May 31, 2023

Good Friday

Is 52:13-53:12
Ps 22
Hb 10:16-25
John 18:1-19:42

“By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future?”

Another translation renders the rhetorical question thus: “Who cared about what was to become of him?” Who cares?

It is Friday, Good Friday. Tell me what is so good about it: A poor guy being executed in a mishandling of justice in order to appease rage and fear of the authorities in charge? The offering of a scapegoat to the people to believe that justice was served and sacrifice to God was made? What is good about this Friday when God abandoned the world and the most beloved of its creatures? What is good about this? Are we forgetting Luther’s admonition when he said that a theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil, while a
theologian of the cross calls the thing what it actually is? So tell me what is good about it.

Or call it for what it is. Desolation Friday? Wretched Friday? Agony Friday? But we know better, don’t we? We know that it is good because it bought us our salvation. It is good because God sacrificed the beloved one on our behalf. It is good because on this day our brokenness was atoned. It is good because it made us good in
spite of ourselves. It is good because we know what the outcome is. It is good because tomorrow is Saturday and the alleluias are coming back. We know that it is good because all is well that ends well. And the eggs, chocolate, marzipans are being prepared. It is good because tomorrow is Saturday and Easter Sunday is on the wait. We know that it is good, because after the long readings for today, this is not the end of the story. We know that it is good because there are only some hours to wait for what is sure to come, the Saturday vigil, the intonations of alleluias, and, of course, a good meal with family and friends. It is good, because we know that at the end glory defeats gore, wonder will undo the wound, and splendor will shine over spite. We just know it.

Yes, we know that the story did not end there. But I am afraid we know too much. We know a bit too much. We know the story of Jesus, but not the way we know the story when the results of a blood test, of a scan, or a biopsy say this ominous word “positive.” We know the story of Jesus, but not the way the Haitian or Chilean victims of recent earthquakes knew or even know now theirs. We know the story but not the way the
people of Congo or Afghanistan know theirs; not the way when tragedy visits and tomorrow is an unfathomable thought; not the way the person who receives another decline letter in a row of dozens in applying for a desperately needed job. We know the story of Jesus, but not the way the family and friends of Kaia and herself knew about her story last Friday. We know the story, but not in the way when pain strikes and abandonment is felt quenching the flickering flame of hope’s last candle. We know too much about the story of Jesus, that we don’t care any longer about the journey because we know the destination, the happy port of arrival, the glorious end.

We know too much as to slide over a single word in the long gospel lesson of today, a severe word that is not a transition, but an end. It is one word only in the original text; one word but decisively ultimate: tetelestai, it is finished, it is over. When I think I know the story of Jesus, I realize that I know it because I did not hear or have been cavalier in regard to that one single word, telestai; story, there is no more; not for us; not on Friday!

Here, now is where and when all end. The story is over. Close the book and open your life. It is finished, close the book and open your eyes. It is not too late to take up a Lenten discipline. It is not too late because it is still Friday. It is Friday, and tomorrow we don’t know. This is the discipline: unlearn the story and be
awake. Be attentive; be prayerful, be watchful, as Jesus asked the disciples at Gethsemane. But, alas, they went to sleep, because they thought they knew how the story would end. Their master was the conqueror of the world as they knew it, everything would be alright, so they thought; they knew too much. As the disciples we also know so much about Jesus, or so we think, that we slumber missing the mark of the places where
he is even now, because it is Friday. And late when we awake we will ask in utter surprise and dismay: “When did we not see you?”

Yes, we want to reach glorious Easter Sunday and cling to the enthroned Christ. We know too much about our destination, so much as to be oblivious to the road we totter. And this is why we miss it. How long will it take for me to realize that I cannot reach this Christ; it is in vain as much as I try. At my reach is only the God who came to be by me in the Fridays of my life. The discipline of Lent is to unlearn the story we think we know the end of, while we miss in it the gravity of the one word that encloses it all: tetelestai, it
is finished. The end is right at the center, in middle, in the depth and the heart of our own existence. Cling onto that, that which is nearest to you. Trust that, there alone God is at your grasp. Tetelestai! Dwell in this word. Through it God comes to you.

What follows, and indeed there is more written after that, is the account of witnesses who reporting on a wretched Friday said: There is where I met the one and true God. All the rest that follows sends us back to Friday. The lesson for today is not a prelude, it does not have a point to which it direct us; it does not have a point. It is the point. The words of a poem by Wendel Berry, written shortly after his son died attests to this
discipline of unlearning.
I read of Christ crucified
the only begotten son
sacrificed to flesh and time
and all our woe. He died
and rose, but who does not tremble
for his pain, his loneliness,
and the darkness of the sixth hour?
Unless we grief like Mary
at his grave, giving Him up
as lost, no Easter morning comes.

