Thrown Out of the Party

October 15, 2017 Leave a comment

Audio Recording of “Thrown Out of the Party” recorded in worship (13:35)
19th Sunday after Pentecost; Lectionary 28A
Texts: Isa 25.1-9; Phil 4.1-9; Matt 22.1-14

Two weeks ago, we were at Pr. Stephanie’s sister’s wedding. The brides are 6 years younger than us, and at the wedding I was reminded just how much younger that is because, while Stephanie and I began pooping out around 9 or 10, for Lisa and Kelsey and their friends the party was just beginning. By 11:30 I was ready for bed, but I was having a wonderful time watching the other revelers have so much fun. It was delightful to see all the exuberance and energy on the dance floor. Their joy was contagious. Even as I sat watching, I was aware that it was a truly beautiful moment.

Lisa and Kelsey’s first dance as a married couple.

The same is not true for the guests at the wedding in the parable. Unlike the guests at Lisa and Kelsey’s wedding, they are not attending because of their love for the king or his son, or even his son’s bride. They are there because they have just seen what the king will do to them if they refuse to participate. They are all dressed in wedding finery, drinking and eating and dancing, but instead of being filled with joy and exuberance, their hearts are filled with terror.

We naturally assume when reading parables that where there is a king, he must represent God. This king even has a son who is being married; God’s son is Jesus, and the marriage feast of Jesus the Messiah is a common image for the end of time in both the Old and New Testaments. If God is the king and Jesus his son, then the guests must be humanity.

The first invited are those pious-acting religious people of Jesus’ time—the Pharisees and chief priests—who are nevertheless hypocritical and refuse God’s invitation to the wedding feast; they will be killed and their city (Jerusalem) will be burned. The second invited are the Jews and Gentiles who hear Jesus’ invitation and accept; but if they are not clothed in righteous deeds of discipleship, they can still be thrown out of the party into the outer darkness. Does that sound about right?

It is hard to escape the feeling of unease, even disgust, at the violence of this parable which Jesus says “may be compared to the kingdom of heaven.” If this is what God’s kingdom is like, then this king must be what God is like; and if God is like that, then we are all in danger of being caught with our pants down, as it were—lacking the necessary robes of good deeds and becoming the victims of this murderous God’s wrath. One thing is for sure: if this is what the kingdom of heaven is like, then we are all dancing and drinking and pretending to be happy while all being uneasy at best and terrified at worst that the king will show up and find us out as frauds.

This parable reminds me of a story told by Seneca about the Emperor Caligula. The emperor, having just executed a member of the equestrian class as his father begged for his son’s life,

invited [the father] to dinner on the same day [so as not to act with utter inhumanity toward him]. [The father] came, his face revealing no reproach. The emperor caused a half-liter [of wine] to be poured for him and placed someone next to him to watch him: the poor man endured it no differently than if he had been drinking his son’s blood… On the very day on which he buried his son, or rather, on which had not buried him, he reclined at the table as the hundredth guest and tossed down the drinks, … and without shedding a single tear, without allowing the pain to emerge through a single sign: he ate as though his plea for his son had succeeded. You ask why? He had a second son. [Seneca, De ira XXIII, 3-4]

The kingdom in the parable sounds an awful lot more like the reign of Caesar than the reign of God; and I have to wonder if that’s exactly the point Jesus trying to make.

The parable, you see, has a deeply political context. In the scene Jesus lays out for us, a king would invite subordinate elites—members of the ruling class who owed him homage—to the wedding of his son. Their presence would show not only their loyalty to the king, but also their recognition of the authority of his heir. By refusing to come, they are committing treason. This is further shown by how they treat the king’s messengers: they mistreat and kill the slaves to the king intentionally show what they think of him.

A human king in this situation has one and only option: the rebellion must be put down. In the previous parable about the vineyard, Jesus’ audience themselves pronounce what ought to happen to the tenants: they decree that the landowner should “put those wretches to a miserable death.” From a human perspective this is (like the king’s violent response) the only course of action that makes sense. Equivocation is weakness; mercy invites trouble. If the king does not respond strongly and swiftly, his enemies will sense his weakness and attack him. If the landowner does use force, his property will be lost.

This is how we think. This week, a member of our congregation shared with me a story about a friend of hers who had a son serving in the war in Iraq. This woman woman considered herself a “good Christian,” and yet also honestly believed that the only way to win the war was to slaughter all Iraqi children so that they would not grow up to be terrorists. A friend recently confessed to me that deep down, they hoped that somebody would assassinate our president. In the wake of the terrible tragedy in Las Vegas last week good, Christian people zealously proclaim that the only solution is more guns, so that we can shoot and kill the bad guys before they shoot and kill us. If time travel is ever invented, the first future chrononaut will likely go back in time to attempt to kill Hitler.

This is how we think! We fight preemptive wars, we build nuclear deterrents, we posture and threaten and retaliate. Throughout the ages countless philosophers, despots and heroes have imagined perfect societies—and they all have relied upon one type of violence or another to achieve them; whether physical, psychological, economic, or spiritual. Each and every human attempt to throw the marriage banquet of peace and justice has been either preceded or succeeded by massacres and purges. Even Isaiah’s enticing promise of the banquet spread for all people on God’s mountain is embedded in the images of the utter defeat of Israel’s enemies.

