“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and anti-Judaism

an Advent image of a night sky full of stars

The just-concluded General Convention of the Episcopal Church approved a good and much-needed set of theological and practical guidelines for Christian-Jewish relations. Among many other things, the document notes the need to “mitigate latent anti-Judaism in our hymnody” by creating hymn revisions “that preserve the theological depth and purpose of particular hymns while excising supersessionist themes.” It points specifically to “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” as an example. I also recently came across a Facebook post by Dan Joslyn-Siematkoski on the text history of this hymn which made me want to delve into it some more.

The text and translations

As Dan points out, the English text is a translation by John Mason Neale (1818-1866) of a Latin version which is sometimes said to date as early as the 12th century, though the manuscript he found it in was from the 18th. In any case, that Latin version is itself a rhymed paraphrase of an earlier set of Latin texts: the Great O Antiphons. These are used at Vespers in the classic Roman Rite in the week leading up to Christmas.

In Neale’s version, the first verse (which is also typically sung at the end) reads:

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee, O Israel.

The Latin rhymed version Neale is working from reads:

Veni, veni, Emmanuel
Captivum solve Israel
Qui gemit in exsilio
Privatus Dei Filio.

Gaude! Gaude! Emmanuel
nascetur pro te, Israel.

Which, in a pretty literal English translation, would be:

O come, O come, Emmanuel
Release captive Israel
Who groans in exile
Deprived of the Son of God.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
will be born for you, O Israel.

As we can see, Neale’s version is a very close, near-literal rendition. There are just a few tweaks for rhyme and prosody.

Theology of the hymn

Theologically, both Neale’s text and the underlying Latin are ambiguous. Are we to imagine this prayer as situated before the birth of Christ, portraying God’s chosen people Israel as awaiting his arrival? If so, are we to envision it as being uttered during the literal Babylonian exile, or is the text instead imagining a time closer to the birth of Christ, say under Persian or Seleucid or Hasmonean or Roman rule, and portraying this time as a metaphorical exile because of a deep longing for a Messiah?

Those possibilities may not be overtly anti-Jewish, but I think they still deserve critique. They lend themselves to a romantic Christian interpretation that caricatures the Babylonian and Second-Temple periods as religiously less valid than the First–as a time when “prophecy had been stilled” and the Jewish people spent their time longing for a Messiah who would coincidentally be a lot like Jesus. In fact messianic hopes took many forms during this time and were just one strand of a lively and vigorous religious scene.

There’s a third, and still worse, interpretative possibility: one in which we are instead situated after the first coming of Christ. Here the text would be praying not for a romanticized future birth of a longed-for Messiah but essentially for the conversion of the perfidi Iudaei, the “faithless Jews,” as they were called in the old Roman liturgy for Good Friday. In other words, it would be portraying medieval (or modern) Jewish people as groaning in a kind of ongoing exile, “deprived of the Son of God,” because of their failure to accept Jesus as the Messiah.

I don’t think this third, and most offensive, interpretation is probably the original intent of the text. For one thing, the Latin version (unlike Neale’s adaptation) says not that Emmanuel “shall come” but that he “will be born”—so we are probably meant to be looking ahead to the first coming, not the second. Still, Neale’s version leaves that out; and regardless of intent, both Neale’s version and the Latin rhymed version can still pretty easily be read this way. Two millennia of supersessionist Christian tropes about Jewish people as groaning for the true Messiah are inevitably part of the background of how we hear this hymn.

And even if we bracket out that third interpretation, the first two (literal exile in Babylon; metaphorical “exile” in the second-Temple period) can still support a Christian stereotype of Judaism pre-Jesus as oriented entirely toward his arrival. At best they do nothing to combat that stereotype, and at worst they reinforce it.

Thinking about revisions

So we have an “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” problem. And Christians have become aware of that in recent years. I’m aware of two proposed rewrites, one by Philip Cunningham (see here, here, and here) and another by Barbara Lundblad (here). (The Episcopal “Christian-Jewish Relations” document specifically praises Lundblad’s.) I appreciate the spirit of both of these. As a singer and pastor, though, I have to admit I’m not fully satisfied with either, for two reasons.

One is that both abandon the syllabification of both Neale’s and the rhymed Latin text, adding extra syllables where those versions have melismas. It’s subtle, but it alters the congregational experience and makes the text fit the melody just that little bit less well. The second is that both abandon the connection with the original O Antiphons, opting instead to explore alternate christological imagery. They’re basically newly composed texts. This is too bad—because the O Antiphons themselves are not anti-Jewish!

