True & False Prophecy

“All the fragmented traditions and tribes of Christendom, here in America at least, appear eager to claim the prophetic legacy for themselves. I see this happening left and right. But in all of this, I usually see a picking and choosing of only select fragments and slivers of the prophetic tradition, so that biblical prophecy gets drastically reduced, left and right.

“And as a life-long student of the prophets, this has led me to the following convictions. On the one hand, when prophecy gets reduced to the prediction of eschatological promises, it is destined to end in triumphalist hubris and anxious self-securing. On the other hand, when prophecy gets reduced to the cause of social justice, it is destined to end in partisan zeal and angry disillusionment. And in either case, when prophecy stops short of facing up to the end and yielding to the apocalyptic vision, which entails its own martyrdom, then it is destined to become false prophecy.”

—Rickie Moore

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Losing “the Sperit,” Finding Christ: Unholy Foolishness in John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath

The moral heart of John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath is the unsettled, unsettling wisdom of Jim Casy, a wildly compassionate, erstwhile preacher whose faith, like the hopes of so many in dustbowl Oklahoma, has died on the vine.

The film opens as Tom (played by Henry Fonda), returning from prison, happens upon his former pastor (played by John Carradine)

Tom: Why you’re the preacher!
Casy: Used to be. Not no more. I lost the call. But boy, I sure used to have it! I’d get an irrigation ditch so squirmin’ full of repented sinners I pretty near drowned half of ‘em! But not no more. I lost the sperit.
Tom: Pa always said you was never cut out to be a preacher.
Casy: I got nothin’ to preach about no more–that’s all. I ain’t so sure o’ things.

“I ain’t so sure o’ things.” At one point, Casy had been sure. He could preach and baptize, then. But somehow he lost the call, lost the “sperit.” Like Samson, he awoke one day to find his strength gone. And like St. Augustine, he found he had become to himself a land of difficulty (Conf. 10.25).

I ast myself—what is this call, the Holy Sperit? Maybe that’s love. Why, I love everybody so much I’m fit to bust sometimes! So maybe there ain’t no sin an’ there ain’t no virtue. There’s just what people do. Some things folks do is nice, and some ain’t so nice. But that’s as far as any man’s got a right to say.

His unsure-of-himself-ness shows itself again when the Joad tribe, resting in an overnight camp, first learns that California may not be the Promised Land they need it to be. After hearing one of the other campers recount his horrible testimony—he said he’d lost his wife and that his children had starved to death while he looked in vain for work—, Pa asks Tom and Casy if they think the story is true.

Casy: He’s tellin’ the truth awright. The truth for him. He wasn’t makin’ nothin’ up.
Tom: How about us? Is that the truth for us?
Casy: I don’t know.

Later, after they’ve arrived in California and discovered the hard reality, Casy tries to convince Tom to join the workers’ strike. Tom refuses, and Casy responds: “Got to learn, like I’m a-learnin’. Don’t know it right yet myself, but I’m tryin’ to fin’ out. That’s why I can’t ever be a preacher again. Preacher got to know. I don’t. I got to ask.”

***

In his state of unbelief, Casy refuses to act the part of “the preacher.” Early in the first act, when Tom and Casy arrive at the family house, Tom handles the introductions:

Tom: This is Muley Graves. You remember the preacher, don’t you?
Casy: I ain’t no preacher anymore.
Tom: All right, you remember the man then.

When Grampa dies on the journey West, Tom asks him to offer a final prayer over the body. But he protests: “I ain’t no more a preacher, you know.” At last he relents, and offers the only kind of prayer he can give:

This here ol’ man jus’ lived a life an’ jus’ died out of it. I don’t know whether he was good or bad, an’ it don’t matter much. Heard a fella say a poem once, an’ he says, “All that lives is holy.” But I wouldn’t pray for jus’ a ol’ man that’s dead, because he’s awright. If I was to pray I’d pray for the folks that’s alive an’ don’t know which way to turn. Grampa here, he ain’t got no more trouble like that. He’s got his job all cut out for ‘im—so cover ‘im up and let ‘im get to it.

Ironically, Casy’s uncertainty has put him in touch with his neighbors’ plight, those like sheep without a shepherd who “don’t know which way to turn.” Losing “the Holy Sperit,” and refusing conventional morality, has somehow made him more aware of what others have lost, what others are losing. His unsure-of-himself-ness empowers him to give himself to others, and for them.

