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.