Four of them (O Sapientia, O Oriens, O Rex Gentium, O Emmanuel) make no reference to Israel or the Jewish people. Three (O Adonai, O Radix Jesse, O Clavis David) use Old Testament imagery in ways that are more or less typological. They portray Jesus as living and active in the salvation history of Israel, but (at least in my view) they steer clear of dismissing that salvation history as irrelevant prologue, legalistic misery, or the like. Opinions will differ, but here I think we have genuine theological differences between Christian and Jewish readings of scripture that can be handled respectfully, rather than stereotyped Christian caricature of Jewish faith.

Let’s take a look at the O Antiphon in question: O Emmanuel. Here it is in Latin, then literal English:

O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster, exspectatio gentium, et Salvator earum:
Veni ad salvandum nos, Domine Deus noster.

O Emmanuel, our ruler and law-giver, the nations’ expectation and their Savior:
Come to save us, O Lord our God.

“Nations” here can also be translated as “Gentiles” (as also in the Song of Simeon: note Rite I’s “a light to lighten the Gentiles” vs. Rite II’s “a light to enlighten the nations”). Here let’s go with the more inclusive choice of “nations,” which connotes Jesus as a universal savior rather than a particular one (though the interfaith issues here might be more complex and interesting than meets the eye).

But look at what’s not here: anything about exile, or being deprived of the Son of God, or in fact anything about Israel at all! As Dan J-S also points out in his post, that content was wholly created by the rhymed Latin version, not by the original O Antiphon.

That being the case, what if we revised our current hymn not from whole cloth but with a targeted rewrite of that single verse based on the underlying Antiphon, plus the refrain? Perhaps something like

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
Thy people save and with us dwell
Who watch in expectation here
Until thy reign of love appear.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to us and with us dwell.

(Here my refrain is close to Cunningham’s, but with the word “ever” deleted to keep to eight syllables.)

I’m not a seasoned hymnwriter, and those who are may be able to improve on this. The principles I’d want to see are: (1) Stick with syllables; and (2) Stick with the O Antiphons.

What do you think?

A new ministry

I’m thrilled to share the news that I’ve been called to be the next rector of a wonderful parish with an enormous heart: the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation in Santa Rosa, California.

Their worship, their fellowship, and especially their care for their community (not least in the wake of October’s wildfires) make this a congregation I couldn’t be prouder to become a part of.

I’ll start after the end of this semester, when my teaching commitment here in Berkeley is complete.

Incarnation friends, I can’t wait to join you in a few months!

What’s a Prayer Book Catholic?

What does it mean to be a “Prayer Book Catholic”?

It means following a way of being Christian that is grounded in scripture and in the theology of the earliest centuries of the church.

It means loving the sacraments, the liturgical year, and the daily rhythm of prayer.

It means practicing the liturgical life of the Book of Common Prayer as fully as possible.

It means being Christian in a way that is catholic and reformed, progressive and orthodox, ancient and modern, all at the same time.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Anglicans who sought a richer, deeper sacramental life under the influence of the Oxford Movement tended to fall into two rough groups. One group looked to the Roman Catholic church, following many of its ceremonial practices and importing many of its texts into their liturgies. The other looked instead to specifically Anglican ways of doing things, believing that the Prayer Book was fully capable of supporting a rich catholic liturgical life without such imported enhancements. Many of those in this second strand called themselves “Prayer Book Catholics.”

Over a century later, in a very different place and time, I believe Prayer Book spirituality is still the most distinctive gift the Anglican tradition–and my branch of it, the Episcopal Church–has to offer the world. This is where I write about it, and sometimes about other things too.

In the Image of the Trinity: Trinity Sunday, Year A

Stephen R. Shaver
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, San Francisco, CA
June 11, 2017
Trinity Sunday, Year A, Revised Common Lectionary
Genesis 1:1-2:4a
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Matthew 28:16-20
Psalm 8
or Canticle 13

+ + +

What would it feel like to be your truest, fullest self?

I don’t mean that in a glib way, like in a magazine article or an Internet link with a title like “10 Ways to Be Your Best Self Today!” What would it like to be utterly the self you were created to be, and utterly full of God? What would it be like to feel the Holy Spirit at work in you to unblock all your gifts and dissolve away all your stuck places like so many knots out of a stiff muscle?

