Archives For Cross

16th-St-Baptist-Ch-WalesThere’s a saying (cliche) that’s floated around the United Methodist Church for as long as I can remember: ‘Preach the Gospel. If necessary use words.’ 

Despite how often people quote this, it’s facile. It ostensibly excuses a lack of boldness that is the very opposite of the New Testament’s own preaching of the Gospel.

It’s attributed to St. Francis of Assisi but frequency of citation has made it almost a Methodist slogan of sorts. And, like all cliches, there’s some wisdom once you dig to the bottom of it. In this case, our actions and way of life with others should be in concert with what we believe about the God who comes to us in Jesus Christ.

Sounds good and obvious, right?

However, it’s a cliche that depends upon bad, unhelpful theology. On a very basic level, ‘Preach the Gospel. If necessary use words’ relies on the assumption that the Gospel is primarily about things we do to achieve salvation, in which case communicating the Gospel can be done without words.

The Gospel’s not a message of things we must do. The Gospel’s a message about what we can not do for ourselves. The Gospel’s a message about what God has done for us, once and for all. And that’s not a message that’s self-interpreting or self-evident.

Perhaps on a more fundamental level, ‘Preach the Gospel. If necessary use words’ relies upon the misunderstanding that at the core of the Christian faith is the ministry of Jesus.

That is, the cliche implies that Christianity is fundamentally about the things that Jesus did (which we’re called to replicate in our actions) rather than the thing that God did in Jesus Christ (which we could never replicate but only announce with resort to words). It goes against the grain of much of mainline Christianity today, but here goes:

Christian faith is created not through the teachings of or stories about Jesus but by Jesus himself.

And, on this the New Testament is consistent, Jesus is made known and present, by the action of the Spirit, through the preaching of the word of the cross. ‘Jesus Christ and him crucified’ was the message that converted the world.

Fleming Rutldge BandWhiteAs Fleming Rutledge puts it:

‘This proclamation of Jesus as Lord arose not out of Jesus ministry, which after all can be compared to the ministry of other holy men, but out of the unique apostolic kerygma (proclamation) of the crucified and risen One…

It is essential to remember that it was the preaching (kerygma) of the apostles and early Christians that created the church in the first place. Men and women did not forsake their former ways of life because they were offered spiritual direction or instructed in righteous living: they became converts because of the explosive news that they heard. The apostolic preaching makes up most of the New Testament. The new faith pivoted on the cross/resurrection event. The overwhelming impression given by the apostolic kerygma is that of a revolution in human affairs…

This is not the result of Jesus’ teaching in and of itself. The cross, incomparably vindicated by the resurrection, is the world-changing act of God that makes the New Testament proclamation unique in all the world.’

– The Crucifixion

So then, the Gospel requires words even more so than actions because it’s the word (the kerygma) of what God has done in Christ, through cross and resurrection, that makes Jesus present today. And Jesus alone is the author of faith.

What’s more, this kerygma is so shocking and counter-intuitive, what Paul refers to as ‘foolishness,’ that it will always require interpretation, for the word of cross in no way coheres with our natural religious impulses.

Indeed if the word of the cross is true, then any loving actions towards others attempted apart from or without words (derived from the kerygma) will never be the Gospel.

They will be instead religious actions; that is, they will be projections of humanity’s needs and wishes.

While the cross, Paul reiterates, is the very opposite of religion.

 

Tattoo You

Jason Micheli —  January 13, 2016 — 4 Comments

‘My name’s Hawk’ he said, offering me his meaty orange and scarlet painted hand, flames I think, whose red tongues lapped seamlessly into the illustration running up his arm.

My hand disappeared into his and I thought to myself: Of course your name’s Hawk

Shorter than me, he looked like a squat version of one half of the Road Warriors, the Mad Max inspired WWF tag team I idolized as a kid. Maybe Hawk was a fanboy too because that clothes-lining, from the top rope, road warrior was also named Hawk. Road_Warrior_Hawk

’Is that Hawk? Or Mr. Hawk?’ I asked…like a tool. He did me the courtesy of faking a chuckle before opening the waist high ‘Staff Only’ gate and ushering back into his studio.

