theology of the cross

The Jesus Wallet

Jesus wallet

When I got home from the airport Thursday evening, waiting for me in the pile of mail, mostly flyers, that had accumulated while I was gone was a small parcel. The parcel was from Virginia. When I picked it up and turned it over, I saw the return address of my friend and fellow Lutheran pastor, Lyndon Sayers. The parcel had a little customs stamp on it saying what was inside. But I didn’t look at that. Instead, I did what any kid with a present would do! I ripped open the envelope and reached inside. And what I pulled out was this:

A wallet.

Now. There are lots of things I can imagine getting from Lyndon and his family. But not that.

Why would Lyndon send me a wallet, I wondered? It was red leather, one of those kinds of wallets I remember from growing up out west. A cowboy-wallet, with stiff, thick leather outers, an soft brown inner liner that smelled of fresh cowhide, and plastic threading winding around the outside. A BIG wallet. The kind you can imagine going with a cowboy hat and 100 dollar US bills. Nice, but not exactly my style.

I turned the wallet around so I could really see it, and that’s when I got the second surprise of the day.

There was the face of Jesus, carved into the leather by one of those leather-working tools and signed “Gene”. On the other side were some intricate flower patterns, and in the middle of them these words, taken from Isaiah 53: “For he was acquainted with grief”.

A Jesus wallet. A real Jesus wallet! Just for me.

When the religious leaders at the Temple in Jerusalem tried to trap Jesus, they did it by asking if it was right to pay taxes to Caesar. They thought they had him with that, since whatever Jesus said, he would have been either against the Emperor or against his own faith. But he answered like this: Why are you putting me to the test? Show me the coin used for the tax. And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them: Whose head is this, and whose title? And they answered: the emperor’s.

I LOVE my new wallet. Lyndon knows I’m from the west, since he grew up in exactly the same small prairie town I did. And he knows I like kitsch. But as soon as you put Jesus’ face on a wallet, it seems to me that you’re entering some unusual – and potentially challenging -territory.

Imagine pulling that wallet out at the bar when you’re buying a beer. And there’s the face of Jesus, right there, looking you in the eyes. Now in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says that one of the things people criticise him for is being a “wine drinker and a glutton”. So maybe a beer wouldn’t be so bad. But imagine pulling out the wallet when it comes time to buy that fancy new cell phone that I KNOW I don’t really need. Or a meal downtown when I could have made a lunch. Or a four-dollar tea at Starbucks when I have a teapot in my office and Canadian Lutheran World Relief is asking for donations to help the refugees in Syria. I wonder if the Jesus wallet might just make me think twice then.

Jesus slid right out of the trap that the religious leaders were setting for him. He did it by saying that whoever’s face is on the coin is who that coin belongs to. Period. Give therefore to the Emperor those things that are the Emperor’s and to God those things that are God’s. In the ancient world, just as in ours, coins are – technically, at least – owned by the state. We just borrow what is known as legal tender.

But then what did Jesus actually mean about giving to God the things that are God’s? He could have been talking about what is holy enough for the Temple offering. Coins with a human image were considered idolatrous by the ancient Jews, who had to change them for special Temple coins that had no such image. But I think there’s a deeper meaning.

Jesus and his interrogators might have been opponents of each other, but as Jews they all believed one thing: when Israel’s God made human beings, it was in the divine image. Every human being bears the stamp of the Creator. As sure as any coin. Two thousand years later we who are Christians have inherited that belief from the Jews. We still say, at least, that we are made in God’s image. We can argue over exactly what that means – is that divine image in our capacity to imagine, to create, to love, or in something else? But somehow, in some important ways, we are, every single one of us, stamped with the divine.

In fact, a lot of books on spirituality say more or less the same thing. I was reading a Buddhist book this past week that said this:


“Science, in its zeal for objectivity, tells us that we are our bodies, the product of Darwinian evolution, originating in a chance combination of molecular gasses, our growth and decay dictated by genetic DNA codes. Thus death is the end. But there is something in the collective unconscious of the human species that intuitively knows that this “objective” definition does not embrace the totality of who we are…” (Levine, Who Dies? viii)


That book would not use the phrase, but we can: we are made in the image of God.