There’s a story of two ancient Egyptian monks. One went to the other and asked, “Father, as far as I can, I say my little prayers, I fast a little, I meditate, I live in peace and I try to purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” Then the older monk stood up, stretched his hands towards heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of flame. And he said to him, “Why not be changed utterly into fire?”[1]

Today we celebrate Trinity Sunday. And the Trinity is not an abstract doctrine that says the meaning of the universe is the number three. It’s a distillation of the lived experience of the early Christians who had found themselves transformed by following the risen Jesus, and then changed at least for a moment into fire at Pentecost by the gift of the Holy Spirit. The first Christians were astonished to find that the Jesus they had known in the flesh was somehow at the very heart of God, so much that they could no longer speak of God without Jesus. And that the Spirit propelling them into ministry was also somehow the presence of God, God sent from God. So even in that first generation they began to grapple with language to talk about these three ways they had come to know God.

We see them starting to do that in the New Testament readings we heard today, giving us phrases we still hear in worship today. “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with us all evermore.” “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” And they also looked back into the scriptures they already knew, and they began to find glimpses of that triune God by reading the old stories through a new lens.

Before the creation, Genesis says, “a wind from God,” swept over the empty waters—but the word “wind” in Hebrew also means “Spirit.” And then God creates in a particular way: by speaking—by the Word. Spirit and Word, present at the beginning, active in creation. The second-century bishop Irenaeus called the Word and the Spirit “the two hands of God.”[2]

And Christians have found another glimmer of the Trinity later on in the story, when God suddenly switches into speaking in the plural, a sort of royal we: “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” This is the only point in the story where God speaks this way, and maybe it’s significant that it happens when God is about to create a being that shares in God’s own image. It’s as if to say that what it means to be in God’s image—what it means to be really human—is to be in the image of the Trinity. If we are going to be fully ourselves, that means we are invited to share in the same kind of life the Trinity shares.

Now the inner life of God is beyond our knowing. But one thing we can say is that if God is one and yet is also Father, Son, and Spirit, then there is community and relationship and mutual love at the very heart of God. And if we are made in God’s image, that means that God, for some unfathomable reason, is inviting us to participate in that community and relationship and mutual love. Not that we are God—we weren’t present at the creation; being God is not our job … thank God. But being filled with God is. Sharing the life of God is.

Maybe you’ve read stories of experiments from the twentieth century where an ape has been raised with a human family. Sometimes amazing things happened: apes learned to sign, ride a tricycle, eat with silverware. But the experiments have always ended badly, with the apes growing unmanageable and being sent away. Today they’re considered inhumane. Because an ape isn’t meant to live as a human. It’s not created in the image of a human. In becoming more human, it becomes less itself. But being adopted by the Holy Trinity is different. Because we are made in God’s image, living in God’s family makes us more like God and more ourselves.

Now I hardly have to tell you that that image of God in all of us has been marred and smudged. Instead of sharing in the Father’s care for creation, we threaten to destroy our planet. Instead of sharing in Jesus’ kingdom values, we set up systems where some dominate and others are left behind. Instead of sharing in the Spirit’s unity, we divide into tribes and define ourselves over against one another.[3] C. S. Lewis wrote that we were created to be mirrors of God, but the mirror of humanity is cracked and dusty.[4]

The good news is that the story of Jesus is a story of restoration. Because another part of the mystery of the Trinity is that even when we separate ourselves from God, God doesn’t remain separate from us. In Jesus the Word of God becomes human, and for the first time we see what it looks like not to have that image marred and smudged. Jesus shows us what God looks like in human form, but just as amazing, he shows us what it is to be fully human: a live lived in perfect love of God and others. And the Spirit, working within us, can restore us into our own fully human selves. That doesn’t mean clones of Jesus, as if we all had to be first-century carpenters; it means adopted children of God who each reflect God’s image in our own irreplaceable way.

That same bishop Irenaeus writes in another place, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive; and the life of a human being is the vision of God.”[5] That’s the life you and I were made for: to be fully ourselves and full of God, to be changed into fire. And God won’t give up on us until we share that life, the life of the Trinity, on this side of the grave and beyond.


[1] The story of Abba Lot and Abba Joseph, available in many translations in print and online.

[2] Against Heresies 4.Pref.4.

[3] A note here: all of God’s work actually belongs to all of God. But there are certain aspects that are traditionally associated with each of the three Persons. This is classically known as the doctrine of appropriation.

[4] E.g., in Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 164.

[5] Against Heresies 4.20.7.

Polite violence

It was all such a shame, thought those in charge. It should never have come to this. It’s awful, but of course, it’s for the good of the whole community.

It is better for one person to suffer for the good of the people.

