The Danger of Giving

The Danger of Giving

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

Scripture: Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 2:8-20

“Lo, I have come to do thy will.” — Hebrews 10:7; Psalm 40:7

The danger of giving is that it will displace and spoil receiving, and receiving is far more important than giving. High on the list of things that make Christmas time miserable, or at least anxious, is the giving and receiving of gifts. We all know the stress and strain of reciprocity. We all know how easy it is for rivalry to infect the exchange of gifts. There is a reason why in the German language the word Gift means poison! Ours is a Germanic language and it would be instructive to find out how our word for gift became their word for poison or vice versa. In any case this fact suggests that gift – giving can be bad for your health; apart from the physical and financial stress it creates. My hope for this sermon is that it will help you to balance giving and receiving, by accepting God’s offer of a peerless gift for which there can be no reciprocity. Our only option is to receive the peerless gift of grace in a little boy put into our arms, the original Christmas gift. Receiving is more important than giving.

The exchange of gifts used to be a key category for interpreting society and culture in the anthropology of the 19th and 20th centuries, and is associated especially with the name of a French anthropologist Marcel Mauss. He argued that reciprocity of goods is the cement of society, expressing a solidarity and goodwill that binds. However, when we look at what in particular traditional societies exchanged we are surprised into second thoughts about the benignity of the bestowal of gifts. Prominent among the items were women and corpses, items that not even Neiman Marcus would get for you today.

We need not take much time here to understand the significance of these erstwhile favorite gifts – they had something to do with making strangers do what we could not do ourselves, handle our living sisters and bury our dead parents. We can see something of the challenge it is to wash the naked corpse of your father or mother (call the undertaker!) or live too long with your sister, but to see this is not to see all. There is something more fundamental than the psychological at stake; gift exchange might be a symptom from a deeper level of exchange where the things given and received are blows, and from where the building forces of culture and society are generated. Revenge is such an exchange, a tit for tat, and part of the anxiety of gift giving probably stems from the vestige of vengeance behind the form of exchange. The end of revenge is when one party receives and does not reciprocate, takes the blow and eats the shame. This is called forgiveness and it is what God did on the Cross; He endured the pain, despised the shame and did not retaliate (Hebrews 12:2).

Ever since the Trojans accepted a wooden horse from the Greeks the more literate members of our culture have or should have appreciated the danger of receiving gifts, especially from Greeks (“Beware of Greeks bearing gifts”). But the danger of giving gifts is greater. It so easily becomes a way of humiliating the receiver and exalting the self. Why do you think so many beneficiaries of US generosity hate us? Our largesse exalts us and humiliates them. Don’t you think that allowing them to do something for us, showing them that we really need them would improve the relationship?

Clearly we have stumbled onto a vast topic and must stop here. Please forgive the brevity of the treatment. I hope however, that I have said enough to show the problem. Now let me try to point the way to a solution, not I but the Spirit through the Word.

Our scripture from the Letter to the Hebrews might be summed up as, “It is more blessed to receive than to give,” and I believe that even at the superficial level this epigram can help tame the escalation to the extreme of competitive gift giving. But there is a deeper level to which it points where the decisive power to cope is lodged, a level where we see the necessity of having to receive the gift of God himself in our very flesh, a gift we might refuse, but will be given anyway, whether we want it or not.

The passage tells of centuries of gift giving to God, which is called sacrifice. Oceans of blood, mountains of bulls and goats, not to mention first born sons and virgin daughters, have been given as gifts to God and the gods, and it was all for nothing, a waste of lives and time, because the one true God does not want sacrifices and the other gods are only figments of our own violent imaginations and symbols of our fear of ourselves.

Putting the (Septuagint) Greek version of Psalm 40:6-8 into the mouth of Jesus, our text has Jesus tell us,

“Sacrifices and offerings thou hast not desired,
But a body hast thou prepared for me;
In burnt offerings and sin offerings thou hast taken no pleasure.
Then I said, ‘Lo, I have come to do thy will, O God,’
as it is written of me in the roll of the book (Heb. 10:5-7).”

The punch line is: Christmas is first and foremost the time to receive, because God is giving us this overwhelming gift of Himself in our flesh. He is giving us everything we have ever hoped for. We’ve been trying to bribe God. We’ve been substituting our gifts for ourselves, and thus keeping God at arms length. We have made our gifts not the symbols of our self but a substitute for ourselves. Now is the time to receive.

It would have been infinitely more telling for him if the innkeeper had let the teenager in labor use his best room; it was not nothing that he gave them a manger, but think of what he missed by being blind to the gift that was knocking at his door and begging to be received. God is still begging to be received, and we are still missing the point by giving God the stable at the back rather than the bridal suite of our empty lives. Because we cannot really receive (Are we too proud?) we miss the fullness of the only gift there is, now banging at the door and begging to be received, the gift that is God Himself, the gift that is grace.

So relax and receive. Trust the giver, he is no Greek with a wooden horse to give you. He is you creator and your lover. We descendents of the Puritans are so eager to be doing and contributing that we risk not relaxing enough to receive. Let’s be different this year, let’s be careful to receive gracefully, let us receive God humbly and with thanks. When we do this we will find that the gift includes the task. German says this nicely; the word for Gift is Gabe and the word for task is Aufgabe. In this tight epigram we say that when we pick up the gift we receive also the task -Die Gabe und die Aufgabe. And the task is: “Lo I come to do your will O God.”

As Jesus says, quoting the Hebrew Bible, “You do not want sacrifices, that is, gifts from us, O God. What you want is for me to do your will, so here in this body that you have prepared for me I will do your will.” To be sure this is a crude way of describing the Incarnation of God, but we get the point. “Stop offering me gifts, and start receiving the gift I offer you you. I am entering your bodily substance to renew my creation from within and to give you all eternal life, invincible joy, and the peace that passes human understanding.” “Yes Lord, thank you!”

“How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given
So God imparts to human hearts, the blessing of his heaven
No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin,
Where meek hearts will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.”
— Philips Brookes.