Once I realized a few months ago that my stage-serious cancer wasn’t going to kill me, at least not for now, I passed the infusion and transfusion time sketching a sort of bucket list, a concept nearly ruined for me in 2007 by that dentures dud of a movie with Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, a ‘film’ which proved not everything is made awesome simply by the presence of Morgan Freeman. It’s hard to sail around the world on a pastor’s salary and I’ve already read all the Dostoyevsky I ever want to read so I settled upon less ambitious but no less important items for my Cancer Didn’t Kill Me Yet Bucket List, such as

#3: Spend More Time with Friends

#7: Take My Job Less Seriously and

#2: Try to be Less of an A-hole to My Wife. 

#6 on the list was something I’d always had in the back of my mind but had never gotten around to doing, getting a tattoo. Not only did the scare of the past year compel me, any tattoo I did get, I discerned, should in some fashion testify to the struggle we’d experienced and to any epiphanies with which we’d emerged on the other end of our nightmare.

Jacob, in Genesis, laid an altar to remember (and maybe warn away others) the place where God had struggled with him. Lacking any ebeneezers, I went to a tattoo parlor instead. So it was that I sat a few afternoons ago in Hawk’s brightly animated studio, my arm draped over a vinyl cushion, sucking on lollipops to stave off the sugar crash he’d warned me the needle would provoke. It’s a surprisingly intimate moment, having someone inscribe what might be a terrible mistake into your flesh. Like sex, it’s sweaty and you can’t take it back and, like sex, I felt it would’ve been even more awkward in the absence of pillow talk. Or, in this case, banter.

No doubt I’m judging, but I assumed the Republican Primary or America’s refugee policy to lie outside his conversational wheelhouse, so I asked Hawk:

‘What’s the strangest tattoo you ever did for someone?’

‘Please don’t tell me it was a dolphin leaping through a clovered trinity or a Chinese script character that actually translates to ‘Kick Me’ I joked. But his countenance fell. He looked bothered. Disturbed even. He turned the ink gun off and laid it down. Staring at the floor, he looked as though all that was missing was a fire around which he could tell this horror story. He was quiet for several moments before shaking his head and said: ‘Dude, this one time…this guy had me ink this giant butterfly on his entire back.’

This wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. ‘Well, that’s not quite Flannery O’Connor’ I laughed, ‘but that doesn’t sound too strange.’

‘No, dude, that’s not it. You see, the body of the butterfly…’ he looked back at the fake wood floor, ‘the body of the butterfly was a…giant _________.’

Since I’ve only recently petitioned the United Methodist powers-that-be to be reinstated off of medical leave, let’s just say the word Hawk shared with me rhymes with ‘Loner.’

‘Seriously?’ I asked him.

‘Yeah dude, and where the feet on the butterfly are supposed to go he wanted me to put a pair of _________. ‘

‘Of course. It would look ridiculous without them’ I deadpanned. He started to grab his ink gun but put it down again when I asked him: ‘Did you ask him? What was the story behind that tattoo?’

‘Naw dude. I figured it was best I didn’t know.’

‘Probably a good call.’ He started again on my arm. I watched him, looking down at the upside down A he had started to outline.

Attachment-1

‘This is the Alpha and Omega, right?’ he asked over the whirr of the gun and the Dead Weather playing over the Bose.

He must’ve read my ‘How’d you know that?’ expression because he added, ‘We get a lot of Christians in here.’

‘I imagine so’ I said. ‘I guess crosses have more staying power than the Tasmanian Devil or Calvin and Hobbes.’ He did me another favor by laughing.

‘These here, then, this means the Beginning and the End, right?’ he pointed to the other letters in the corner of the cross. I nodded, unwrapping another lollipop.