Into all this mess enters Jesus who alone offers us an alternative to the never-ending cycle of violence. Into the room full of terrified guests whose shaking knees are hid underneath wedding robes walks a man who refuses to put on false gaiety, who gives the lie to the illusion of celebration at this abomination of a wedding feast. When confronted by ruthless political or religious authorities, he is speechless, like a sheep before its shearers is silent; and he pays for this insolence with his life.

Millais, John Everett, 1829-1896. The Marriage Feast, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55983

You see, in the story we tell—the gospel—God is not the one who threatens or does violence; God is the one who submits to violence only to rise again—living proof that violence by its very nature is impotent. God rules with mercy, with love, with grace; God is the one who cries out forgiveness from the cross for the ones who are killing him. This is such foolishness to us that we would rather see God in the capricious tyrant of the parable who maintains his authority through murder and mayhem than in the figure of the dying Christ. We would rather believe in a God who blackmails us into salvation with the threat of hell than one who opens his arms to us as he suffocates to death stretched upon a tree.

Just so, Jesus comes to us ruthless people and slakes our thirst for blood with his own—a living sacrifice to us and to our barbaric codes of justice. The miserable wretch allows us to put him to death so that he may rip away once and for all the shroud of violence that is spread over all nations and wipe away the tears from all faces.

It is Jesus, the unclad wedding guest who, in allowing himself to be cast into the outer darkness, shows us that is not he, but rather the emperor who has no clothes. Having been bound hand and foot and cast out of the banquet, he reappears to extend to us the invitation to the true wedding banquet: a feast of rich foods filled with marrow and well-aged wines strained clear, where death is destroyed forever, no longer used as a weapon of subjugation. Many are called, but only one is chosen to show us the way of life.

The meal around which we gather this morning is the appetizer to that feast. As we eat and drink, we are changed: we come to this table bloodthirsty, but we leave sanguine—filled with hope and confidence and joy for the reign of God, as the eternal life of Christ which is greater than death becomes our own. With his death, Jesus convicts us and our worship of violence and with his resurrection he proclaims to us the power of the One True God who calls all the nations to reject death and gain eternal life; and who chooses those few of us in the Church to share the good news of this new reality with the world.

Every day as we appeal to the forces of death and violence to coerce, to compel, to constrain the world to our will, the living Christ stands as testimony to the will of God that is far greater and far more benevolent than our own. Where we would bring murder and destruction, God offers life and salvation: a seat at the marriage supper of the Lamb, the feast that has no end. As we read the parable, we should hear an invitation: the dinner has been prepared, and everything is now ready; taste and see the reign of God has come near!

Crossan, Linda. Beloved, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55303. Original source: Linda Crossan, Second Presbyterian Church, Nashville, TN

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Younan Goes to Mosul

September 24, 2017 Leave a comment

Audio Recording of “Younan Goes to Mosul” recorded in worship (12:43)
16th Sunday after Pentecost; Lectionary 25, Year A
Texts: Jonah 3.10-4.11; Phil 1.21-28; Matt 20.1-16

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, there was a man named Younan. Younan was one of thousands of Christians who had fled from his homeland as the Islamic State was coming to power and gaining territory. When IS militants invaded his home, a small village in Iraq’s Al Anbar province, Younan and his family fled, but sadly his wife and children did not survive the escape. After spending months in a refugee camp, Younan was lucky enough to be one of those granted asylum in the United States, eventually settling in Detroit.

Younan had always been a pious man, and became even more so after resettling in the US. Every night, he prayed, “Almighty God, most gracious, most merciful, I humbly thank you for sparing my life. May your name be ever praised. Please bless and keep my beloved family in your care until the day of resurrection, and please bring swift and unrelenting justice to the wicked. In the name of Christ, Amen.” Every day was a struggle; he had to learn English, find work, locate an apartment… The end of every day found him exhausted, but every day he prayed, “Almighty God, most gracious, most merciful, I humbly thank you for sparing my life…”

Years passed, Younan slowly began to feel more at home in his new city. He had Iraqi friends and neighbors, people from places he knew. They never talked about why they had come, but they didn’t need to; the anger and the sorrow was written on their faces, it was an aroma that surrounded them. Younan found work as a janitor—a far cry from managing the market back home—and slowly began making a life for himself. And every night, he prayed, “Almighty God, most gracious, most merciful, I humbly thank you…”

Tomb of the Prophet Yunus (Jonah) in Mosul (prior to its destruction by the Islamic State).

One night, as he prayed, God spoke back. “Younan,” God said, “get up. I want you to go to Mosul. Tell them that I am unhappy with their evil deeds and that I am going to destroy them.”

Younan replied, “Wait, you want me to go where?”

“Mosul,” God said.

“Please excuse me, Almighty God. I think I must be going mad. I thought you just said you wanted me to go to Mosul, the Daesh stronghold, to the filthy rats who killed my family and tell them that you are going to destroy them.”

“I did,” said God. “Now go.”

Anger overtook Younan. “If that’s what you want to do, then do it already! Why should I warn them? Why should anybody warn them? Nobody will shed a tear for them!”

But God was silent. Younan sighed. Deep inside, he knew that’s not how it works.

So, Younan went. But instead of Mosul, he packed his bags and bought a ticket for Beijing where he hoped among the mass of people, he might escape the Almighty’s notice.

