Friday, April 06, 2012

Death to Jesus


I logged on to Facebook early this morning to post some photos of our beautiful Maundy Thursday service to the parish page and there on the screen near the top of my newsfeed, one of my friends had posted “DEATH TO JESUS!” as a status update.

He wasn’t kidding or being ironic. He means it.

What should our response be?

Do we shrug, like Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians and just accept that “the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing”? Do we rejoice, as Jesus suggests in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account”?

Do we argue? Do we point out the amazing humanitarian work being done by so many Christians in the world? Do we try to find the weakness in his argument and beat him rhetorically with citations of scripture? Do we point to leading lights like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King?

Well, let me tell you something about my friend. He’s heard it. Trust me.

You see, this isn’t some guy who was raised in a radically atheist household, brainwashed from an early age to think that religion – and Christianity in particular – is dangerous hogwash.

Nope, he’s the son of a minister. The gay son of a Pentecostal pastor, from a community that is sometimes casually referred to as “Bible beaters.” It’s not a bad aphorism, actually, since short of being actually struck with the book itself, my friend has endured all manner of assault and abuse. He has had the Bible hurled at him mercilessly. He has been threatened, pummeled, humiliated, shamed and wounded in the name of Jesus Christ.

In fact, if anyone is to be blessed for being reviled and persecuted and for having all kinds of evil uttered against them on Jesus’ account, it’s my friend.

How does someone get so angry that they put “DEATH TO JESUS!” on their Facebook page on Good Friday? Easy. They grew up in a church.

“Oh, but,” you say, “not all churches are like that. My church is not like that.” Well, yes it is. There isn’t really “this church” and “that church.” There is only “the church,” the whole body of believers. The whole, universal church is the Body of Christ, and the wounds that Thomas demanded to see are right there in front of us, gaping and raw and ugly. Like Pilate, we want to wash our hands of the things that are done to the Body of Christ. “That’s not our fault,” we say.

The ancient Israelites understood that sin was communal, rather than individual. That’s why God destroys entire cities, why all the Egyptians suffered plagues even though it was really only the Pharaoh causing problems. And so in Holy Week when we sing

Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?

Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee.

‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee: I crucified thee

it’s not just about our private but also our collective failures. The church has left a trail of victims in its wake. When the Bible is used to denigrate, insult, marginalize, subordinate, exclude, diminish, we cannot remain silent.

When I say “we cannot remain silent” I’m not talking about rising up in righteous indignation and pointing more fingers and saying “You all did this, clean up your mess.” We can’t draw imaginary lines across the wounded Body of Christ and say this part belongs to the Episcopalians, and that part belongs to the Catholics, and this part belongs to the ELCA and this part to the Missouri Synod, this part to the Southern Baptists and this part to the American Baptists. We’re responsible for this, and you’re responsible for that. All we’re doing is breaking the Body of Christ over and over and over again.

When the Samaritan came upon the man bleeding and dying by the side of the road, he didn’t chase down the Levite and the priest and shame them for their carelessness that almost resulted in an innocent man’s death. He went and ministered to the wounded man. It’s easy to see the Christ-figure in the Samaritan, the unreasonably generous comforter and the healer, but we shouldn’t miss the Christ-figure in the wounded and dying man, too.


As the nails were being driven through his hands and feet, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.”

Tonight it will be my great privilege to chant the Passion Gospel at the Solemn Liturgy of Good Friday. Personally, it is the most important thing I do all year. I’ve always had kind of a hard time imagining this strange, blood thirsty crowd demanding an innocent man’s death. Crucify him! Crucify him!

Well, now I’ve actually seen it. I have a face and a name to put on that crowd. I’ve seen someone calling for Jesus’ death. In exactly the way that we say, “Jesus died for our sins,” this man is standing there basically shouting “Crucify him!” because of the pain that we have inflicted on him; he’s that hurt and that angry because for him the church has never been anything but a horrendous source of torment. And he just wants this whole Jesus thing to die.

He doesn’t need us to forgive his blasphemy, we need him to forgive ours.

And, fortunately, strangely, wonderfully…Jesus’ death on the cross will work the healing that we need.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

What Santorum Gets Wrong

When I decided some months ago to start blogging again, I intended to avoid politics; I was just going to write responses to the lectionary.