‘Then this,’ and with the needle he outlined the crow in which the cross and letters were all contained, ‘must be Peter denying Jesus? The cock crowing three times?’ ‘Why does it look like it’s falling?’ he asked, sounding genuinely curious now.

‘Because while Peter’s denying Jesus, Jesus is falling down, carrying his cross.’ I explained.

‘Carrying it…for Peter’s sake, huh?’ Hawk closed the gospel loop.

‘Yeah. In a way,’ I said, ‘you can think of it as the ultimate tramp stamp.’

‘The three?’ he asked, ‘the Trinity?’

‘No, but that works too. Stations of the Cross, the third one.’

‘Why’d you decide to get a tattoo?’ he asked.

‘I’ve always wanted one,’ I said, grimacing at how cliche that sounded ‘and then cancer nearly killed me this year.’

‘How’d you settle on this image?’ he asked, wiping the blood that was dripping down from my cross.

I sucked the lollipop spit back into my mouth. It was my turn to look at the floor.

‘There’s nothing like cancer and your own looming death to point out just how imperfect and unfaithful- scared and sinful- you are’ I confessed.

‘When you’re afraid you’ve already done most of the living you’re going to do and all the important decisions you’ll make in your life have already been made, you take account. And no matter how many times you count, you fear you don’t measure up.’

He’d stopped the ink gun again and was considering me, like I would at someone in my office who’d revealed more than they knew.

‘Anyway,’ I mumbled through the lollipop I’d returned to my mouth, ‘this past year I’ve sought refuge in the fact that, in Jesus, God takes all those experiences and emotions of ours into himself’ I said, unintentionally saving the most important point for last.

‘God doesn’t cause our pain and suffering.

God doesn’t shun us because of our shortcomings.

God makes them his own.’

And, as though an affirmation, he stretched out the two solitary syllables: ‘Dude.’

‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘I think maybe I wanted the tattoo because I’ve had to remind myself of it a lot this year.’

He nodded like he understood or sympathized. ‘So…’ Hawk struggled to summarize, ’this basically means s#$% happens but, in Jesus, God shares in it with us.’

I nodded. ‘I thought an image like this would make a better tattoo than, say, a quote like yours.’

He chuckled. ‘You go to church?’ he asked me. ‘You don’t look the type.’

‘Just about every Sunday’ I said.

Letter to Seminary Me

Jason Micheli —  September 22, 2015 — 4 Comments

rp_lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517-1024x683111111.jpgSeptember 10, 2015

Dear Jason,

The leaves are beginning to yellow and the morning air starting to cool, which means you still have years to go. You’re only a few weeks into your seminary experience and already- trust me, I know- you’re overwhelmed.

By feelings of inadequacy. Suspicions fed by the fact that all of your classmates appear to hail from either Texas or Wheaton (sometimes both, in succession) and, thus, were called by God to the ordained ministry when they were still carrying their Hardy Boys lunch boxes with them to the second grade.

And you- I won’t tell anyone- you’re still not sure if you’re called.

In fact, the word itself, ‘called,’ secretly embarrasses you, smacking as it does of certainty and solid conviction.

I won’t lie, Jason, and tell you you’re more than adequate for the ministry. You’re not, truth be told and the intervening years between you and me will only bear that out in sometimes painful ways. In the years to come that sense of inadequacy will revisit you every time you catch the congregation’s reflection in the rounded edge of the brass communion cup or whenever you realize how fleeting and short-lived are sermons. Ministry will strike you often as ill-fitting as your oatmeal colored robe which weekly will make you feel like an imposter, play-acting at someone with more faith and virtue than you.

The truth is, however, you’re more adequate for ministry than you are for Teach for America, law school, or working on a dude ranch out west- endeavors for which you’ll be submitting applications before your first semester of seminary comes to a close. No seriously you will, convinced as you are that ministry is a terrible mistake, either God’s or your’s.