When faced with a dilemma, Jesus upped the ante. He’s like the businesswoman who is forced to sell her store to her opponents but then goes out and buys the whole franchise. Give the coin to the Emperor, he says. It’s only a coin. But you….YOU belong to God.

The point is: we can argue over all kinds of rules and customs. But it’s who and what we are in relation to, that’s important. When we have a baptism, and we pour the water, we say: “So-and-so, child of God, you have marked with the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit forever.” For us that’s yet another of the ways we are first made, and then re-made, in God’s image. And our lives can either be a fractured mirror, broken by the sadnesses and troubles and hurts we all go through, or as we grow in maturity and in thoughtfulness and in peace with our own selves and with others, we can grow more and more into the beings we were intended to be. Our reflections will tell the tale.

It’s not easy, of course. Even Moses, when he wanted to meet God, was told he could only see God “on the way by”. You cannot see my face, God answers. I will put you in a cleft in the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until my glory has passed by, and then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.

Rather than a clear-headed, divinely-ordained clarity about the meaning of life and love, most of us kind of muddle through. We live in a world that looks rather more like God’s backside than anything else. We get flashes of what we think might be the truth. But then we fall back into our routines, where life just passes and our email inboxes are so full we despair of ever answering all those messages and we have too many bills to pay and worries to worry about and occasionally real catastrophes, and most of the time we barely even feel awake.

Luther emphasized what he called the “hiddenness of God”. He called it, in Latin, Deus Absconditus. But the message of Matthew seems to be that while we struggle through the darkness, the clearest thing we can do is to seek that image of God in ourselves, and in serving others. The person sitting beside you right now – that is the image of God – for us Christians, that is what Jesus looks like. The baby brought to the font – he or she is the image of God. The foreigner, the immigrant, the differently-abled, the sick, the hungry, the imprisoned. That is what God looks like, for us.

It does feel just a bit weird, having a Jesus wallet. But it’s not Jesus who had a problem with faith and money being so close together. It’s us. When we realize – really realize – and take to heart the image of God in us and in those around us, then we will see that Jesus doesn’t just show up on wallets. He’s everywhere: calling us to real life, and real service, looking for how we can lift up and honour that holy image wherever we find it.

An Ice-Storm Christmas

snow removal Santa

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan. Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone. Snow had fallen, snow on snow. Snow on snow on snow. In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

I remember the church service we had here in Montreal in the middle of the ice storm – the other ice storm, the one back in 1998. No one was sure there was even going to BE worship. But in the end the people of Christ the Redeemer decided to try. All the bridges were closed because of falling guillotines of ice off of the signs, so I decided to risk the metro (which actually shut down completely about two hours after my return trip). Then eventually I caught a ride. When finally I got to the building, it was cold. There were only a few others, but all present seemed happy to be participating. We sang the hymns heartily and accapella; the organ couldn’t make a sound. Everyone wore their coats in the sanctuary, and some people held the worship books with gloves. After church, Ivar Traa, a big booming Norwegian who has since passed from us, brought his gas camp stove, and – making sure we had fresh oxygen supply – made tea and coffee and hot chocolate for everyone and reminisced about Christmases back in Norway where they had no power.

It’s odd – that day, almost none of the things that we normally associate with a good worship gathering were there – there was no majestic organ, no warm lights, no crowded pews. But, of that year, that is the one service that I remember clearly. I’ve often wondered why. Maybe because that hard experience connected in a whole NEW way with the message that we preach and teach and share and sing.

Everyone knows that the first Christmas, whatever it was, was not comfortable. We can argue over whether Jesus was born in a cowshed or a cave, in Nazareth or in Bethlehem, in the year 6 BC or 0 or some other time, in the winter or spring or summer. But one thing is clear. Whatever else it was, when the Word became flesh it was an unexpected birth, marked by difficulty, scandal and trouble, in the middle of a tough situation.

