When they came to the crowd, a man came to him, knelt before him,and said, ‘Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly; he often falls into the fire and often into the water. And I brought him to your disciples, but they could not cure him.’ Jesus answered, ‘You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him here to me.’ And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was cured instantly. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’ He said to them, ‘Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, “Move from here to there”, and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.’ – Matthew 17:14-21
He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sun rise. – William Blake, “Eternity”
Before we go any further, I think it’s important to note that, despite the warning I gave when I started this Lenten Journey; despite what I’ve been writing, plumbing the depths of my own sin in order to have it all before me when I’m there before the cross, this whole “following Jesus” thing really isn’t a torment. On the contrary, it’s filled with joys and surprises, and the evidence that it’s all worth it passes me on the road just as surely as the reminders of my sin are all around me. These are not exclusive things. As Blake’s poem makes clear, if we bind ourselves to joy, we are as damned just as surely as if we bind ourselves to sorrow or evil. On the other hand, recognizing joy for what it is, something fleeting and free, should we be willing to be allowed at best a kiss as it goes by, will understand the power of that bliss that comes from beauty, and goodness, and truth.
As I pass down the road, I see so much that tells me this is the right road. Groups of people passing the other way talking about how they were hungry and in the middle of nowhere and Jesus was there, and food seemed to be in abundance. I see a pair of women, their faces glowing. They say they saw Him walk on water. One of his disciples tried and failed, and Jesus lifted him up out of the waves and they walked together back to the boat.
Of course, not everyone is happy. People with Galilean accents are complaining about this upstart, this local boy who thinks he’s all that and a bag of chips. Why, they knew his whole family! They watched him grow up from a child, knew what kind of scrapes and messes he, like all boys, find themselves in; now suddenly, he thinks he can preach to them in the synagogue, as if they would listen to him? I shrug, knowing ignorance and envy when I hear it. On the other side of me, Pharisees pass. They aren’t speaking, but their faces tell stories. I have a great deal of respect for the Pharisees; they hold fast both to law and tradition, as a way of ensuring they and the people are truly Holy as God commanded them to be Holy. They are both smart and occasionally wise. They use what they have at hand to try to be Holy before God and other people, which is something to be lauded. And here’s this upstart carpenter from Nazareth – of all places – telling them they’re doing it wrong. Is it any wonder they’re annoyed? The way of which he speaks is far too easy; the way of Holiness according to the Law is rigorous, it cuts the lean from the fat for a reason. This Jesus doesn’t want anything to do with that. Instead, he sits at table with drunkards and prostitutes, tax collectors and uncircumcised proselytes, laughing and chatting, telling them they are beloved children of God, that he has come for them because the well do not need a physician. Hmph.
Worst of all is that ragtag group that follows him so closely. They try to imitate him. IMITATE HIM! They cannot even cast out a simple demon bringing about epilepsy, and even Jesus gets frustrated with their lack of faith. Then he turns around and tells them that if they truly have faith, even faith tiny like a mustard seed, they can make mountains move. Has anyone, even Moses, ever made such a claim? No, there’s definitely something . . . wrong . . . with this guy. The question is, of course, who should do what about him.
As they pass, I listen carefully. What I hear makes me happy; happy that Jesus truly is changing the world around him just by his presence. Those who hunger are filled, while the wealthy are sent away empty. Empty and arguing among themselves over who Jesus is, and more – what to do about him. He is usurping their place, pulling the mighty down from their rightful places. It also makes me sad that these learned, intelligent, insightful men are so wedded to their books, their teachings, and their traditions they cannot see what seems so plain and clear to so many others: This Jesus, whoever or whatever he might be, exercised power and authority as if it were his birthright. He has no need to care about the good opinion of the self-appointed guardians of the faith, because this faith of Jesus is a faith of such power these teachers and upholders of the Law cannot even grasp it.
Alas, those gathered around Him, so sure both of Jesus and themselves, are also, in their hearts, unsure of the power they could have if only they would open their hearts to the Spirit to quicken that faith that is there. More wondrous things than curing a simple epileptic are in store for them – no need to pretend I don’t know more of the story – yet, at this moment, they are as lost and confused as those Pharisees who harrumph their way past me down the road. And surely, were I honest enough with myself, I would admit I’ve never been able to move a mountain. Indeed, has anyone, ever? Not that I can see. Does that mean I am no better than the Disciples at this point, part of a faithless generation, so weak and afraid I cannot even get better from this nagging depression that wants to take me over, dragging me down to a pit of despair so deep no light can reach me?
We are, sad to say, a faithless generation. As I’ve written recently, we are so frightened by pretty much everything, we actually encourage fear in others, if for no other reason than it fills up the pews on Sunday mornings, and more important those collection plates and baskets as they pass. We do not offer freedom to those held captive, whether it’s by illness or envy or an outdated, outmoded faith. Instead, we offer a new set of chains, that for all they are so beautiful, trap us and hold us just as surely as the weight carried by those Pharisees who could just let go of all they believe is their responsibility, and rather than admonish those around them, seek to love them. Our chains are not those of love, binding us to one another. No, our chains, for all they may glow like gold, are chains with words like “morality” written on them. “Gay” and “Muslim” and “Race” trace their way along the links. When we hear the name of Jesus offered up, our hearts leap with joy, much as John the Baptist leaped in Elizabeth’s womb. Rather than allow our hearts to fill with joy, kissing this dove as it passes, we clamp Jesus in irons no less strong, marked no differently than our own, and demand he lead this procession of the shackled to the Promised Land.