I may not know you as well as I think I do (you’ll soon discover that’s painfully true of almost all clergy), but I do know you better than any other creature so I know you’re going to be less eager to hear this than I am to confess it: you’re not perfect. And here’s the deeper cut: you’re not nearly as smart as you think.

You’re going to make mistakes. Lots of them.

It’s the furthest thing from your radar now, given that in a few weeks you’ll be checking to see if your LSAT scores remain viable, but in a few months time the bishop, who will be up shit creek without any other options, will ask you to pastor a small but actual church.

Doubtless you’ve already heard the cliche about seminary, about how seminary doesn’t prepare you for ministry. It’s true in the spirit in which the critique is made. Seminary equips you to parse pistis Christou and to unpack bold-faced but dusty terms like perichoresis, yet seminary is surprisingly mum about the practical, nuts and bolts of herding a church and, more vexing, church people to the next step in their life.

Allow me.

Perhaps you can learn from and avoid the gaffes I’ve made. 

For example, if kindly old ladies with good intentions but palsied hands insist on filling those ridiculous little communion cups themselves, then suggest they need to do so at the altar instead of far away in the sacristy. Their shakey hands carrying stacks of tiny cups from such a distance all but guarantees that some of the wine- I mean, grape juice- will spill, sealing the heavy brass lid to the trays containing the cups.

When you preside at the table the next morning and solemnly attempt to lift the lid from the blood or our savior you will, for a chilling second or four, lift high both the cross-topped lid and 5 brass trays of thimble sized chalices until the collective weight of the messiah’s blood breaks the sugary seal, spilling red off-brand Welch’s all over the embroidered white altar cloth and making it appear as though you’d just repeated a once-for-all sacrifice and desanguinated Christ on that very table.

Speaking of the sacrament-

When you allow your congregation to don bathrobes and perform a Holy Thursday drama ‘for the community’ (i.e., their wives and grandchildren) against your instincts (it is a bad idea) then at the very least insure that the bread if not unleavened is not from the crunchy, dreadlocked, organic bakery adjacent to your church. For when Jesus, the soon-to-be-fatally-betrayed Passover, takes that bread and delivers his lines and breaks the bread, the somber mood of self-sacrifice easily will be ruined by the ping, ping, ping BB sound of 15 varieties of seeds, nuts and flax falling from the honey lacquered crust onto the silver tray.

You’re going to make mistakes.

When you get to be my age, Jason, you’ll realize that some of your missteps aren’t so much mistakes as things just look different with a longer view of them.

Give it a dozen years and you’ll see how an even bigger cliche than the one about seminary not preparing students for ministry is the cliched anti-institutionalism that determines so much of your cynical posture towards the big-C Church.

By the time you’re my age the curtain will have been pulled back and you’ll be forced to admit that the big-C Church is led by people no different than you and who may be even more well-meaning than you. Of course, don’t tell anyone I told you. The last thing the big-C Church needs is more accommodating company men who mistake the organization for the mission.

Even some of what seminary does teach you, it does so only partially.

Seminary will prepare you to offer words other than ‘it’s going to okay’ the first time you encounter a sobbing mother holding her third grade boy in his hospital bed as the reassuring beeps on his monitors grow ever longer.

Seminary will teach you even how to reflect on why ‘it’s going to be okay’ is a profoundly unChristian lie to tell, but seminary won’t prepare you for how overpowering will be the temptation to offer some such lie that will at least comfort you.

If even this warning isn’t enough to avoid the lie when the moment comes to you, then brace yourself for the slap that mother rightly will deliver across your scared, shit-eating grin. Really, maybe its best if you don’t avoid what I could not, such humbling I suspect is necessary if you’re to depend upon what you insist your parishioners give in their own lives: grace, a mercy and kindness that’s in no way deserved.

Don’t worry. Not all your gaffes will be so heavy.