He flew out of Detroit the next day to Chicago, where he connected to LAX. The entire trip was nerve-wracking; he kept waiting for something to go wrong—a cancelled flight or a missed connection—but nothing happened. Now as he boarded his flight to Los Angeles, he finally began to feel more at ease. Surely, if he had gotten this far, he would make it the rest of the way. The engines throttled up and the big jetliner began to climb, and Younan settled into his seat and began to nod off. “One more stop in LA,” he thought, and then I’m home free.” Smiling, he fell asleep.

He awoke to an elbow being jabbed into his ribs. “Wake up!” his neighbor hissed under his breath, “They’re looking for you!”

“Who is?” Younan asked, confused.

“The Sky Marshall,” his neighbor whispered. “They’re going row-by-row, looking for a guy who fits your description. I heard it on my way to the bathroom.”

Younan was about to say that was ridiculous, why would anyone be looking for him, but 10 rows up, he saw a man with a thick mustache and aviator sunglasses with his polo shirt tucked into his belt standing in the aisle talking to a seated passenger. His left hand rested on the seat back as he leaned over, and in it, he held a composite sketch that looked an awful lot like Younan.

His hands shook with fear as he reached into his carry-on to find his passport and asylum papers; they were gone, nowhere to be found. Slowly it dawned on him that this is what he had been worrying about all day. This was God’s hand closing around him. Younan sighed, got up and walked up the aisle to the man in the polo shirt.

“Excuse me,” he said, “I believe you are looking for me?”

“Thank you for making this easy,” the man said as he hand-cuffed him and took him to the back of the plane.

From the Bible de Souvigny, Jonah being thrown into the sea. Original source: https://i.pinimg.com/736x/ae/43/0d/ae430d990122419907b5fde2590eaa69–art-initial-french-school.jpg

As soon as the jet touched down in Los Angeles, even before the jet bridge was extended, Younan was taken down a ramp and thrust into the back of a black van, where a heavy cloth bag was placed over his head. “Don’t worry,” a voice said, “Everything is going to be fine.” But Younan did not believe it.

After hours and hours of blind van rides, plane flights, and being led down wandering hallways, he was seated on a metal chair and the sack was removed from his head. He found himself in a stark cell somewhere deep underground with only a latrine, a bed with a hard mattress, and the chair. The guard who removed the bag took off his handcuffs and closed the doors as he exited the cell.

All night, Younan sat wake, terrified. Where was he? What would they do to him? He prayed again, this time in fear: “Almighty God, I’m sorry I tried to run away. Please deliver me, and I promise I will do whatever you ask!”

Time passed. He couldn’t see the sun to tell, but based on the meal schedule, he figured it was about three days. He kept expecting to be beaten, to be waterboarded, or at very least to be asked some questions, but there was nothing. He ate, he slept, he waited. He prayed. Finally, something happened. A guard appeared and brought Younan up through the bowels of the complex to the surface. He removed Younan’s restraints, opened a door to the outside world, and—without a word—shoved him out into it.

After days in the dark, the sunlight was blinding. Younan heard the door slam shut and lock behind him as he blinked at the brightness that was slowly resolving into endless sand dunes and a road. He looked back at the building from which he’d just been freed; it looked like nothing more than an abandoned warehouse. An old pickup was approaching him on the road in a cloud of dust. When it reached him, the driver stopped and leaned out the window. He asked Younan, in Arabic, “Need a lift?” Not knowing what else to do, Younan climbed into the truck.

Once more, he heard a voice. “Let’s try this again,” God said, “I want you to go to Mosul. I have a message for them.”

“Where can I take you, my friend?” the driver asked as he pulled away.

“Mosul?” Younan answered, to which the driver responded. “Ah! Just where I was headed.”

When Younan got to Mosul, the driver dropped him at the edge of town and left him standing in the street. Mosul is a big city, 660,000 people. Without knowing what else to do, he began walking the streets, shouting, “40 days more, and Mosul will be blown to hell!” He walked all day, shouting his message—and nothing but this message—before giving up around nightfall and leaving town.

As it happened, the IS militants who heard his message began talking. They gossiped among one another, and the gossip spread. Over the coming days, the gossip made it to the head commander of the Islamic State in Mosul. Much to everyone’s surprise, the commander issued an order to all militants: they were to return all confiscated property to its rightful owners, they were to release all hostages and slaves, they were to turn in all weapons and equipment, and they were to beg forgiveness from the civilian population of the city and cast themselves upon God’s mercy—all this by official decree of the Caliphate. Much more to everyone’s surprise, the decree was followed to the letter. And God saw that they had realized their mistake and changed their ways, and so God decided not to destroy the city.

Rashid, al-Din. Yunus (Jonah) under the gourd vine and with the whale, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55970. Original source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/crcedinburgh/9322244680.

Younan was furious. He hissed and spit as he prayed to God, “Almighty God, I knew this is what you would do! I knew it! This is why I didn’t want to come, because I knew they would escape judgment! I knew that you are gracious and merciful, and that you would waste that grace and mercy even on these animals. Well fine, they have their grace, but where is my justice? Where is my family’s justice? Where is the justice for all who have been murdered by these dogs?”