The Salvation of Our God

The Salvation of Our God

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

Scripture: Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3: 1-6

“All flesh shall see the salvation of our God.” — Luke 3:6/Isaiah 40:3

Our last sermon was based on the scene of Jesus before Pilate, as set by John in ch.18 of his gospel. I missed an obvious point in the written version, which I recovered in the spoken version, namely that the “other” way I described in the writing is in the story called “the truth.” Jesus said that he did not come as an earthly king to crush his enemies and force them to serve, but rather “to bear witness to the truth (John 18: 37-38).” To this the cynical Pilate responds with a rhetorical question that echoes down the ages, “What is Truth?” We saw truth and Pilate saw truth’s mockery; we stood with the condemned man and Pilate sat on a throne. Could there be a symbol more eloquent than this? Let me not insult you by trying to explain it.

That was our question for last time, a question for the final Sunday of the Christian year when we looked back and traced the way we had come with Jesus since the previous Advent. Our question for today, our first Sunday of the year, when we look forward and no longer back, is, “What is salvation?” “All flesh shall see the salvation of our God!” What is it we shall see? How will we know it when we see it?

The form of the advent gospel is a promise and an expectation of fulfillment. Since when we stood at the end we described the way as having been a way of truth, when we stand at the beginning truth must be a part of the promise, therefore, salvation includes knowing the truth and thus by logic alone we have found a first answer to our advent question, “What is salvation?”(There is some logical advantage to circular processes!)

Looking back we say with John that Jesus has been for us a witness to the truth, looking forward we expect that if we continue to believe his words and follow his way we shall know the truth and walk in the light. Walking in the light we shall not stumble or wander off-course, and so we have a second answer to our question about salvation. Those who experience salvation not only know the truth but also are surefooted on its way, do not wander or stray, but stay close to Jesus the light-bearer.

So we find ourselves again where every Christian preacher and every disciple must be if he or she is to speak the truth and do the right, close beside Jesus. The world is a barren place, run by a murderer and the father of lies, and we are pilgrims without map or compass but with a pioneer and a guide who does not send us off but leads us on and is with us every step of the way. He sent us stories and laws and taught us rituals but we misunderstood and disobeyed and so he came in person to be with us always on the way.

The text for today is Luke quoting second Isaiah, which in turn sings a song of returning exiles, a homecoming song of the Jews coming back across the eastern desert from 80 years of exile in Babylon. I can still remember my children’s voices from the back of the car, “Are we there yet?” or in Europe, “What language do they speak here Daddy?” I bet the returning exiles asked such questions all the time. “Are we there yet?” “What will home be like?” “I can’t wait!” “Drive faster Daddy!”

The structure of salvation is given in this image of the journey home. We are not yet there, but we are drawing near- and if I consider the age of most of us here we can say we shall all be home before long. Home it is, where the heart is, where our loved ones are, where God the Father waits for us, God the Son makes ready those many mansions that will be our new homes, while God the Spirit shows us the way.

So salvation is not the state of having arrived but the condition of being on the way that leads truly to our destination, which is life and not death. That is why John’s Jesus calls himself, “The Way, the Truth, and the Life (14:6),” and describes our salvation in these unbearably loving words: “I go to prepare a place for you, and then I shall come again to take you in my arms and hold you close so that you and I might be together always (John 14: 3; my paraphrase).

Our Truth is Christ’s love, and Christ’s love is our Truth. “That is all you know and all you need to know” (cf. John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn).

Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus! (1 Cor.16: 22).


Symbols of Power

Symbols of Power

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

Scripture: Revelation 1:4-8; John 18:33-37

“My Kingdom is not of this world…My Kingdom is not from here.” — John 18:36

God is ineffable so all our talk about God must be metaphorical or in some other way symbolic. Something in the world that we know stands in the place of the One who dwells in another world that we cannot know, someone in this world “re-presents” someone in another world. There is nothing alarming about this because all communication is symbolic in this sense of one thing standing in for another. Whenever we go beyond a rudimentary pointing and grunting we communicate by implicitly or explicitly comparing one thing with another. At the very least a sound stands for a thing or an attitude; the sounds of speech are significant because they recall states and substances.

In this sense “King” is a symbol for God and today is the festival of “Christ the King,” and the last day of the Christian year. Next Sunday, the first of Advent, is the Christian New Year. Then we look forward, now we look back, and our point for today’s sermon is the pro and con of summarizing all of what we see of Jesus when we look back, under the symbol “King.”

In our culture “King” is not a familiar symbol. We have not had a king in the US for a long time; not since Elvis Presley, and in his case it was a semi-serious almost joking exaggeration, promoted no doubt by his handlers. It was meant in the simple sense that Elvis was the best, the greatest. There is a sense in which the Christian use of the symbol is like that; we want simply to say that Jesus is the best and the greatest (I can just hear the accusation that I said Jesus was like Elvis).

In its imperial and military context our Gospel lesson in essence says that “King” is the wrong symbol, – unless we alter its meaning so radically that it loses all sense. Jesus tells us that his kingdom is not of this world, not from here, and that is tantamount to saying that we cannot look at an earthly king if we wish to understand what Jesus’ status is. In the passage in question, the trial of Jesus before Pontius Pilate, the mark of a king is that he has armies to do his will, that his power is the power of violence and that he compels homage and obedience by force and the threat of force. Emphatically Jesus will not accept that he is a king like this, and this refusal introduces another kind of power that does not work by fear, force or flattery like a king’s.

The symbol of this “other” power is the Cross, a symbol of the force that does not resist overtly but prevails covertly. Who won the battle of wills between Pilate the earthly power and Jesus? Pilate used his army to torture Jesus to death, Jesus used his “other” kind of power to bear the pain, accept the hostility, absorb the agony and bear it out of the world, Taking it upon himself he sank like a stone beneath its weight and then rose from under it to live triumphantly, millennia longer than Pilate and all of ancient Rome.