For instance, when the psych test required by the ordination process raises a so-called ‘red flag’ by implying that you ‘may have difficulty working with women’ its probably best if you not reply to the ordination committee that you ‘get along great with chicks and can work fine with the dames so long as you don’t have to beat them off with a stick.’ 

And when you see the equal parts horror and disgust register across their collective gasp, don’t try to make it better by opining that ‘a self-serious lack of sense of humor could also be a red flag…’

I’m giving you pearls here, Jason.

And when you’re inspired to write a blog post one day (you’ll learn what a blog is) about the audacity of the doctrine of the incarnation entitled ‘Jesus Farts,’ don’t.

Even if the offense taken and the pious outrage feigned registers all the way up to the bishop and only goes to prove your point that docetism is a heresy alive and well in American Christendom, the juice is not worth the squeeze.

And when an exiting worshipper smiles and, for the first time in your ministry, tells you ‘Your sermon was great…you remind me of Joel Osteen…I just love him’ I’d suggest you just smile and thank her.

Just like Joel O would do.

As ridiculous as the comparison is (I hope), it won’t be the only time you’ll receive such feedback and, take it from me, most people don’t know how to react when you respond with ‘Joel Osteen is a crypto-pagan, heretical snake oil salesman only the worship of America could produce.’ 

Live and learn, Jason, but don’t kid yourself about the big mistakes.

They’re not seminary’s fault.

The truth is you’ll become a pastor not long after you became a Christian. You’ll still be working out your faith even as people look to you for answers and, more ridiculously, pay you to sound like you know what the hell you’re saying.

As a result, in the beginning at least, you’ll put on the role of pastor like an ill-fitting costume and play at someone you think you’re expected to be rather than be yourself.

You’ll search for a pulpit voice to go with that robe and underneath both you’ll stash away your authenticity. You’ll avoid expressing your actual thoughts and opinions. You’ll bite your tongue on the words, four lettered and all, that come quickest to you. You’ll hide the scars that could be lessons to teach others. Because, you’ll presume, that’s what pastors do.

Pastors put on Christ and, in putting him on, they cover up their true selves.

Only after you’ve spent enough time in one place, where of course the real you eventually will seep out, will you realize how people (even- especially- church people) seem to prefer the real you. Prefer pastors being real.

I’m not sure the world needs more pastors, no matter what the demographics say, but I am convinced the world does not need more inauthentic ones. I’ve learned that the hard way. Perhaps you won’t need to now.

Another result of your ordination following so soon after your confirmation is that it’s only after you’ve lived for a dozen years or so as a Christian that you’ll begin to have the appropriate patience for others who’ve done the same or longer. Only then will you cease being so judgmental and uncompromising about the faith (you are), for you will have learned that if Christianity could be lived in this world fully and without compromise or corner-cutting then we wouldn’t need Christ.

In that due time you’ll realize that when Christ commands you to love your enemies he’s not primarily speaking of those abstract enemies on the far side of the world whom you’ll only ever encounter on the pages of the Washington Post.

I think he’s meaning someone like the parishioner who will write complaints about you to the bishop and pass around petitions against for the bishop but who nevertheless will put one hand in the other and reach out to receive the host from your hand. The former form of enemy love requires only finger-wagging moralism and maybe a political ideology that’s already comfortable for you. The latter, to your chagrin,  requires discipleship.

Cross-bearing.

But in time you’ll discover a willingness to carry it because you’ll accept that, as Stanley Hauerwas says:

‘…the church is constituted by ordinary people. By ordinary I simply mean people who [attempt to] keep their promises. They are ordinary people keeping ordinary promises, and it is just such people who make the church the church.’

It wouldn’t be my plan for the salvation of the world, but it’s apparently God’s plan and it requires patience, on his end and ours.

Knowing you as well as I do, Jason, I’d say patience isn’t a bad catch all bit of advice for you as I have it on good authority (your future wife) that you can be a know-it-all jackass.