The voice spoke, “Is it right for you to be angry? Every night, you pray to thank me for being gracious and merciful. Every night, you weep for the lives you have lost. Is it not right that I should not also weep for the 660,000 lives who might be lost in Mosul? Is it not right that I should extend to my loved ones the grace and mercy that I have given to you, my beloved? The prophets of old dreamed for so effective a message, they preached and cajoled and wept and wailed for years and years, and few of them ever had the success you have had today. Should you not be overjoyed that the kingdom of heaven has come near?”

But Younan was not overjoyed. As the sun beat down on him and the dust filled his nostrils, he couldn’t help but think that, to him, this heaven felt an awful lot like hell.

 

As you may have guessed, the name Younan is an Arabic variation of the name Jonah. Mosul, a city only recently liberated from the Islamic State, also happens to be the site of ancient Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian Empire who conquered and exiled Jonah’s home country of Israel. Jonah’s story is darkly comic because of all the characters in the story—even the whale—the prophet of God is the least godly. It is a fable about God’s mercy, God’s tenacity, but mostly it is a fable about God’s grace and how far from it we often fall. When the chips are down, are we any more godly than Jonah?

When the Debt is Too Large to Forgive

September 17, 2017 Leave a comment

Audio Recording of “When the Debt is Too Large to Forgive” recorded in worship (14:52)
15th Sunday after Pentecost; Lectionary 24, Year A
Texts: Gen 50.15-21; Rom 14.1-12; Matt 18.21-35

A wedding ring is a physical sign of a relationship. It’s something you can look at to be reminded of what is intangible and yet as real as the ring itself. When I look at my ring, I remember Stephanie, and I remember the promises we made to each other, the covenant we entered together. On the days when that covenant is harder than others, it reminds me of my commitment; on the days when I am feeling alone, it reminds me of hers.

Our wedding rings are special because they also remind us of Margaret. Margaret was a member of our chaplaincy group in Maine, the summer we met.  The rings remind us of her because she made them; one of her hobbies is making jewelry, and very shortly after Stephanie and I began dating, when our entire chaplain group was very excited about our burgeoning romance, she playfully made the offer that she would make us rings if we ever needed them. Three years later, we took her up on that offer.

Margaret and I rented rooms in the same house as we worked together as hospital chaplains for the summer. She is a dear woman, and though I have not spoken with her in years, I remember her fondly. Spending time with her that summer, I learned about her Quaker faith, her partner Bruce and their three grown daughters—Molly, Ruby and Sadie—and the farm called Camelot where they had lived for many years in Massachusetts. The farm was also home for disabled veterans, many of whom suffered from PTSD or other mental illnesses; a ministry that the entire family managed together, living among the men for whom they cared. Although it had taken its toll on them emotionally and physically, they kept it up for many years before retiring to New Hampshire.

Margaret attended seminary and joined our chaplain intern training not because she wanted to become a pastor, but because she wanted to better understand and articulate her faith. One of her major projects in the years since we met was fighting a series of bills in New Hampshire that would have expanded the state’s application of the death penalty. As a Quaker, Margaret’s religious conviction has always been that the death penalty is wrong; that taking a life is always evil, and that no crime committed by a person can justify it.

I’ve never met any of Margaret’s daughters, but from what I know of them, they take after their parents. Margaret and Bruce instilled their values in them. Their eldest daughter, Molly, and her husband Dan befriended a young Haitian man named Roody Fleureguste who came to the US as a refugee after the 2010 earthquake. Roody’s brother was a caretaker for some of Molly’s relatives nearby, and he was living with him not far from Molly and Dan’s home. Margaret describes Molly as someone who was always a nurturer, brave and generous and passionate about her work. Molly saw this young man, having fled to a strange country and speaking little English, and reached out to him in welcome. Sadly, before he’d even been there a week, Roody shot and killed Molly.

Molly B. Hawthorn-MacDougall. Requiescat in pace.

This is the point of the story where I’d like to be able to say that Margaret and Bruce, through lots of pain and anger, found it in themselves to forgive Roody for what he had done, and that they formed a bond over what had happened; but that’s not how the story goes. We all know that forgiveness is an important part of Christian life, that it is vital to healing and reconciliation, that it is what allows us to let go of the things that have hurt us and to move on from them; but I think of Margaret and Molly and their family whenever I read this text because I know that there are times when people hurt one another in unforgivable ways, when forgiveness is not always within reach.

Molly’s murder severely tested Margaret’s convictions. What I know of her story, I have gleaned from the news coverage of the crime and the sentencing hearing, and from Margaret’s own writings. I have not talked to her about how this has affected her, but she writes beautifully and painfully about the two years of the investigation and trial following Molly’s death. As you might imagine, they are years filled with anger, with frustration, and with unfathomable pain, stirred up again and again by a flawed criminal justice process.

Nevertheless, she remained committed to her core convictions. Shortly after Molly’s murder, when Margaret told a friend she did not want Roody to face the death penalty, her friend responded, “You’re a better person than I am.” But Margaret writes: “I am not. I am self-protective. Revenge is tricky, self-destructive. It doesn’t turn out sweet, seldom plays out the way one thinks it will. Too often family members find the execution of their loved one’s murderer doesn’t bring the hoped-for closure. I don’t want to allow room for revenge to impose its disappointment on me.” As angry as she was, as hurt as she was, she knew revenge would not bring her any sort of closure or relief.