From our vantage point we see that Pilate was being played for a fool, not by divine malice but by his own vanity and the deep distrust that caused him to put his confidence in coercion and domination. We all misplace our confidence like that and so we all have to be instructed that if we use the term “King” to describe Jesus we intend something radically different, virtually opposite to the earthly meaning of the term. This king does not put his faith in the force of arms but rules by the power of God, and God’s power is different from and greater than the power of this world.

Nevertheless, as I have hinted above, all the gospels see Jesus if not as an earthly king still as a king of some sort, – like Elvis the greatest – because he brings near a kingdom and teaches the laws and customs, the style and strategy of this kingdom. In the older translations it is called the “Kingdom of God, ” or “the Kingdom of Heaven,” and it sums up everything Jesus stands for. All the parables are parables of the Kingdom. All the miracles are acts of the power of the Kingdom, and that mysterious moment called “Resurrection” is the return of the Kingdom from its attempted expulsion on the Cross. Jesus is the presence of the Kingdom of God, and this is very good news, because his burden is light and his judgment is merciful and understanding.

Thus the old thing in the symbol as used here is that Jesus is a ruler and a lord, the new thing is that his way of ruling is “other” and his authority is grounded beyond this world. Human kings rule by force and base their dignity and status on their genealogy, Jesus rules by the “other” power and grounds his dignity in himself. So the royal symbol of a Christian year, which traces the life of Jesus from birth to death and beyond is quite appropriate for indicating Jesus’ real status as the head, the most important, the unparalleled one over us and among us. Christ is a king, but his kingly authority is not founded in this world and his power does not flow from the barrel of a gun as Mao Zedong so famously claimed.

It is this “other” power that makes Jesus pre-eminently the authority that must rule and it is this “other” power that constructs his kingdom. For Jesus is a great and gentle king and his kingdom is a reign of love. Nevertheless, this gentleness is tougher than the toughest steely force in this world and this love is stronger than death. This glorious, royal “other,” is what we see when we look back over the liturgical life we have lived this year past, the life of Jesus, from crib to cross to climax, from this perishing world to the world of resurrection. It is also what we see when we look ahead from the opening moments of the New Year and from the vantage point of the Crib see the Cross and beyond to the glory of Resurrection and the promise of eternal life.

To believe in the power of this gentleness and love is not easy. In this world it is virtually impossible to live them without being crucified. We who wish to live an “other” life based on an “other” vision cannot do without the protection of the rulers of this world, the army and the other instruments of force that keep the criminals off our backs, but we must never lose sight of or give up on the Kingdom of God and its righteousness, and the life Christ the King of Love gives us.

This is why the festival of “Christ the King” and feast of Thanksgiving fit so comfortably into one and the same Sunday. We give thanks for all Jesus the “King” has given us the and done for us, during the past year of our pilgrim journey through this vale of tears; and thanks for the heaven prepared for us as our destination.


Beware the Scribes

Beware the Scribes

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

Scripture: Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44

“Beware the scribes, who like to walk about wearing stoles of authority and love to be greeted deferentially in the market place, to sit in the seats of prestige in synagogues, and the seats of honor at banquets.” — Mark 12:38-39 (paraphrase)

The scribes in question here are not the top-drawer lawyers from the big city, Jerusalem, but the village officials who taught in the synagogues and recorded the business of life, writing deeds of ownership and trust, marriage licenses and birth certificates. In a largely illiterate community they were even more important than their counterparts are in our society. Jesus was a threat to their power and influence and they regarded him as a dangerous nuisance. This is another piece of evidence for the critical stance of Jesus towards his own society and a contribution to the causality of his death. He made himself such a critical nuisance that all the powerful classes in principle and some in fact wished he would disappear; those acting in fact eventually made it happen.

The climax of his criticism of them is that they “eat up the houses of widows and make long prayers (40).” Briefly this means that they use their religious authority to steal money from defenseless people like widows. Like any decent person Jesus opposed dishonest lawyers and clergy who defrauded the vulnerable. How would we describe this situation in our time? Jesus is against lawyers who manipulate and overcharge their vulnerable clients and clergy who use religion to extract money from believers. We have so many instances in our time of this breech of trust that the phenomenon has become a cliché.

We might go on to allow that not all lawyers are untrustworthy and not all clergy are greedy hypocrites, but does Jesus make that allowance? In this text it does not seem so. He indicts the lawyer/clergy group as a whole; the profession is corrupt, so beware of them all! If there is an honest one among them he is the exception not the rule, so ‘Beware, beware!’

So when one says, as I have been heard to say, “All politicians are liars,” one is not far from Jesus. After all here he is saying, “All scribes are thieves whose purpose is to deceive everyone so as to rob old women and shine in the markets and in the synagogues and at the fashionable dinners.” According to Jesus, Bernie Madoff is only an extreme instance of the norm, which is a norm of dishonesty and hypocrisy. “Beware the Scribes!”

At this point I can hear the usual criticism of such a reading, that it is too pessimistic. We cannot believe and will not accept the realistic view of a Jesus, about the classes in society. ‘Not all politicians are liars, not all lawyers are corrupt, and not all clergy are venal’, we cry. What shall we say to this? ‘Oh Jesus you are too pessimistic! I know some honest politicians, some trustworthy lawyers, and some conscientious clergy. Not everyone falls under your indictment.’

Let me ask you, ‘Do you really know that your honest politician is in fact honest?’ My bet is that she is mostly honest (but the odds are only about 51/49%), that your clergy are mostly conscientious but not entirely, and as a class all such professionals are subject to the systemic corruption of social groups. So Jesus warns us to beware in general, but we cannot stop with that warning, we must go further.

Jesus is sitting watching people throw their contributions into the Temple collection baskets. He sees a poor widow give of her poverty and he remarks to his disciple that she has in principle given her very life, and that that is more meritorious than large sums from the rich. Why does Mark tell this story right after the warning about how the scribes eat up widows’ houses? I think it is because here the widow gives her life freely while there it is stolen from her. The point of the story seems to be freedom; the gift to God is best when it is freely given, not stolen or coerced. Clergy who wheedle money out of old ladies damage not only their piety but hers also.

