SUNDAY — Repent and Believe in What, Exactly?

9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
12 The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him.
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:9-15 ESV)

I am close to finishing the first, rough draft of my novel, Kesslyn Runs. I say first rough draft, because this will be draft zero. I began this novel with one set of ideas in my head and as I wrote, the setting and the characters evolved. So, once I get the final chapter in place — I have three scenes left to write — I will go back and revise, update a few things, rewrite a few scenes, add, subtract, the usual work of getting to my real first draft.

The next scene I have to write is a baptism. It takes place in the waters of Moses Lake (there’s an actual lake here, twisting as it does snakelike through the scrubland; it’s kind of seasonal in nature, the amount of water being higher in the spring and summer irrigation seasons) during early May some years from now, and two of my characters are getting baptized. As I envision it, they will go under the water and come up with some idea that they are different people, that something profound has happened to them in the waters of Moses Lake. One of the characters has had some religious visions, but the other — a teenage girl, the Kesslyn has run away — is only beginning to wrap her mind and soul and heart around what she been invited to join.

I would like to have been baptized that way. Instead, I had water poured on my head as I leaned over a baptismal font in an ELCA church in Alexandria, Virginia.

And you only get baptized once.

I honestly had no idea what it was I was called to believe that day in September, 2001, when Jesus spoke to me. I know that very little has gone right, or according to plan, since then. I have no future with the institutional church, it has forsaken and abandoned me, cast me off, someone who is clearly beyond redemption and has no place among the called. I had this ministry, but a year ago I found out it was mostly a fraud, and while some real kids have found their way to me, it has been hard to tell the real from the fake. And it is hard to want to expend emotional energy caring about people who aren’t even real.

All I have left is this web site, which I have too long neglected. And this novel, about monks who rescue abused foster kids, about the failed pastor turned self-proclaimed abbot who leads them, about the girl whose escape plunges them all into chaos, how they live together, lives centered on daily worship, and how the liturgy and the eucharist helped them center their lives and find meaning.

It’s the community I want to live in. It’s the parish I want to pastor. It isn’t real, and it can’t exist, so I make it up, and hope … hope that this will speak to someone. Somewhere.

But this isn’t where I expected I would be 12 years ago, when I started seminary. It isn’t where I thought Jesus would lead me.

And yet here I am.

Jesus emerges from forty days in the wilderness, tempted by the devil, ministered to by angels (we don’t have that account, which is odd if you think about it), to speak to the people of home region. He proclaims what Mark calls “the gospel of God,” εὐαγγέλιον τοῦ θεοῦ, the good news of God. The time is fulfilled, Jesus says, the kingdom of God is at hand, so repent and believe in this good news.

We aren’t told here, however, what exactly this good news is.

It might be “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.” Jonah got Ninevah to repent of its sin with far less, though he was threatening them, “Yet forty days, and Ninevah shall be overthrown!”

What time is fulfilled? What is the Kingdom of God?

This passage is about Jesus. We don’t see here how the people around him react to his being proclaimed “beloved Son” with whom God is well pleased. Or his pronouncements. We just have Jesus, wandering around Galilee, proclaiming something we are told is good news. That we should repent, turn, and believe in that good news.

But we aren’t really told what it is.

Because I’m not sure the Gospel is a thing, a set of ideas, a statement of truth that we can confess.

Jesus is the Gospel. He is this good news we are asked to believe in, have faith in, trust. He is the time fulfilled, the Kingdom at hand. I think Mark’s whole gospel account bears that out, as we witness Jesus calling and casting out and healing and teaching and feeding and entering Jerusalem and breaking bread and being betrayed and suffering and dying and finally rising from his tomb in a way that leaves us all utterly terrified.

He is the gospel. He is the good news. We follow him because that’s what trusting and believing in him means. He is the way, the truth, the light, the good news that all will eventually be overthrown and redeemed, restored and recreated.

Yet forty days, sisters and brothers, and we shall witness our salvation. The kingdom of God is at hand, calling us to follow, gathering us and leading us onward out of darkness and death and into life eternal. Repent, and trust in that good news.

Amen.

LENT — He Saw Their Faith

1 And getting into a boat he crossed over and came to his own city. 2 And behold, some people brought to him a paralytic, lying on a bed. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” 3 And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” 4 But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? 5 For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? 6 But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—“Rise, pick up your bed and go home.” 7 And he rose and went home. 8 When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men. (Matthew 9:1-8 ESV)

It’s not just me and God.