However, when the current frontrunner for the Republican nomination feels that it's appropriate to criticize President Obama for a "phony theology" that is "not based on the Bible," I can't help myself.

When Republicans in Congress can summon an all male panel of clergy to complain that their rights are threatened by insurance coverage for women's healthcare (and simultaneously deny an opportunity to speak to a woman who was prepared to speak to how the laws impact her), something has gone off the rails.

When I say "what Santorum gets wrong," I don't plan to do a point-by-point rebuttal of his various statements and claims. The last thing the world needs is more Christians pointing fingers at each other and saying, "I'm right, you're wrong."

Today, however, is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. While there is a heightened focus on sin and all our various collective and individual failures, there is also necessarily an emphasis on forgiveness and salvation. What Santorum and people like him appear to have not understood - perhaps conceptually, intellectually, but clearly not in their hearts - is that salvation isn't up to us.

Oh, we can have a long argument about salvation by faith versus salvation by works, but that misses the point, too. It's not up to us. It's salvation by God.

The writers of the New Testament reached a pretty clear consensus that grace is a gift, freely given. We don't earn it, and in fact, we can't earn it. There is no person so good, so pure, so virtuous that they can enter into eternal life by their own efforts. No one deserves to go to Heaven. The astonished disciples asked Jesus, "Well, then who can get into Heaven?" He said, simply, "For mortals, it is impossible." Remember, this is the guy who also said, "If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can tell a mountain to uproot itself and fall into the ocean." But Heaven? "For mortals, it is impossible."

And then he says, "For God, all things are possible."

A lot of people - hopefully most people - concede this, even if they maybe don't really believe it. The most self-righteously pious, judgmental blowhard televangelist will also probably be the first person to say he's a sinner, but he's also a lot like that pharisee in the classic parable, pointing at the tax collector and saying to God, "I may not be perfect, but at least I don't sin as much or as badly as that guy." That's really where we find ourselves. "I may not be perfect, but at least I do not have sex outside of marriage/I do not use birth control/I have not had an abortion/[fill in the vice of your choice]." That's basically Rick Santorum: I assume he wouldn't dare say (and doesn't believe) that he's not a sinner, but at least his theology is "based on the Bible," not like that other guy's. It is a classic case of "holier than thou," in the most pathetic and literal (if illiterate) sense.

So it begs the question: if no one is perfect, then just how imperfect can we be, and still get into Heaven? And if that sounds like we're framing the question too much in a "works-based" theology, then let's rephrase: no one fully understands God or gets everything right, wrong can we be and still be "right enough"?

But there again we fail to remember it's not up to us.

The Bible, which is sometimes described as a record of the history of salvation, is not a book full of inspiring, feel-good stories about virtous people, or, at the very least, that would be a grotesque oversimplification. It's a book full of troubling - but ultimately inspiring - stories about a whole lot of very real human beings who say and do all kinds of dumb, mean, fearful, selfish things. What we're meant to take away is that people are complicated, and that God can work with us and through us even though we screw up in ways big and small, all the time. Our brokenness is not an obstacle for God. Paul strenuously insisted that nothing can separate us from God's love, one of many verses the literalists prefer to pretend come with an asterisk.

And so, even laying aside the incredibly sad state of affairs that a self-professed defender of the Constitution does not understand why it's irrelevant, inappropriate and offensive to comment on whether the president's "theology" is sufficiently orthodox for the office, Santorum's own biggest mistake is failing to understand that no one's theology is sufficient.

You just can't legislate people into heaven, Rick.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Having Trouble With Genesis

No profound insights or conclusions here, just something that I noticed recently that has been nagging at me.

The Old Testament readings appointed for the Daily Office in Year 2 begin with Genesis so that by the time we get to the end of Lent we are reading about the plagues in Egypt and, in the first week of Easter, the story of the Exodus.

Last night, the eve of the fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Abraham was visited by the "three angels" (about which I have some things I do want to say in another post that was meant for yesterday but for which I didn't have time...), and today God (at least in the text...) turns his attention toward Sodom and the evil people who live there. In a remarkable exchange, Abraham wants to know if there might yet be any "righteous" people in Sodom, and whether God intends to destroy them along with the evildoers. As it is rendered in the KJV (18:25), "That be far from thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked: and that the righteous should be as the wicked, that be far from thee: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?"

