Let the dead bury the dead

I go to church most weeks and I’m not always sure why. Sometimes I go because I’ve been asked to do something specific like read a poem or help coordinate the evening. Other times I go because I want to see people and share a meal and resist the isolating effects of the city and my psyche. Often I go because my church is a beautiful community and I want to help that community thrive. But in all these reasons there is something deeper that calls me, and I’m rarely sure what that is. It’s by going that I find out.

I know why I went this week.

This week we read from the Gospel of Matthew and heard Jesus admonish those who would follow him to do so directly, and to let the dead bury the dead.

And then, during a time of reflection after the sermon, my pastor put the question to us, to me:

“What is dead in your life that you don’t need to bury?”

Not “Have you experienced the death of something?”

Not “What do you need to let go of, what do you need to let die?”

Not “What isn’t really a death, but a beginning for new life?”

Not “What death do you need to accept?”

Rather, “What is dead in your life that you don’t need to bury?”

It was the kind of question that struck me at an intuitive level before I knew how to articulate my response. What struck me first was that the question didn’t linger on whether there were dead things in my life. No time for hemming and hawing about what’s not dead yet. The question confronted me: “There are corpses in your life. We’re starting with that truth.”




Will Schaff. Click to enlarge.



There was no question that death had not shown mercy. It wasn’t up to me to let anything die. Death had done its work and now was the time for me to do mine.

We were given sheets of paper to write down our responses, and all the dead in my life came tumbling out onto the page. My sense of failing others when my marriage failed. My repeatedly crushed hopes for affirmation from my father. The ridiculous expectations I continue to burden myself with because I am a stereotypical first-born. My unkindness to myself for this ridiculousness. My unkindness to others because of my unkindness to myself. All the neatly stacked corpses.




Will Schaff. Click to enlarge.



I’ve tried to bury the dead for years, but they keep rising from the grave. Dead sorrows can’t be drowned. At some point, I began dragging the dead around with me as if they were some sort of badge of honor, to show how “real” and “honest” and “deeply human” I was. I accepted these deaths boldly and wasn’t that kind of bad-ass of me? I was so hardcore.




Will Schaff. Click to enlarge.



It seems to me now that I needed the dead to prove I was living. But as long as my focus was on the dead, I wasn’t actually taking the risks and exposing myself to the vulnerability of living, let alone the hazards of following the call I heard in Christ’s words. You can’t risk death until you’ve fully embraced life.

I didn’t need to deny the dead, I didn’t need to accept the dead. I didn’t need to get closure. Instead, I needed to let the dead remain unresolved, to let the dead bury the dead.

In his collection of essays titled “The Examined Life,” psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz writes against the notion of closure. Contra the work of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, he writes: “My experience is that closure is an extraordinarily compelling fantasy of mourning. It is the fiction that we can love, lose, suffer and then do something to permanently end our sorrow. We want to believe we can reach closure because grief can surprise and disorder us – even years after our loss.”

Not closure, then, but openness. Following where Christ is leading me, even if I’m not sure where that is or exactly why I’m following. Trusting that in seeking, I’ll find what I need to keep going.




Will Schaff. Click to enlarge.



This is my Body: Deconstruction, Eucharist, and Community

I’ve been meaning to post this here for some time! This is the revised version of the paper that Keegan Osinski and I presented at AAR last November. The paper explores Derridean ideas at play in the liturgy at St. Lydia’s and at ikonnyc.

Audio from the panel is available at Homebrewed Christianity:


This is my Body: Deconstruction, Eucharist, and Community

Presented by Joel Avery and Keegan Osinski

“Caputo and Derrida in Actual Churches:
Exploring the Influence of (a stream of) Postmodern Thought on Christian Practices”

Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion
Saturday November 23, 2013

The way Derrida speaks of language and text begs to be explored in terms of the sign and symbol of sacrament in liturgy. Though not identifying as a Christian, Derrida plays with ideas of interacting and repeating word and gesture and the temporality and inherent repetition of text that echo profoundly in church sanctuaries as congregations partake in the sacrament of Eucharist. In this paper we will explore Derridean notions of the Eucharist, vis-à-vis John Caputo, and show at length how they are at work at St. Lydia’s, an ELCA-affiliated dinner church, and how they play out differently in the work of ikonNYC. First we will talk about the act of liturgical repetition, followed by the deconstructive notion of Real Presence, then the rupturing power of a ruptured liturgy, and finally the way community can flourish in the challenges of difference.


As Derrida returned to Plato’s writings throughout his life, looking for moments of aporia in each new reading, so too Christians, returning time and again to the Eucharist, open themselves to the possibility of encountering the body of Christ in the presence of the stranger in each gathering. The repetition of liturgy, week in and week out, which may seem like rote and empty ritual, is in fact the mechanism that allows the event to take place. It is the return every morning to find that, yet again, manna has appeared and is ready to be gathered—just enough for each person’s need, leaving open what may become in the future. Manna’s very name is a question—“What is this?”—and cannot be hoarded or contained. It is the daily bread of questions, of uncertainties, of possibilities (Chauvet 1995).

The liturgy is the path we travel together, unsure where it will take us, though it is the same path we have taken for years. Faithfully returning, we take the chance of meeting a stranger on this familiar way—a stranger who could be the Other, the Christ, or even the Self. Stranger still, these three could all be one. Caputo says that “by virtue of repetition, the individual is able to press forward, not toward sheer novelty which is wholly discontinuous with the past but into the being which he himself is. By repetition the individual becomes himself, circling back on the being which he has been all along” (Caputo, Radical Hermeneutics 1987, 12). We can take this to mean that by the repetition of Eucharist, the individual becomes him- or herself, a member of the body of Christ—the being which, as a child of God, he or she has been all along, and indeed is still becoming every day and in each gathering. It is the same journey—the same liturgy—that has been engaged by Christians for centuries, and so retains a link to the past while perpetually becoming new into the future.