Jesus, however, is far stronger, far more clever, and far more loving than we can imagine. Even as we clasp him tight, the chains dissolve and he insists we are free. We are free to love. We are free to live. We are free from fear. We are free from the need to measure the lives of others and find them wanting. We are free from the need to separate the Other from among us, but rather welcome that stranger, even as Moses admonished the people in Deuteronomy to welcome the stranger and alien in to the Land. And like that, Jesus is off down the road, out of sight before we can protest the need for his return to bind us to Him so that we are safe, so that we know right from wrong, so that we know who is and is not a proper object of our love.
I have stood and watched this spectacle many times, in many guises. Far too many people are far too comfortable bound and limited, refusing to hear that what Jesus offers us, if we have but the wit and wisdom to allow it to grasp us, is a freedom so profound and complete we no longer have need even to grasp hold of joy should it pass us by. As fleeting as it may be – a golden sunrise; the first kiss with a lover; the look and feel of a newborn child in your arms – these moments are with us precisely because they are not bound. So, too, are others not bound to us by our all too human desire to define and classify and separate. Jesus’s call goes out to all, and all gather round – the dirty and clean, the wealthy and the perpetually poverty stricken, Jews and Muslims and Hindus and Catholics and Baptists and Mormons and United Methodists – and sing His praises and race down this same road I travel. Except, of course, there have been, and always will be, those we pass along the way who have grown far too comfortable in their chains. Whatever may be written on them, no matter how many times Jesus causes them to disappear, asking only they have the faith of a mustard seed to see and do more wonders than he can describe, they reforge the chains, refusing to believe this gift he has, a gift offered at no cost, is meant for them in the way he says. His directness of speech, the depths in his brown eyes, his refusal to allow anyone anywhere to wander too far from this road on which I and so many others pass – these do not bring joy. They bring fear. A fear that demands they bind Jesus to them, and them alone, keeping them safe from all the harms that may come, all the Others who walk the same road yet are so unlike them.
Yes, this is the right road, indeed. It is the road we Christians have walked for thousands of years, asking all the same questions, facing all the same fears, hearing all the same objections, encountering those bound and free, those too happy for either laughter or tears, and those so offended they can barely breathe. That it leads to the same place it always has, a midden outside the walls of Jerusalem where the beaten and bloodied meet their final end in slow agony, well, that’s both part of the story and getting ahead of where we are right now. For now, it is enough to have caught glimpses, here and there, of a head of black curly hair, a rich baritone voice filled with amused frustration and infinite love. I know I am on the Way, the Pilgrim’s Way. The sin that I have faced so far, I know it isn’t finished. It can’t be, not if I’m to go to that same midden not to offer myself, but to fall before one particular cross and ask if it is possible if all that – all that and so much more – can and will be taken from me.
For now, though, I am happy. I’m happy because joy has flitted by and rather than grasp it, I have been allowed to brush my lips against it. I know I do not have the kind of faith it takes to move a pin, let alone a mountain. Not yet, anyway. That, too, might well lie at the end of this road. For now, I am happy the confusion, the fear, the anger, and the happiness that always follow in Jesus’s wake let me know I’m going down the right road.
And I’m not feeling bad at all.
When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’ But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died. – Acts 7:54-60
Of the many things I admire about the Roman Catholic Church, its round of Feast Days for its saints is among those we Protestants tend to pay little attention to, even though, especially at this time of year, we most definitely should. You see, the first Feast Day after Christmas isn’t some squishy, smarmy feast day. Rather, it is the day the faithful are called to remember the murder of St. Stephen, a deacon of the infant Church. Stephen became St. Stephen because, as The Acts of the Apostles says, the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem became enraged at Stephen’s condemnation not only of their actions in the killing of Jesus, but their general forgetfulness of the past; their observation of their own feast days without any substance. He called them “a stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ear” (verse 51) and followed that with a dig that probably not only serves as a literary device foretelling his own coming martyrdom, but a reminder to readers that death follows them should they hold fast to their beliefs: “Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers.”
So, we’ve spent four weeks now, preparing ourselves for the birth of the baby Jesus, the one the Angel said is the Son of the Most High, the one St. Mary said has cast the mighty from their thrones, filled the hungry with good things. Yet, this same Jesus has lived, has preached, has taught, has ministered, has entered Jerusalem, has died on a cross, and has risen from the dead, and what, exactly, has really changed? The powerful still hold powerful. The powerful still try to silence voices of dissent. The powerful become enraged when their crimes are named in public for all to see.
The powerful kill those who tell them to their faces who and what they are.
Is this the Kingdom we preach and live? Is this the promise of Peace we have been given? Just what the hell have we been preparing ourselves for, if the end result is those in power continue as if nothing has changed?