No one likes seeing violence, of course. It’s better to turn our eyes away when it has to happen and hope for it to be over as soon as possible.

Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?

None of us is really to blame. None of us chose this. We’re not responsible, not really, at least not individually. We wouldn’t hurt a fly.

I am innocent of this person’s blood. See to it yourselves.

Anyway, we delegate the nasty parts out to trained professionals. They can handle it.

When the commander saw what had taken place, he said, “Truly this man was innocent!”

The thing is, it’s not any one person’s fault. It’s about economics. You can’t argue with the bottom line. The market wants what it wants, and actually, it always works things out for the best in the end.

They weighed out to him thirty pieces of silver.

Anyway, they probably deserved it. They shouldn’t have talked back; shouldn’t have dressed that way; shouldn’t have made any sudden moves.  They brought it on themselves, really.

Those who see me laugh and mock at me; they shake their heads and hurl insults.

We’re not really sure what happened anyway. We’ll never know. Who can say, really? I have my facts and you have yours.

What is truth?

Anyway, what’s done is done. At this point we need to make the best of it and work on crafting the right media narrative. It’s only fair to make sure it’s our side of the story that gets out there.

What I have written, I have written.


Paschal, baptismal, ecclesial

I was looking through some old files from seminary and came across this paper I wrote for my liturgics class back in 2005.

I like it pretty well!

Not too bad, 23-year-old self. You had a lot of growing up to do (well, still do, I guess … ), but you could write a decent paper on the 1979 Prayer Book.

First, it is paschal: more than any previous Anglican prayer book, it is grounded in the pasch, the central Christian mystery of the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ.  Second, because it is paschal, it is baptismal; it sees baptism as the foundation of the Christian life and community.  Third, because it is baptismal, it is ecclesial; it is not a book for individual contemplative devotion but a book for a congregation of the priestly people of God.

I’d probably write it a little differently today but I think I still pretty much agree with everything in here. If only that were the case for everything else I’ve ever written … 🙂

Faith-based values

I am a Christian. My social values are 100% faith-based.

I believe, based on my understanding of the gospel of Jesus, that God made us in God’s own image, “male and female,” as it says in Genesis 1:27. Not male or female. In other words, gender is not a binary; it’s a multifaceted gift. It’s related in intriguing, complex, nonprescriptive ways to biological sex. Masculinity and femininity and other gender identities are not mutually-exclusive opposites but complementary blessings. And some unique mix of them is found in any given person.

I believe the sacramental commitment of marriage represents Christ’s fidelity to the church. I believe it should be available on equal terms to all who intend it as a lifelong union of body and spirit.

I believe, based on my understanding of the gospel, that abortion is a complex and never trivial decision, and that there are nevertheless times where it is the best and most faithful choice. I believe women and those they trust are best equipped to make those decisions. I believe if abortion is sometimes the most faithful option, then it needs to be available.

I don’t believe it’s appropriate to use government to mandate moral choices for a pluralistic society. I do think it’s appropriate for government to protect people in the minority from having their ability to live how they want, without harming others, taken away.

I can respect people who genuinely believe, based on their understanding of their faith, that abortion is never a faithful choice; or that you can’t be a Christian and have a nontraditional gender identity or be in a non-heterosexual relationship. I do strongly disagree with them. If you’re one of these folks, I hope you’ll respect me, but much more importantly, I hope you’ll respect my friends whose actions or identity you disapprove of. If you want to try to convince them that your viewpoint is right, please try to do it with your words and the example of your life rather than coercing them to act against their own consciences by means of the law.

I believe, based on the gospel of Jesus, that we have a duty to care for the poor and vulnerable. That’s non-negotiable for Christians, no matter what economic ideology you think will best achieve that (see Matthew 25).

I think—as a matter of practical methods, not as a gospel mandate—that it’s appropriate for citizens to act collectively through government to try to make life better for everyone. That means not just roads and armies but things like health care, housing, education, and some appropriate degree of income redistribution. I don’t think it’s good for people’s souls to be thousands or millions of times more wealthy than their neighbors. And I don’t believe raw dollars are the only motivation for people to work hard and achieve wonderful things. That’s why I basically tend to favor things like social welfare, well-regulated free markets, and a fairly high personal income tax rate on the top end. Those are personal opinions about what works, not gospel beliefs. I’m not an expert in economics, and I’m willing to be corrected if libertarians, anarchists, communists, or unfettered robber-baron capitalists can show good solid evidence that their way works better for everyone and in particular for those who are poorest.