On the path of liturgy, we face the uncertainty that marks any journey, even familiar ones. And we must be open to possible detours or obstacles we meet along the way, or else never leave home at all. The text of the liturgy, “as a ‘work,’ unfolds before the reader as a possibility” (Chauvet 1995, 68). And it is the repeated return to the possibility of permutation that allows the Eucharist to do its deconstructive work.


St. Lydia’s, a dinner church in Brooklyn, is one place where the possibilities of the path of liturgy are being explored.

Lydians gather to set a table and prepare a meal. Celebration of the Eucharist runs through the entire gathering: the preparation of the food, the breaking of bread to open the meal, the time shared in conversation over dinner, the reading of scripture and the sharing of a sermon, communal responses to the scripture and sermon, offering of prayers, reading of poetry, the sharing of the cup, and the clean-up that closes the time together. All aspects of the gathering are understood as the unfolding of the Eucharist.

The repetition of preparation, celebration, and conclusion (with an invitation to return) occurs in a context that shifts with each gathering. We never know who we will share table with, or where the conversation will go. Although we may know the path, we don’t know who we will encounter there, and how these encounters may alter what we think we know about the path itself. As Caputo observes, “Even to repeat “exactly the same thing” is to repeat it in a new context which gives it new sense” (Caputo, Radical Hermeneutics 1987, 142).

In some ways, there is a comfortable predictability to dinner at St. Lydia’s, yet this is a path without guardrails. To share this meal is to become open to the known and unknown Other, the possibility of encountering someone new at the table (or in ourselves), the possibility of encountering something difficult, something that may change what we think we know and who we think we are, to be open to the ever-present possibility of encountering the presence of something real.


When people come to the table, they create space for the possibility of something deeper than historical recollection to occur in this meal.

Liturgy creates a rupture in the everyday where we are faced with the presence of the absence of God and are invited to recognize that we may fill this space as the body of Christ. The trick is to abide in the absence willingly, because the absence is where truth may be found.

Referring to the disciples who greet Jesus as a stranger on the Road to Emmaus and their meal with him in which he is revealed, Louis-Marie Chauvet points out that “their eyes are opened to an emptiness—‘he vanished from their sight’—but an emptiness full of presence” (Chauvet 1995, 170). The moment these disciples truly see and experience that it is Jesus who is present is the moment he vanishes. This negative theophany returns in the eucharistic liturgy, where the presence of Jesus is experienced in the broken bread, in the poured out cup, in the gaps that appear to make space for the possibility of the event.

Chauvet calls the liturgy a “powerful pedagogy where we learn to consent to the presence of the absence of God, who obliges us to give him a body in the world, thereby giving the sacraments their plenitude in the ‘liturgy of neighbor’” (Chauvet 1995, 265). It is in the participation in Eucharist where we may meet the actual, living, risen Christ—in and as the bodies of those gathered with us. In the absence of the presence of a first-century prophet or a transcendent ontological being , there is actually space for God among us, between us, in our bodies, as our bodies, as we partake in the bread that is Christ’s body. Christ’s being is contingent on the communion of his human brothers and sisters, which may bring his true humanity into being.

Christ’s resurrection cannot be separated from the witness of his people, meaning that when Christians gather and receive the elements in the liturgy of the sacrament, they respond to the call of the event of the resurrection of Jesus among them. His body may become alive in their bodies; their bodies becoming as one body—his body. The repeated and shared language of liturgy enacts the somatic efficacy of the elements. “To theologically affirm sacramental grace is to affirm, in faith, that the risen Christ continues to take flesh in the world and in history and that God continues to come into human corporality” (Chauvet 1995, 490).


Early in the service at St. Lydia’s, we light candles and carry them with us as we gather around the tables where we will share a meal that evening. As we stand in a circle, the presider chants the words of institution. At this moment, all attention is focused on the presider, who holds the bread as she reminds us of the one who is absent, the one in whose name we have gathered. Just as at Emmaus, as soon as this name is invoked and this memory evoked, the bread is broken and passed away from the presider to the congregants with the words, “This is my body.” In this manner, the broken bread is circulated from person to person. The focus now is no longer on the presider, or the absence in the middle of the circle in which we stand, but on those who compose the circle and who share the bread.

Each person wears a nametag and so is spoken to by name: “Keegan, this is my body.” Each in turn addresses their neighbor by name as they turn to share the bread. This movement disrupts the notion of the Eucharist as otherworldly and locates it in the reality of the space between two people as they give and receive the bread.  

More than just leaving the door open for the Other to walk through, to call our neighbor by name is to engage them more directly than simply allowing for their presence. Using the person’s name recognizes their substantial, particular materiality, pulling the liturgy out of abstraction and into the particular bodies of the people who enact it, with all their dis/abilities, imperfections, limitations, flaws, and fragmentations.

The conspicuousness of the nametag and the brief pause as one glances at the name written there are reminders that though we call each other by name, we still remain strange to each other in some way. Though this may be a more direct engagement, there is still a significant unknown (and to some degree unknowable) aspect of the neighbor. In these gaps of knowledge between each other (and ourselves) is where there is possibility for surprise.

So even in the Realization of the Presence of the absent Christ in the presence of the neighbor, there yet remains an absence, a “to come,” the nondeconstructable Real Presence that breaks in and breaks down and breaks open anything that would contain the event harbored in the Eucharist.


The most effective way to expose the underlying deconstruction that occurs within the Eucharist—that is, the breaking open of our insular lives in order to receive the trace of Christ’s real presence among us—is to break down the text of the liturgy itself. Challenging and altering norms of the liturgy enables us to dissect and explore the insides of the ritual to see what is real in the sharing of the sacrament. Freedom to manipulate the signs and creatively rethink traditional practices encourages play in the way participants interact with the liturgy. Like a piece of art in a gallery, the Table can be returned to indefinitely, by fresh eyes each time, to be interpreted and experienced anew, and indeed the artist can learn more about her piece from its viewers than perhaps she ever intended.