When Tom defies a deputy who’s attempting to arrest a fellow worker on false charges, and then trips him so that he cannot shoot the man as he’s escaping, Casy offers to take his place. Al Joad, Tom’s little brother, wonders why Casy would do such a thing

Casy: Somebody got to take the blame. They just got to hang it on somebody, you know. An’ I ain’t doin’ nothin’ but set around.
Al: But ain’t no reason—
Casy: Lissen. I don’t care nothin’ about you, but if you mess in this your whole fambly li’ble to get in trouble, an’ Tom get sent back to the penitentiary.
Al. Okay. I think you’re a darn fool, though.
Casy: Sure. Why not?

The holy fools of the Christian monastic tradition are “unserious selves,” “practicing ignorance, intentionally making themselves foreign to themselves and others in order to expose the vanity and abusiveness of the status quo. They have no time to know if they are good or who they really are. Their lives are a secret even to themselves.”[1] Casy is at least an unholy fool.

***

He dies under a bridge. As the deputies approach, intending to arrest him and to break the strike, he raises his hands and his voice in protest: “Listen, you fellas. You don’t know what you’re doin’. You’re helpin’ to starve kids.”

“You don’t know what you’re doin.’” He dies with Christ’s words on his lips, advocating for the least of these, for the poor of the land. Just because he had so long been unsure of himself, he recognized the blind cruelty of California’s police and wealthy landowners. He knew he didn’t know what he was doing—and so he recognized those who truly didn’t know what they were doing. In The Grapes of Wrath, as in John 9, it is the blind who see and only those who think they see are blind.

In the end, Tom muses to his mother: “That Casy. He might a been a preacher, but—he seen a lot a things clean. He was like a lantern—he helped me see things too.” The irony is intense. Casy is Christlike—but queerly so. In an awkward reversal of what Jesus says of himself in the synagogue at Nazareth (Lk. 4.18-19a), it seems that Casy only comes to care for the poor, the prisoner, the oppressed after he loses “the Holy Sperit.” “Casy never recovers [his] lost faith.”[2] But it is not right to say that loss leaves him “bereft.” As Tom’s remark to his mother reveals, Casy lived and died as a “preacher.” Against all expectations, he fulfilled the calling he believed he had lost. His likeness to Christ was kept from him—and precisely because it was hidden from him, he could be like Christ for others. As his awareness of his own faith decreased, his actual faithfulness increased. Like the holy fools, he gave up on “holy living” and “being good,” and just in that way gave himself to the holy and sanctifying work of caring for “the least of these.”

I’m not arguing, of course, that The Grapes of Wrath means Casy to be taken as a holy or unholy fool. But I am arguing that it means for him to be the moral center of the story. I am arguing that it means for him to be taken as a kind of inside-out “Christ figure.” I am arguing that it wants us to see that his Christlikeness could come only in his insecurity, his unsure-of-himself-ness. And, finally, I am arguing that we have something to learn from this example. Perhaps, at times, some of us find and fulfill our purpose only by “losing” what seems to be our calling. (Think, for another example, of Simone Weil refusing to be baptized.) Casy’s story resonates not only with the holy fool tradition but also with our holy-roller tradition—the very one that he (seemingly) abandoned. We of all people should know that the Spirit is not so easy to escape. Even when it seems she’s departed, she remains. Through it all, she persists. The Spirit abides.

_______________________________________

[1] Andrew Thomas, “The Holy Fools: A Theological Enquiry,” PhD Thesis, University of Nottingham; available online: http://eprints.nottingham.ac.uk/10797/1/The_Holy_Fools_A_Theological_Enquiry.pdf; accessed: February 18, 2018.

[2] Douglas Walrath, Displacing the Divine: The Minister in the Mirror of American Fiction (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), p. 275.

The Riches and Poverty of God

a sermon
February 25 2018
Sanctuary Church

***

God is calling—God has called us—to the poor. God is calling us to the poor because they are Christ’s and Christ is theirs: we cannot have him without them. God is calling us to the poor because only the poor can know themselves and God. And God is calling us to the poor because his nature is now ours, which means we can be ourselves only as we give ourselves away to the needy and the afflicted. As Rowan Williams makes clear:

The Christian life is about gratitude, a detachment from possessions grounded in the recognition that God’s gifts are restless in the hands of the receiver until they are given again.