Another point: What might one say about writers – for that is what scribes are – whose role is to create “world” for us? This “written world” is, I believe, the only world there is – as virtual communications makes plainer every day – and it is the very same world whether the story is about adventure and heartbreak or about property and divorce. All the “worlds” in which we live are filtered through the dishonesty of the scribes and are therefore more or less phony. (It was J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield who gave our time the term “phony.” Could it be that the reason Salinger has been in seclusion for decades is precisely because he takes his discovery seriously? Why fraternize with the phonies?).

When Jesus says, “Beware of the Scribes!” he means something like this: The world is more and less phony, but mostly phony. That’s not pessimism, that’s a fact. So don’t trust the backslappers in the market place or the leaders in the churches or the high table at prestigious dinners. Everyone is out for himself alone, including you and me! Nevertheless, says Jesus, “God my Father loves this phony world so much that he sent me to tell you the truth and then to do the truth for you (John 3:16). I am the only one you can trust! And when you trust me you will begin to discover the many trustworthy sinners my grace make possible and puts at your disposal. Trust me first, and then all you need will follow.”


Losing and Saving One’s Life

Losing and Saving One’s Life

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

Scripture: Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31

“Where’s the profit in gaining the world and losing your soul?” — Mark 8:36

Dorothy Parker the sardonic wit of the Algonquin circle in New York in the 20’s of last century said, “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor and rich is better.” That is a correction of the bit of folk wisdom that piously goes, ” I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor and I know that happiness does not depend on the balance in your bank account.” I think Dorothy Parker spoke more honestly, while the folk wisdom spoke more truly, but that in the end they are both right. It is better to be rich than poor but it’s a big mistake to think that riches automatically bring happiness. Why, just last week Brooke Astor’s son was convicted of defrauding his aged mother, – and he was turned in to the authorities by his own son. Not a happy family! I used to preach in a local wealthy community that a real estate lawyer once told me is notorious for its many lawsuits. Only the rich can afford lawsuits, and lawsuits do not normally bring happiness. Think of Jardyce and Jardyce.

These days the talking heads and savant scribblers are telling us that the recent setbacks of the financial system, only the first stage of more to come, have changed the way we think about life. Fewer of us think shopping is the cure for mental illness, building many vulgar mansions a cure for claustrophobia, conspicuously consuming ineffable food in uncomfortable restaurants with uncouth people a cure for loneliness, and talking money the only interesting conversation. We are staying home in our mansions and eating modest food – too much of it alas – and saving rather than squandering our money. Furthermore, we are told, this change is good for the soul, returning us to more sustainable relationships. The downside of this return to modesty, however, is that it is terrible for the economy. We have developed an economy that runs well only on the squandering of money, which is really “an expense of spirit in a waste of shame (Shakespeare).” We are a culture that encourages, almost compels, us to surrender our souls for the sake of our bodies.

I think it is Madonna who is called the “material girl” and she might indeed be a more glaring example than most, of our general North American attitude that the purpose of life is to prosper materially and then to enjoy our prosperity. I have no problem with that; indeed, in our more religious times we believed that prosperity was a sign of God’s favor, and that sharing our goods and especially sharing the opportunity to make oneself prosperous by ones own ingenuity and hard work is according to God’s will and purpose. The Republicans who once believed this, are the ones I long to see again, the Republicans who against the landed ( Democrat) gentry of the Virginian aristocracy founded banks to lend to small entrepreneurs, and gave every man who took up the challenge of the West forty acres and a mule.

The rich young man could not follow Jesus because he could not part with his riches. How hard it is for the rich! Hard, but not impossible, for with God all things are possible; nevertheless it requires a special providence of God. How hard it is! As far as I know there were only two suicides as a result of Bernie Madoff, but I bet there are many ruined relationships, many bitter souls and a huge stew of hatred and anger. The rich were forced to give up there riches and hell hath no fury like the rich man robbed.

The middle class and the poor are robbed all the time in a system of governance of the rich, by the rich and for the rich, in this our faux democracy, where money is power and wealthy oligarchs buy and sell congresspersons, and lobby to death any law that threatens their priority of access to the public trough. Now more than ever, Will Rogers is right, “We have the best congress money can buy.” Think of Charlie Rangell, think of the drug makers and the insurance companies lobbying night and day to make sure a public option for health care does not come about. Think of the windfall it will be to the insurance interests when the government forces people to buy their product. Think of how many of these bulging oligarchs, fat on the flesh of the 95% of us who are forced by the tax system to stuff them with money, will make it through the eye of a needle.

Yes, Jesus is a radical and he asks you and me, in the very language of our commercial dealings, “Where’s the profit if you gain the world and lose your soul?” It is of course a rhetorical question. There is no profit long term and short term, well let’s enjoy what God gives us for as long as He does, without surrendering one iota of our prior commitment to Him, first, foremost and forever, that is, without trading soul for body.

We can surely appreciate more now than we did perhaps ten years ago how money really is the root of evil. This is chiefly because it is the slippery slope to greed and greed is the slope to fear and fear to fraud and fraud to frenzy and then…soulless, selfless, friendless and fading in Hell.

Jesus says: “Don’t be a fool! Where’s the profit in trading self for security? Come, take up your cross and follow me, because if you seek only to save your life you will lose it, but if you lose your life, not for wealth and popularity but for my sake, you will save it (Mark 8:35-my paraphrase).” I think that means, take the risk of living for your own truth and not for the sake of the “bottom line.”


A Ransom for Many

A Ransom for Many

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

Scripture: James 5: 13-29; Mark 10: 35-45

“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.” — Mark 10:45

This passage reveals how human the disciples were and how divine Jesus is. They are full of ambition and rivalry, he is humble and generous, they are in it for the glory, he is on his way to shame, they want to rule, he wants to serve. Theirs are the marks of the human, his are the signs of the divine.

