Senior Sermon, Wednesday of the First Week of Easter

My Senior Sermon for Berkeley Divinity School’s Evening Eucharist on 4/4/18, preached at Marquand Chapel at Yale Divinity School.

Psalm 118:19–24
Acts 3:1–10
Luke 24:13–35

When Jesus rises from the dead, there is to be no forgetting. Holy Week has passed, for now, and you can read its passing—the joy, relief, exhaustion—on the faces and in the Twitter feeds of those who have been particularly involved in its liturgies, which includes many in this room. If you are one whose spirit is greatly affected by the changing of the liturgical seasons, if you managed to keep a Lenten practice that ultimately stirred up new life, if the stripping of the altar strips bare your soul before God so it might bloom with the lilies of Easter, or if you’re simply one who attends church services regularly, you know that the stone has been rolled away and that the tomb is empty, smelling strangely of resurrection. And if you’re one who needs to be reminded frequently: The Lord is Risen.

And though we proclaim with one voice and with joy and certainty that Jesus rises from the dead, there is to be no forgetting of the weeks that have recently passed, of the sadness and uncertainty of Holy Week—at least not if you’re on the road to Emmaus. Though we are now a few days past Easter Sunday, our lesson tonight from the gospel of Luke happens on the same day that Jesus’s body is found to be missing. The atmosphere is still one of grief, disbelief, and disorientation. Add to that the common observation of commentators that, besides knowing that they are walking the seven-mile road apparently to eat a meal and then go back, we aren’t really sure who Cleopas and his friend are or where this Emmaus is. Cyril of Alexandria says the two are part of the group of seventy disciples that are appointed by Jesus in Luke 10 to go “in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go” (Luke 10:1).

Cleopas and his friend aren’t really sure of some things either—namely who Jesus is. Because who they understand him to be is contingent on how they understand his crucifixion and the absence of his body and how they receive the message from Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary, mother of God, and the other women—their message that “two men in dazzling clothes” told them, “‘He is not here, but has risen’” (24:5). The two have a lot right—when Jesus appears to them, they narrate to him the string of events with some detail—but conclusions aren’t coming easily. In a poem by Spencer Reece (poet, priest, and Berkeley grad) called “The Road to Emmaus,” the poem’s speaker describes a postcard on the wall at the office of his spiritual director. Through a humble ekphrasis, the poem portrays the postcard’s depiction of the story as follows:

There it hung, askew in its golden drugstore frame.

It was the scene from the end of Luke, the two disciples,

one named Cleopas, the other anonymous

forever mumbling Christ’s name, and with them,

the resurrected Christ masquerading as a stranger.

They were on their way to that town, Emmaus,

seven miles out from Jerusalem,

gossiping about the impress of Christ’s vanishing—

they argued about whether to believe what they had seen;

they were restless, back and forth the debate went—

where there is estrangement there is little peace.

The estrangement of Holy Week—of being in the lurch between what has been hoped for and what will yet transpire—is not suddenly peacefully resolved when Jesus rises from the dead. Not, at least, for his disciples. St. Augustine interprets the discussion between the two of them and then with the hidden Lord as evidence of their loss of faith and hope. “They were walking along, dead, with Christ alive,” he writes, “They were walking along, dead, with life itself. Life was walking along with them, but in their hearts life had not yet been restored” (Sermon 235.2-3). The glorious turbulence of Christ’s resurrection occurs in the spaces where one’s hope has been disturbed and life has ended: in the tomb and in the heart, yes, and in the spaces in which we exact evil on each other—on stolen land, in the streets, in backyards; in broad day light, at night, under surveillance, and in secrecy; and in elementary schools, high schools, universities, and churches. The glorious turbulence of Christ’s resurrection occurs in the spaces where one’s hope has been tried and disfigured to the point at which what is hoped for becomes unforeseeable and unrecognizable, even when you are looking it in the face. In these spaces, we say, The Lord is Risen.

The estrangement and confusion of Holy Week may not resolve swiftly, but they do not, in the end, remain the inevitable to which we resign ourselves. What are we to do? When they had revealed their lack of clarity to him, the risen Lord told his disciples to pick up their Scripture and try reading it again. When they had reached their destination and their Lord, the stranger, made to move as if he would just keep going, though they still did not recognize him, his disciples said, “‘Stay with us…’ So he went in to stay with them,” becoming the host of their own dinner (24:29). It is then, when they, on something of a hunch, invite the stranger to stay, and it is then, on his own time and in his own way that the risen Lord becomes recognizable, in the breaking of bread. Before vanishing.