This is the word for us in today’s Psalm, which we heard earlier:

23 You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him;
stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
24 For he did not despise or abhor
the affliction of the afflicted (or, the poverty of the poor);
he did not hide his face from me,
but heard when I cried to him.

25 From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
my vows I will pay before those who fear him.
26 The poor shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek him shall praise the Lord.
May your hearts live forever!

As you remember, Psalm 22 is the prayer Christ prays from the cross. It begins with his cry of dereliction: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” And ends with this promise of blessing. See how even while Christ himself falls into godforsakeness, he knows that God will never forsake the poor? In the very moment he feels God cannot hear him, he confesses that God always hears the needy and the afflicted. Christ knows in this moment what he already realized in the Garden: he must become poor, as well. The cup will not pass from him.

***

Concern for the poor, the needy and the afflicted, appears again and again in the Psalms. God is revealed and lauded as the God of the poor. Three themes dominate: (1) God hears their cries for mercy; (2) he rescues them from the wicked who prey on them, and (3) he delivers them from their affliction. In a word, the Psalms bear witness to a God who never forsakes the poor to their poverty, never leaves the afflicted in their affliction.

In Proverbs, the concern turns from God to the people of God:

Prov. 19.17 Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and will be repaid in full.

Prov. 21.13 If you close your ear to the cry of the poor, you will cry out and not be heard.

Prov. 28.27 Whoever gives to the poor will lack nothing, but one who turns a blind eye will get many a curse.

Prov. 29.7 The righteous know the rights of the poor; the wicked have no such understanding.

***

All of this makes a much fuller sense if we remember the Exodus story, the story that roots Israel’s identity as the people of God. Enslaved in Egypt, they cry out to God, and he delivers them. This deliverance tells them once-for-all who they are and who God is. Who are they? The poor ones freely liberated and sheltered by God. Who is God? The one who hears the cry of the poor, and leads them into plenty.

Strangely, God delivers Israel from the absolute impoverishment of slavery into the perilous scarcity of the wilderness. The wilderness is so perilous—Deuteronomy 8 descries it as “the great and terrible wilderness, an arid wasteland with poisonous snakes and scorpions”—that Israel desires to return to slavery. Why does God lead them this way? Because he knows they’ll never know how to live with plenty if they forget how they were poor, and if they do not learn how to live in divine, as opposed to human, poverty.

***

Before leading them into the Promised Land, he warns them never to forget who they had been, what they had undergone. But of course they did forget. So God sent the prophets, again and again, before the exile, during the exile, and after it, to remind them of what they had forgotten.

The prophets gave warnings: because Israel had forgotten that they were poor, God would come and make them poor again.

Amos 5.11-12 

11 Therefore because you trample on the poor
and take from them levies of grain,
you have built houses of hewn stone,
but you shall not live in them;
you have planted pleasant vineyards,
but you shall not drink their wine.
12 For I know how many are your transgressions,
and how great are your sins—
you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
and push aside the needy in the gate.

And the prophets also made promises: Israel’s deliverance would come just as they cared for those in need—just as God had done for them.

Isaiah 58.6-8:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.

***

And that brings us to Jesus. The prophetic call to remember the poor is the heart of his ministry as it is revealed to us in the Gospels. Take, for example, the First Gospel, the Gospel of Matthew.

In it, Jesus is himself described as poor, “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head,” and he proclaims that the poor are blessed, that the kingdom of God belongs to them alone. Discipleship, he says, begins and ends with giving to those in need: “you cannot serve both God and Money.” Everything comes down to what we have done—or left undone—for “the least of these.” Everything. 

In this Gospel Jesus warns: “the poor you have with you always.” And he also promises: “I am with you always.” What we miss is that the one is inseparable from the other. He is the poor. They are him. “What you do to the least of these you do to me,” he said, revealed that in saying that the poor would be with us always, Christ was telling us where we could find him, how he would be present to us.

Our poor ways of reading may keep us from seeing this promise, but Maximus Confessor did not miss it. Reflecting on these very passages he writes:

And if the poor man is God, it is because of God’s condescension in becoming poor for us … All the more will we become like God as we heal the hurts of those who suffer, loving others in imitation of God. The one who becomes like God … has the same power of saving Providence that God has.

We are the providence of God. Or we are not.