This is the foolishness that Jesus teaches us; the foolishness that, as Paul says, is “wiser than human wisdom.” (1 Cor 1.25) It is so much easier, so much more satisfying to nurse wounds as hatred grows, to desire revenge for revenge’s sake, to cut those who hurt us out of our lives; but the simple fact is that life does not allow that. Broken relationships are never cut off, they simply fester and continue to bleed us dry until they are repaired. Margaret reflects that although she and Roody never knew one another prior to Molly’s death, now they will always be connected: he will always be the person who killed her daughter, and she will always be the mother of a woman whose life he took. Whether they like it or not, they are inseparable now, bound by an act of evil.

So what happens to a relationship like this—or any other—when forgiveness is beyond our reach? Are we in danger of sharing a fate with the unforgiving servant? Is God’s grace not actually limitless, but contingent upon the limits of our own grace? This parable has been misinterpreted for God only knows how long to suggest that anyone unable to forgive someone who sins against them is doomed to hell; but I would argue that in a case like Margaret’s, she is already there.

We miss the point of this parable if we reduce it to a command or a threat. To do so is to join Peter in asking Jesus, “What must I do in order to avoid punishment?” How many times must we forgive? How much? How soon? What are the conditions? Jesus responds to Peter’s question by first telling what the king does: he looks with compassion on his poor servant; he forgives him. I don’t want to give the impression that the king is an allegory for God (he’s not), but this is certainly what God has first done for us: God showed God’s love for us in that, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom 5.8) His blood is a physical sign—like my wedding ring—of how far God is willing to go to set us free from our debts. Unlike the king’s grace (which he revoked in anger), God’s grace is ultimate, it always has the last word; it surpasses even life and death.

Agnus Dei. Detail from Isenheim Altarpiece, by Matthias Grunewald.

When we eat and drink that sign of God’s grace—the body of Christ, broken for us, his blood shed for us—that grace changes us. It helps us to see beyond our own injuries to glimpse the bigger picture; to let go of petty squabbles and hurt pride and reach out to heal the relationships that God has given us which are worth so much more than being right. And yet, we are still human, and we have our limits. Like Margaret, sometimes the debt is simply too large to forgive.

The promise of this parable is that where our grace ends, God’s begins. Margaret addressed a statement to Roody at his sentencing. In it, she writes:

When the unthinkable happened God blessed me with a miracle. In other situations I have had to pray hard to be released from a desire to get even. This time I have been granted freedom from vengeance, right from the start. After an experience of this scope, I no longer burn with a desire to see people get what I think they deserve. I’m more willing to let God be the judge.

I will think and wonder about you, and will pray that you may receive peace in your heart. You would have much painful work for that to happen, but I hope you get there. The world can only benefit from another peaceful heart in its midst.

I find hope in the fact that in spite of the pain and the horror which Margaret endured—which she still endures—while she herself was still incapable of forgiveness, God stepped in to plant the first seeds of healing. What happened to Margaret was only possible because of what God did: it was God who saved her from vengeance; God who blessed her with the miracle of what might be the beginnings of forgiveness even in her anger; it is God who allows her to even consider praying for his wellbeing after what he did. It was not her seminary education or her theological training or even her conscience telling her to do what she knew was right: it was her deep-seated conviction that violence cannot atone for violence—a belief instilled in her by the love and grace of a forgiving God which was lived out for her in her family and her faith community.

Because of God’s love for us, we have been forgiven more than we can ever conceive; and it is only by that forgiveness that we may hope to find healing for our broken relationships in our lives. It is only by the grace of God that we may foolishly hope for the light of God’s justice and peace to shine on a weary world full of brokenness; that we may hope for God to deliver us from the torture of vengeance which we inflict upon ourselves and one another, and to bring wholeness. Much like a wedding ring the blood of Christ not only reminds us of God’s grace, it also joins us together into one family of God—for better or worse, whether we like it or not—for all eternity. Jesus’ blood now runs through our veins. What God has joined together, nothing is able to put asunder.

…Get Behind Me

September 3, 2017 1 comment

Audio Recording of “…Get Behind Me” recorded in worship (13:30)
13th Sunday after Pentecost; Lectionary 22, Year A
Texts: Jer 15.15-21; Rom 12.9-21; Matt 16.21-28

This is part two of the story. Just a few moments ago, in part one, it was “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!” and now it’s “Get behind me, Satan!” Simon Peter knows that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God; not because he has weighed the facts or been convinced by the evidence, but because God has revealed this truth to him; and so Jesus calls him blessed. However, today we find out that although Simon Peter knows who Jesus is, he does not yet know what that means.

To call Jesus the Son of God means to trust that he is the one who reveals God’s will to us. Regardless of Peter’s intentions or motivations for saying what he said, the fact remains that when the Son of God revealed God’s will to him, he desired something else, and that makes him an adversary to God; in Hebrew, the word for an “adversary” is a “satan.”

“Get Thee Behind Me Satan,” James Jacques Joseph Tissot, 1836-1902. From Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55117

Jesus’ response, however, far from an insult or a dismissal, is an invitation. “Get behind me,” he says, and then to the others, “If anyone desires to come behind me, they must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” The Son of God is inviting all who know who he is to join him in seeing God’s will done. To believe that Jesus is God’s Son is to trust him to lead us also in the way of God.