But as a gospel value, I believe that Christians have a duty to care for the poor and vulnerable, whether the government does or doesn’t.

All these values are completely faith-based. I’ll happily debate them respectfully, based on scripture and Christian tradition, with anyone who wants to. Progressive Christianity isn’t watered-down Christianity—it’s Christianity, pure and simple. Secular humanists don’t have a monopoly on these values, although they are good allies on many of them, and many of them are my dear friends and family. And socially conservative Christians don’t have a monopoly on the gospel, although I rejoice in our shared love of Jesus, and many of them are my dear friends and family.



A new reality

God is our refuge and strength, *
    a very present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved, *
    and though the mountains be toppled into the depths of the sea.

“Be still, then, and know that I am God; *
    I will be exalted among the nations;
    I will be exalted in the earth.”

The LORD of hosts is with us; *
    the God of Jacob is our stronghold. (Psalm 46)

I had never truly allowed myself to contemplate the reality of a President Trump until Tuesday night. I was walking down the block at about 7:00 to pick up takeout for dinner, and I had just seen The New York Times’s forecast that there was now greater than a 75% chance of a Trump victory. So I had a several minutes’ walk for the pit of my stomach to begin feeling cold and numb.

Of course I had contemplated it. But it had seemed so truly farcical that it hadn’t been possible for me to really, truly, come to grips with its possibility. I was ready to turn a page; to move on with life more or less as usual; to breathe a sigh of relief at the election of a president I believed was generally a competent adult; to continue welcoming the gradual but real progress toward greater gender inclusion, racial justice, and a stronger social safety net that had been happening despite resistance and seemed fated to proceed along its inevitable course. The arc of history.

It is not that way.

The people have spoken. Donald Trump, a man who has said things that would have disqualified any previous candidate two hundred times over, who has boasted of groping women, who flirts with white supremacists, who has openly stated his wish to trample on constitutional freedoms of the press and of religion and to reinstitute torture as national policy, who shows little to no curiosity or self-reflective capacity—how long should I go on?—this person will be the leader and spokesman for our nation and indeed the most powerful person in the world.

I am afraid because I believe some specific policy consequences will hurt many, especially the most vulnerable. I am afraid that millions will lose their access to healthcare as the Affordable Care Act is swiftly repealed, to be replaced with something no one has yet thought through, or else not to be replaced at all. I am afraid that tax cuts will shower “relief” on the wealthy and provide symbolic pittances to the middle class and nothing to the poor. Meanwhile, I am afraid that large pieces of the social safety net that helps those poor survive will be privatized or vanish altogether. With at least one and perhaps more Supreme Court nominees to be selected by Donald Trump and easily approved by a Republican Senate, I am afraid that the “right” of corporations to be treated as people will remain enshrined, while the right of women to make the most intimate decisions about their own bodies may well be taken away.

Beyond those policy consequences, there will be less tangible consequences that may be even more harmful in the long run. The fabric of our constitutional democracy will probably hold—but it has been badly stretched and frayed. We will have a president who has endorsed violence at his rallies, who has “jokingly” hinted at his opponent’s assassination and dead-seriously called for her imprisonment, and who has repeatedly vowed to do things that are blatantly against our most basic constitutional freedoms. Leaders of countries around the world are alternately terrified or exultant at the prospect of seeing the United States led by an erratic bully and our (already much eroded) moral standing reduced to that of any other troubled democracy. Closer to home, the unprecedented strategy of stonewalling a Supreme Court nomination for an entire year is now vindicated as a clear success, meaning that it will likely become a norm.

This is not good news, not any of it. I fear that people will suffer and that the world will be less prosperous, less happy, and less free.

Still, there is a clarity that comes with this new reality. It calls for those of us whose vision of a compassionate, fair, and inclusive society is grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ to speak out boldly.

It convicts me of my silence, my failure to engage in real conversation with those different from me, my life in a liberal bubble. It convicts me of my failure to advocate more forcefully against racism and sexism and other systems of prejudice that I have the unfair privilege of not always thinking about since they do not directly assault me. It convicts me of my failure to be a good ally, more often, more intentionally. It convicts me also of my genuine incomprehension of and aversion to the values and culture of many people, most of them white, many of them working-class, whose economic vulnerability needs to be taken seriously and responded to not with demagogy and nativism but with genuine solutions that lift up all those who are disadvantaged.

And it means that the task for those of us who are shocked and disheartened is to serve as a dogged, loyal opposition. Loyal to the values for which this country, at its best, stands; and loyal, more deeply still, to the gospel. We are called to proclaim the good news in season and out of season. Our trust is not in having a government we like, but in God’s grace and goodness, which never fail.