If this (LSTC) is a place of learning, this learning is made of instructions on unlearning stories that make us slumber and forget that their end is deep down in the middle; there is the point; tetelestai, that is it. Learn this, which Nicholas of Cusa called docta ignorantia, the learned ignorance, the erudite foolishness. Be appeased not for what is to come, but because on a Friday the almighty joined our finitude down to its most bitter end. And when we are asked by the prophet, who cares? We might say while still awake: I do.
Then, maybe then, if Sunday comes we may greet it fully aware of where we dwelt, with tense-ridden words as these (fromWilliam Butler Yeats):
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Preached at LSTC on April 2, 2010 (Good Friday).

Giving out of our Wanting

Mark 12:38-44

As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

“Giving out of our Wanting”

Photography is an art. My respect for it as an art is such that in order to preserve it from banality I neither own nor carry a camera when I travel. If I take a picture I feel like a counterfeiter. Photography is a special artistry. It is an art not because of the labor in portraying fleeting impressions in a permanent image, like a painter would do on a canvas. It is an art more for what you cut out of the picture than for what you allow to
come to light in it. It is the art of cutting. And in the cutting is the proof of the worth of the detail that is presented, and of the skill of the photographer.

Some years ago there was an open exposition of the “work” of a British movie director by the name of Peter Greenaway that I happened to see while in Geneva. It was spread through the streets of the Old Town of Geneva. The exposition was not about the films Greenaway had made or of something else he had produced. Here and there throughout the old town there were booths that he set in strategic points where one could step inside and look through some cut frames in the structure of the booth that would isolate a detail
in the architecture of the city I had visited many times, but started seeing for the first time.

There in the frame would be a stairway in the entrance of a building I had never before paid attention to. Or else it was a window here, an archway there. In another booth, one would see the detail of gargoyle, or the knob on a door. This is the art of the photographer. He did not create anything; his was the art of cutting, the art of preventing our gaze to be absorbed in the immense complexity of perceptions that fill our retina. It is the art of drawing our attention to what would seem an unimportant detail lost in an immensity of impressions. It is in this cutting, in what is excluded that beauty is revealed, an awesome vision that was always there but not really seen because our sight wanders.

Our sight wants it all, and in that misses the essential; the essential that is in the detail. Now consider this scene. There he is, Jesus, sitting opposite to the treasury and watching the multitude pass by and put in their offerings. And this was just after his harsh criticism of the scribes with their pompous attires, unscrupulous dealings and pretentious piety. This was a great opportunity for Jesus, the prophet, the social critic to give yet another dynamic discourse. Did he not make the obvious connection between the temple treasury
that filled up by offering of the ordinary people and the ostentatious life of those who benefited from it? The question was begging. It was all there, the connection was there just waiting to be made. But Jesus did no such thing. Why didn’t Jesus make much of it?

It was an opportunity for making a pronouncement on the tax system, on the practice of tithing and its relation to the structures that benefited from it. Yet, consider Jesus, the photographer. Consider the art of cutting. All relations are suspended; all theories and intricate arguments about how all of this holds together are brought to a halt. There is suddenly only that woman, a widow, singled out among so many anonymous faces. There is suddenly that woman and her gesture of dropping two almost negligible copper coins into the treasury. Where is that money going to go? Has anyone announced the beneficiaries of the day’s offering?

Cut it, and behold the woman dropping two copper coins into the treasury. Should she have looked to the other side and given this money to Jesus and his disciples who certainly would make better use of it?
Cut it, and behold the woman dropping two copper coins into the treasury. Should we inquire into the tithing system and see if justice was being done? Cut it, and behold the woman dropping two copper coins into the treasury. Should we be wondering about what she was going to when she went home? Cut it, and behold the woman dropping two copper coins into the treasury. Fix this picture on your retina, be aware of its frame, be knowledgeable about the cutting, for in the cutting you know that your sight is not going to drift away. Rest your eyes on this picture: a women dropping two copper coins into the treasury. Do you see what she is
wearing? Can you reckon her age by the wrinkles on her face? Can you identify her as a widow, someone not unlike the widow of Zarephath, or the widow Ruth? Can you capture in still motion those two coins falling? Do you see in the releasing of those negligible coins her livelihood being relinquished? Behold that sight and erase everything else. Behold the woman in this frame and cut out all the rest, for in the cutting lies the

Now look closer and consider the hand releasing two almost negligible copper coins ad remember that it came from her want, from her poverty. Is this not a lesson in stewardship? It is indeed a lesson in giving that we will never match because we fail to enter that picture with its sharp black and white definition between giving and wanting, between releasing while not having. The picture is an icon for an ideal we will never
reach while we anonymously follow the procession of those who give out of their excesses? And there is nothing wrong with that. In fact Jesus does not frame the other contributors to the treasury and cross out their picture saying what they did was wrong and what the widow did was right. He only cut them off from the picture because it is beyond right and wrong. It is about the nature of the gift, the nature of giving. It is about giving without reserve. It is about subverting the commerce implied in what we often erroneously call a gift. A gift ceases to be a gift when we expect a return. An expectation of any kind of reciprocity makes it a pay off which in itself destroys the gift. Expressions like,
“They don’t deserve it,”
“What difference is that going to make?”,
“It is not worth,”
“Could he at least say thank-you”
are what we often use in our own bondage to the economy of investment and which we even justify by calling “responsible stewardship.” Most often if not always, we want our donation to make a difference even and above all when our offering is only the two last coins that we have, the two last minutes we have
before rushing to another meeting, or the last two minutes of our afternoon nap time, or just the last two moments with the person that expects from us more than what we want to give. We want our offering to make a difference even when we are giving up something exactly because it won’t make any difference to us. And, this where we miss it all. It is about investment or return. The woman was not “investing” her last two coins, she was giving them, not to make a “difference” but simply to give. She walked away not because she felt good about giving, but because it was goodness that she just gave. Forget about the two coins and look at that woman, the grace shining on her face. It is the grace of heartfelt giving. That is what it is all about.
In the cutting is the proof of the real worth. It does not even need to be the last two coins.