And yet, how often do we think that we know better than God? How often do we supplant God’s will with our own and call it piety, or domesticate the good news that Jesus died to bring so that we can still call ourselves by the name of Christ without actually doing what Christ has called us to do? “If anyone desires to come behind me, they must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” As he tells us this, we remember that the road on which he is leading us heads straight to Calvary.

Jesus says from the very beginning that his suffering and death must happen, that it is necessary. We might assume that it is necessary for God; we have been taught that God must punish us for our sins, but Jesus out of love bears that punishment for us. We ought to deny our sinful selves, then, because we deserve to be punished with Christ. Our suffering makes us holy like him, because his suffering is holy. That all seems to hang together pretty well except for one small problem: that’s not at all what Jesus means.

When Jesus says that it is necessary for him to suffer and die, he doesn’t mean that God considers it necessary, but rather that we do. The good news that Jesus brings is not good news at all unless it is also good news for the poor, the broken, and the oppressed. This good news demands something of us: if we are to take it seriously, it requires us to get up and participate in that good news for those who suffer, to enter into their suffering with them the way Jesus enters into ours. For those of us with privilege of wealth or class or race, this is not what we want to hear; and that is why the elders, the chief priests and the scribes must kill Jesus; they have no choice. It is necessary for him to die because otherwise the kingdom of heaven he proclaims and lives is a direct threat to their power, to their authority, to their privilege. It is necessary for Jesus to die, alright, but it isn’t God who needs him dead: it’s those of us who are afraid to lose what we have.

We are only doing what we must. The only way we know how to respond to something which threatens us is with violence, and so violence is what we show toward Jesus. That’s how this game is played, isn’t it? In order to come out ahead, one must always be better, stronger, tougher, harder. Nice guys finish last; there is no prize for second place. Of course, the trouble is that in this game, only the strong survive, and the weak are forgotten, despised, destroyed. What we cannot see in the midst of all our grasping and struggling is that really need is somebody to save us from this insanity that inevitably causes us to kill the Son of God in the name of God.

There is no escape from this cycle of violence and oppression from the outside; God cannot pull us out of this death spiral without taking away our free will; and so God sees that it is necessary for Jesus to come among us as one of us, to live as a human being so that he can show us another way, a better way: a way in which there are not winners and losers, not strong and weak, but one family of God working together for justice and peace for all creation. Jesus lives this way of nonviolence, of justice, of mercy, and he dies for it because his very life is a threat to everyone wishing to hold onto their own desires. The cross is the only way this story can end. And yet, because this is God’s story, it does not end there: even death cannot keep Jesus from freely offering us so much more that whatever it is we would kill to protect.

“Carrying the cross of Christ,” Gabriel Loire, 1904-1996. From Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55872 

This is what we get wrong about self-denial: we assume it is about giving something up, that our desires are too strong and distract us from God’s will. We assume that sinful, mortal flesh must be punished and beaten into submission so that we will be worthy of the joys of eternal life.

The truth of the gospel is that our desires are not too strong, it is rather that they are too weak. We worry ourselves to death over things like money and status and safety; we try to fill our lives with cheap entertainment or possessions, with ambition or sex or booze, when all the while Jesus is offering us infinite joy of denying these things and living the life our Creator intended for us, the existence for which we were made. We are like ignorant children who would rather go on making mud pies in a slum because we cannot comprehend what we are being offered in a vacation at the coast.

This is what I mean: we have taken the incredible promise of salvation that God offers and domesticated it and eviscerated it and reduced it to merely playing a harp on a cloud after we die because can cannot conceive of the idea that Jesus was actually sent to save us from the despair and the danger we face every day. We are far more ready to believe in a God who would offer us eternity in heaven as a consolation prize for suffering through life on earth than we are to believe in a God who would actually step into our flesh to redeem this life, to save us from neo-Nazis and climate change and the plague of crime and poverty.

Now this sounds all well and good for a Sunday morning sermon, but we all know that’s not how the real world works, right? If we try to do all the stuff Paul talks about, we’ll get eaten alive! That is exactly Jesus’ point. Those who try to save their lives will lose them; but if we devote our lives to God’s reign, we will lose our lives, but in doing so we will find more than we ever hoped or imagined.

Jesus didn’t come to give us an hour of comfort on Sunday morning, but a lifetime of hope—hope that the evil and devastation we see in our world is nothing but the bitter death-knell of all the powers opposed to God’s reign before they slink away in defeat. Yes, it sounds crazy; yes, it’s naive, but who are you going to believe: the voices of the powers that be telling us to play a game we know is rigged and leads only to death? Or the Messiah, the Son of the living God, the one who has been to hell and back to show us once and for all what really leads to life and peace?

That is why Jesus tells Peter—tells all of us—to get behind him, to deny ourselves and all the meager desires that would keep us from taking up our cross and following him; because as long as people are oppressed, as long as people go hungry, as long as racism and sexism and homophobia tear us apart, there is no paycheck, no fabulous toy, no cozy house that will ever give us the sense of comfort and wholeness that the reign of heaven promises us.