If his vanishing at the moment of recognition seems cruel or at least slippery, it is also essential to learning what Christ’s body in life, death, and resurrection is. In an essay called, “The Displaced Body of Jesus Christ,” Anglican theologian and priest Graham Ward traces what he calls the various displacements or transpositions of Christ’s body—in incarnation and circumcision, it is the male-identified Jew; in transfiguration, the Second Adam; in the Eucharist, bread, in all of its genderless glory; in crucifixion, “mere flesh, a consumable, a dead, unwanted, discardable thing”; in resurrection, “the plenitude of God’s presence” in the emptiness of the tomb, the unrecognizable body of Christ in the post-resurrection appearances, and the Gospel narrative itself; and finally, in ascension, the Church. So, when Jesus blesses the bread, breaks it, gives it to Cleopas and the other disciple, and then vanishes, Jesus is demonstrating and enacting that what the disciples were understanding as his absence is in fact a sign of the mystery of the presence of his resurrected body, in bread and in them, together with all the Church. It is not presumed, I think, that Cleopas and the other disciple were in the room at the last supper in the first place, so their recognition of Christ in the breaking of the bread suggests that part of what happens in the Eucharist’s incorporation of the Body of Christ is a sharing of memory and knowledge; to participate in the breaking of the bread is to know Christ.

Though the Good News of Easter, Christ’s resurrection, is difficult to swallow, the mystery does not, ultimately, prohibit the church from doing the work Jesus has given it to do, which is to say, despite the limitations of human knowledge, the Body of Christ is the Body of Christ, witnessing to Christ’s resurrection in what we do and how we do it and what we say and how we say it. In the commissioning of the seventy disciples in Luke 10, this means going out into the neighboring towns, sharing peace; “eat[ing] what is set before you; cur[ing] the sick who are there, and say[ing] to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you’” or “‘The Kingdom of God is at hand’” (10:5–9). And if their witness to Christ in actions and words is rejected, they are to declare, “‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near’” (10:11–12).

Years ago, I heard it preached, based on the story of Christ’s resurrection appearance to Doubting Thomas, that in the wake of the disappearance of Jesus’ body, the disciples were lost and confused to the point of not knowing what to believe in some sort of permanent way, as if doubt were the defining characteristic of the earliest church. The point of saying this, I believe, was to comfort those of us today who have difficulty leaving Holy Week and its suspension of hope behind, because believing in resurrection is, admittedly, difficult. After, I spoke with a friend and professor of Christian scripture who was furious, saying if the earliest followers of Christ weren’t completely confident in the good news of Christ’s resurrection, none of them would have gone out to preach and heal, none of them would have been martyred. Without the resurrection, there is no (are no) Acts of the Apostles.

So it is good to have the story of the road to Emmaus paired with our reading from Acts. In it, we find that the Body of Christ is the Body of Christ. On the way to temple to pray in the afternoon, Peter and John see someone at the Beautiful Gate who was something of a permanent fixture—a man who is identified by his presence day-to-day-to-day, asking for alms. To be the Body of Christ means to see people who sink into their surroundings, to break through the sort of everyday rituals that turn people into objects of glazed-over glances, to offer what healing we can through God’s power, and in so doing, to witness to the reality of resurrection that already is. So this is what Peter and John do; they become willing vessels of Christ’s power. The healing of the man who is identified so closely with his begging “at the Beautiful Gate of the temple” does not sever him from the place in which he is known but rather allows him to move within it differently—he enters the temple, praising God.

In the story of the road to Emmaus and in the story of the man who jumps up to walk, the new life in Christ’s resurrection brings about movement and exclamation in those it touches. When you experience and witness new life and Christ, you tell somebody. The man’s newfound walk turns quickly into jumping and leaping and praising God in the company of “all the people.” Within an hour of their arriving at Emmaus, Cleopas and friend leave town again to schlep the seven miles back to Jerusalem to the eleven disciples and echo the eleven’s own jubilant proclamations in saying, The Lord is Risen.