Which makes it all the more amazing that every year we spend so much time and energy and money trying to do the opposite, to find the “sweet spot” in marking an event that had no sweet spot. Completely unlike the few things we can assume about the first Christmas, in our time we want to find the deepest, most comfortable rut that runs through our memories, and crawl in there to hibernate in sugar, real and metaphorical, for a few, hopefully magical, weeks. The smell of baking. The hot chocolate or eggnog. The candles and smell of evergreen in our houses. The fires, the puula, the stollen, the songs. The wreaths, the gifts, the carols, the smell of cinnamon. We ALL do it, instinctively. I almost never eat herring throughout the year. But every Christmas I buy a jar and eat herring. Why? It’s a childhood memory from growing up in a Scandinavian home. It’s a sweet spot urge. We’re like children who want to put our stuffed animals (that is, our memories) in a very specific order around us as we cuddle into the long cold night that is winter.

That’s not always a bad thing. We NEED comfort, of course. Especially in winter. Nothing is more wonderful than holding someone precious, surrounded by lovely smells and warmth and love. But maybe, nice as that is, we shouldn’t mistake it for the only kind of holiness there is. Especially we shouldn’t do that when we have a faith that somehow always leads us back to the foot of a grave. There is more of ice storms from our God than we usually care to admit, and the spirit that spoke to the Baptist and called to Mary is often a cold wind that leaves us shivering and uncomfortable.

Ice storms, like the storm that has left so many tens of thousands in the dark right now all over central and eastern Canada, are a reminder of the fragility of all of our comforts. And they’re a reminder of the fragility of our security and safety in an environment that seems to be kicking back at us so-called “masters of creation” for our idolatrous beliefs that somehow we’re in charge.  I remember – as some of you must too – lying in bed in the quiet darkness and listening to the alarming sounds of tree limbs hitting the roof as they snapped and broke. There are lots of people living that right now, even though this time, here in Montreal, we’ve been spared.

A good friend of mine in a part of Ontario without power, posting on FaceBook, wrote “I’m not having fun yet” about her Christmas. She’s not the only one. So what can we learn from an not-fun, ice-storm, Christmas?

We can learn that there’s more growth in hardship than in comfort, almost always. None of us like them, but the hard times of life are often the most memorable. And instructive. If we survive, we come out stronger, despite our wounds. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

We can also learn, deeper to that, what theologians and mystics call “the theology of the cross”, and the mystery of celebrating Jesus’ birth so close to the longest night of the year. It is when things are at their darkest, as Luther said, that the hidden God is closest. It is when there is no room in the Inn that the wondrous birth takes place among the animals and outcasts. It is when the darkness is deepest that we learn patience and hope, what to grasp onto and what we should let go, what is real and what is shadow. It is on the coldest of nights that we might hear angels singing strange and terrible songs that make us afraid and yet move us seek the child of promise in unusual places.

The good thing about sweet spots is, ironically, also the bad thing: they’re so good they keep us immobilized. When I gave a talk a few weeks ago about the annunciation and asked the gathering how a thirteen or fourteen year old Mary might react these days to the angel Gabriel’s annunciation, a jaded father in the back row pretended he was texting and had no time for the angel. We are a comfortable people, and that is a huge problem. The light came into the world, and the world came into being through that light, but the world did not recognize it. When you re-tune a guitar to play in a different string configuration, there is always a period of awkwardness and disharmony, before the new tones are established. Ice storms, of all sorts, are those awkward, disharmonius times, that we pray God will use to play in us a song the world would otherwise never have heard.

It’s easy for me to talk about these things this year. When I wrote this, I had fruitcake at hand, and I’d put some water with cinnamon sticks on the stove to give the apartment some more humidity. I actually managed to get a tree up, despite everything.

But I know, from experience, that this is not the only Christmas, or perhaps the best. Certainly not the most memorable. Christ was – and IS – born far from the sweet spots of life. We pray for those who are suffering hardship because of cold and lack of power right now. When heaven and nature sing “Joy to the World”, it will be a challenge to go out, into the cold, where they are, and where the restless, birthing God awaits.