Abraham gets God to agree that if there are fifty righteous people in Sodom, he will spare the city. "But...what if there are only 45?" asks Abraham. God concedes that is close enough. "What if there are only 40?" God says, "Okay, for forty righteous people, I will spare the city," and so forth, on down to 10. (And now I want to ask Abraham, why did you stop at 10? What if there is only one righteous person in Sodom?)

Here's my question: how does God define "righteousness" at this point?

Just before the story of Abraham we have the story of Noah, where the Bible tells us that the entire world, save Noah, was so awful and wicked that every last human on earth had to be destroyed; and not only the humans, but all of the animals, except for a breeding pair of every kind, to be taken into the ark to start over.

I have a LOT of questions, of course. Like, what is the point, really, of killing off all the animals because of the wickedness of humanity? And, even if that were necessary, why can't God just start over with a new creation? And why does there have to be a natural disaster, a physical cause for the death of all life on the earth -- couldn't God just snap his fingers and presto! everybody's gone?

But all of that is secondary and trivial in the shadow of my larger question: how does God define "righteous" and "unrighteous" and "evil"?

There are no ten commandments. There's no torah. Certainly no Gospels. God has told people to "be fruitful and multiply," but that's about it. He has, so far as the Bible tells us thus far, not sent any prophets to teach or warn people. If God has not yet set forth laws and expectations and given humanity some frame of reference upon which to determine morality, then how does he condemn them as immoral? As so hopelessly evil that they have to be destroyed?

I'm probably missing the point. The Bible, I know well -- particularly this part of it -- cannot be read too literally, or you'll miss the forest for the trees, as I am almost certainly doing.

My guess, at this point, is that there is an assumption that even if it hasn't yet been written out on stone, God's law (which can be summed up as: love God, love your neighbor), was already written on the hearts of humanity. That humans came with at least a vague understanding that "God is good." That's how Abraham can question God's intention to destroy Sodom: "Surely the judge of all will not destroy the good with the wicked?"

I often think that the reason that there is so much emphasis on "Adam and Eve" and "creation" and "Sodom and Gomorrah" is because many people who set out to "read the Bible" start with page 1 and just keep going until they can't -- which I'm guessing is somewhere toward the end of Exodus, or somewhere in Leviticus, or certainly by Numbers. What starts as a series of really dramatic stories becomes an endless list of strange and repetitive regulations, many of which are irrelevant to modern life. So this is the part of the Bible with which they are most familiar (and also because the stories of Genesis and the patriarchs form the basis of a lot of early Sunday School education).

It's easy to get the idea from Genesis that God is easily angered and that the result is terrible destruction. I think this is why so many "casual Christians" buy easily into the notion that God sends plagues like HIV/AIDS to destroy the sexually immoral; in their limited understanding, it seems perfectly consonant with the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. And it's easy to understand why so many people turn away from Christianity altogether; if stories like the flood and Sodom and Gomorrah are what you know, then it seems in rather hopeless conflict with the idea that "God is good."

Just thinking out loud.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

The Rock of our Salvation

I was especially stressed out today. For some reason, I am always, always depressed on New Year's Day. No idea why, it just happens every time. This year the depression seemed also to manifest itself in a sort of short-tempered, uncharitable outlook on the world, and every time I wondered what was wrong with me for being so unreasonably mean-spirited it seemed I found a new reason to be angry with someone or something else.

Fortunately I had the presence of mind to deliberately take time to stop and break the cycle; to sit, close my eyes, and just focus on my breathing. No thoughts, just breathing.

Eventually a thought did come into my mind, but it was a pleasant one, so I let it stay...and that was to wonder whether God, who is so good and so full of love, ever maybe does get exasperated with us, if his patience ever wears thin, if he tires of hearing nothing but constant prayers of complaint from billions of people the world over, some of whom really, really need some serious help, but many others -- like myself -- can't ever seem to just be content with all the amazing blessings in their life, there's always something to want or to fear, something to be dissatisfied with. Does he ever get tired of my silly, self-centered prayers?

And then I saw in my mind the image of a small rock. Not a big boulder or heavy stone, just the sort of small rock you might find along the edge of any garden. And my mind seemed to be asking me if I thought this rock, small and unimpressive, ever got tired of being hard. Of course the answer was no, hardness is the rock's essential nature. It doesn't ever become soft and pliant from exhaustion of being hard, it takes no energy, it uses no resources to sustain its hardness. It's just hard.