It does not need to be the last two minutes; it does not need to be the last of anything. The lesson of stewardship lies not in what you give. It is not in the difference it makes nor is it in its worth. It is quite to the contrary. The lesson lies in the freedom of the gift, the freedom of the giving, the gesture itself. It is about the simple act of releasing the gift knowing that all the rest, all the economy that tries to arrest and to control the gift has been erased, cut off from the picture, so that the detail remains as the only essential thing.

Behold that woman. Can we see the hands opening in a gesture without reserve letting go of two small copper coins which for her were so precious? Can we see in her face the total absence of any question about what difference that single gesture would make? If you see this you have a picture for a word humankind has vainly attempted to define, but one you will not fail to recognize: freedom. Freedom is a word that belongs to another economy, a mad economy of total expenditure without return, without investment. It is a
word that belongs to an economy in which power divests itself in weakness, in which Wisdom gave herself as foolishness. And we call this freedom.

A poem by Michel Deguy elegantly captures this
Giving is the formula
the exchange without market …
abundance of incomparables without measure taken in common,
a barter where the garlic flower changes into what is not refused
What do you desire to give
It’s the gesture that counts.”

Consider these women, the widow from Zarephath, sharing the last handful of flourl and the remaining drops of oil. Consider Ruth, giving up the security of her people for the mother-in-law she loved, and consider the woman releasing two copper coins into the treasury. They knew about an economy that has never been granted a single Noble prize, at least not in economy. That is why those women are called free.

Be not alone, and not have alone what you possess

Deuteronomy 26: 1-11
When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, ‘Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.’ When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your God: ‘A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labour on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.’ You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down
before the Lord your God. Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.

Luke 4: 1-13
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.” ’ Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” ’

Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you,
to protect you”, and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’

Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’ When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

Be not alone, and not have alone what you possess

For forty days was Jesus alone in the desert with the devil as his only company, which we shall see, is no company at all. Company, “com-pane,” means “sharing the bread.” And the devil, might wear Prada, but does not eat bread, much less share it. Yet the devil knows that God enjoys bread to the point of becoming bread when shared. But when you are sick you don’t feel like eating bread or anything. And God, who loves to share bread, became sick for forty days and did not eat a crumb, or share a loaf. Jesus was sick, terribly sick. For forty days Jesus was tempted as we are when we are sick, really sick. For forty days God was in quarantine. These were the trials of Jesus during those forty days: One, the third listed temptation, was to get out of it, as in now.

Get out of it; angels will deliver. But God did not do what mortals cannot; bypass the cycle it takes for an illness to run its course or else get special medical treatment reserved for a few. Without health care for all, not for me, said God. And Jesus underwent the full course of that trial. The second temptation was to sell his soul in order to get something accomplished, to have dominion and do some good. How much could have been
accomplished for the betterment of humankind if that would have been conceded and humankind enslaved to Christ? Dostoevsky’s Great Inquisitor raises this charge against Christ: “Had you accepted Caesar’s purple, You would have founded an universal empire and given people everlasting peace.” But Jesus chose freedom and that is why God is still being crucified by those who have dominion. The Zealot and philanthropically minded Great Inquisitor ends his interrogation of Jesus with this verdict: “… by coming here, You have made our task more difficult. For if anyone has ever deserved our fire, it is You, and I shall have you burned tomorrow. Dixit!” (I have spoken!)

But the first temptation that is listed was to get himself some bread. Jesus’ response came out of the book of Deuteronomy: “One does not live by bread alone.” How do we read this? Is it something like “In addition to bread there are others things that also matter, like the word of God”? If the word “alone” here would mean “Yes, but other things too,” then this does not make sense, for there was no harm in getting some bread provided that the word of God would still be heard. Why would Jesus refuse bread altogether? Didn’t he even multiply loaves of it and fish for himself and the people to be fed? Because “alone” here means: “only by oneself.” What Jesus said was “one does not live alone with bread.”

One does not live if bread is kept by and to oneself only. And Jesus was alone in the desert, only the devil was by him. But the devil is no companion, for the devil does not eat bread, much less share it. Life comes with the sharing. A gift is only life giving when it does not stand alone but when it produces a generous spirit of companionship, born out of the sharing of it. When we say bread alone, it means bread that is not shared, and if not shared it is not life giving. The synoptic parallels in Matthew and Mark say that after this
temptation of having bread alone, angels came and waited on him. Angels are those who share bread, and they shared it with Jesus; the alien was hosted in the land of those who share bread. This is why they were called angels. They shared God with their bread. And Jesus communed.