When you summarize the situation in this way you see how it is self-evident that the divine must be like this. Because He already has glory He does not need the envy of pitiable men, because He already rules the earth he does not need the sad sovereignty of this world. Because God needs nothing, not even what we call dignity, he can put himself at our service and give his life in our stead.

These unspoken assumptions are a foil to the sneaky ambition of James and John. Indeed, they are so base that Matthew (20:20-21) amends the story to make their mother the one who asks Jesus to give her boys the places of greatest power and highest dignity in his Kingdom. Matthew must have thought, “Ambitious mothers are the stuff of folklore and comedy, but obsequious disciples who betray their friends are from the quotidian world of competition and violence, and we can’t have James and John, these top drawer disciples, shown up as just like us, so we’ll blame it one their mother.” Thus another mother takes the rap for her children, serves as their whipping boy, and gives her reputation to ransom them.

God needs nothing to be sure, but God wants something absolutely: He wants me to love Him back, consciously and constantly. God loves me absolutely and is devastated when I spurn His love. God will go to any lengths to win it back. He will humble Himself not just to our level but lower, to the level of our servant, and not just a regular servant but one so abject that his very life is in our hands. He came to serve us and to give us his life, and that is the only way He can set us free from the prison camp of self-delusion and mutual destruction, where violence in its many modes – revenge and treason, falsehood and flattery, the phony face and the poison tongue, and so on, and so on – hems us in. He went into that concentration camp instead of us; he bared his breast to that violence instead of us, he lifted from us the weight of our chains and opened the gates of the camp. “You are free to go,” he says. “Where shall I go?” I ask. “Come to me,” he says, ” and I will give you rest. Take up my burden, feel how light it is, and my yoke, feel how easy it is, and come, follow me (Matthew 11:28-29 paraphrase).” And I say, “Yes Lord, but I am too proud to serve and too much a coward to risk my life, so I think I’ll stay in this camp with the violent friends I know, until I get a better offer. Thanks but no thanks; your way is too hard.”

The historical background of this text is the widespread phenomenon of kidnapping and ransom in that time and place. Many little wars produced many prisoners to be ransomed, so you could all of a sudden find yourself in need of a savior. Imagine the relief when someone shows up to pay your price and set you free. He would be giving you back your life. If furthermore he told you that he was doing this because he loves you absolutely, one might expect that you would be thankful, and possibly even love him in return; but we know better than that; we know how readily ingratitude (“sharper than a serpent’s tooth”) trumps thankfulness, and how hard love comes.

Never mind, the next time you are kidnapped or taken prisoner he will again be there to serve you – by giving his body to the lash in place of yours, taking the violence off your back and laying it on his own. He will again step forward to be “wounded for your transgressions, bruised for your iniquities, and heal you with his welts” (c.f. Isaiah 53:5 paraphrase).

By now you realize that we are considering one of the great theories of the atonement, the ransom theory. Surprisingly, Christian theology has been hard put to explain why Jesus had to die for our salvation. Lacking a theory of violence very early we turned to metaphors drawn from life. The lambs that died daily in the temple, the benefactors who ransomed prisoners and on occasion even substituted themselves for a prisoner, these were the bases of the metaphors for two important images of what Jesus did for us. They and others we have no time to mention, all have one form of violence or another as a focus – in these cases the violence of slaughter, and the violence of abduction and imprisonment. Our abducted, tortured and murdered Lord appears as the revelation of the horror of violence and its anguish, identifies with it, bears it, and thus makes it bearable. How? I don’t know how, but I do know that …, and “that” is “all you know and all you need to know. (Keats).” That in Jesus God takes the violence into himself is the crowning miracle of our creation, the moment when the Creator takes destruction into himself and re-creates it as the New Creation.

Read again this story of typically human selfishness as James and John try to get one up on their friends and colleagues. Honor among thieves! Pshaw, what about honor among saints? If this happens in the small community of the disciples of Jesus, the founders and exemplars of our faith, why am I surprised that the least honorable people I encountered in my life were church elders, saintly ladies and substantial citizens. I know why my Lord preferred the company of so-called sinners, but he did put up with the disciples and that is a great comfort to me.

So what shall we do now? The average preacher in my social world would say, “Go now and be a servant like Jesus,” and that is indeed in the text; nevertheless I think such commands are ironic, but I don’t have time to prove that now. The downside of trying to serve and to give your life like Jesus is that it adds to the mountain of guilt that already weighs us down. I can barely keep from screaming when my pastors tell me to go forth in the power of their puny sermons and change the world. Sheer, witless pride!

Therefore, I say the opposite, let Jesus serve you and give you his life! See what happens then. Don’t be like Peter who, you remember, would not let Jesus wash his blessed to receive than to give, especially with God, feet (John 13). Let Jesus serve you and see what happens! I dare you. Remember, it is more for what can we give God? Only our love and humble trust, a humble love that will let Him do for us the loving things we really cannot do for ourselves. Let go and let God love you. He came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many. So reach out your hands and take it!


“But Who Do You Say That I Am?”

“But Who Do You Say That I Am?”

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

Scripture: James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38

“But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Christ.’ And he charged them to tell no one about him.” — Mark 8:29-30

A friend of mine in the academic world once said to me that he finds it relatively easy to get agreement from his intellectual friends on the possible existence of God but impossible to get even a scintilla of appreciation for the Christian view of Jesus. This is just one small indication of why today’s question, “Who do you say that I am?” is close to the heart of the faith. It calls for the most scandalous answer. How can it be that a young Jewish man, who was murdered by the state and the temple at age thirty-two, was God on earth and is now the ruler of the universe?

To affirm this is to be outrageous, but that is what God wants us to be. ” When in the wisdom of God men by wisdom could not know God it pleased Him to save those who will believe it, by the foolishness of what we preach…Christ a joke to the intellectuals and a scandal to the pious, but to us who believe it, Christ the Wisdom of God and the Power of God (1 Corinthians 1: 23-25, paraphrased). This is what the Apostle says and I believe him. We are the bone in the throat of the world, the uncouth dinner guest; we poke fun at their pomposities and we weep for their futility, and for our own faithlessness. “Who do you think I am?”