It’s not just you and God.

It’s us and God.

The paralytic here is brought to Jesus by “some people,” some unnamed friends or neighbors is merely folks who have heard about Jesus and said, “We know someone who can make you well!” They carried the man, these unnamed “some people,” whatever awkward distance was needed to get to Jesus.

Jesus saw their faith. Their faith. The faith of the unnamed people carrying the unnamed paralytic. Together, they all had an inchoate hope in the power of Jesus to heal. Whether they expected forgiveness or not, I don’t know. But because of their faith, Jesus tells the paralytic to take heart, his sins are forgiven.

We are supposed to be a community called to follow God, not isolated individuals, not atomized and alone in the face of God. Sometimes we carry others, sometimes we are carried, to meet a God who can both forgive our sins and command us to walk simply because we — we together — hope.

We hope not for things for ourselves, not for wealth or power, but for daily bread, for the lame in our midst to walk, the possessed in our midst to be free, the blind in our midst to see, and for those who have been cut off from us — or have cut themselves off, possibly on purpose — to belong again.

Jesus commands the man to walk, and he is healed. He gets up and walks. And the crowd is afraid, because God had given such authority to men — τοῖς ἀνθρώποις. Plural. What authority is this? The power to forgive, to heal and command the lame to rise?

Or is it the power to hope for others, to have a faith that is bigger than our individual selves?

Because we are not alone. We hope together. We yearn together. We have faith together. We confess our sins together, seek repentance together, and hope for our redemption. Together.

LENT — We

This should have been yesterday’s Lenten devotion.

1 In the first year of Darius the son of Ahasuerus, by descent a Mede, who was made king over the realm of the Chaldeans— 2 in the first year of his reign, I, Daniel, perceived in the books the number of years that, according to the word of the Lord to Jeremiah the prophet, must pass before the end of the desolations of Jerusalem, namely, seventy years.
3 Then I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes. 4 I prayed to the Lord my God and made confession, saying, “O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, 5 we have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and rules. 6 We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, and to all the people of the land. 7 To you, O Lord, belongs righteousness, but to us open shame, as at this day, to the men of Judah, to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to all Israel, those who are near and those who are far away, in all the lands to which you have driven them, because of the treachery that they have committed against you. 8 To us, O Lord, belongs open shame, to our kings, to our princes, and to our fathers, because we have sinned against you. 9 To the Lord our God belong mercy and forgiveness, for we have rebelled against him 10 and have not obeyed the voice of the Lord our God by walking in his laws, which he set before us by his servants the prophets. 11 All Israel has transgressed your law and turned aside, refusing to obey your voice. And the curse and oath that are written in the Law of Moses the servant of God have been poured out upon us, because we have sinned against him. 12 He has confirmed his words, which he spoke against us and against our rulers who ruled us, by bringing upon us a great calamity. For under the whole heaven there has not been done anything like what has been done against Jerusalem. 13 As it is written in the Law of Moses, all this calamity has come upon us; yet we have not entreated the favor of the Lord our God, turning from our iniquities and gaining insight by your truth. 14 Therefore the Lord has kept ready the calamity and has brought it upon us, for the Lord our God is righteous in all the works that he has done, and we have not obeyed his voice.

We.

We.

This is Daniel’s prayer for today, and like many of the great prayers of scripture, it is said in the plural. Not I, but we.

My favorite prayer in all of scripture, in Judges 10, finds Israel enslaved and oppressed by the Philistines and the Ammonites. Israel cried out, “We have sinned against you,” and God, for a moment, abandons Israel to its fate. “Yet you have forsaken me and served other gods; therefore I will save you no more. Go and cry out to the gods whom you have chosen; let them save you in your time of distress.” To which Israel responds with with despair or confidence or some measure of both:

We have sinned; do to us whatever seems good to you. Only please deliver us this day. (Judges 10:15)

We have sinned. Save us.

In Nehemiah 9, all Israel gathers to repent. We are slaves because of our sins, Israel says as it recounts the story of God’s calling, God’s redeeming from captivity, and the idolatry of their ancestors.

And when Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, it is “our father” and “give us this day” and “lead us not into temptation.”

We. Us.

This is not some prayer of Jabez seeking selfish gain. This is not some magic talisman calling us to our best lives ever. This is not some contrite individual begging God for forgiveness. This is the whole people of God confessing its sin and seeking the promise of God’s redeeming grace.

One man is speaking, yes, but speaking for the whole people of God.