A couple of weeks ago we heard a well known US senator declare: “The terrorists do not deserve the rights before the law that Americans enjoy.” USA alone has become the creed. But when rights are not shared it is unrighteousness. If not shared it is not life giving. When might is alone, it does not empower; it dismembers the body.

In what is regarded by scholars as possibly the oldest confession of the faith in the Jewish-Christian tradition, these words were said when gifts were brought to the altar to be shared: “A wandering Aramean was by ancestor… and he lived as an alien.” Arameans were a semi-nomadic people scattered through the Fertile Crescent developing a civilization of renown. Even if facing empires from the east to the west they themselves never built any empire, never consolidated their power so as to have it alone. Their contribution was a language that for a millennium was the lingua franca of the Fertile Crescent. They communicated, and in that they shared not least the very language through which God’s gift was once given. Aramaic was after all the language of Jesus.

There was a time when God spoke to us in Aramaic. It was the wrapping in which God’s gift was presented, and it still comes to us when God speaks Spanish, Malayalam, Korean, Swahili, or even English. The remembrance of the ancestors of the faith as wanderers in foreign land, be it Abraham and Sarah, the nomadic aliens, or Isaac, or Jacob, or Joseph, or Moses, the adopted child without birthright is pertinent here. They were the founders of the faith because they knew how to be guests as strangers in foreign lands, as resident aliens. They ground the faith because they learned the life-giving act of sharing, of companionship of
receiving and giving forth the bread that gives life and is passed on and is not kept to oneself alone. And the recitation of this confession is an act of remembrance of what made the faith. The confession was to be said when the people who were settled in a land now of their own brought forth the fruits of their harvest to the temple to be shared with the Levites and the aliens that resided in the land. Levites who took care of the temple received their share for they were the only tribe among the twelve of Israel to whom no portion of land was allotted. Although they belong to the people, their dispossession was the occasion for the faith to be practiced. The aliens were the very reminders from where the Israelites came from, for they, i.e., the aliens, are who their ancestors have been: wanderers. Consider, then this shortest definition of the living tradition of the faith: aliens. They are those to whom the gratitude for the gift of faith is due. The dispossessed and foreigners are the living ancestors that ground the practice of the faith. If you want go deep into the most arcane layers of the foundations of the faith that holds and sustains us, you need not be an archeologist, you just need a door unbolt and a heart ajar. You just need to be not alone, and not have alone what you possess.

We entered the season of Lent with these two texts we heard: on the sharing of the gift, and the gift of sharing. It has been a custom in Christian circles to give up something during lent. But this is not its deeper meaning. If I give up chocolate, I might still stay with the rest I indulge in by myself, alone. It is about sharing: sharing bread, sharing the cup, sharing rights, sharing power, sharing knowledge, sharing justice, sharing time, sharing place, sharing peace, sharing an embrace.

In this season of Lent we are called to remember how faith comes to us. It comes to us because of the gift of sharing and the very sharing of God’s own self, for even God is not alone, and this is the mystery of the Trinity. God shares God-self in Jesus and becomes a creature, giving out everything, in every respect, including death. (Yes, God shares Godself in our tombs.) And so God is in the sharing of the bread broken and given to each of us with the words: this is God’s body given for you. And so it is through all creation and
every creature in and through which God distributes God’s own self. And only because of this can we say “Christ alone,” (solus Christus) for this “alone” and only this is the name we give for the sharing of God’s own self, with whom we become companions.

Baptism of tears

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’ Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved;* with you I am well pleased.’

January 10, 2007 (ELCA)
Baptism of Tears
Not all was calm and quiet on that day on the banks of Jordan. Amidst the tweeting of birds and the sound of gushing water was the thundering voice of the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah proclaiming a baptism of repentance. Clad in camel’s hair with Jordan’s water dripping down his raised hands and the smell of wild honey teasing the air, neither John’s figure nor his personality was much alluring to the passers by. But there was something about him; something that drew people into the waters of Jordan and be immersed by water and tears of penance. What was it? What is so unforgettable about John?

In the many paintings that portray him through the centuries, what is most impressive is not his beard, his hair, or the skin garment he wore, but his eyes. One must picture the eyes of John the Baptist. One must imagine those eyes whose gaze, once laid upon someone, burns. Envision those eyes, even when forcibly closed after his beheading still portrayed as that which holds the gaze. A burning gaze, a prophet’s gaze, once encountered cannot be forgotten. Prophets see and what they see is what the ideologues and the propaganda mongers of the day so much want to veil from us; so that even when we have sight we often lack the vision. But prophets see even when they are blinded.

They see for us and we see through them. Their eyes ask us: do you know what you see; do you see what you know? We don’t see because we often don’t want to know; we don’t know because we don’t want to see. However, prophets are those who know and see.