As Caputo says, “It is not when signs have been put to work that their usefulness is established for Derrida but when they have been put into play” (Caputo, Radical Hermeneutics 1987, 138). A fixed mediation (i.e. unmovable orthodox sacrament) hinders the “play” of the sign/symbol, and therefore obscures its meaning and its efficacy. Steven Shakespeare explains that “Derrida seems to embrace the dissolution of all structuralist ambitions toward certainty. Instead, he turns to the ‘play’ of the chance and the inventive, the open-ended and mobile metaphors that frustrate our systematic desires for totalizing knowledge” (Shakespeare 2009, 49-50). When we play with our rituals, we allow the sacraments we experience within them to play as well, and therefore allow their call to be heard.

This opportunity—indeed this necessity—to let go of the certainty of established norms in order to engage with the play of potentialities can be frightening, uncomfortable, or seem downright wrong. Chauvet asks, “Can we consent to leave the solid, reassuring ground of our represented foundation and the stable, fixed point in order to let ourselves go toward this demanding letting-be in which we find ourselves out of our depth?” (Chauvet 1995, 51). And the answer, if we are to experience the real presence of Jesus Christ among us, in us, and as us, must be Yes.


In many ways, St. Lydia’s is all about play. Play is where children learn how to be in the world, and how to explore new worlds. Play is where the impossible, the not yet, and the to-come cast their shadows.

Dinner at St. Lydia’s is a playful encounter between traditions of liturgy and traditions of dinner, with neither tradition escaping unaltered. Inasmuch as liturgy at St. Lydia’s relocates liturgy in a different setting, and makes room for new events within that setting by allowing for surprises in conversation and shared reflections, it disrupts and opens up traditional liturgy while engaging that same tradition. 

The impossible is a boundary. Play teaches us to transgress boundaries. To pretend, to act “as if”. Play brings new possibilities to light, as well as newly possible impossibilities. Play takes the boundary, the impossible, as its toy, pushing it, throwing it, taking it to pieces, building with it, smashing it, setting it on fire. The impossible, like a toy, can’t be taken seriously, can’t be treated as sacred. The impossible, like a toy, opens up when played with. Like the Velveteen Rabbit, it is only when it is forgotten that it becomes real.

Each encounter with liturgy at St. Lydia’s is an invitation to play. Play with the recipe. Play with the music. Engage in playful conversation. Play with the scripture. Listen to the wordplay in the poetry shared. Pray in response to this play.

The entirety of an evening at St. Lydia’s, from preparing and sharing a meal to helping in clean up, is play. Play at being the kind of people and community we are called to be, called by the insistence of the Eucharist to manifest a Real Presence. Called to bring into existence what the Eucharist insists on. Called to be a community that is already and not yet.


In deconstructing the liturgy of Eucharist to allow it to exercise its own deconstruction, we witness the formation of a community-without-community—a  broken gathering of broken people. Caputo says that “deconstruction is hospitality, which means the welcoming of the other” (Caputo, Deconstruction in a Nutshell 1997, 109-110). By breaking open the patterns of the everyday and its ingrained societal hierarchies and barriers, we make space for welcoming the Other, and being welcomed ourselves. In the Eucharist we who are many partake in the becoming of one body, for we share in the one bread, broken—for us and by us—because “only if there is something that ruptures our communion can we really communicate” (Shakespeare 2009, 104).

Rupture permits unity. This unity is not homogenized or unfaceted, but a unity in which the difference of each individual is preserved. The Other remains an Other even as we together become Christ’s one body, because Eucharist as deconstruction is a repeated “Let the Other come!” which constantly reminds us that we are strangers who come together. Rather than a Hegelian unity-in-difference, Eucharist displays what could be called a Derridean difference-in-unity. In the unity of the deconstructed Table that harbors the deconstructing call of the undeconstructable Real Presence, we maintain and celebrate our differences—true hospitality allows for and encourages difference. And this is difficult hospitality, a pushing past the limits of a superficial welcome. It is the madness of the excess of the unrepayable gift, and it is, as Derrida says, the impossible. Hospitality never “exists,” it is always becoming. But we can catch glimpses of it in our becoming the body of Christ at the Table (Caputo, Deconstruction in a Nutshell 1997).

Even in the unity of the Church, “disharmonious voices” flourish with the permission of the “violence” of deconstruction. Without deconstruction, as Steven Shakespeare says, “the dream of perfect peace is also a nightmare in which every disharmonious voice is suppressed” (Shakespeare 2009, 92). The disharmony of the community-without-community of the Eucharist is demonstrated at Pentecost, the “anti-Babel,” when each person hears his or her own language—not all the same one (Chauvet 1995, 522). When our differences are deconstructed by the elements at the Table, we can embrace them not as accidents that keep us apart, but as differences that allow us to be gathered together repeatedly into a unified community of differences. A community-without-community. A “we who cannot say we,” but can say “Oui, oui” to the stranger, to the event.


In a city known for its simultaneous embrace of diversity (in the abstract) and indifference to the other (in actuality), St. Lydia’s exists as a place of rupture that permits unity.

Deconstruction is hospitality, and St. Lydia’s is predicated on radical hospitality. Not the “hospitality” of a host welcoming invited guests, but the more difficult hospitality of a genuinely open door and open table. Once we have come together with the stranger, our various backgrounds don’t determine the roles we play. Cooking and cleaning need to be done and all are welcome and needed to get the work done. Or at least one hopes for this kind of hospitality and equality. In practice, our habits of inhospitality and domination are hard to break. This is one more reason we return again and again to this work together.