***

But I’ve not yet answered a critical question: who are “the poor”? How to talk about them given that they have been politicized for partisan agendas? We must name them, see their faces. The poor are the needy and the afflicted among us, those who lack the goods God means for them to have and those who are treated as less than the sons and daughters of God that they are. Whenever my family prays over a meal, we pray: “Lord, be with those who do not have food to eat tonight, and those who have food but no one to share it with.” They are the poor. Widows and orphans. The homeless on our streets and refugees at our borders and in our cities, as well as at borders and in cities everywhere. They are the poor. The physically and mentally disabled. The very young and the very old among us. Addicts. Abused wives and girlfriends. They are the poor.

Without spiritualizing poverty away, we have to recognize that we are the poor as well. Each of us is poor in some way. Terribly poor. And each of us is called to the poor. But first of all, we are called to become poor for the sake of the rich and poor alike.

***

In 2 Corinthians 8, Paul praises the Macedonian churches for their generosity in giving to Paul’s collection for the poor in the churches in Jerusalem:

We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has
been granted to the churches of Macedonia; 2for during a severe ordeal of
affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a
wealth of generosity on their part. 3For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave
according to their means, and even beyond their means, 4begging us earnestly
for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints— 5and this, not merely as we expected; they gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us…

And then he calls for the Corinthians to imitate not only the Macedonians, but also Christ, “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”

“… by his poverty you might become rich.” Everything depends on this: it is Christ’s poverty that makes us rich. He came so that we might exchange not our poverty for his wealth, but both our wealth and our poverty for his poverty, which is his wealth. As Paul puts it elsewhere, we must be filled up with Christ’s self-emptying life (Phil. 2). Only so can we fulfill the calling of Abraham to bring God’s blessings to all people. If we do not become poor as Jesus is poor, then we remain masters offering a hand to others instead of servants offering ourselves to them. We are called not to philanthropy but to charity. The philanthropist gives and is praised. The Christian gives and God is praised.

But how is Christ poor? By becoming sin for us, by his agonizing death on the cross.  And it is that death that we too have to suffer. We must be crucified with him daily. Again, the question is, how? We must in deep, deep prayer ask God to make us poor. We must let his poverty, his self-forgetting and self-giving nature, came alive in us., fill us to overflowing We must fast from ourselves so that we can give and be given to others, because without self-denial and self-forgetfulness, there can be no self-giving. We cannot care for the poor if we are consumed with caring for ourselves. And above all we must befriend the poor, who are Christ. We can’t have him without them.

But what does it mean to “befriend” the poor? Not merely to show them kindness and respect. It is to make praise possible for them. Look again at today’s Psalm: Christ’s words in this section are addressed to those who fear the Lord. And of them he says: “from you comes my praise in the midst of the congregation.” The poor who are one with Christ join their praises with his for God’s faithfulness as we give ourselves to them in love. That is the essence of Christian friendship. We care for the poor in ways that move them to rejoice in God. We put a new song in their mouth. And that is precisely what it means for us to be rich: to be so full of the life of God that we find joy when the poor eat and are satisfied. Like Christ, we are fulfilled in others’ satisfaction. Their joy is our joy, and our joy is God’s.

Sanctuary

Sanctuary must be made
Beautiful; otherwise, it is not saving—
Only beauty beatifies.

Saints are made holy just as they sanctify
What room they’ve been given
Or find in the world.

We are bodies carried along
By breath we do not breathe;
We need: this is our truth—

Wood, candles, glass
Shadows, light, and stone
Water, wine & bread
Stories, new & old.

In the work of our hands we are made
By what we cannot make.

Analogy #3

Or picture a tree (any tree, really) in the dead of winter
See how bone-bare it is? How affectedly exposed? How—mortified?

Every year, you know, new life
Sparks along those limbs

And every year, you know, new death
Strips the body clean

Sheepishly, the tree bears it all—
Every moment at the world’s mercy

Reaching without grasp or defense
Sheltering death & life both at once

You don’t need me to tell you
God is like this tree

Mercifully at our mercy
Before us naked, unashamed

God is like this tree—
We can’t picture him without it

Christ’s Death Lives in Us: A Sermon for Ash Wednesday

Lent begins today. And, as always, it comes at just the right time. If you’re at all like I am, you’re falling-down drunk with the cares of this life, stoned out of your mind with never-ending, day-to-day worries. If you’re like I am, you need time to sober up, time to get your head clear and your feet steady under you again. Given our state, we’re going to need time to prepare ourselves for the unimaginable shock of Good Friday — and the even greater shock of Easter Sunday. Wonderfully, that is precisely the time the church has given us in this season.