Because they know and see, prophets must speak, they must name the reality for what it is. A prophet, in the words of Luther, is the one who “calls the thing what it actually is.” Or as Brazilian Bishop Pedro Casaldáliga phrased it with poetic poignancy, “prophets are those who scream out through their eyes.” John was a seer, he saw hideous things that the party line cant, the proverbial “bread and circus” (and let’s not forget war), veiled and hid. John let people see through his eyes.

The gruesome images that flashed on the screen of those prophetic eyes were a bolt from the blue and shook them out of their stupor. It cut through the hardened hearts and brought about tears of repentance and regeneration that prepared the way, removed the veil of deception to let the messiah come in. He flung open the gates that were shut down and protected by those in power who were, in days of old even as now, self-proclaimed guardians of these doors that shut out the vision of what is to come. But the messiah came
and he comes, and will come whenever and wherever there is prophecy and the vision it engenders. This vision, the shock of seeing reality for what it is produces repentance.

Repentance! This is the word that is for ever associated with the message of John the Baptist: repent and bear fruits of repentance. To “repent” means to ponder again. Ponder again that which we did not see, because, in denial we did not want to or else were prevented from seeing. Be it in personal lives, in the family, in society, in the workplace, in the home, on the streets, and, in our beset political reality, there is so much we don’t see, and we don’t even know it and we don’t know it because we don’t see. We don’t know it as long as the words of prophecy are muted and the vision sightless. The question is whether we can ponder back our lack of vision and listen to the outcry in the eyes of the prophets trying to convey the vision and make us see so that we may live and not perish. As the book of Proverbs (29:18) so well said it: “Without a prophetic vision the people go astray.” Indeed, without vision, there is no hope. But hope to be truly hope
needs to be honest about the way of the world, needs to be sincere about things as they are, needs repentance.

The Reformers of the 16th century defined repentance in this way: “[it] consists of two parts: one is contrition or the terrors that strike the conscience when sin is recognized; the other is faith, which is brought to life by the gospel … and liberates us from [those] terrors.” And don’t we know what happens when our conscience is not struck by terror.

We get terrorism! And so we miss the passing of the messiah now as many missed him at the time of his flesh because they could not see him. What does it take us not to miss the passing of the messiah? What is required of us to enable us to see the prophetic vision? It takes some baptismal tears, some rueful rivulets of tears, not to close the eyes to the coming of the messiah. In the words of the Mexican poet León Felipe, who knew this power of baptism, “All the light of the Earth / everyone shall see / through the window /
of the drop of a tear.”

This is what repentance is about; it is about the gaze to the new that comes. It is the gate through which the messiah comes to lead us out of the maze we find ourselves, as it became flesh in one among those in the crowd John baptized, Jesus the Messiah, the Immanuel, God with us. Through him the incandescent, the fiery power of the Spirit came upon the people on that occasion, even as it comes upon us now when we listen to
the prophets and learn how to see. But you won’t have Jesus if you don’t first stare at the eyes of John.
Even after John proclaimed to all as to who the messiah was, did the people see the messiah? Of course not! The ones who saw were only those with the waters of the Jordan still dripping down their faces as tears of repentance. The fiery power of the Spirit was present among them embodied in an ordinary man who for some thirty years lived among them as one of them, but only very few could see who he was. Why did it take so long for many to realize who that man living with them and sharing their ordinary lives was?

Because they were not prepared! The work of repentance was yet to begin. We see when the water that repentance brings to our eyes cleanses the soggy mass of images that are produced for blinding us and exploring our fears. It is not fear but tears that allow us to see the messiah and bring us the true gifts of the Spirit, a life giving vision.

Thirty years was the son of God unseen among God’s people until that day when people repented and saw in the tearful depth of the ordinary, the very presence of God dwelling among them. The words of John were sharp and pitiless. He called the crowd that gathered around him a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 3:7; Luke 3:7) in urgent need of repentance. And many, tells us the gospels, with contrite hearts came down to the river to be baptized. And among them, among all those sinners in need of repentance, was Jesus. Jesus came to the
baptism of repentance!

So, what was the son of God doing as he lined up for baptism in that procession of sinners needing repentance? God became a repenter who needed no repentance, or as Paul said, became sin who knew no sin (2 Corinthinas 5:21). God in Jesus joined the “brood of vipers” and went to baptism, the baptism of repentance. The one who needed no penance became the penitent; the one who needed no tears joined the tears of the world; the one who could see took upon our eyes and joined us in gazing through tears, as if through fine lenses, into a kingdom of justice, peace, and joy in the Spirit (Romans 14: 17).

This is the difference between the baptism of John and the baptism of Jesus. John asked people to turn around and take a new way; Jesus in his baptism became the way. Jesus’ baptism marks the moment in which the Immanuel, ordinarily already in the life of his people and also in the midst of our lives, becomes visible as the way into the extraordinary reality of God’s kingdom. And as Jesus with water dripping like tears from his face saw the heavens open and the Sprit of God descending, so shall we be granted that sight. Such is the promise entailed in our baptism. And to this baptism we return every time we repent and ask for God’s forgiveness. By joining the crowd of penitents God revealed that the extraordinary was not above and beyond the ordinary and messed up lives of people then and now, but in the very depth and brokenness from which tears spring and the waters of baptism flow again. To use this oldest of Christian symbols, God in Christ is the fish that swims in the river of our tears.