My suspicion is that there are people here who have experienced healing by the power of Christ’s resurrection in ways we fear would make others uncomfortable. May we continue to learn how to receive the gospel as it is enfleshed in the bodies of others even as we continue to learn how to share it as it is in enfleshed in our own. I also suspect that, though we are in the season of Easter, there are people here who feel estranged from God and others in ways that seem hopeless. May we know ourselves to be joined with the resurrected body of Christ in the breaking of bread, and may that be sufficient for us today. Finally, I know that we are all witnesses of the relentless onslaught of the deathly and quotidian violences of racism, xenophobia, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, and the manifold other ways humans devise to assert our domination at another’s expense. May God grant us grace and strength to bear witness to the resurrection in our bodies and words in spaces distorted by death and violence. And if we are not welcomed there, may our witness to the resurrection be a protest.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

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maundy thursday

for Morning Prayer at Berkeley Divinity School, 3/29/18

Psalm 102
1 Cor. 10:14-17; 11:27-32
Mark 14:12-25

“Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.’ They began to be distressed and to say to him one after another, ‘Surely, not I?’”

If you were one of Jesus’ disciples in the Gospel of Mark, like Pavlov’s dogs drooling at the sound of a bell, your ears would perk up when Jesus says, “Truly I tell you,” if you weren’t already listening intently. You would come to expect him to say something about the coming of the Kingdom or discipleship, or to say something to recognize the faithful gesture of someone you are used to overlooking—the poor widow who gives her two coins; the woman who anoints Jesus’ head with nard from an alabaster jar; when Jesus says, “Truly I tell you,” it is followed by something you won’t anticipate.

“One of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.” In response, the disciples each seem genuinely concerned about the possibility that they could be the one who in condemning Jesus condemns himself—“Surely, not I?” We know that the one who will betray Jesus is Judas Iscariot, but the disciples do not. We also know from the verses following this passage that not one but two disciples could be named: Jesus predicts that Peter’s firm resolve will melt when tried. But Mark says, “after giving thanks he gave [the cup] to them, and all of them drank from it.” Judas, Peter, all.

Although it reads seamlessly, the reading from 1 Corinthians omits a large chunk of text in which Paul warns against idolatry, laments women who pray without their head covering (and men with long hair), and parrots back reports he has heard about the church’s disunity. “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” is soon followed by “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons,” and “When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lords supper.” Because of these pitfalls, Paul bids the church to self-examination prior to participating in the bread and cup. Are you prepared?

The immediate context in which the Eucharist takes place is one of discord and confusion. Am I the one who betrays Jesus? Am I receiving the bread and cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner? These are questions we might sit with more often for the sake of ourselves, our communities, and our congregations, because they will point us to the fissures we have caused and point us to Christ. That the answers to these questions are all certainly “yes” for each of us does not negate the confusion and discomfort they may cause or the necessity of asking them. Holy Week offers jarring encounters in which the certainty of hope is suspended and comfort questioned, and we are left in the lurch. But even in the midst of this confusion, we are assured that we are one by the concrete presence of Jesus’ body and blood in our mouths and throats. That is our comfort.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

consider it archived

Dear Reader,

The posts in these dated clouds—essays, notes, poems, etc.—represent my thought and deeds from the end of high school through the beginning of grad school. Thank you so much for reading, and to many of you, thank you for being a part of my story. I will continue to write, but not in this venue. Follow me on Twitter for updates.

tack så mycket ❤
sdje

Narratival Power, Memory, and the Pipeline

It’s odd to think back to high school history class, learning about the founding of the United States—the bloody westward expansion—and thinking, surely at *this* moment the European colonists would have stopped to think and care about the native people they were destroying. No? What about at *this* moment? No? Then when? And this is, of course, assuming that you were taught something at all past the mythologized meal that has become (piously) Thanksgiving (who is giving thanks?), or more cute, “turkey day.” While I don’t remember everything from AP US History, I can’t claim complete ignorance—I remember the gist of things.

Fall semester of last year, in a class called Colonial and National: American Literature to 1830, a trope that surfaced in a few of the readings was that of the voluntarily receding or antisocial native.

A stanza of Philip Freneau:

From these fair plains, these rural seats,
So long concealed, so lately known,
The unsocial Indian far retreats,
To make some other clime his own,
When other streams, less pleasing flow,
And darker forests round him grow.

(From “On the Emigration to America and Peopling the Western Country,” 1784)

The speaker finds himself wandering across the American countryside, admiring its beauty, and seems to be thinking, huh, funny that someone would want to leave here. So he chalks it up to the streams, the flow, the forests, while at the same time calling the disappeared subject “unsocial,” and in doing so, (purposefully? subconsciously?) acknowledging that there is perhaps something else at play. What are the “other streams,” the “less pleasing flow,” the “darker forests” that surrounded the “unsocial Indian”? A better question might be, who are they? The poem is from 1784. Is Freneau’s memory so short?