The reality of difference-in-unity is that different circles may practice the deconstruction of liturgy in different ways. ikonNYC, another group meeting in Brooklyn, offered an approach to breaking the daily pattern of inhospitality that was different than St. Lydia’s. For the past year, ikonNYC met monthly to create a space where certainties were given enough air to breathe (and rust), where beliefs were exposed (and allowed to rot) and where participants were encouraged to set fire to what they held sacred, sifting the ashes together to see what remained, what was lost, and what was transformed.

At ikonNYC, this transformative work was done in a space of identity-suspension. Identity-suspension differs from the work of Eucharist discussed above. In Eucharist, we gather in a space of difference-in-unity. At ikonNYC, we found it necessary to embrace unity-in-difference as a precondition to embracing difference-in-unity. Temporary suspension allowed for radical hospitality: as beliefs and identities were set aside, all who came to ikonNYC found themselves together as “outsiders”, the “trash of the world”, with no “inside” to enter or guard. This was a “we who could not say we.” Suspending the identities that set us apart in difference and embracing unity as the trash of the world allowed us to resume our lives and return to our identities, but holding them loosely, achieving a difference-in-unity enriched by our experience of unity-in-difference.

As with St. Lydia’s, Eucharist was the focus of ikonNYC. And in Eucharist difference-in-unity was celebrated. The real event unfolded after each month’s liturgical event was presented, as people were invited to gather for Eucharist: this was a time for conversation over food and drink, a time to share reactions to and experiences of the liturgy. In this communion, people transitioned from the space of identity-suspension and unity-in-difference, to a space of difference-in-unity. Here, they began to establish the ways in which their experience that night connected with their experience of difference in their lives. In the same way that calling our neighbor by name at St. Lydia’s makes liturgy real, this was the moment when the liturgy was pulled out of abstraction and into the particular bodies of the people who experienced it.


As we return time and again to the Table, repetition of Eucharist brings us back to an ancient and well-worn path, where we may encounter the deconstructing Real Presence in the strangeness of the Other. Eucharist produces a rupture in routine, and provides a space of radical hospitality in which a community of difference-in-unity may begin to emerge. This work is never complete, never arrives at its goal, is always open to what is “to come.” Take and eat.


Caputo, John D., ed. Deconstruction in a Nutshell. New York, New York: Fordham University Press, 1997.

—. Radical Hermeneutics. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1987.

—. What Would Jesus Deconstruct? Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2007.

Chauvet, Louis Marie. Symbol and Sacrament. Translated by Madeleine E. Beaumont Patrick Madigan. Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1995.

Shakespeare, Steven. Derrida and Theology. London: T&T Clark, 2009.

An Important Failure: Simone Weil, Suffering, and the Obscenity of Explanation


Mark Tansey “Discarding the Frame”

Writing in the New Yorker a couple years ago, Aleksandar Hemon offered a harrowing account of the loss of his nine-month-old daughter, Isabel, to a vicious form of cancer. Hemon describes the  “unimaginable and incomprehensible” place of abandonment that he and his wife found themselves in, alienated from the rest of the world as if they were occupants of an aquarium – visible, yet “living and breathing in entirely different environments” than those around them. Compounding their pain was the “vacuous, hackneyed language,” and “that supreme platitude: God,” which others offered as ways of finding meaning. Hemon and his wife held to each other and rejected these efforts, while unable themselves to “construct a story that would help [them] comprehend what was happening.”

the despicable religious fallacy that suffering is ennobling

At first blush, the hard, almost stoic vision of God and redemptive suffering that Simone Weil offers would seem to be almost obscene in light of the suffering Hemon describes. After all, Hemon explicitly rejects as “despicable religious fallacy” the notion that “suffering is ennobling—that it is a step on the path to some kind of enlightenment or salvation.”

My reading of Weil suggests that by rejecting God and all accounts that try and bring meaning to the suffering Hemon endures and bears witness to, Hemon clears out all the imaginary constructions that would fill the void, as Weil calls it. The religious expressions Hemon is offered (including those that come in secular garb), are what Weil calls the “imaginary divinity,” which has been “given to man so that he may strip himself of it like Christ did of his real divinity.” For Weil, Hemon’s rejection of consolation is precisely the act that creates the space for true faith. The atheism he expresses rids his heart of an idolotrous divinty that exists to meet his desires: the survival of his child, or the availability of meaning in the face of her suffering and death.

when Job demands an account from God that would explain his sufferings, God offers none

For Weil, “to pray is like a death,” and perhaps the reverse is also true for her: death is like prayer. Hemon puts to death all consolation for his pain. He puts to death that part of his own Self that would seek cure. He doesn’t reject a specific religious account, he rejects all accounts, categorically. In this, Hemon is like the God that Job encounters in the whirlwind. When Job demands an account from God that would explain his sufferings, God offers none. God, the One we look to as we seek meaning in the world, refuses to play the role. God refuses to be an idol. Job responds to God’s refusal with silence, much as Hemon and his wife respond to their friends’ claims that “words fail” by keeping secret the fact that words in fact do not fail, that Hemon’s suffering can be described in excruciating detail.

Christ, too, encounters God’s silence, which Weil describes as God’s absence. Yet unlike Job and Hemon, who keep the secret, Christ on the cross cries out, naming God’s absence, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Christ’s atheism is in an existential register – God has abandoned him to die – and yet Christ addresses this God as God, as if God could hear his cry. Christ prays to God, and for him, as for Weil, “to pray is like a death.”

redemptive suffering produces the absence of God

What, then, of Weil’s notion of redemptive suffering? Is this the blasphemous notion that Hemon is rejecting? For Weil, “Redemptive suffering … produces the absence of God, … [it] is that by which evil really has fullness of being to the utmost extent of its capacity.” It would seem that Hemon has seen only an abundance of evil, what he calls “a dark universe of pain.” And yet in that pain, he finds himself closer to his wife than he has ever been to anyone, and he is consumed by “Isabel’s present, torturous but still beautiful life.”