If the image surprises you, consider what he may have been meaning when Jesus said that his kingdom was not of this world. He did not mean that it was in the flat upstairs, in the high-rise mansion by the lake, but in the very depth of the world into which Jesus plunged on that day by the river Jordan. And he is here by us immersed in the very depth of our distress, in the deep waters in which we drown and he brings us back to life, to the life of the Spirit, the “giver of life.”

Heed the call, come and see, with the waters of baptism still dripping; come and see God immersed among us; come and see the gifts of tears.

Ash Wednesday

Photo of a little white wooden church in the countryside.

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

‘So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

‘And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you ‘And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting
may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Ash Wednesday, 1994
Neither about Ashes nor about Crosses
Now consider these words of the Gospel reading: Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. When you do good don’t do it for others to see it. When you pray or when you fast don’t do it for others to notice and admire you. This appears to be a lesson on humility, does it not? And if it were would it not be strange that on the day we are reminded not to show our piety in public we would walk around with crosses of ash on our forehead?

This text is not exactly about some practical advises on how we should go about practicing our piety, exercising our benevolence. The text is not about carrying or not of a cross of ashes on our forehead. The text chosen for Ash Wednesday is neither about ashes and nor about crosses. It is much more radical than that. Economy is what this text is about. It is about two economic systems that oppose each other. The word economy literally means the administration or the management of the household. Jesus here sets two systems of management over against each other. One refers to the management of the ways in which the world works. You do something for the sake of receiving a reward. The rule is the one of exchange and the goal is for one to gain as a result. That is what we call profit. All of us know these two rules well in most of what we do everyday. One goes to work and does one’s job in exchange for a reward that is called the wage, that is, the salary one receives. She/he then goes to the market and exchange it for some milk, bread, rice, meat or whatever they need. One turns on the light in the house, or the furnace to get heat or gas, and will be charged for it at the end of the month. In the process, the difference between what you get and what you had to expend is called profit. And profit is what makes some people rich and others poor, those who gain more than they give up, and those that give up more than they gain. As we all know the household of this world works like this: the better you know the rules of the market and the better positioned you are in the process of exchange, the greater the profit. The least positioned you are the more impoverished you become up to the point of giving your life, selling your strength, your own physical existence just to survive and keep afloat.

The Gospel message is not about giving up and going out of the world to live in a community that would organize itself in another way. The message has to do with seeing new ways in which the household of this world can be transformed, of having a vision of another household, the household of God. The words of Jesus show us where this new vision starts. It starts in our relationship with the least ones and then unfolds itself into our relationship to God. That is where we ought to be practicing a new economy instead of doing what the hypocrites do trying to make some profit even out of those pretentious gestures of being pious, giving alms or praying and fasting. By inserting these gestures in an economy of profit they lost the vision. Through his words Jesus remind us that there indeed is a different economy, not the economy of profit, but the economy of the gift. A gift, to be truly a gift, should not expect a return. If a gift is given in the expectation of even a simple “thank you” it is no longer a pure gift. A gift is what is given without the thought of reciprocity, or even the thought of a return gesture. Therefore, the perfect gift is the one that you don’t even know how to return. It is a gift given freely, that frees you from any obligation. It is given in such a way that others might not even know who the giver is. However, God who sees in secret will know and will reward the giver. But how does this work? And what kind of reward is that? No, it is not that your name is going to be written in the book of life. That has already been done in your baptism. God has already told you freely, without any charge: “you are my beloved child.” There are different interpretations of how the early witnesses may have recounted these words. Some of the early witnesses say that Jesus’ words were that God who sees in secret will reward openly so that this reward is something you are going to enjoin not as an invisible spiritual sort of reward, but as a visible gift. That would mean that it is something that is going to make a visible difference in your life. And to say that it is God’s gift, would mean that it does not need to be returned, it is yours freely. If it were John or Mary who would be giving you the gift the economy of this world would tell you that somehow you owe something back to him or her. But if it is from God, though it might come through the hands of John or Mary, it is a gift, and you don’t owe anything back. This is the economy of the gift. If one gives without establishing a negotiation, without expecting a return and a profit, then one will also be the recipient of a gift that does not expect a pay back. This is the vision of how the divine household is managed; this is the economy of the gift. And we know only too well how difficult it is sometimes to just let go of the economy of the world. And, often, it is more difficult to receive freely than it is to give freely. We are afraid to receive freely because the economy of the world tells us that if we receive something we are by design in debt. The invitation of the Gospel is for us to let go of this way of thinking and just learn how to give and receive freely with grace.

A poem byWendell Berry aptly describes the economy of this gift:

By expenditure of hope,
Intelligence, and work,
You think you have it fixed.
It is unfixed by rule.
Within the darkness, all
Is being changed, and you
Also will be changed.
Now I recall to mind
A costly year:
But won’t you be ashamed
To count the passing year
At its mere cost, your debt
Inevitably paid?
For every year is costly,
As you know well. Nothing
Is given that is not
Taken, and nothing taken
That was not first a gift.
The gift is balanced by
Its total loss, and yet,
And yet the light breaks in,
Heaven seizing its moments
That are at once its own
And yours. …..