Note that the emphasis is on the “you;” the disciples responded to the question just as many intellectuals do by rehearsing the opinions of others, “John the Baptist,” “Elijah,” “one of the prophets” and thus showing that they were educated in the tradition and in touch with current opinion, …and out of touch with themselves. Do we recognize our selves here? How often have we avoided being put on the spot by this ruse? Jesus, however, wants us on the spot; “I know what others think; what do you think?” So now we have here to answer with our hearts as well as with our minds.

Why do you think Jesus tells his disciples not to tell anyone that he is the Messiah? Was it because he would have been inundated by crowds and become a political threat to Rome? No, it was because his way of being Messiah was so different from the tradition that it could not be appreciated before it was uncovered on the Cross. In this world he is not the conquering king of tradition but the suffering servant of prophecy.

It is certainly because of this humility and apparent fecklessness that my academic friend’s friends find the Christian view of Jesus unacceptable, but though fecklessness may be a necessary cause of this special difficulty of faith in Jesus, it is not a sufficient cause. There are other reasons – like the thorough discrediting of Jesus by his professed followers down the years and to this day. Who can keep from vomiting at the shameless exploitation of that name of Jesus by political parties, fomenting righteous rage in the name of Jesus against fantastic fictions like “death panels,” “pulling the plug on Grandma,” and “socialism in Washington,” to make sure that, in the name of Jesus, 60 million citizens remain without health insurance. Who can keep from vomiting at the Christian jihad being conducted by that deeply dishonored, cruelly dysfunctional political group of the red right, which is the mimetic double of Islamic jihadism. We do not need to go to Afghanistan to fight religious terror, we can do that in Washington, and Tennessee, and South Carolina, – where the governor and a congressman are so fastidious about liars, – and on the talk shows of redneck radio. We can fight jihadis here at home if it’s a fight we want.

The dishonor and discredit poured on the name of Jesus by the Christians of this country is so great as to make the risk of embracing the scandal of the Cross unacceptable for the time being – only a bona fide miracle could breech this wall of shame. Since I believe in the possibility of miracle I continue to preach the possibility of faith in Jesus, but the only doctrine of the faith we can convincingly deploy at this time is the doctrine of sin, in its stringent form of total corruption. (Don’t panic! The Apostle tells us that total corruption is trumped by total grace).

So, who do you say that Jesus is? “My Lord and my God” says Thomas the doubter, “Christ the Son of the living God,” says Peter spokesman for all of humanity, “… the Way the Truth and the Life,” says the Lord himself. And what do I say? I say “All of the above!”

I have lived a long life with this possible impossibility of faith in Jesus, and the older I got the clearer it became how really impossible this faith is. In my imagination this young Jew became more and more like other young Jews and less and less like God, more and more human, ordinary, disarming, feckless, just like the rest of us. A homeless person who hung out with eleven male friends, fed by their mothers and aunts and served by at least one young woman of doubtful respectability. Yet, and here’s the miraculous thing, in proportion to this advancing ordinariness in my imagination grew an indefeasible conviction and a joyous experience of his absolute extraordinariness, and I am now carried by a strong conviction of God’s presence in the trivial things of my own life, just as He was present in the life of Jesus, and so as old age advances I make the descent to terminal triviality rejoicing every step of the way down that God can be trivial too, and with me even terminally trivial …and die.

“When I survey the wondrous Cross.
On which the Prince of Glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride

Forbid it Lord that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God,
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to his blood.”
— Isaac Watts

“Who do you say I am?”


Jesus, Giver of Life

Jesus, Giver of Life

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

Scripture: 2 Corinthians 8:7-15; Mark 5:21-43

“Little girl I say to you arise.” — Mark 5:41

Today Mark gives us two stories to contemplate, one set within the other. The overarching story is of Jesus raising the twelve-year-old daughter of the synagogue leader Jairus from the dead, and the inset is the story of the healing of a woman with a 12-year hemorrhage. Both are stories about females, both are stories about giving life.

Female children are less valued than males and bleeding women are good for nothing, in that culture, in this culture and as far as I know in every culture of the world, excepting those that have been influenced by the message of Jesus. Whether Mark arranged this narrative to make a point or things actually unfolded like this, we have before us a powerful affirmation of the dignity of women and girls.

Today little girls are commodities of the sex trade; in certain countries Jairus’ 12 year old, whom he calls his “darling little daughter”(Gk: thugatrion- vs.23), would already be a seasoned whore with a life expectancy of 30 years; or she would have been aborted from the womb, or sold as a bride to an old man, or widowed into the heart-rending ignominy of the widow status, where the choices are to whore or to die.

Today, as in prior times, these crimes against women and girls are not only sanctioned but also even commanded, by religions. There is nothing more shameful than the sex ethics of all religions; they all treat the female gender as dirty, dangerous, and dishonorable, and women as essentially throwaway items. The love of Jairus, a prominent Jew, for his daughter shows that Judaism includes mitigating factors (but it still shuns a bleeding woman as ritually unclean), and the readiness of Jesus to touch in public a ritually unclean, twelve year shunned mature woman, and raise a little girl by touching her dead hand, shows what Christianity should be doing but very seldom is.

Is there something significant about the “twelve years” in these two stories, twelve year bleeding, twelve years old – twelve tribes of Israel, twelve disciples? If we take our cue from this and read the symbols we might say that Jesus raised both from the death imposed on women an girls by religion; the women from the death of social ostracism by the laws of their religion, the girls from the general burden of religious humiliation into a new life beyond religion. In our cases their religion brought to the woman a specific kind of death, to the girl a general death under its laws. 12 years old is the age of the bar/bath mitzvah when a child becomes responsible to obey the law of Moses; can we read this as saying that at this significant point in her life Jesus raised the little girl from the death of being a female under Mosaic ritual into a freedom in which she can touch menstruating women, touch corpses and still be in good standing with God? Can we read it as saying that little girls are beloved by God as much as little boys, and that both sexes share the divine image? The answer is, “Yes, emphatically this is how they should be read.”