Hemon could reject the idea that Isabel’s broken body could sustain a beautiful life. He could allow his sorrow to make him as blind as fear has made his chattering friends. Yet it is perhaps because he has rejected consolation and faced God’s absence that he is able to encounter the life that struggles before him.

Weil claims that “He who has not God within himself cannot feel his absence,” and Hemon seems to feel God’s absence. After Isabel dies, Hemon feels her absence. For Weil, “the presence of the dead person is imaginary, but his absence is very real: henceforward it is his way of appearing.” For Hemon, “her indelible absence is now an organ in our bodies, whose sole function is a continuous secretion of sorrow.”

in that ventrical wilderness, he loves

Hemon’s rejection of comprehension leaves his heart stripped bare, and in that ventrical wilderness, he loves. He loves his wife, he loves his daughters, he loves those who fail in their efforts to comfort him. Hemon’s willingness to confront catastrophe is the same strength that allows him to affirm his three-year-old’s blossoming life.

It is not clear whether Hemon rejects every explanation because each fails in the face of reality, or if he rejects comprehension as such. To bear witness to suffering may entail rejecting adequate explanations, as they diminish the suffering. It is important, then to note the failures of our gods, but perhaps it is more important that our gods fail.

Baby Jesus Hand Grenade


Yesterday, I preached my second sermon at St. Lydia’s, this time based on Mark 13:24-37, in which Jesus offers an apocalyptic vision:

‘But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
   and the moon will not give its light, 
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
   and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 
Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

 ‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’ 

Leon Ferrari presents us with a richly ambiguous image in his piece, “Western-Christian Civilization”.

Are we to understand this figure as one who suffers?

Do we identify this broken body with the bodies broken by death-dealing forces?

Ferrari may be holding up a sacred mirror to reveal the image of God in those we destroy.

But this is not all we can see in this piece.

Do we not also see the figure of Christ mounted on this warplane precisely as a bomb to be deployed on our enemies?

Ferrari refuses to relieve us of this painful tension in his piece.

What has any of this got to do with Advent?

Theologian John Caputo has quipped that Advent, meaning arrival or incoming, can be taken in the military sense, “Incoming! Hit the deck!”

Annie Dillard has famously observed that if we knew what power we were invoking, we “should all be wearing crash helments” in church.

But instead of donning crash helmets to prepare ourselves for our encounters with the divine,

we put on battle helmets and deploy the divine,

claiming God’s favor, as we crush our global competitors in war and commerce,

in the name of Western-Christian civilization.

Yet if the figure of Christ Crucified can be represented as a bomb,

perhaps Advent celebrates a time when God lobbed a hand grenade into the world –

and what could be more disruptive than the arrival of a human being full of demands?

If ordinary infants undo our tidy worlds,

how much more a Baby Jesus Hand Grenade?

Yet the undoing this bomb-throwing God brings is of another order

than the destruction wrought by the death-dealing forces that compete for control of the world.

This God sends a little apocalyptic bomb to undo the world itself.

This is an undoing that is more total than anything humanity has ever wrought

and yet this is what makes this disruption the condition of the possibility of new life.

As death-dealers, we have only tried to control the world, in various ways;

what Christ does is to change it.

Remember that this God annihilated the world once already with a flood, and swore to Noah never to do so again.

What Baby Jesus Hand Grenade threatens to do is to upend our world so completely that we will never see and experience it the same way again.

To undo our sense of ourselves,

to eliminate our resources for meaning, be they cultural, political, religious, or otherwise,

to undo all the ways we give meaning to our death-dealing.

All the ways we use God to justify the destruction of God’s image in the world.

In the verses preceding our text this week, Jesus describes all the earthly and human ways we destroy each other: deception, betrayal, hatred, and the idolatry of nation and of violence.

All the ways that we destroy in order to control.

And then our reading picks up where Jesus invokes an image from the apocalyptic, prophetic, book of Daniel,

“The Son of Man coming in the clouds”.

Then Jesus brings us back “down to earth”, if you will, with an image of a fig tree.

A tree whose tenderness points to the coming of summer, a time of fertility, growth, and new life. And then, just so we don’t miss how earth-bound his vision is,

Jesus tells his companions that they will witness this apocalypse,

even though the time of its unfolding is wrapped in mystery,

which is why he says, “What I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

Jesus’s vision here in the Gospel of Mark is apocalyptic.

An apocalypse is an unveiling.

Another word we use for this is revelation – to reveal – which means to un-veil

(although a lot of discussion of apocalypse seems to Re-veil, to make everything more obscure, rather than to un-veil!)

And where will this un-veiling take place?

Here, among us, it would seem.

Jesus starts with describing the wretched condition of the earth,

then describes the Son of Man coming to that earth,

and then brings us down to earth, where this apocalypse will unfold.

Something new is incoming, but make no mistake,

we are not being swept up to the clouds the Son of Man is riding,

he is coming to us, to bring this apocalypse into our midst,

in the context of the world we are bent on destroying.

This apocalypse will not take the form of destroying the world,

but undoing it, by undoing us.

This is the Baby Jesus Hand Grenade of Love that undoes the world.

I want you to take just a moment now and think of love.

Think of an experience you’ve had of love: love of family, love of friends, romantic love.

Recall someone who has loved you or whom you have loved.

Recall what it is like to love,

it may be a happy memory or a painful one.

Ok, now, keeping that memory in mind,

I want us to think about what it means to be undone.

When the prophet Isaiah encountered God, when God was revealed to him,

Isaiah cried out,”Woe to me! I am undone!”

Judith Butler writes about what it is to be undone.

She says, “Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something. If this seems so clearly the case with grief, it is only because it was already the case with desire. One does not always stay intact. It may be that one wants to, or does, but it may also be that despite one’s best efforts, one is undone, in the face of the other, by the touch, by the scent, by the feel, by the prospect of the touch, by the memory of the feel. And so when we speak about my sexuality or my gender, as we do (and as we must), we mean something complicated by it. Neither of these is precisely a possession, but both are to be understood as modes of being dispossessed, ways of being for another, or, indeed, by virtue of the other.”