So, friends, the season of lent that begins today is not about showing sorrow that others will notice, it is not about making public penitence. Hypocrites, said Jesus, can do pretty well at that and even end up making some profit out of it. The season of lent is really about the practice of resurrection, of doing the thing that does not compute, of loving who might not be lovable, of giving a flower that will soon fade and cannot be returned. It is like what those women in the Gospel who after their friend was crucified went to their houses to prepare spices and ointment to be spent in a dead body and a decaying flesh, just to be spent as a gift without return. At their houses they were managing the household of God. This is the practice of resurrection, and it was because of that act that they were the ones to first witness the resurrection.

The ashes that we carry on our forehead today are not an act of public penance for us to boast about our piety. They are nothing but a reminder that what seems to be worthless, worthless like ashes, worthless like someone who is unable to return our gift, worthless for the economy of this world is what God sees as having inestimable value. The vision of God’s economy is exactly this invitation to invest in ashes, in that which has no return, has no interest rate to profit from. Let us practice resurrection and God who sees in secret
will reward us openly, as openly as an empty tomb on a bright Sunday morning.

Abram, the late bloomer


Genesis 12: 1-4
The Call of Abram
Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’
So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy five years old when he departed from Haran.

Abram, the late bloomer

If the word is the Word of God, this word is Christ for you and me, for “faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.” (Rom 10:17)
Now, this is what is called a late bloomer. The man was 75 when he finally packed up and left home. 75 years old was Abram when he finally left the nest. We should not blame him, however, for it is better late than never. And, after all, the man still had one hundred years in front of him. Home is always home, the place where one has a name and a set of relations which build around a person a sense of belonging and recognition. Home is the name of a place in which the heart is best placed. Home is not simply a dwelling, but can also be a place that is brutal and abusive. Home is a word that should be saved from the mouth of those who traffic self-interest, abuse and exploitation. Home is the place we come from and has made us what we are. And home is the name of a place to which we seek to return. As Robert Frost put it: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Coming home is hardly a theme that has been missed by any great poet, since Homer made it into the classic motif of his Odyssey. But coming home can be a frightening experience because it might not be the return to the life left behind if there ever was one. Emily Dickinson said it well:

I Years had been from Home
And now before the Door
I dare not enter, lest a Face
I never saw before
Stare stolid into mine
And ask my business there—
“My business but a life I left
Was such remaining there?”
I fitted to the Latch
My Hand, with trembling care
Lest back the awful Door should spring
And leave me in the floor—
Then moved my fingers off
As cautiously as Glass
And held my ear, and like a Thief
Fled gasping from the House—

This is the fear of having a home turned into a bare house. Home is the name of the place that we long for but are afraid to know whether it is still there, whether it ever was. There is anxiety in homecoming, the anxiety of re-encountering a past long gone–memories rekindled by rooms, smells, and familiar touches. But fear arrives when there is no longer the home longed for, nothing that triggers that which memory resurrects. So tells us Langston Hughes in his poem “Homecoming”:

I went back in the alley
And I opened up my door.
All her clothes was gone:
She wasn’t home no more.
I pulled back the covers,
I made down the bed.
A whole lot of room
Was the only thing I had.

Homecoming is such an inspirational motif to depict the bliss of a haven for the weary soul because, and only because there is “home-leaving.” In English, “homecoming” is a noun, “home-leaving” is not. Home-leaving is a description of our existence. It conveys, rather, a condition. Home-leaving is a predicament. It tells us that we long for home while we do not belong in the walks of our prodigal lives. From Adam and Eve to Jesus
the biblical story is one of home-leaving. The couple leaving the Garden, the other one being sent from home to be born in a barn among beasts, flies and manure and having no place to lay his head, but a cold stone in a tomb somewhere in Jerusalem.

Between Eve and Adam and Jesus, we have this story of the home-leaving of Abram. It is the same motif with similar fates of restlessness and homelessness. Home-leaving is our condition. It is, as it was for Abram, what we have to do. Willingly or unwillingly we have been thrown out. Leaving home is the law, the law in its all encompassing sense: it is a demand, it is a requirement, it is a judgment and no one escapes from it. Even if you remain under the same roof, you leave home. You have already left home. I am not a prophet of doom but this is what I need to tell you: we are homeless. But we fancy a return, a home coming. We all plan for next Sunday, the next vacation, the retirement plan which are nothing but homecoming economics. The discussion about provident fund, social security, is so charged because we suspect someone might be meddling with

But not all can even afford to be into homecoming economics. There are those who don’t even dream of home anymore, for whom home is an abstraction if there ever was one. What distinguishes some of us from others is that there are those who don’t have a roof over their heads. Others don’t have a legal ground under their feet. Many had to cross national borders; they are the scores of migrants that live under laws and regimes they have not chosen because they were already left without a choice. Others are institutionalized or else living in a railway station/park close by.