I remind you that one of the 14 Benedictions recited as part of the regular liturgy in the synagogue at the time of Jesus said, “I bless you Lord God for making me a man and not a woman.” Jesus silences that pernicious lie forever.

By now you see that Jesus rode roughshod over the ritual taboos of Moses: in public he touched a bleeding woman, the most disgusting of creatures under the Law, confounding the cultural horror of female pollution. He insisted the gesture be public: she touched him secretly; he called her out of the crowd openly.

She should not have been in the crowd in the first place; everyone she jostled she polluted; they would have killed her had they known. Jesus virtually proclaims that she and he have touched, and that instead of her polluting him he has purified her. Jesus the Life giver; Jesus the debunker of Religion.

He took a corpse by the hand, touching the other great pollutant, the dead body. He goes out of his way for just a little girl, a dowry nuisance at worst, and a sex commodity at best. Jesus declares her divine image, and restores her life, a new life, beyond the humiliation of religion. I hope she could sustain its freedom but I doubt it; religion like the cruel sea would rush back and crush her, in the name of doing good.

This is the last sermon before our summer break. We shall resume on September 13th, the first Sunday after Labor Day. This is a good word for our summer meditation. As we continue to read and see the depredations of religion around the world, these two vivid stories will stick in our minds and continue to remind us that Jesus not Religion loves little girls, and struggling women, all the trash that religion throws away or keeps in the close quarters of its ritual garbage bags, Jesus loves specially and gives them the fullness of life. And of course he does this for all of us who ask him. He will take us by our dead hand and say, “Arise!” and we will get up and walk away from our fears and all the religious do’s and don’ts, all the classifications of people as good and bad, all the stereotypes and provocations, into the freedom of Jesus’ true life, beyond the violence of religion and the religion of violence.

“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast, therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery (i.e. religion). Galatians 5:1.


Rattlesnake Flats

Rattlesnake Flats

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

Scripture: Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17

“God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son so that anyone who believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” — John 3:16

This is one of the best-known texts in the Bible. If you watch professional football you might remember seeing it on banners behind the goal posts where all the television audience will see it at kicking time. It is the darling of a certain kind of Christianity, and all for good reason. It is a compact, pungent statement of the Christian faith. God does indeed love this world, aka, “Rattlesnake Flats” and does provide a way out of its thirsty, threatening mortality into eternal life.

The saying is a summary of the meaning of the story of Nicodemus. He was a rabbi who sneaked in to talk with Jesus late one night. He came secretly because speaking with Jesus would have cast a shadow on his reputation if it became known. So he came at the risk of his professional life, and therefore must have been powerfully drawn. He was drawn by the miracles Jesus did and decided that a man who could do such deeds must be from God; for this reason he believed that Jesus could tell him something about God that he did not yet know.
What Jesus told him is that God loves this world and all that is in it, and that when he, Nicodemus, really understood that it would be as if his life began all over again, as if he were born anew, as if he had been given the great second chance. He would become unpredictable like the wind, and no longer a solid, square something stored in a cabinet of law and custom. He would at last understand Moses, not the Moses of the rock tablets of “Thou shalt not,” which one has to lug around like a bag of stones on ones back, but the Moses of the Sign of the Serpent (The original caduceus, sign of the physician). When the Israelites trekked through “Rattlesnake Flats,” Moses fixed a bronze serpent on his staff and held it aloft, and those dying of poisonous bites would recover when thy looked on it believingly. This Moses is primarily the life giver not the lawgiver, Moses who lifts us up not Moses who loads us down. The serpent lifted high on the staff is Jesus lifted up on the Cross, and those who see him in this agonized glory finally understand the continuity of the Bible’s faith, Moses prophesies Christ, and the word of prophecy by the Sign of the Serpent appears for what it is, the word of life by the Sign of the Cross.

Now all of this is highly symbolic and I hope you are asking what its literal application might be. Let me suggest a few literal descriptions that flow from the symbols.

The first is that the image of rebirth means that we can undergo a change of orientation and self-understanding, away from this world and towards the world of God, away from the lies and murders that are the fundamental works of the “prince of this world,” towards the truth and eternal life that are the gifts of the true God. This change of direction is contingent on discovering and accepting and repenting the reciprocal violence that makes the human world go round. Vengeance and the Scapegoat, Pay-back and the Whipping boy – these are the signs of the past and the prophesies of the future. They are the snakes that poison us to death and the serpent that raises us to life.

Second, such a change of direction makes us unpredictable. To belong to this world is to be utterly predictable, to fit comfortably into its pattern of lying and murder, in all its forms, social – ethnic, nationalist, religious, class, – and personal – pride lust and greed – and therefore to behave predictably. People, especially religious people like Nicodemus, pay an especially high price for the freedom to live by the Spirit and not by the Letter. Religion is the primary but not the only institution for the enforcement of conformity, and literature is full of the tragedy of individuals whose consciences are raped by the custom of their clan and the accusation “traitor!” So, like many Germans in the Third Reich, we pretend that the pungent reek of burning flesh that poisons our village air is simple industrial pollution, and that we do not know and cannot imagine what is going on out there at the edge of our town. In such a village we are the unpredictable ones, who cry out: “We are murdering the Jews!” and will not shut up, until we too go up in smoke.

Thirdly it tells us, incredibly, that God loves such a world as this; “For God did not send his Son to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him (John 3:17).” This love is the divine instance of the command in the Sermon on the Mount to love our enemies: ” You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’ But I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, and thus you will be sons of your heavenly Father, who causes his sun to shine on the wicked and the good and his rain to fall on the righteous and the unrighteous.” In loving the world absolutely, even to the giving of himself over to the world’s violence, God actively loves His enemies to life. He is the Creator and he loves his Creation, and that love is indefeasible, therefore we can at last see the Serpent of Moses as a prophecy of the Cross of Christ, which is, in turn, a prophecy of the Resurrection of the Creation and New Birth in a New Creation.