God is the same way. God is good, God is love. It is his essential nature.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Food for Thought: Christmas Edition

Does "the Christ" really need to be in "Christmas"?

Maybe that sounds like an absolutely idiotic question coming from a Christian person, but bear with me for a moment. This is, unfortunately, not a fully-fleshed out essay, just an idea/question I'm sitting/wrestling with for the moment.

Two of my absolute all-time favorite Christmas stories are It's a Wonderful Life and, of course, Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.

Last night, for whatever reason, it suddenly occurred to me that I could not recall a single mention of "Jesus" in either story. I went to the interwebs.'s true. The text of A Christmas Carol does not mention Jesus even once; there is a single mention of Jesus at the very beginning of It's a Wonderful Life, in a voice-over prayer for George Bailey by Mr Martini.

Does this strike you as strange? It seemed astonishing to me. And then I went and checked Miracle on 34th Street and White Christmas: no mention.

So for an entire day I've been kind of preoccupied with this. Can these be considered "Christian" stories, however much they have to do with our modern conception of "Christmas," if they don't directly deal with the person of Jesus Christ?

Moments ago I had an answer/idea: well, none of the parables mention Jesus, either. Jesus told many, many stories to illustrate the nature of God and God's kingdom, and he never mentioned himself by name in these stories and, in some of them, I believe, he doesn't even appear, at least not as a character in the drama.

So, then, despite the lack of explicit reference to Jesus, these are, nonetheless, Christian stories, because they definitely are parables. And now I feel better. Maybe I will have more to say later.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

God's Promises & Our Expectations

Luke 1:26-38

The Gospel appointed for the Fourth Sunday of Advent this year* (Lectionary Year B) was Luke's tale of the Annunciation, the Archangel Gabriel's visit to young Mary to announce that she will conceive a child by the Holy Spirit.

Last night I was talking to a friend who attends a different parish, which had their Christmas pageant this past Sunday. It was a hilarious story of confused children and general chaos; things definitely did not go as expected. "It was a complete zoo," he remarked, and then both of us suddenly remembered that Jesus was born in a barn in the middle of the night, and decided that probably hadn't been exactly what Mary had envisioned, either.

This set me to thinking about Gabriel's announcement. The angel tells Mary that her son "will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."

What must Mary have imagined that would look like?

I'll bet, as she knelt and said, wonderfully, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord," that it never occurred to her that nine months later, after having endured a long, arduous journey in the last days of her pregnancy, she wouldn't even be able to give birth in a house, but out in the stable, surrounded by animals, and they'd have to sleep outside. Could she have imagined having to put her newborn into a trough for his first cradle? What must that have been like for her faith? Did she say to herself, as she reclined or squatted in the hay and the mud among the stalls, "Oh, who cares, I'm giving birth to the Savior!" or, perhaps, did she feel a sense of frustration and resentment? "The angel didn't say anything about this!"

Did it give her pause? I suppose the fact that she got pregnant while still a virgin gave her sufficient proof that God was at work in her life in a pretty spectacular way, but she must have wondered why God would want or even allow the future king of Israel to be born in such inconvenient and somewhat shameful circumstances; as St Ambrose wrote in his famous Advent hymn, "Marvel now, both Heaven and Earth, that the Lord chose such a birth." Did she perhaps think maybe she was entitled to a slightly easier time of it, having agreed to carry God's son in her womb for nine months? The Gospel of Matthew tells us that for a time Joseph considered divorcing her, and we can only imagine what the reaction from her family and friends might have been. Did they lie and say the child was Joseph's? Or did she say, "No, an angel visited me and told me I would become pregnant by the Holy Spirit, and, voila!" Would her friends and family have believed her? It was probably a very difficult time, and now, after putting up with all that, here she is in the mud, in the cold, no comfortable place to lie down, no place to wash up. Ugh.

"The Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever."

How did Mary imagine herself, as mother of the king? Did she envision Israel free from its Roman occupiers, free from the corrupt, violent, illegitimate Herodian rulers? Did she see herself living in a palace -- in Jerusalem, or maybe on the coast? Did she imagine a future life of peace and prosperity, with her son reigning into his old age, the father of an unbroken dynasty of Davidic kings? In her darker, weaker, frustrated moments did she say to herself, "Someday, you'll be in the palace"?