It is hard work, following Jesus. It will inevitably lead to suffering and sorrow, to anger and outrage, maybe even to death. But this promise is absolutely true: when we give up our lives to serve Jesus, we will absolutely see the reign of heaven breaking through the mess of this world; not in some faraway hereafter, but in the here-and-now. It is already here, all around us for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. It is as real as the bread and wine on this table, and as alive as the Jesus who somehow meets us in them. It is not a fact we can prove, not something concrete to which we can point, not a myth we created to insulate ourselves from the pain of the world: it is the truth of God revealed to us by God’s own Son. He is not commanding us to blind obedience, but rather inviting us to open our eyes and see for ourselves that the reign of heaven has come near, and that there is a place in it for us.

Fresco from Kariye Camii, Anastasis – showing Christ and the resurrection of Adam and Eve, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54562

Blessed Are You…

August 27, 2017 1 comment

Audio Recording of “Blessed Are You…” recorded in worship (10:42)
12th Sunday after Pentecost; Lectionary 21, Year A
Texts: Isa 51.1-6; Rom 12.1-8; Matt 16.13-20

I remember going home for my grandmother’s funeral in Nashua, MT near where she lived. I could have flown into Great Falls and ridden the 5 hours to Nashua with my parents, but my Uncle Tom was also coming from South Carolina, and he was flying into Billings. Since I didn’t get to see him much, I opted to meet him there and drive up with him.

When we got to Nashua—which is a small town of about 200 people—we stopped at the restaurant in town. My cousin’s wife worked there, and we met my Uncle Leroy and Aunt Bonnie and a few of my cousins there. When we walked into the restaurant and sat down, the waitress came to take our order. She was a local; she’d gone to school with my two uncles and my aunt, and watched my cousins grow up, but she didn’t know me. However, after looking me over, she asked, “Are you Wes’s son?” She’d never seen me, but she knew my dad, and that told her enough to recognize me.

When Jesus asks the disciples, “who do you say that I am,” Simon responds by telling him who his Father is: “You are the Messiah, Son of the living God.” This is not news to anyone at this point; so far in Matthew’s gospel, all of the disciples have recognized Jesus as God’s Son, and he has referred to himself as such. And yet, when he says this, Jesus blesses him.

Christ Pantocrator, Byzantine Mosaic. From Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=46638 [retrieved August 30, 2017]. Original source: http://www.yorckproject.de.

Jesus is not commending him for his faith or for his powers of deduction or even for his ability to give the right answer. Jesus is congratulating him because God has chosen Simon Peter to understand what others cannot. Jesus has had contact with lots of people so far, and done many great things; yet none of these people know who he truly is: maybe John the Baptist, maybe Elijah, maybe one of the prophets of old: surely sent by God, possibly a great person back from the dead. These folks have seen more or less the same sorts of things the disciples have seen, they have interacted with the same Jesus, but they do not know the truth about who he is. It is not because the disciples were so much closer to him or because they were so much smarter that they figured out who Jesus is; it’s only because God chose to reveal this truth to them.

Does that make you a little uncomfortable? Why would God reveal this truth to some, but not to others? Why is Simon Peter blessed, but not the rest of the disciples? At first glance, it seems exclusive, like God is playing favorites. However, this scene with Simon receiving a new name and a blessing is reminiscent of another scene in Israel’s history. Out of all the people in the world, God chose Abram and his wife Sarai to be the mother and father of a new nation. God gave them new names—Abraham and Sarah—as a sign of the new thing that God was doing; and God blessed them, promising to make the barren couple the forebears of countless descendants. And why? So that through their offspring, the whole world might be blessed.

Throughout history, God continued to choose people from those offspring to bless the nation and, through them, the whole world. Moses, the youngest sibling and a fugitive murderer, was chosen to lead God’s people to freedom so that they might be “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” God passed by 6 older sons to choose David to be king over Israel. Whenever God chooses people and blesses them, it is never for their good alone, but for the good of all.

So it is when God chooses Simon Peter and the disciples to know the truth of Jesus’ identity. The blessing Simon receives and the new name he is given are intended to be for the whole Church and the whole world. The truth on Simon Peter’s lips is the foundation of our faith, and the fact that it comes to us from God is a reminder, St. Paul says, that it is not because of our outstanding morals or our fantastic good works that we have been chosen; rather, we have been chosen solely by God’s grace. In grace, God has revealed to this community the truth that Jesus is the one sent by God to save the world, and by grace we have each been given a new name in baptism, no longer known by where we come from or what we do,  but called “children of God.”

This is the truth with which we have been entrusted: that the God who created the whole world is made known to us in his Son. Just like the waitress in Nashua recognized me because she had known my father, we recognize God because we know God’s Son. “No one knows the Son except the Father,” Jesus says, “and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” (Mt 11.27) Jesus teaches us how to live together and care for the society and the world that God has made. This revelation and this blessing are not just for us, but for all people.

When our leaders cry for war and sow seeds of dissension and distrust, when the politics and ideologies and fear of the other tear us apart, when the forces of Hell and Death seem ready to consume us, we have been entrusted with God’s response to hate and fear and death. To us has been revealed the kingdom of heaven in which all human beings are valued and beloved, a kingdom in which the community that binds us together is not stronger than the forces which seek to tear us apart. We have been entrusted with the keys to this kingdom, and the gates of Hell are powerless against it.

Unidentified. Peter with the keys of the kingdom of heaven, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55930 [retrieved August 30, 2017]. Original source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/tzf093/5037793055.