Now, I asked you to recall an experience of love,

to remember someone you love or have loved,

because there is a deeply erotic sense of what it means to be undone.

Christ is talking about an intimate undoing of our world and ourselves,

of how we understand ourselves and our world,

and I recognize something deeply romantic in this apocalypse.

I want to be clear that being undone has nothing to do with being destroyed.

Violence produces destruction, but love produces undoing.

So think about how the experience of being in love,

or of falling out of love,

changes the way you experience the world.

I know that for me, my beliefs about the meaning and goodness of the world seem pale in the absence of love,

and that a hopeless situation can be redeemed by the experience of love.

In my experience, love changes the way I understand and relate to the world,

changes how I act,

disrupts my sleep.

I can remember nights made beautiful by staying awake all night with someone I love.

Keeping awake.

This is Christ’s call here, that we keep awake,

alive to the world and to what is being revealed in it through love.

What Christ is unveiling here runs counter to our hateful, selfish destruction of the world.

What Christ is unveiling here is a love that undoes the world,

that undoes us,

that doesn’t leave us the same,

a love that comes in the form of a body shared with others.

So I believe the call in this apocalypse is for us to keep awake and do the same.

Martin Luther wrote that, “As our heavenly Father has in Christ freely come to our aid, we also ought freely to help our neighbor through our body and its works, and each one should become as it were a Christ to the other that we may be Christs to one another and Christ may be the same in all, that is, that we may be truly Christians.”

Our neighbor bears the image of God,

is the face of God in the world,

and the image of God will survive the apocalypse

wrought by the weakness of sweet baby Jesus and the weakness of Christ Crucified.

Our death-dealing world will not fare as well.

So as we celebrate this incoming of God,

we had better be sure we are ready to be taken to pieces by this event,

and have our world so shattered

that we refuse to accept any longer a system in which we fight for control of a world in which Christ is dropped like a bomb on our enemies. We must keep awake and look for the incoming love of Christ.

Divorce Isn’t For You


A recent blog post on marriage (Marriage Isn’t For You) has been making the rounds recently. I found the post to be a nauseatingly trite treatment of a difficult subject. I want to look at how damaging this kind of thinking can be when presented in such simplistic terms, but before I do that, I want to look at how the author is making an interesting case for divorce.

I want to look at how the author is making an interesting case for divorce.

Let’s say that I take the author’s advice when I marry. If “you marry to make someone else happy” as the author instructs us, and if I am unable to meet this criteria (a fool’s errand if there ever were one!), then does this criteria not require that I divorce my unhappy spouse? Even if I am happy in the marriage? In this case, no matter how happy I am in my marriage, my ethical responsibility is to divorce if I cannot make my spouse happy. If I were to remain married, say out of a sense of duty or because of my vows, then it would be clear that the happiness of my spouse is not my criteria.

At such a crisis point, I either need to drop the pretense of being in the marriage “only for the Other”, and continue the marriage under more honest terms, or I must divorce my spouse due to my failure to have what the author calls a “true marriage.”

A third option is to remain in the marriage with the original criteria in mind, but without the naiveté that such criteria can be met. After enduring the reality of an extended marriage, I may realize how naive it was to believe that making my partner happy would be a consistently attainable goal. Reflecting on the difficulty of actually-existing marriage, I may nuance the criteria (especially since a strict adherence to the criteria may demand divorce). In this instance, the initial naiveté is lost, though the orientation toward the Other remains largely the same: I desire to make you happy, and will continue to pursue this desire in the absence of its satisfaction. I will continue to seek your happiness even though I do not see it arriving yet.

 If I remain steadfastly committed to producing the happiness of my spouse, and yet this happiness never seems to arrive, am I really acting in love?

This approach seems to match the pace of actually-existing marriage better than an expectation that I will immediately be able to make my partner happy. Yet if the mistake in the first instance is impatience (“I have not made you happy, so I must either divorce you or stop pretending it is possible to make you happy”), is not the possible mistake in this third option the danger of an abundance of patience offered in the name of virtue? If I remain steadfastly committed to producing the happiness of my spouse, and yet this happiness never seems to arrive, am I really acting in love? What if my spouse’s continued unhappiness is the result of marriage to me, despite my noble intentions and martyr-like commitment? What if I am the chief obstacle to my spouse achieving even modest, intermittent happiness? Can my commitment to remain married coincide with my commitment to produce my spouse’s happiness? Or do I need to consider the possibility that divorce for the sake of my spouse may be the most loving act possible?

What is the actual function of my emphatic claim that all I want is to make the Other happy?

It appears that an exclusive emphasis on the happiness (or needs or desires) of the Other can produce the opposite of the claimed goal. Just as actually-existing Communism and Capitalism produce results that are at odds with the lofty ideals these systems claim to serve, so too can a slavish adherence to the exclusive “love” of the Other produce results that do not match the lofty ideals invoked. With the recognition of the disjuncture between ideal and reality in Communist and Capitalist practice, the real critical work of asking what is actually driving those systems begins. If Communists don’t really have the concerns of working people in mind, what are they actually trying to accomplish? If Capitalism doesn’t actually lead to greater freedom, what is the Capitalists actual goal? Likewise, if I claim to be committed to the happiness of my spouse, but don’t actually produce this happiness, what is the actual function of my emphatic claim that all I want is to make the Other happy?

The language of extreme love masks an extreme hatred.

Several possibilities come to mind. One is the desire to avoid my impotence. If I am only interested in making you happy, and you are not happy, then perhaps by stating my ethical purity of my intent, I am able to subtly suggest that the fault lies with you, you for whom I have sacrificed everything! In this case, such a proclamation of love covers a proclamation of hatred. We find this love/hate dichotomy operating in certain forms of Christianity. Here, one is told that God loves sinners so much that He sent His only Son to die on their behalf as the ultimate act of love. If, however, you are not convinced by this, then you can go to Hell. Literally. This theology uses the language of extreme love to mask an extreme hatred.