Some put their trust in chariots and some in horses, *
      but we will call upon the Name of the LORD our God. (Psalm 20:7)

Ashes to New Growth: Ash Wednesday

Stephen R. Shaver
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Berkeley, CA
February 17, 2015
Ash Wednesday, Revised Common Lectionary
Isaiah 58:1-12
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Psalm 103:8-14
Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

+ + +

“It’s like a war zone up here, like a movie scene.”

“This is a level of horror few of us could have anticipated.”

“It’s like Hiroshima, like a nuclear bomb.”

“It was hell on earth.”

These were just some of the descriptions from survivors of the deadliest wildfires the twenty-first century has seen. They happened six years ago, in Australia, in the state of Victoria. At least 210 people died. 1800 homes were destroyed, and over 7000 people were displaced. And perhaps the most heartbreaking revelation came when authorities announced they believed the fires were caused not by natural disaster, nor by accident, but by arson: the free choice of a human being.

This story seems to capture human sin in one microcosm. We were created, the scriptural story suggests, in a green and flourishing garden: created to love and serve God’s good creation with thanksgiving and joy. We were made to live eucharistically, blessing God for all that has been given into our care. But instead, whether through malice or simple carelessness, we tend so easily to turn it all into ash.

Think of all the ways that what happened in Victoria reflects human fallenness. First of all, its impact on the natural world. The charred grasses and trees of that Australian landscape are a small symbol of all the ways we fail to care for our planet, threatened by pollution, waste, and the ever-increasing specter of irreversible climate change. Next, the way it devastated homes and families: an image of our wounded economy and our tendency toward shattered relationships. And finally, the lives that were lost: two hundred people whose deaths are emblematic of the way we humans kill one another, whether out of hatred, greed, or just simple carelessness. This too is a story that starts in Scripture, with Cain’s murder of his brother Abel. It continues through the centuries, through wars and crusades and inquisitions, through the all-too-literal ashes of the crematoria of state-sponsored genocide we have come to know in the past century, and to today, from the horrific beheadings and atrocities of the so-called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq to the fourteen murders in Oakland so far in 2015.

As the people of Victoria looked out six years ago at their charred landscape, remembering the grass and trees that once made it green, so we look at the world God has given us and the eucharistic words of praise we were created to say can easily turn to dust and ashes in our mouths.

Yet we have not come here tonight to despair about the magnitude of fallenness and sin. For there is hope for us. Because in all the brokenness of our world, God has chosen not to abandon us to our fate.

As we heard a moment ago in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians: “For our sake God made Jesus to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Jesus we might become the righteousness of God.” Hear how Paul’s poetic language strains toward paradox, how his words crack at the edge of meaning: one who knew no sin is made to be sin for us. This is the tremendous exchange in which Jesus, who uniquely among all humanity was free of sin, chose freely to empty himself of divine privileges, become subject to our human condition in all its beauty and suffering, and take on all the consequences of our sin so that we in turn might be made righteous.

Paul says that in the cross and resurrection of Jesus God has reconciled the whole world to God’s own self. Not some of the world: not the upstanding, not the decent; but ALL. God’s free gift of reconciliation is offered freely to both those people in Victoria whose houses were destroyed and the careless or wicked arsonist who set the fire. Scandalous as it may be, God’s grace is available for victims and for perpetrators—for you and me, in both of those roles, in each of which we will find ourselves in some manner throughout our lives. It is available for free. There is no entrance exam. There are no strings. The only requirement is that we accept God’s grace, turn away from evil, and turn toward the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ.

Of course, we can fail to open ourselves to that love. Paul goes on to warn the Corinthians that it is possible “to accept the grace of God in vain.” He does not say “to fail to accept it”—but rather to accept it and yet still have it not be effective in us. One sign that we may be accepting God’s grace in vain is when we begin to congratulate ourselves on our goodness. Paradoxically, it is often Christians who can be better at that than anyone else. And so we do well to hear Jesus’ warning in today’s gospel reading against hypocritical worship, priding ourselves on appearances, assuming we have ourselves put together so that we forget our deep need of God. That forgetfulness is what we are here today to resist. In a few moments, when we come forward to receive ashes, we will be told, “REMEMBER that you are dust.” We need to remember our own ashiness, our limitations and weakness, so that when we come to the joy of Easter we may not receive it in vain.

