Creation Improvisation Salvation

MILES-FROM-BASQUIAT_OK_grande1

Jean-Michel Basquiat

I wrote this, about Genesis and jazz and creation and improvisation, as one of the stories of salvation we read at the Easter vigil at St. Lydia’s last night.


With the seed in it

In the beginning
when God began creating
the heavens and the earth, the earth
was a formless void and darkness
covered the face of the deep.

It was astonishingly empty,
the void as vast and dark as
the inside of Charles Mingus’s upright bass —
a deep rich darkness,
the Spirit’s hands hovering
over the strings ready
to set the world to dancing.

And that first solo,
spontaneously improvised,
brought light from the dark,
reverberating bass,
and lasted all day
and all night.

And it was good.

And while the void was still ringing,
the last low tones resonating,
a cymbal crashed
and the waters jumped
and dry land appeared
and a steady swing
from the high hat and snare —
and I guess it was an angel
who sat at the kit,
excited by the Spirit’s rhythms —
and that swing set the seasons
in motion
and the earth brought forth
vegetation:
plants yielding seed of every kind,
and trees of every kind
bearing fruit
with the seed in it.

And God saw that it was good.

And by now this music had been going
for several days straight
and showed no sign of slowing down
as each new creation —
the seas swarming with life,
and birds flying across the dome of the sky —
each new creature brought its music
in endlessly creative improvisation,
riffing on the Spirit’s swinging bass line.

And the horn section,
made of wild animals
of every kind: cattle
and creeping things
and living creatures
of every kind —
this wild and roaring horn section
was trading solos but
the Spirit still had more
up her sleeve.

So in walked Lady Day,
who started putting words
to the world and sang
about Autumn
in New York but also about
Strange Fruit
and her words named the darkness
and lit the darkness
and God saw
that she wasn’t just good —
she made the Spirit catch her breath —
which was also Billie’s own breath
when she sang.

And then Coltrane
walked quietly onto the stand
and picked up his horn
and on the sixth day
Coltrane played for six days straight,

and
God’s
jaw
dropped.

And there was no end to the music

The Spirit called
and creation responded
and everyone was sweaty by now
and the sun was coming up,
which was its new habit,
so God sent everyone off to bed
and grabbed a broom
while the Spirit picked up Mingus’s bass
and plucked a low quiet tune,
something she’d picked up
from Thelonious Monk.

So God blessed the seventh day
and hallowed it.

And rested.

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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.”

 

 

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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.

 

 

i-know-what-my-weaknesses-are

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.

 

 

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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.

 

 

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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:

http://homebrewedchristianity.com/2014/02/15/taking-caputo-into-the/

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.

REPETITION

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.

REAL PRESENCE

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.

RUPTURE

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.

COMMUNITY

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.

CONCLUSION

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.

References

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.

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.

A Gift for Burning

This poem was shared as part of the liturgy at St. Lydia’s tonight. I resonate with these images on a number of levels.

Song

by Adrienne Rich

You’re wondering if I’m lonely:
OK then, yes, I’m lonely
as a plane rides lonely and level
on its radio beam, aiming
across the Rockies
for the blue-strung aisles
of an airfield on the ocean.

You want to ask, am I lonely?
Well, of course, lonely
as a woman driving across country
day after day, leaving behind
mile after mile
little towns she might have stopped
and lived and died in, lonely

If I’m lonely
it must be the loneliness
of waking first, of breathing
dawns’ first cold breath on the city
of being the one awake
in a house wrapped in sleep

If I’m lonely
it’s with the rowboat ice-fast on the shore
in the last red light of the year
that knows what it is, that knows it’s neither
ice nor mud nor winter light
but wood, with a gift for burning

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