For we Christians, the difference is simple enough. The threat and reality of death, as St. Paul (who stood in front of a pile of coats as St. Stephen was murdered, so he knew from these things) wrote, is that it has lost its sting. Death, the penalty that entered this world through sin, is no longer the enemy because in the Cross of Christ, God took up into the life of the Divine Trinity even that separation from God that was death. Whether alive or dead, God in Christ through the Holy Spirit is always with us. Whether threatened with death, imprisonment, beatings, torture, it doesn’t really matter all that much because none of it, for all the pain and suffering and anguish and mourning it brings, can or will or has silenced the simple message that God, the Creator of the Universe, loves us. Part of that love is demonstrated not only in St. Stephens dignified, Spirit-filled death. Part of that love is also on display as he stands before the Sanhedrin and tells them what they already know but refuse to acknowledge.
One of my favorite sayings from Noam Chomsky is that speaking the truth to power is meaningless because they all ready know the truth. What needs doing is speaking the truth to the powerless. I used to believe that to be the case. Now, on this Feast Day of St. Stephen the Martyr, I think speaking the truth to power is important. It demonstrates courage. It humbles the powerful. It tells the world their power is largely an illusion, something we grant them and something they use that is neither inherent to them or to their office. Nothing enrages those in power more than pulling back the curtain and showing not only the world, but them, their power is nothing but an illusion. We Christians can do this precisely because our power comes in powerlessness. Like Christ on the cross, we have opportunities to demonstrate real Divine power by showing that it is self-emptying, a denial of any power, a refusal to act when action is what most would understand to be true Divine power. What those in secular (and religious) authority have is power, indeed. It is not, however, the kind of power that comes from God when it is used to silence those with whom they disagree; when it is used to quiet those who name them for who and what they are; when it is used to remove those who are being troublesome by not being afraid.
What’s changed? Nothing. And everything. The Feast Day of St. Stephen the Martyr reminds us that the world we confront is powerful, indeed. It can do far worse than kill us. The one thing it cannot do, however, is intimidate us. We cannot be silent. We will not cease to call the powerful what they are. And as their only weapon of last resort, death, holds no fear for us, in our powerlessness we have stripped them of any chance of ever silencing us.
You know, it can’t all be serious stuff? Arguments about the future of the United Methodist Church, or the nature of the Christian faith. Last night, I DJed a wedding reception. With only a few exceptions I was by far the youngest person there, and those folks had such a great time. Still, while “In the Midnight Hour” and Electric Light Orchestra are fun, I need a musical palate cleansing, which I wish to share with all five of my readers! Setting my Spotify playlist on Random, it’s the ten that arrive.
Tom Waits – Get Behind The Mule
Rush – Mission (Live: Snakes And Arrows Tour)
Joe Satriani – Summer Song (Live)
Rob Zombie – Dragula
Grateful Dead – Fire On The Mountain (Live: Closing Of Winterland)
Yes – Holy Lamb
Porcupine Tree – .3
The Who – Who Are You
Blind Melon – No Rain
Black Mountain – Roller Coaster
And for the video!
God establishes a creation which is itself a ‘return’ to him, brought into being to praise its Creator. And God establishes creatures who very existence is to voice creation’s praise, to focus the song of creation on creation’s Maker, to be ‘secretaries’ of praise (Herbert). Hu,mankind finds its tru being in improvising on the givennness of the created worldd with the others who are given to us, never treating givens as something to be owned or enclosed in finality, but ‘over-accepting’ them in such a way that they are regarded as intrinsically interesting, and rendered more fully felicitous for a potentially enormous number of fresh melodies, harmonies, and metres. – Jeremy Begbie, Theology, Music, and Time, p.252
The keystone for understanding what we call Christianity is the passion event of Jesus of Nazareth. In the suffering, crucifixion, death, and resurrection from the dead, we have enacted both the whole internal relationship of the Trinitarian interrelationship of eternal generation, eternal return, and the love that flows between this eternal act. We call this eternal act Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and rightly, because these are persons in the technical sense – fully realized in and of themselves, yet never for themselves. It is precisely in the Christ-event that Divine gratuity becomes revealed in all its clarity; that the Divine “for-otherness” of the Trinity is revealed in its fullness.
It is from this central revelation that we can then look back to the story of Creation and understand the central point – existence itself is grace. There is no necessity to what is. The creation was the prodigal love of the Trinity overflowing in the desire for an other, a not-God, to be so to praise the love and abundant joy of being-with that is the Trinitarian life.
We humans, more than any other creature, are the voice of creation’s praise to the Creator. In the discovery of our limited, constrained freedom, we also discover all sorts of possibilities for creating sounds, sounds that might yet be new, might yet be a thing never before heard. Whether in a cathedral, a club, a concert hall, or sitting around a living room – our musical creations are the grace-filled expression of human joy at the simple fact of existence. And it is precisely because all that is, including the Divine life itself, is sheer gratuity, those who create music need not be aware that is what they are doing. In fact, their intention might be quite the opposite! This does not diminish the power of the Holy Spirit to take our music – all of it, from chant and polyphony through hymnody, spirituals and the blues, jazz and hip-hope – and make of it praise from creation to Creator.