Daniel’s prayer is our condition. As we stand at the beginning of this 40 days of repentance, we remember — we remember — that we are not simply individuals, we are a people, called and gathered, lost and found, exiled and redeemed, waiting for the one who has and will deliver us from captivity. A captivity into which we have been delivered as a consequence of our sinfulness, our faithlessness, our inability to be the people God called us to be.

All of us. Not some, not many, but all of us. There is no righteous remnant that can claim to have survived the disaster because of its faithfulness.

There is no avoiding the calamity, no avoiding the price we pay for our sin, our idolatry, and our faithlessness. There is no avoiding the next 40 days, the path we must walk, the repentance we must do, and the place it leads us to.

ASH WEDNESDAY — To Be Broken

1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!
3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.
5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.
6 Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.
7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.
11 Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.
13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.
14 Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness.
15 O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Psalm 51:1-17 ESV)

The introduction to this psalm says, “To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” This is a confession, an admission of guilt, an acknowledgement of wrongdoing. David has taken a man’s wife — how consensual it all was we do not know — impregnated her, and then killed the husband, a loyal and dutiful soldier, when he refused to unwittingly cooperate in his own cuckolding.

I like David. He’s a sinner who rarely thinks about what he does, and yet God seems to love David no end. But here, David is a bad man. He has lusted and coveted and murdered and possibly raped. And he doesn’t realize he’s done anything wrong until Nathan confronts him with it all in the form of a parable.

We all need the confrontation sometimes, when we have done wrong, when we have sinned.

When confronted, David didn’t argue, didn’t try to justify himself, didn’t get angry with Nathan and try to send the prophet away. He listened, and he heard, when Nathan said “You are that man!” And he believed.

He could not undo all the terrible things he did. But he could be broken, he could understand, he could acknowledge his wrong and repent. That he could do.

David sings here that the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart. These, and not burnt offerings, are what God asks of us, what God will accept.

We who are broken — sometimes by God himself — come to God, contrite, ashamed, guilty. With things we cannot ever undo. With pain and suffering inflicted that will never be made right. And yet, we want to be made right. Let us be your people again, whole, blameless, justified, redeemed. Let us be your people again.

And so, silently, today, we listen — you are dust, and to dust you shall return. People of God. Thoughtless. Selfish. Frightened. Broken.

Beloved.

LECTIONARY — How to Behave

14 I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, 15 if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth. 16 Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness:

He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated by the Spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up in glory. (1 Timothy 3:14-16 ESV)

I think I have confessed before here that I am not as knowledgable of the content of Paul’s letters as I should be. In large part, that is because Paul’s letters are letters, and not stories, and I find them harder to follow or even to be interested in.

But it’s also in part because we treat Paul more as a lawgiver than as a prophet. Paul’s “law” becomes both judge and gatekeeper — it determines who is in and out of the community (as he seems to intend in some of his letters) and whether or not we are actually church.

It’s the second one I struggle with the most, since it takes something of a Calvinist approach to the law — God wouldn’t give us a law we can’t keep, so if we don’t keep it, we aren’t God’s people. This goes against the entire meaning of the biblical story, which is about God calling a people who cannot keep his teachings, and God’s faithful struggle with that faithless people as God moves ever close to doing all the work this faithless people cannot.

We are church, whether we follow the teaching or not, because we are a people called and gathered by God.

The remnant are not a remnant because they are faithful, but rather they will be made faithful because they are the remnant.

Paul does tell us how to behave. The first letter to Timothy is full of instructions for deacons and elders. But here, he also gives us a marvelous confession of our faith. Christ is the mystery of godliness, and no matter how we act, Christ is our righteousness. I have to confess, I’ve never really seen this little hymn before, and it is truly beautiful.

And one of the ways we behave in the household of God is to proclaim and confess this faith. Together. A reminder of who we are.

LECTIONARY — Tell No One

2 And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. 5 And Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” 6 For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” 8 And suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only.
9 And as they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10 So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead might mean. (Mark 9:2-10 ESV)

I’m not always the best reporter. Sometimes, when I’m sitting down to write a story, I find that there are questions I should have asked that I didn’t, and I either have to wing it — write my way around the glaring omission — or get on the phone and hope whoever it was I talked to gets back to me on time.

I think about this because of the awkwardness of the three disciples who travel up the mountain with Jesus. Peter doesn’t know what to say, so being hospitable around the risen dead — well, at least Moses died, and was buried, and is now somehow here; Elijah was taken bodily into heaven without dying first — strikes him as the best thing to say in the situation.