An extreme offer masks an extreme demand.

Another possible account of the disjuncture between my claim to seek the Other’s happiness and the Other’s actual experience of unhappiness is that in making my claim, I am able to both claim my ethical purity while also levying a radical demand of the Other. If true love claims to demand nothing for the Self, but to be only “for the Other”, then can the Other offer love without having to meet exactly this extreme criteria? In this case, the offer of selflessness for the sake of the Other is at its root a demand of selflessness from the Other. “This is what true love is, and if you truly love me, you will love me in this way. Whether I love you in this way or not.” Here, an extreme offer masks an extreme demand.

An obsession with the Other makes one partner in the relationship “the problem” when there is unhappiness.

There is a different approach to the difficulties of love and marriage. Instead of an exclusive emphasis on the Other, there can be a focus on mutuality. In a mutually loving relationship, it is not necessary that both partners be in identical states at all times. What is important is that over time, the relationship is good for “us”. I may choose to be unhappy for a time because that allows for us to be healthy over the long term. Likewise, I may accept my partner’s unhappiness for a time for the same reason. Instead of a neurotic obsession with making my partner happy (and there is real horror in being forced into happiness!), an emphasis on the overall health of the relationship extends my concern from an immediate problem concentrated in one person, to a longer-term concern extended across both members of the relationship. An obsession with the Other makes one partner in the relationship “the problem” when there is unhappiness (and There Will Be Unhappiness). A mutual relationship unweights this emphasis on the individuals in the relationship, allowing for breathing room, creativity, and engagement with the struggle to love, to be loved, and to love mutually.

In the same way that Communists and Capitalists destroy people in the name of liberating those same people, so too can we destroy the one we love in the name of love. If we are in a genuinely mutual relationship, then we can never act unilaterally on the behalf of the Other. Rather, we act in mutual partnership with the Other for the sake of us. The Biblical notion of “two becoming one” is helpful here. It is not “two becoming two who love each Other to the exclusion of Self,” but two who become one, and in that oneness, love the Other when they love the Self, and love the Self when they love the Other. This is not a one that becomes a singularity, an undifferentiated one in which both partners are always in the same state (of mind, emotion, or what have you). This is a oneness in which both elements, both people, are mutually-constituting parts of the whole. Like the towers that together compose a suspension bridge, there is no “I” without “You”, and no “You” without “I”. If this is the case, then there is no validity to the notion of doing for “You” without doing for “Me”, of loving “You” without loving “Me.” Mutuality does not claim to love the Other to the exclusion of the Self, and does not make the implicit demand that the Other love in such a fashion.

Marriage isn’t for you.

Divorce isn’t for you.

They’re for us.

*I recognize that marriage is a complicated and problematic social institution. I use the term here as short-hand for a loving relationship.

The Broken God

This is the first sermon I’ve shared at St Lydia’s.
It is based on Psalm 22 and Matthew 27.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

I don’t know of a Psalm with a more striking opener.

If that’s where we’re starting,
where do we go from here?
Where is there to go?

Well, the Psalmist turns directly to the past:

“Our ancestors put their trust in you, they trusted, and you rescued them.”

The Psalmist turns to look at God at work
with other people at another time.

When he turns back to the present in verse 6,
he doesn’t see people being saved by God,
he sees himself and those who scorn him,
mocking him and telling him to

“Trust in the LORD
let the LORD deliver;
let God rescue him
if God so delights in him”

Next, the Psalmist recalls when God was present to him,
in the past, at his birth, and in his youth.

But now?

Now he is surrounded,
“poured out like water”,
and says that
God “has laid him in the dust of death.”

He pleads for God to deliver him, to save and rescue him,
but God is nowhere to be found.

After visiting the past,
and pleading with God to save him in the present,
the Psalmist looks to the future:

“I will declare your name to my people,
in the midst of the assembly I will praise you”

Is he bargaining?

Is he telling God that he will praise God if God will save him?
If God will show his might and rescue him?

Or is he more noble than that?

Perhaps he is proclaiming that he will praise God,
because he “trusts in the LORD, who will deliver”

But these are the words of those who scorn him!

He seems to be adopting their logic.

So, what is going on here?

My relationship with this text starts with Christ on the cross.

The first lines of this Psalm are Christ’s
last words in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark.

I think this is amazing, really.
Jesus quotes poetry on the cross.
And the line he chooses
is the darkest line of the Psalm.

He doesn’t soften the blow the way the Psalmist seems to,
the Psalmist who looks desperately to the past and to the future,
apparently unable to face the absence of God in the present.

But I should be careful here.

The experience the Psalmist and Christ are describing is subtle.
They aren’t actually talking about the the absence of the experience of God,
they are talking about the experience of the absence of God.

What’s the difference?

If they had no experience of God, they would be talking about the absence of the experience of God.
No God, no experience.

But they are talking to God about God’s absence!

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

This names an experience of the absence of God,
which entails a sense of loss
and is experienced as abandonment.

We can’t be abandoned by someone that was never with us.

So on one level, Jesus is addressing God,
by talking about God’s absence.
That’s a rich paradox, and I want to come back to that in a minute.

But first I want to look at the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus quotes Psalm 22 because for me,
my relationship with this text starts with Christ on the cross.

In Matthew and Mark, the Gospel writers describe the scene of Christ crucified.
Like the Psalmist, Christ is subject to scorn.
Some standing near the cross say

“He saved others
(the past)
He cannot save himself
(the present)”

“Let Him come down, and we will believe in Him”

Sound familiar?

To my ear, this sounds both
like those who scorn the Psalmist,
and the Psalmist himself!