We don’t know the circumstances under which Abram had to leave home at the age of seventy five. We only know that he also did not have a homecoming economics. At seventy five, the so-called father of three monotheistic faiths is known to have had a call. We don’t know whether he went through some sort of a psychological evaluation, a confessions class, or a candidacy committee to confirm his sense of calling. It is rather irrelevant. We only know that Abram had to go. He had been sent. He had a mission. Yet it was not a mission to be accomplished and then come back home armored in an aircraft carrier. As beautiful as this story may sound today, there is nothing romantic about it.

Abram had to go without a strategy for a return. God had sent him, and he knew it. So, unlike Ulysses, this fictional character who would have been a close contemporary of Abram, Abram was not given a return ticket. There is no homecoming in Abram’s story. His mission was not to be accomplished. In this he shares the story of so many migrants, homeless folks, the institutionalized that have no idea what is to come tomorrow, no
Penelope waiting for them, no home to go back to. Abram went wandering to lands he did not know, toward a place he would only know once he had reached it. Like many of the displaced people of this world, Abram knew that once he left home there would be no home anymore, only other fences to cross, other closed doors to knock at, other languages to learn, other accents to be acquired, other strangers to befriend, other foes to be hurt by, other expectations to be met, other laws to be obeyed, other laws … and the law is always something that is the inescapable other that condemns us to homelessness. Unlike Ulysses who was bound to come home, or so he thought, Abram was not. Abram was sent off, and that was it. This is why Abram’s story is called a story of faith, while Homer’s Odyssey is a story of fate. Abram had a mission the end of which he did not even know. If you are heading back home, meet fate as Ulysses came to know it. But if you are leaving home without a return strategy in place, it is by faith alone. Fate is the destiny of those who believe in homecoming only to find “a whole lot of room.” But faith is the lot of those who know there is no homecoming. Faith is a venture to the unknown, to the frailty and vulnerability of being homeless and alone. Faith is a mission whose end you will only know when you get there and you will not be responsible for its success, for you will not find it, it will find you. In the twelfth century a monk called Hugh phrased this journey of faith rather well when he said: “persons who find their own countries sweet are rather naïve, those for whom every other country is like their own are good people, but perfect in faith are those for whom the whole world is a foreign country.”

That is the Abrahamic faith. Take the road and know that the end of your mission is not something you will not achieve but is already waiting for you, waiting in the embrace of others who welcome you as one of their own and you will be for them a blessing as Abram was. Your mission is not yours, it is a pro-missio, a promise that will lead you to places you had never known or ever expected to reach. And once there, you will know
what coming home really means for those who like Abram leave home without a return strategy. Home is a stranger’s smile, an unfamiliar couch to seat on, a bench in the park shared with a friend. In faith we leave home as if never to return again in order to know that if there is a real homecoming it is to be blessed by those you never met before, and to be a blessing to those who you might never see again. Then even old home might be home and not simply a “whole lot of room.” This homecoming, for those who walk in faith, is to be back to places one has never known before. It is to be welcome and welcoming of others. It is to know a stranger and call her sister, call him brother. All of this while being what the early Christian communities were often called: those of the Way or those of the Road. Yes, homeless we are, we hit the road and if we only give up trying to do homecoming economics we will not miss the blessings of the promise that we have all inherited from our common ancestor in the faith: we will be blessed and be a blessing for others. And we will not, will never, walk alone.


Photo of a little white wooden church in the countryside.

“The logos tou staurou is an incision through the assumed contiguity between rationality and divine wisdom. It defies any attempt to conclude meaning, for the boundary ground on which it stands is not fixed; it is semantically ambivalent and unsettled. God’s wisdom is to be received only kata stauron, according to the cross or from the perspective of the cross.”

“The living church is to the forms of its self-representation what a parasite is to its host; the orchid that blooms would not have a “presence” but for the tree that hosts it, yet it does not blossom because of the tree. The host is the law, but the bud and its blossoming are the gospel.”



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Westhelle Turf

Photo for Back Cover

Vítor Westhelle is what one could call a vivacious mélange in the theological world. Professor of Systematic Theology at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, over the years his voice has shaped the works of many a theologian. He is a gifted teacher with the soul of a poet adept at playing different keys of the theological ivories. Westhelle advocates the inclusion of all peoples challenging the church to be a communicative reality that embraces oneness and difference. While immersed in the traditions of the church his theologizing is one that allows the cries of the poor to interrupt traditioned listening so that God’s voice might be heard again.

Westhelle is an internationally sought-out speaker and a well known writer with over 150 scholarly publications. He has served on various committees and consultations of the Lutheran World Federation and currently serves on the editorial board of eight different journals spanning three continents. In a vocational journey spanning four continents and serving in several faculties of theology for the last quarter of a century, he is trying, in his words, “to learn not to be everywhere, but bring to where I am every place there is in me.”

Westhelle’s classrooms are interactive forums where students begin to understand crucial issues and learn ways of addressing them. They say, “He instills in us the longing to live and let live the immensity of God’s creation; he teaches us how to conduct the practice of theology with an energy that is permeated with both mind and heart as embodied humans!”