Spring semester of last year, I worked with a local book bank that connects elementary and middle-school aged kids who are behind their grade’s reading requirements with tutors and an ample supply of free books. The several times a student called in sick or didn’t show, I perused the stacks and shelves, eventually finding myself in the history section for young readers. The book bank is run largely by the generosity of a hefty crew of volunteers, but this does mean that the intake screening for what books end up on the take-me-home shelves is somewhat varied. In addition to a book that painted a Black family as being just so happy to be picking cotton, there were several books that rehearsed the story of the courageous settlers fighting the savage natives for land that was clearly given to the settlers by God. While most of the books containing accounts between white colonizers and brown indigenous people were focused on North America, there was also a book about Captain Cook’s encounter with the “unfriendly” Maori people (“Firing over their heads did not make the natives less quarrelsome or more obliging. Cook learned this lesson one day when he ordered his men to discharge their muskets. The Maoris reacted so violently that the Englishmen had to shoot to kill in order to protect themselves.” Yes, how the Englishmen stood their ground.)

I flipped through their pages and took a mental note of their dates of publication (and sometimes a picture of a cover or excerpt) before throwing them into the recycling bin. Needless to stay, the staff was as disturbed by the books as I was. Although my sample size of books was relatively small for any sort of comprehensive analysis, there did seem to be a shift in children’s history books in the last couple decades of the twentieth century toward a hybrid subject position—toward trying to figure out how to reconcile some sort of patriotic account of the founding of this country (still sometimes verging on a nationalistic hagiography) with the fact that this country was founded through the genocide of native people. It makes for some awkward writing.

From The New England Indians by C. Keith Wilbur, first published in 1978:

The New England Indians have long been buried under a mass of indifference, prejudices, hearsay, Victorian ideas about ‘the noble red man,’ and guilt complexes over the racially downtrodden.

Later down the page:

When King Philip’s War in 1675 – 1676 effectively dissolved these New Englanders and their more primitive cultures, their nine thousand years of living gradually faded from memory.

They deserve a better fate.

Passing over the word “primitive” for the sake of time: yes, but what of this nine thousand years of living? Has it “gradually faded from memory”? Whose memory? I’m guessing not the memory of the survivors… so the memories of the white descendants of the settlers? Is our memory so short?

Memory is political because storytelling is political. When people speak of erasure, they are speaking of the ways in which the narratives we generate intentionally and unintentionally write peoples out of existence. And it is exactly this: the “unsocial Indian” drifts further and further beyond the Western horizon. Blip! Gone. Narratival genocide follows genocide.

The characters in the story of the Dakota Access Pipeline should by this point be familiar: a tribe of Native Americans and the United States government, specifically the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the Army Corps of Engineers. The Standing Rock Sioux are trying to protect their home and native land with its sacred places and drinking water from the unrelenting drive of the US government to exploit land for profit.

What when the stealing of native land happens in the age of social media? What when there is no time to rewrite the history as one of voluntary recession? What when we see pictures on Facebook or Twitter of indigenous people protesting the theft of their land moments after the pictures are taken? Can we still claim to forget? Is our memory so short? Did our European forbears value the lives of the native peoples they destroyed? No? What about at *this* moment? They deserve a better fate.

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image source: justseeds on instagram

The Wilderness and the Eunuch: Baptism in Acts 8:26-40

[Below is an exegesis I wrote for my Theology and the New Testament class. I haven’t done much exegesis, so I’m not sure how exactly to do a normal one. Luckily, the assignment was to do “creative exegesis,” so I’m safe! Also, I’m sure what I have written here has been said before by others, so I offer this up to add my voice to an already singing choir.]

Reading the Acts of the Apostles for guidance on topics surrounding ecclesiology provides an interesting problem: how can a text about a time before there is an established Church and before that Church’s ritual practices are also established be used to inform the life and practice of Christians today, many of whom belong to denominations whose rituals are codified in orders of worship?[1] In the Acts, there is not a clear concept of the Trinity, and, as in the story of the eunuch in Acts 8:26-40, the Holy Spirit’s role in baptism does not always easily map onto current understandings that the Holy Spirit is bestowed upon the baptized through either baptism or confirmation. While, following denominational protocol, not everyone should or will baptize as Philip baptizes the Ethiopian eunuch, the story has some broader significance for baptismal practice: the wilderness is authorized as a location for mission and baptism, and baptism is open to all who believe, including those considered to be racially and sexually “other.”