Those who mock Christ,
those who scorn the Psalmist,
and the Psalmist himself
all seem committed to what St Paul calls “signs and wonders”.

They want to see God act in might and in power,
otherwise, they either end up mocking or losing heart.

So what does Christ on the cross do?

He hears this mocking challenge,
he cries out again,
and he dies.

But then the Gospel writers bring in a new voice.
Standing at the foot of the cross is a centurion,
a Roman guard, who, after Christ dies,
exclaims, “Truly this was the Son of God”

This may be an even more disturbing line than

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

“Truly THIS was the Son of God”???

At least in the Psalmist’s cry we have a notion of a powerful yet absent God.
The centurion, by contrast, claims to see God present –
in a weak, suffering, and dying human.

As I’ve been wrestling with these texts,
I’ve been reminded of GK Chesterton’s observation that,
“God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.”

I am drawn to Psalm 22 and the account of the crucifixion, because I identify with Christ’s cry of abandonment by God.

I guess you could say I’ve pretty much become an atheist at this point, too.

I don’t see the God of Power the Psalmist seems to long for,
and which the onlookers at the cross pledge to believe in
if that God shows up,
and shows off.

As a friend of mine likes to say,
I’m at least a functional atheist when it comes to that God.

As far as my experience goes,
it doesn’t seem like that God exists.

But I hear something that I recognize in the centurion’s cry.

After he watches Jesus suffer,
cry out to the God who has forsaken him,
and die,
it is THEN that the centurion says,

“Truly, this man was the Son of God.”

It is not after the Resurrection,
it’s not after a show of power,
it’s not after Jesus climbs down from the cross
and kicks ass for the Lord.

No, the centurion sees God in this crushed, broken, and suffering human,
in weakness and in doubt, in death and in defeat.

Is God there?

Does God exist?

To ex-ist means to stand out.

This doesn’t seem to me to be a God that ex-ists,
who stands out,
who makes a big show,
who has a mighty presence.

What the centurion sees
seems to be a God
who in-sists,
who per-sists,
who re-sists.

A God who in-sists
on living and dying with the suffering,
who per-sists
despite being crushed,
and who re-sists
calls for shows of brutal power.

This sounds like a God who, to quote the Psalmist,

“does not despise nor abhor
the poor in their poverty,
neither is the LORD’s face
hidden from them;
but when they cry out,
the LORD hears them.”

This seems to be a God who is with those who cry out to God,
a God who takes up their cry,
takes on their suffering,
even their suffering of separation from God.

A God who loses God.

If we are looking for a God of might and power,
we may not find that God to be present,
but if we look to those who suffer,
and hear their insistent,
persistent cries of
we may hear, too,
God’s voice
mingled with theirs.

In my life, I don’t see God, I don’t feel God.
As far as I can tell,
the God of power, signs and wonders
has forsaken us.

What I do see is the the body of Christ.

I see love amidst brokenness, suffering, and despair,
as we share the cup and the bread of our lives.

The Psalmist says

“I will declare your name to my people;
in the midst of the assembly
I will praise you.”

What I can say is

I declare this name, Christ, to you, my friends,
the body of Christ.
And I praise this broken God.


All Flags Burn / Burn All Flags

Godspeed You Black Emperor-44-S

Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Film Projection

It’s Flag Day in the U.S., so inevitably the conversation turns at some point to the Pledge of Allegiance and the claim that the U.S. is (or has been) “One Nation, Under God.” This is often met with one of two responses. On the one hand, this phrase is seen as the intrusion of the religious into the public sphere, as a violation of the separation of Church and State. On the other hand, this phrase is seen as a last bulwark against a tide of godlessness, or a reminder of an era when the U.S. was a Christian nation.

Neither position captures what I see as a question of idolatry. On the one hand, I see the use of the phrase “Under God” as an appropriation of religious language for the service of state power. The evils perpetuated by the state are sanctified by the use of the dominant religious language, and the state’s purposes are identified with divine purposes.

León Ferrari,  "La civilización occidental y cristiana"  (Western-Christian Civilization), 1965

León Ferrari, “La civilización occidental y cristiana” (Western-Christian Civilization), 1965

On the other hand, I think of Jesus’s words at the Last Supper. Before he was executed by the state*, Jesus told his followers that, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” My first concern is that love, not national testimony, is the mark of the disciple. Much more importantly, however, there is a deep irony in the appeal to a state as representative of Christ. All states and all empires are predicated on violence. No state or empire is “Under God.” God is under all states and empires: states and empires kill God, every day, all over the world. In Turkey, in Syria, in Guantanamo; by gun, by starvation, by drone.

In León Ferrari’s “Western-Christian Civilization”, we see a crucified Christ nailed to an American war plane. Is Christ a weapon to be deployed against a national enemy? Is Christ crucified as a victim of war? I think both are the case: when we use Christian language to prop up the state, Christ is crucified by being used as a weapon.

The desire for power over others is a dominant form of idolatry in the contemporary U.S. The State desires the power that religious sanctification offers. The Church desires the power that national recognition offers. I believe that for the Christian, the desire for power over others must be renounced, and that all attempts to sanctify power over others with Christian language must be confronted as counter to the way of the God who is daily murdered by the State.

There is hope in the fact that all flags burn.

*Admittedly, this is an anachronism on my part. Jesus was crucified by an empire, not a state, though this only enhances the connection to the current U.S. context.

Fugazi, “Place Position”

All origins are accidental
Got no papers and no roads lead home
Chance is the root of place position
All maps are random all scales are wrong
Legal illegal no passion for the difference
Legal illegal false premise forge the nation
May all your borders be porous
Free transmission smear genetics
C’est la vie
Yawn yawn yawn
I can’t stifle my boredom
So why not act your age
Fear of contagion the violence of a fence builder’s dream
That masks the phrasing of “all the pleasures of home”
Legal illegal
I want to go home