Over the next forty days, we have the chance to pull ourselves together. With whatever measure of faith has been graced to us, we have the chance to get ourselves ready for what’s to come. We have the chance to give ourselves with renewed energy and seriousness to fasting and to almsgiving, to self-denial and to sacrifice. And once again, as we have done many times in the past and will do many times in the future, we have the chance to make room for God at the heart of our lives, both by what we give up and by what we give away.

In this season, we will not only fast occasional meals, familiar luxuries, and shallow entertainments. We’re not doing this for self-improvement or our health, after all. Like Christians have been doing for 1600 years, we will fast from hasty words and needless chatter, from contemptuous and mistrustful thoughts, from angry and bitter feelings. We will fast from unwarranted judgments about ourselves and about others. We will give up self-hate. We will give up impatience with our children. We will give up fear of strangers and hatred of our enemies. And we will give away food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothes to the naked, shelter to the homeless. We will visit the sick and the imprisoned. We will bury the dead with honor. We will give instruction to the ignorant, counsel to the doubting, comfort to the sorrowful, gentle reproof to the erring. We will forgive those who’ve wronged us, and bear with those who trouble and annoy us. We will pray for everyone and everything (Aquinas).

After his baptism and before his temptation in the wilderness, Jesus fasted for forty days. He fasted not to provide an example for us, but to make it possible for our fasting to work good in us. He fasted so our fasts need not be merely religious. If we live this season in the spirit of Jesus’s fast, then we will find we are being put in touch with our real (as opposed to our imagined) needs, and with our absolute (as opposed to our conditional) neediness. We will also find ourselves being made increasingly aware of our neighbors and their needs, needs which — we suddenly will realize — are simply more important than our own.

By grace, we will remember during this time that we are creatures, that our lives are not our own. The truth is, we exist only because God calls us into and upholds us in existence. As Scripture says, it is in him that we live, move, and have our being. If for some reason God were to decide right now that we are no longer worth sustaining, we would immediately cease to be. And what is more, we would never have been (Jenson).

By grace, we will remember during this time that we are dying creatures, that we are nothing more than dust — strangely animated and self-aware dust, to be sure, but dust nonetheless. On this day, especially, as the poet says, “Our egos and esteem are held up/to the brutal mirror of the finite.” On this day, especially, we suffer a hard reminder: “Know that you will end/The world will continue without you.” In the words of the prayerbooks, “From dust you are, and to dust you shall return.”

We need not make friends with death, but we do have to come to terms with the fact that we’re not going to get out of life alive. In my friend Jason Goroncy’s wise words:

… death may indeed be, in some sense, life’s enemy. But it’s an enemy that, like the strange promise of resurrection, appears to be woven into the warp and woof of life and so of ministry in God’s world. And whereas it sometimes may be an enemy from which to flee; at other times it may be the enemy we must embrace as an expression of love’s final hope.

By grace, we will also remember during this season that we are sinfulcreatures, that we are going to need, again and again, throughout the course of our lives, to be forgiven and reconciled. Experience tells me that we find it difficult, if not impossible, to hear this truth rightly. We almost always hear talk of sin as a moral judgment. We imagine that admitting we’re sinners is an acknowledgment that we’ve had bad thoughts, that we’ve done bad things. But that misses the mark entirely.

We are called not to be moral (by the standards and orders of our society) but to be holy (as God is holy). Sin, therefore, is not the failure to live a good, clean life but the refusal to let God’s goodness come alive in us for the good of others. Sin is whatever stifles or frustrates the fullness of joy in our neighbor’s life. Sin is the unwillingness to take the risks that loving our enemies requires. Sin is anything and everything that is done unlovingly, anything and everything that is done in bad faith, anything and everything that leaves us hopeless. As St Paul says, “whatever is not of faith is sin.”

I had a dream recently in which several friends and I decided, during a church service, to share our worst faults and offenses with one another. One by one, we took turns giving voice to our inward ugliness. But as we shared, I had this growing sense that something was terribly wrong with what we were doing. And, just as I realized it, a pastor stepped forward and called everyone to pray a blessing over me. That dream reminded me that there’s all the difference in the world between exposing my faults and confessing my sins.