Perhaps God chooses to reveal this to some and not to all so that we will have to rely on one another, to be present and in relationship with one another. If this sort of revelation were a personal thing, we wouldn’t need each other, wouldn’t even really need Jesus, for we would all have our own private connection with God. Instead, God chooses to enter into our lives in a deeply intimate but communal way: as a person—Jesus, the man born in a stable and hung on a cross, but also the Son of God made known to us in the breaking of the bread and in the love of our neighbors. God’s blessing to us is not abstract; it is incarnate, embodied and alive in the Christ we meet in this community.

This blessing does not mean that we have a special claim on God; that we people of faith are “saved” while all the non-believers are “damned” until we swoop in to rescue them. Instead, this blessing means that God has a special claim on us; that we have been not only given a great gift, but entrusted with an awesome responsibility to enter into relationship with our neighbors the way Christ has entered into relationship with us; to love and serve the people around us even to the point of giving our lives for them so that they may come to see the truth of who Jesus is through us and through this community of his called the Church.

Ironically, our story today ends with Jesus’ commanding his disciples to keep quiet about who he is. This is because the story doesn’t stop here—this is just part one. The same Simon Peter who rightly identifies who Jesus is will momentarily show that he still doesn’t know what that means. There is more to the life of faith than knowing who Jesus is; until they figure that out, Jesus tells them to keep a lid on it.

But that’s a topic for next week. In the meantime, we gather once again in this house to confess to one another in word and in deed and in song and in prayer the truth of who Jesus is and to be transformed as God renews our minds. We come once again to this table together to meet the Son of the living God in flesh and blood so that we might be able to go out from this place and introduce him to the world. We come together to be reminded that though we are blessed by the One we meet here, we are called to share that blessing with a world that is facing down the gates of death. Here, we are called by the name of the Son of the living God so that when we go out from here, we may recognize him and follow him.

To be continued…

Correction: “All In The Same Boat”

August 15, 2017 1 comment

In my sermon on Sunday, I said that, “Our place [as Christians, that is, particularly as privileged Christians] is beside those who are bearing the brunt of hatred and suffering injustice…because our lives are just as much at stake as theirs.” Upon reflection, I have realized that this is an untrue statement. Privileged (i.e. White) Christians’ lives are not at stake “just as much” as are the lives of our siblings in Christ who suffer from the evils of racism, poverty, homophobia or other such sins of our culture. The simple fact is that White* Christians do not lose their lives to these sins in the same way that our oppressed siblings do. We are safe, and we are often disconnected from the everyday reality of these sins and largely blind to the power they have in our lives. This is our “privilege” that comes from having white skin, being born into a middle-class family, being heterosexual and cis-gendered.

What I was hoping to convey is that though, as White Christians, our privilege means we seldom have to face these sins, we are also victims of them, though not in the same way as our oppressed siblings. These evils do violence to those of us with privilege, too. Perhaps the best way to say it is not that our lives are at stake, but that our souls are at stake; not in the sense that we are in danger of damnation for simply being privileged, but rather that the sins committed out in our name and for our benefit—with or without our knowledge—do damage to our relationships with others and with the world. These sins mar the Imago Dei we bear as God’s creation and children.

Racism, for example, puts people of color in emotional, physical, and psychological danger, while White people are seemingly unaffected. However, the very existence of racism causes distrust and tension among the children of God, which harms White people because we are deprived of the wholesome, loving relationship with our siblings of color that God intends for us to have. God’s good creation is marred, and we all suffer, though certainly not in the same way or to the same degree. The same is true for anti-Semitism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, and any other division that keeps us from living in the harmony with one another that God has desired for all of us.

The work of God is liberation, and if we are to be people of God, we cannot but be involved in that work. As it says in 1 John 3:19, “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their siblings are liars; for those who do not love a sibling whom they have seen cannot love a God whom they have not seen.” To love our siblings in Christ necessarily means to become like them in suffering for the same justice for which they suffer; we cannot truly love them unless and until we put our lives on the line for them: for, “no person has greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13) If our lives are not at stake with our siblings, then Christ invites us to put them at stake with our siblings. This is the gospel of the LORD.

 


*By “White” (capitalized), I am not referring to skin color, but rather to the concept of “Whiteness” which is independent of skin color. To be “White” means to be considered “normal” while others are identified by their contrast against you. To be White is to enjoy power and privilege within one’s society which others do not have because of characteristics of their personhood: skin color, sexual identification or orientation, gender, ethnicity, or religion. For further reading, see http://www.ucalgary.ca/cared/whiteness

Categories: nota bene

All In The Same Boat

August 13, 2017 Leave a comment

10th Sunday after Pentecost; Lectionary 19, Year A
Texts: 1 Kgs 19.9-18; Rom 10.5-15; Matt 14.22-33

Here we are again. I feel like I shouldn’t have to say anything about what happened in Charlottesville yesterday because we should all know already that it was an abomination and a travesty. And yet, how can we not say something? It’s not enough to call it what it is, anybody can see what it is: racism, hatred, domestic terrorism. I can’t imagine there is a single person here who would defend the actions or even the intentions of the neo-Nazi protestors who gathered to save the statue of Robert E. Lee (but if there is, then we should talk). We are a safe, comfortable, privileged congregation situated across the country from what happened yesterday, but the fact remains that this is still our problem.

Racism is the Church’s problem. Photo source unknown; likely from 1920s Portland, OR

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