one foot? Better to stumble towards the kingdom than run towards hell." And so on.

There is certainly something to ponder here regarding disability, but today in a group without such obvious experiences visible, I will fall back on offering us a different version of the spiritualizing route to consider these sayings. While we have hands, eyes, and feet, each of us has experiences of difficulty and suffering which affect our capacity to live, and to serve others. Our psychological or emotional limits, imposed or inherent, can also affect how we perceive ourselves and our capacity to progress to the kingdom. The Gospel however suggests we should take courage however we find ourselves, and use who we are and what we have. It does not mean that suffering or oppression are justified or to be celebrated, but that our real embodied existence, even if it results from them, always offers cause for thanksgiving nonetheless.

The other reading, from 2 Timothy, captures something of this same message, reminding each "Timothy" who apparently lacks confidence not to despise their own gifts; for "God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline" (2 Tim 1:7). So whatever it may be, let us "rekindle the gift of God that is within" us (v.6) as we progress towards the kingdom, just as we are.

[Preached at St Luke's CHapel, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, February 10 2015]

Monday, February 02, 2015

Do Seminaries Have a Future?

Some recent crises in Episcopal seminary education have caught much attention; but the real question for theological education may be more deep-seated than conflicts between Deans, faculty members and trustees.

In remarks given to the Executive Council of TEC last year, the presiding bishop commented favorably on the rise of local non-accredited training programs, and went so far as to say that:

The average Episcopal congregation, with 60 to 70 members attending weekly worship, cannot afford the traditional model of full-stipend paid leadership, a building, and a sufficient program to support its members in their daily baptismal ministry.  Nor can seminary graduates with educational debt afford to work in most of them.[1]

This stark analysis is probably right, but the wrong conclusions could easily be drawn from it. Most importantly, the changes afoot do not mean a simple jump from one universal model of seminary education to another. The challenges for theological education would benefit from being considered in the light of wider education changes too.

A 2013 report from British education policy expert Sir Michael Barber entitled An Avalanche is Coming suggested some of the key issues and prospects for higher education as a whole, while envisaging potential drastic change include closures of some traditional institutions:

  • How can universities and new providers ensure education for employability? 
  • How can the link between cost and quality be broken? 
  • How does the entire learning ecosystem need to change to support alternative providers and the future of work?[2]

These sound familiar, or should; but not even the most alarmist commentator imagines all universities as we currently know them will close, or that distance learning schemes with internships will suddenly replace liberal arts colleges. It will be the same for seminaries. Not all can survive, at least not as we know them now, but some will. While many parishes will seek leadership from part-time and non-stipendiary clergy trained in new ways, many others - not least larger parishes, which will exercise leadership in diocesan communities and other networks – will still require pastors and teachers whose formation will best be undertaken in something resembling traditional educational settings.

The learning ecosystem is indeed changing. A seminary program like that offered by Berkeley at Yale will be (even) more exceptional in future; but far from being less relevant, its work will be even more vital to a changed and changing Church.

[Excerpted from Andrew McGowan’s forthcoming essay in the Journal of Anglican Studies, “Soundings Amid the Avalanche.”]

[1] Katherine Jefferts Schori, ‘Executive Council Opening Remarks’, Accessed January 11 2015.
[2] Barber et al., An Avalanche Is Coming, p. 6.