I doubt you and I know our faults as well as we think we do, but I am certain that we do not know our sins as well as we think we do — especially those sins that most seriously grieve God and that most deeply wound our neighbors. We need God to make us aware of them. “Only God’s favor makes it possible for us to know and acknowledge our sins” (Hauerwas). Knowing that we’ve sinned and how we’ve sinned is already a beginning of salvation.

Above all, by grace, we will remember during this season that we are beloved. We cannot even begin to grasp what it means to be the creatures we are if we do not realize that in Christ God has taken our creatureliness, our mortality, and our sinfulness as his own. Lent is not about my creaturely mortality and sinfulness considered on their own terms. Lent is about what happens to my creaturely mortality and sinfulness as they are assumed by Christ and transfigured, taken up into the divine life and made holy with God’s own holiness. God would rather not be God at all than to be God without us. Precisely as the sinful, dying creatures that we are, we are loved. And precisely as the sinful, dying creatures we are, we are called in the Beloved to enjoy God and to work with him for the good of the world.

****

Sharing in God’s work means living Christ’s death and letting Christ’s death live in us. This is the lesson Lent teaches. And it’s a defining theme in the writings of St Paul. Take, for example, what he says in Colossians (3.4): “for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” Or what he says in Romans (6:3): “all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death.” In 2 Corinthians (2.14–16), Paul expresses the theme in one of his most difficult, haunting images:

14But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him. 15For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; 16to the one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things?

Paul seems to have in mind a Roman triumph — the triumphant parade through the capitol after an emperor or general had won a great victory. In these moments, the entire city would gather to celebrate, welcoming the victorious leader and his troops with flowers and incense, songs and dances. The troops would bring in their train all the treasures they had claimed, and all the prisoners they had captured, prisoners now shamed in defeat and doomed to a life of slavery or death. Startlingly, Paul imagines himself and his ministry team as God’s captives, spectacularly paraded in a triumphal march before the world, the stench of death — Christ’s death — heavy on them, “the aroma of Christ” their only glory.

Paul returns to this image in 2 Corinthians 4.8–12:

8We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. 11For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. 12So death is at work in us, but life in you.

In a moment, we will come to have our faces marked with ashes in the shape of a cross, signifying that we are sinners for whom Christ died and saints who have died with him. This ashen cross reverses the first mark we read about in Scripture, the mark God put on Cain. Having murdered his brother, Abel, in a jealous rage, Cain is met with a curse, and he cries out to God in protest (Gen. 4.13–16):

“My punishment is greater than I can bear! 14Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.” 15Then the Lord said to him, “Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him.16Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.

We continue to live in a world “east of Eden,” a world in which brother turns against brother, fathers turn against sons, strangers turn against strangers, and neighbors turn against neighbors—a world of unbroken cycles of violence and unbreakable systems of injustice. But we live in the midst of that very world as the Body of the once dead, now risen Christ. Cain fled from the Lord’s presence, marked by God for his protection. We go out into this world as the Lord’s presence, and the mark on our bodies proclaims we are already dead.

Christ’s death is alive in us; therefore, we can, again and again, in ways conscious and unconscious, die to ourselves. We can die to our ambitions. We can die to our judgments. We can die to our fears. We can die to our prejudices. We can die to our rights. We can die to our common sense. The wonder of it is, we find ourselves just by losing ourselves in care for our neighbor. And we “come alive” just in the experience of dying to ourselves.“Death is at work in us” to be sure. We are, as St Paul says, “always being given up to death for Jesus’s sake.” But just so, life is at work in others. And to be dead with Christ is to be hidden in his embrace of the Father, at home in the very heart of God.

Prayer, Time, and the Mercy of God

In Toni Morrison’s Beloved,  (former?) slaves Sethe and Baby Suggs find they cannot keep praying or  speaking the word because their times have been irreparably broken. Their future has been taken from them by their former oppressors. Now, as Sethe says, the future is nothing but “keeping the past at bay.” And the past must be kept at bay because “nothing ever dies.” The undead past haunts, spitefully.

This is just to the theological point: for the present to open toward an eschatological (and thereby a worldly) future, for hope (in contrast to anticipation) to be possible, the past—in all its glory and all its horror—must be somehow put to rest for good.

Bonhoeffer says somewhere that the telos of pastoral care is to free people to pray. But to pray in good faith, we must in fact believe that our past and our future somehow are permeable to the eternal mercy of God. And surely this is why the gospel proclaims that Christ died once for all and has been raised to life for us. How else would we be free from what has happened? How else would we be free for what is to happen yet?