Instead, she got a son who was, certainly, wonderful in many ways, but must also have been a source of worry and frustration. He just sort of wandered around, and while he was a great teacher and healer, he didn't seem to be getting himself ready for the promised kingship. As the years wore on it must have gotten harder and harder to imagine that Israel would ever be free from the Romans. Every popular revolt against them was mercilessly and bloodily crushed. How was her son who was maybe in Capernaum today, maybe in Samaria, maybe in Bethany, going to end up being chosen king? No one even knew who he was. Was he somehow going to figure out how to lead an army into Jerusalem? His friends certainly weren't going to be much help; a couple of fishermen, a former tax collector and others of uncertain backgrounds. Bunch of slackers, all of them -- heck, James and John actually left their father in the boat and went and followed Jesus around the countryside.

The one time he did come home to visit, he went into the synagogue and told the assembly that he was the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy; the villagers were so outraged they nearly pushed him off a cliff and chased him out of town. Mary and her other children went to go see Jesus where he was teaching, and when told that his mother, brothers and sisters were here, he could only say, "Who is my mother? Who are my brothers and sisters?"

"Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God."

Well, he has a funny way of showing it.

And then came the end, suddenly, out of nowhere. One day you hear a rumor that he's headed for Jerusalem, and then a message -- maybe a friend or relative, maybe one of the apostles. "Jesus was arrested late last night and taken to Pilate."

That could only mean one thing.

There was no habeas corpus, no bill of rights. Commentators over the centuries have marveled, like Pilate himself, that Jesus didn't seem to want to say much in his defense. But truly, what could he have said that would matter? It was a show trial, a pretense of justice. No appeals. No right to a jury, no attorney. And by the next afternoon, he was dead.

And not just dead; arrested in the dark of night, dragged before the officials and an angry mob, summarily condemned and then beaten, viciously. Flogged. A crown of thorns mashed onto his head. Spit on, hit with reeds and poles. Forced to carry the instrument of his own execution through the city streets. His friends, terrified for their lives, had mostly abandoned him.

But there, on that gory hill, was John, Mary Magdalene, perhaps a couple of other women (the Gospels have different accounts), and his mother. There they watched him stripped and nailed - nailed! - to a cross, where he hung for a few hours among criminals, and then he died.

"He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."

One of the most famous recurring images in religious art is the Pieta, depictions of a grieving Mary holding the body of her son after he has been taken down from the cross.

What must she have thought?

Had she misunderstood? This was not what she was promised. Had God been defeated? Had God deceived her? "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God." How? How is this favor? He's dead! He's not king. Far from assuming the throne of David in a liberated Israel, he was brutally murdered by its occupiers and Jewish collaborators. He's dead. It's over.

"My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior." How empty and bitter the remembrance of those words must have seemed. "All generations will call me blessed." Ha.

But we, on the other side of Easter, know that Gabriel's announcement and God's promise were true. In this last week of Advent, we recite or chant or sing the Magnificat every day: "For he has remembered his promise of mercy, the promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children for ever."

Many of the appointed lessons in the Advent season are apocalyptic in tone; as we prepare for the celebration of Christ's first coming into the world, we anticipate the second, and we imagine what the coming reign of glory will look like.

If Mary's experience is any guide, we haven't got a clue.

* Turns out it is also the Gospel appointed for today in the daily lectionary! Because the Sunday cycle is three years and the daily cycle is two years, it only happens once every six years that this passage will be appointed twice for the same week.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Eve of Advent IV...or VII...

I'm not terribly proud of the earlier post this week on the parable of the talents. I think I'm "on" to something there, but I don't feel at all confident that I articulated it well, let alone proved my case. I wish that I had had more time to work on it, but there's so much going on this Advent season. It wasn't my best writing, and I'm out of practice. Recently I have also found that my extemporaneous speaking is not what it used to be, and I think there's a connection: I need to write more to practice training my thoughts to be both succinct and eloquent, and also, frankly, to "rehearse" talking points. I used to be better at this. May I find more time and energy to devote to this in the new year.

Today, however, was a special day. Today really felt like Advent. Come, Lord Jesus.