Baby Jesus Hand Grenade

leon_ferrari_baja

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.

Advertisements

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,
assaulted,
“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
resistance,
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.

Sometimes,
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.

Amen.