There’s a word for this remembering. It’s an old word, and one that perhaps we don’t use as often anymore—partly because it’s been used too often in the past to beat people into submission and blind obedience. But when used rightly, it’s still a good and faithful word. The word is “humility.” And it comes from the same word as “humus”—a word for soil—indeed, the most fertile layer of the soil. When we have humility; when we remember that we are dust, that we are humus—we can become fertile soil so that God’s Spirit can grow in us and bear fruit. And when we live in this way, we are returning to our eucharistic calling by blessing God for the life we have been given.

Digital Photograph - Black Saturday Bushfires, Rosewhite, Victoria, 7 July 2009
image by Robin McDonald from Museum Victoria

If you go to the web site of the Museum of Victoria in Australia, you can see a page that tells the story of how the local forest regenerates after a bushfire. As it happens, the trees that make up the forests in Victoria can only reproduce after there has been a fire. The hot fire triggers the trees to drop seeds by the millions. And the tiny saplings that begin to come up are nourished by minerals from the layer of ash that covers the ground. Until the fire happened, those minerals had been sequestered in the old trees. But now those nutrients are returned to the soil and fertilize it for new growth.

This Lent, may we remember that we are dust, so that we may receive the grace of God with open hearts rather than closed ones. May the ashes we receive on our heads reach into our hearts and fertilize them, so that God may once again make a fresh planting in our lives, and that we may tend God’s garden with thanksgiving and joy.

Violence and the Banquet: Proper 23, Year A

Stephen R. Shaver
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, San Francisco, CA
October 12, 2014
Proper 23, Year A, Revised Common Lectionary (Track I)
Exodus 32:1-14
Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

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In a pastoral care class during my last year of seminary a wise guest lecturer handed out a simple, tongue-in-cheek card entitled “Ten Modest Suggestions to Keep Your Vocation in Good Health.” Under the title was a small notation: “suitable for framing.” I’ve found it so helpful that I did in fact frame it, and when I’ve been in parish ministry I’ve kept it somewhere in my office. The suggestions include things like “Say the Daily Office” and “Keep your financial life in order” and “Keep your promises” and “Remember it’s not about you and you’re not entitled to anything.” And they include my favorite: “Don’t dismiss the tradition. You are not smarter than it. Wrestle with it until it blesses you.”

It’s a reference, of course, to the story of Jacob in the book of Genesis, who wrestles all night with a mysterious stranger only to find out that it’s the angel of God. And it’s a good word for us as Christians, who live within a great historical tradition, and who need to continually find ways to move into the future without coming unmoored from who and whose we are.

Sometimes it’s scripture that we need to wrestle with until we get a blessing. As Anglicans we believe scripture is holy and inspired; the Holy Spirit breathes through it and speaks God’s Word to us. But that doesn’t mean we believe it’s inerrant, or self-interpreting, or free of the biases and limitations of its human authors. So it takes wrestling sometimes to discover where God’s Word is for us in a particular text.

Today’s parable from Matthew’s gospel is one of those, I think. It’s not often that we get a glimpse of how a parable of Jesus was told and retold in different ways by the first few generations of Christians before it got written down. But with this one, we do—because it so happens that Luke’s gospel has a simpler and quite different version of this same story. Luke’s version has a man who decides to throw a wonderful banquet. The people he invites turn down his invitation with various polite excuses. So, because he’s so determined to throw a fabulous party, he sends his servants out instead to go out onto the streets and bring in everyone they can find. End of parable. It’s an appealing image of God’s overwhelming, inclusive grace. I like this parable. Maybe you do too.

I don’t find it as easy to like Matthew’s version. Because Matthew has taken the basic, skinny bones of this story and hopped it up on steroids—into a parable of rage and retribution. Now the man is a king who’s throwing a wedding banquet for his son. But when he tells his guests that dinner is ready, instead of just declining his invitation, they beat and kill his messengers. That unusual response might be our first clue that we’re on very strange territory in this parable. Next, in turn, the king massively escalates the violence. He mobilizes his army, wipes them out, and burns their city to the ground—all, apparently, while keeping dinner warm, because he then sends out another round of messengers. This time no one is bold enough to say no. But then—and here I find myself imagining him like a medal-chested dictator, toying with the squirming guests at his gold-plated gala—he singles out a poor fellow who has shown up underdressed and has him clapped in irons and sent to the gulag.

What kind of parable is this? What kind of God is this? Is the king supposed to be God? Are we the guests? And what is God going to do to us if we don’t wear the right robe? For that matter, what is the robe? Is it baptism, belief in Jesus, good deeds? The conventional readings of this parable overlay and compete with one another. And it can be hard to hear the gospel, the good news, through all the violence.