And when Jesus commands them to tell no one what they have seen until he has risen from the dead, the three disciples — already terrified — are far too frightened to ask him what he means.

They do what we all do — speculate among themselves what Jesus meant when he said risen from the dead, and hope they arrive at some kind of reasonable conclusion.

This is not a way to get answers. I know this after I sometimes am sitting with a scribbled quote wondering “what did this person mean when he or she said it,” and not being entirely sure, and not really wanting to do the work of getting clarity.

Tell no one what you have seen, Jesus says to Peter, James, and John. This spectacular event, the return of Moses and Elijah, the declaration from on high, “This is my Son; listen to him,” (a reiteration of what God spoke to Jesus when he was baptized in the Jordan River all the way back in Mark 1), all this seem to be an incredible revelation. Why keep silent about it? Why tell no one?

It is because, I think, that this second declaration of sonship, made to the three disciples, is not supposed to make sense outside of the entire story of the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, the Son of Man, with whom the Father is well pleased.

Glory, sonship, the command to listen, none of it makes any real sense without what comes next — betrayal and suffering and death, followed by a rising that also leaves us terrified and perplexed.

And that also suggests that fear, confusion, and incomprehension are a part of this call, part of what it means to follow Jesus up the mountain, into the city, to join him in the upper room, to fall asleep with him in the garden, to linger — hopefully unseen — around the courtyard of the priests, to gather at the foot of the cross, and to wonder at the empty tomb.

It is okay to be frightened, confused, and to not know.

Because we are with Jesus.

Sinlessness and Progressive Pietism

Former State Department official and author Peter Van Buren has this to say on Twitter about the current state of the Trump White House:

I don’t particularly care about the Trump Administration — Trump himself is something an undisciplined slob who surrounds himself with bad people.

But Van Buren asks a really good question here: “But at what point is someone deemed virtuous enough by progressives?” It points to something at work in progressivism — both its religious and secular iterations — that do not bode well for the church or our society.

Progressivism, as I have written before, has a sin problem. And that sin problem stems, I think, from where progressives focus their understanding of redemption. For religious progressives, they focus upon Jesus’ acts in the Gospels (and God’s prophetic promises) of an expanded covenant and an expanded community. They focus on those excluded through no fault of their own — the sick, the lame, the blind, lepers, Samaritans (outsiders in general), eunuchs, and gentiles. People whose exclusion from the community is not something the controlled, but something imposed upon them, usually in the Torah. The unfortunate suffer through no sin or fault of their own, and the promise of the Kingdom of God is primarily for these formerly excluded or downtrodden folks.

The community of God’s people may have excluded them, and called them sinners, but Jesus ate and lived and preached and healed them. Called them and baptized them. Progressive inclusion is based on this understanding that people have been excluded because the church in teaching the law considered them sinners, but Jesus in fulfilling that law does not.

And I’m generally down with this.

But because progressive inclusion is based on what I might call Fanonist distinctions of oppressed and oppressor, included and excluded, first and last, it doesn’t so much forgive sin as it simply removes it. The outsider isn’t a sinner, the eunuch isn’t a sinner, and so there is no reasonable excuse for their exclusion.

But what to do with real sinners? It’s clear, I think, progressives have decided they cannot be forgiven. There is no redemption for real sinners — sin now becomes both an abstract state of being and an abstract artifact of unequal social power — since there is no way for sinners to repent, no way for sinners to do penance, no way for sinners to get right with the community, no way for the community to accept the penitent. The risks are too great, the distinction too important, to make forgiveness a real possibility. The progressive community, and the progressive church, cannot forgive sin. It is incapable of doing so.

There is simply shunning, exclusion, marginalization — the just desserts of lives poorly lived and power unfairly gained and wielded. A consigning to outer darkness that brokers no possibility of redemption because those excluded are not simply the unfortunate whom God loves, but the wretched damned. It is the humanitarian punishment imagined by C.S. Lewis, only without the humanitarianism.

As long as we are where we are politically — deeply divided and taking cues on what to be and NOT to be from the other side — this will only get worse. Progressives will only grow more pietistic in response to the Trump administration, and their demand for a sinless politics — and sinless politicians, ones who have never made mistakes or hurt others or have always had right views, those who have been sinless in the ways only liberal protestant clergy are considered sinless — will only grow stronger.

And this is why I worry far more about dictatorship from the progressive left than I do the right.