The passage begins with an angel of the Lord’s prompting of Philip to “Get up and go” to a road that runs through the wilderness (NRSV Acts 8:26). The wilderness (ἔρημος) is also sometimes translated as “desert,” as in the Common English Bible; the word carries connotations both of extreme weather (little or no water) and of a lack of political or national affiliation—Peter and the eunuch meet in an uninhabitable geography. In Luke 4:1-2, following his baptism, Jesus is led by the Spirit into ἐρημία to be tempted by the devil, and Jesus resists all of the devil’s attempts to seduce him into subordinating himself to the devil. The wilderness is thus also a potentially hostile place. And yet, it is here that the angel sends Peter to meet the eunuch, who is reading Isaiah. Upon Philip’s questioning as to whether he understands what he is reading, the eunuch replies, “‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’” (Acts 8:30-31). So Peter becomes his guide in the wilderness—a site of spiritual wandering—through Isaiah, through the gospel news, and to baptism. The eunuch spots water by their chariot deep enough for the two to go “into,” and he is baptized (8:36-8). Following this, the Spirit of the Lord whisks Peter away, leaving the eunuch to rejoice (8:39). The wilderness desert is shown to be a place where one may find guidance, instruction, and even the water necessary for baptism. The wilderness—a place formerly of solitude and temptation—is thus authorized by the Spirit as a place fit for initiation into Christian living.

The identity of whom Peter is led to by the Spirit is also significant. As the followers of Christ begin spreading the gospel throughout the region, the Spirit demonstrates that baptism is open to those of different political affiliation, geographic location, and sexual status. The name of the eunuch is never given, so the other identifiers given to him (Ethiopian eunuch, court official) act as a name—he is defined by difference. “Ethiopian” implies that the eunuch has dark skin.[2] The eunuch is “a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians” and is “in charge of her entire treasury” (Acts 8:27). The eunuch holds a position of power in the regime of a foreign ruler. Both his skin and his position of power set him apart from the Jewish identity and heritage and from Peter and the other believers who shared all that they had (4:32-7). Perhaps most remarkably, the eunuch was travelling to worship in Jerusalem. Due to his status as a eunuch, he would not have been able to be a Jew or a Jewish convert (see the prohibitions against those with “crushed testicles” in Leviticus 21:20 and Deuteronomy 23:1). Due to the purity laws, eunuchs “provoked deep purity concerns over their lack of wholeness, completeness, and fittedness to the proper type and kind.”[3] Megan K. DeFranza writes, “from an ancient Hebrew perspective,” a perspective that carried on through the birth of early Christianity, eunuchs were the “epitome of ‘other’”: “ethnically other, religiously other, sexually other, and morally other,” in addition to being “other” with regards to gender.[4] Perhaps he was able to pass in Jerusalem, but, learned and literate as he is, he likely would have known the prohibitions against his presence. In baptism, then, the eunuch’s body, traditionally distrusted and despised, finds a place of welcome in the growing body of Christ.

In Acts 8:26-40, baptism is not explicitly a bestowal of the Holy Spirit through the medium of water and the laying on of hands. It is, however, prompted by an angel of the Lord and the Holy Spirit (8:26, 29). Through the baptism of the eunuch, that which was once “other” is ushered into the kingdom of God: the wilderness is drawn into the geography of God’s grace, the eunuch’s body into the body of Christ. This movement of welcoming, and in particular, welcoming the “other,” is still at the heart of Christian baptism.


 

[1] It is worth noting that there was then and is today a wide range of expressions of the Christian faith, making it difficult to speak of a singular “established Church” beyond the mystical sense of the unity of all followers of Christ as Christ’s body. So, perhaps it is better to ask, how can the practices of Christians before the pre-ecumenical and ecumenical councils inform the practice of Christians in post-Reformation denominations?

[2] See footnote to Acts 8:27 in the HarperCollins Study Bible: Fully Revised and Updated.

[3] James V. Brownson, Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2013): 191-2.

[4] Megan K. DeFranza, Sex Difference in Christian Theology: Male, Female, and Intersex in the Image of God (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015): 78, 79.

[Featured image source here.]