Now the scriptures were written by people: faithful people, people who loved God and sought, under the Spirit’s inspiration, to make sense of their experience of God in the places and times where they lived. And the anonymous Christian who compiled the gospel we know as “Matthew” lived in a violent and turbulent time. Most commentators think he—and it probably was a “he” in this case—was a Jewish believer in Jesus, one who had studied the Hebrew scriptures and come to believe that the crucified and risen one was the Messiah. He and his community understood themselves as faithful Jews, but they also welcomed Gentiles who had come to believe. Meanwhile, they struggled to understand why most of their Jewish sisters and brothers weren’t accepting their invitation to join this messianic community.

And in the midst of all that, there was a revolt against the Roman Empire, and the Roman army responded by flattening Jerusalem and burning the Jewish Temple to the ground.

It’s that trauma, and this particular group of Jewish Christians’ attempt to make sense of it, that most scholars believe has affected the way this parable was told and retold in Matthew’s community. Matthew has taken this parable and made it into more of an allegory: God invites the people of Israel to the Messiah’s banquet, but they reject the message of the prophets and finally of Jesus himself, and kill him. In Matthew’s understanding, then, the destruction of the Temple is God’s judgment on the people’s rejection of that invitation.

We can have compassion for Matthew and his point of view without being willing to share his interpretation of what happened. For one thing, Matthew is a Jew. And it is when we are members of a group, and then feel betrayed by our sisters and brothers within that group, that we can come to criticize it most violently. Maybe you’ve experienced this in at least a small way. Maybe, like me, you’ve found yourself at some point making an angry or dismissive comment about a group you belong to: perhaps “Americans” or “San Franciscans” or “Episcopalians.” In the trauma of the destruction of Jerusalem, Matthew comes to feel this way about his own people, Israel. He comes to believe that the church has replaced Israel as God’s chosen people. Not all the books of the New Testament have that point of view. Paul has a very different understanding, for example. But for too many centuries, Christians have often used a simplistic form of Matthew’s point of view to support anti-Semitism and all kinds of violent exclusion of those who didn’t accept Jesus as Messiah.

Now a parable isn’t simply a code meant to be deciphered: it’s a story through which the Spirit speaks to us. And so there is always more than one way to read it. There may well be true and worthy lessons to be drawn from this story if we read it in the conventional way, with God as the king and us as the guests. For example, God’s invitation isn’t free. It costs something, and we can refuse it. And the consequences of refusing God’s invitation are serious. But if we literalize this one reading, we can end up with all kinds of implications about God that just aren’t workable. Because the king in this parable also behaves in ways that simply don’t match the personality of the God we know from the rest of the scriptural story. Think of the God we meet in the Exodus lesson today, whose anger burns hot when the people turn to a false god, but who is quick to change his mind and forgive the people rather than destroying them. Think of what Matthew himself writes, elsewhere in his gospel, about Jesus teaching his disciples to forgive seventy times seven times. And think of Jesus, the very incarnation of the personality of God, who refuses violence and forgives his enemies right up to the cross itself.

Who is Jesus in this story? Perhaps he’s the bridegroom, the son who never actually appears in the parable. But perhaps he might show up in more than one place. In fact, if there’s any character in this parable who most resembles Jesus, it might just be the man at the end. Like Jesus, he’s silent in the face of his accuser. He’s bound hand and feet and cast out into the darkness. If we read this parable with Jesus as the innocent victim, we might discover something totally new here about God—the God who shows up in the most surprising places, in solidarity with everyone who is terrorized or tortured or excluded.

It turns out, maybe, that Matthew is writing scripture in spite of himself. Because a parable is never about just one thing. And sometimes when we wrestle with it Jesus gets in there somehow, the good news gets in somehow, where we least expect.

Who are the ones we would rather ignore? Who are the ones who are being cast into the outer darkness? Whose city is being destroyed? Who might we ourselves rather not find ourselves next to at the heavenly banquet? It might be that each of these people is Jesus for us.

Jesus is the bridegroom, and he is also the speechless man. And he is the robe, the wedding garment God has already provided for the whole world. And he is even the food for the banquet itself, whose foretaste we celebrate today. And in Jesus there are no scapegoats, no outcasts.

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For insights behind this sermon, including the image of wrestling with scripture and the reading of Jesus as the man bound hand and foot, I’m indebted (as I often am) to the work of Paul Nuechterlein and others over at the Girardian Lectionary Page.