To live like this you will have to be as wise as a serpent. You may have to move at night, keep nocturnal counsel, cover your tracks and keep a sense of humor. The secret of survival as this kind of a spy in the badlands of “Rattlesnake Flats” is, “Keep your eyes on the Serpent/Cross that leads the march of pilgrims across the rocky ground.” That sign will keep us alive and bring us home to eternity.

“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, thus must the Son of man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him might have eternal life (John 3:14).”


Interpretation and Tradition

Interpretation and Tradition

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

Scripture: Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53

“Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” — Luke 24:45-47

To understand the event of the cross has always been a challenge to Christians. To the world his death is simply another in the sad history of young people dying at the hands of human hatred, cruelty and lies. To us it is the hinge of history. Why? Our lesson for today declares one important way we have answered and continue to answer the question why; we say “Thus it is written.” The Scriptures of Israel prophesied that in the end God would return to his people and that they would cause him to suffer and then cast him out.

This statement assumes that the Jews represented the whole human race in the rejection of Jesus, that the Romans did the deed of crucifixion but that the Jewish establishment colluded. Jews and Gentiles, you and I, crucified the Lord of Glory, and that is our shame. To blame each other as if someone were innocent and not everyone guilty is just a vulgar self-justification.

To appreciate the difficulty of interpreting the Cross we should first appreciate the difficulty of the claim that the Creator of All appeared among the things he created as a young vagabond Jew. That there is a creator is evident, that the creator was the young man Jesus is improbable, even ludicrous; but it is also the existential powerhouse of Christian faith and life. By “existential” I mean, “experienced in the ordinary relationships, actions, moods and emotions of our daily life.” We attest that faith in God in general is helpful in so far as it orients us to expect a revelation of God in particular, but that faith in God as He has revealed himself to be, the person of that young Jew Jesus, is not merely helpful, it is the powerhouse of divine energy. Faith in “Jesus as God” delivers the Holy Spirit, the “Lord and Giver of Life!” Next Sunday is Pentecost when we celebrate the gift of the Spirit, the gift of divine energy and eternal life, and the gift of truth from the Spirit who spoke through the prophets. For this reason we can say “Thus it is written.”

Writing is a defining component of language as language is the expression of self. It is virtually impossible to know someone who does not speak at all, not even in signs, and we cannot remember without a written record. Let’s not take time here to refine my claims, because refinement is not necessary to the point I wish to make. Human groups identify themselves by means of stories; each tribe has a founding story; Greece has Homer and the Trojan War, Rome has Aeneas and the flight from Troy, the USA has the Spanish missions and the English colonies, stories of two great European cultures. The first followers of Jesus in their bereavement had the story of Israel and Judah as told by the prophets in the Hebrew Bible, the founding text of their Jewish identity, which they for the most part read in Greek translation. (This is important because we know from our English translations how different the translated sense can be from the original sense. This slippage of meaning happened in the beginning and is not a later, unfortunate phenomenon. The first Christians read a Bible already blended from Hebrew and Greek, already attesting the cultural confluence that makes Christian theology such a successful blending of Athens and Jerusalem, of Jewish and Greco-Roman culture, a world religion for a universal empire, a fountainhead of diversity. This constitutive openness to cultures is still a part of our theology as we continue to speak to whatever culture is present in whatever language is spoken. We are not antiquarians, nevertheless we are framed and focused by the past, the prophetic texts of the “Thus it is written.”)

It is time to ask, “What is written?” The texts of the Greek OT (LXX for the 70 translators) like the texts of the Hebrew Bible (MT for Massoretic text) prophesy mostly in general not in particular and the core contention of the prophecy is that God will save the world from sin and death, that is, that he will give his human creatures, whom he made in his own image a part in his own immortality. The great theme of the MT is therefore Life and death, like all the serious texts of all times and places. There is only one story, the story of how we humans fell into death and how we shall rise from it again. I have recently been re-reading the story of Gilgamesh from the Akkadian version, which dates from the late third millennium BC, but is earlier even than that. I call it “the first novel,” because it portrays love and the vicissitudes of love, the pride that brings a fall, the death that follows the fall, and the quest to reverse the outcome. Pride, excess, loss, and regret are all there, at the beginning of writing. The prophets of the OT deal with the same substance, life and death, with this great difference from for example Gilgamesh. For them death will be reversed and life will triumph, therefore all the suffering is faced in faith, suffused with hope, and open to love.

For this reason the NT focuses on the prophecies concerning the one who is humiliated and then exalted, made to suffer and then comforted, killed and then restored to life. I quote and paraphrase now at some length from Joel Green and Mark Baker, (Recovering the Scandal of the Cross, 2009). Most of the material comes from the Psalms, especially 24, and Second Isaiah. In the Psalms, the “suffering righteous” “…has enemies that plotted against him, abused him … /divided his clothes, offered him a drink, …/was betrayed by a table intimate, forsaken by his friends, one of whom denies him and follows at a distance, so that he must suffer alone, /is innocent but maintains silence, /experiences anguish and abandonment by God, /anticipates his own vindication and is in fact vindicated at his death and declared to be ‘Son of God’.” So far the Psalms, the most quoted section of the OT in the NT. There is also the figure of the “suffering servant in Isaiah 40-53, and it too played a part in this earliest attempt to come to terms with the murder of the one they believed was God. They identify Jesus as the suffering righteous one of the prophets.

This means that our faith in Jesus crucified is deeply rooted in the revelation to Israel that goes back to the beginning of time. It means that our faith is embedded in the faith of Israel and that we are a form of Judaism, the followers of the final Jewish prophet, of the one who not merely speaks the word of God but is the word of God become flesh for our salvation. The prophetic word became the messianic deed and gives us the Holy Spirit who is Life and Truth. The prophetic word affirms not only the resurrection but also the cross, the resurrected one is the crucified one and he comes again still bearing the signs of his torture, his glorified wounds. The resurrected crucified is the way God fore-ordained to rectify the mistakes of pride, to heal the wounds of violent desire and to make of His creation no longer a dismal failure but a grand success.