One of the effects of your smarty pants bearing, of believing you always have the right answer and thinking you know how best to express it, is that in the years to come you’ll be impatient with those unlike you. And in ministry you’ll often grouse about how so few church people can articulate what they believe about God and where God’s work (aka: the Holy Spirit) intersects with their own lives.

Let’s be honest, Jason, the last place you’d ever want to work is a church where people are aggressively articulate about their faith, where they hyperventilate ‘Fatherweejus’ prayers and volunteer how ‘the Lord laid it on my heart…’

And, regardless, eventually you’ll wonder if maybe all this time you’ve mistaken people’s reticence about their faith for a lack of thoughtfulness or conviction. Maybe the opposite is the case. Maybe all those people you judged to be inarticulate already knew something you will only learn once you learn you have cancer. Maybe, as Peter DeVries writes:

‘…only the superficial and the slipshod have ready answers’ when it comes to suffering and God and his evidently incomplete work in the world.

I know what you’re thinking: ‘WTF? Did he just drop the C-word on me and then move on, without comment, to a cryptic quote from an obscure book I’ve never read?!’ 

I did, sorry.

But you will. Read it. After you learn you have it.

You’ll read just about every cancer book you can find. You’ll pore over them like you’ve just made an unexpected career change from ministry to cancer because as soon as you hear you’re stage serious sick and just after your oncologist tells you for the first time ‘There’s no cure…the best we can hope for is a long remission’ it will seem as though you’ve been given a job you’re completely unqualified and unprepared to perform.

Actually, there’s no ‘as thoughs.’ That’s exactly how it feels.

I know. As Rob complains to his Mom in High Fidelity: ‘That’s some cold shit.’ Sorry to bear bad news to you, but I think it’s better if you hear it from me first than from the kindly, clumsy doctor who first broke the news to me in stuttering, half-step sentences that set off weeks of panic attacks in me.

Breathe.

And then try not to worry too much about it. You’ve got plenty of time before then. Besides the doctors all tell me there’s absolutely nothing you can do to prevent your particular brand of cancer; trust me, I must’ve asked them a hundred times by now. So don’t go raiding the vitamin aisle or eating organic.

It’s just one of those things. Explain it how you will: a defect ground down deep in the DNA, the will of God, bad luck or bad karma, shit happens. Either way, the game of life has dealt you a piss poor card, but yours can still be a winning hand.

Silver lining-

When the sword does fall and the C-word jumbles all the puzzle pieces that comprise life as you will know it, you will meet that day with few meaningful regrets. If not now then later that will strike you as gravy.

More so than the stab of regret, what cancer will inject into your life is perspective, as fresh as it is swift.

The philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, perhaps the ablest critic of Christianity, charged that we view God through the eyes of our tribe, our culture and tradition, and our personal wants and needs; so that, God becomes the personal projection of our id in the sky, believing what we believe, blessing those causes we support, cursing those we curse, abiding the contours of our independently achieved ideology.

Karl Barth, who by next semester will become one of your Mt Rushmore theologians, found Feuerbach’s critique sound. Sinful as we are, when Christians speak of God, Barth concurred, we’re most often speaking of ourselves in a loud voice.

Like Barth, Feuerbach’s criticism will strike you immediately as revealing more truth about Christianity than Christians would like to confess.

There is much self-love (to say nothing of self-justification) disguised beneath much of our love of God talk.

Feuerbach is right to charge that much of our theology is actually anthropology, and Barth is right to thunder that in remaking God according to our image we forsake the true God who loves in freedom, whose power is weakness, and who cannot be found but must find us.

They’re both right so far as it goes, yet lately I wonder if there’s weakness latent in both their indictments.

I wonder if a more positive construal of Feuerbach’s critique could be to say that our personal experience gives us a vantage onto God to which we wouldn’t be privy otherwise. A view that others from their perch maybe cannot see.

Rather than fashioning God in our image, I wonder if you could argue instead that each of us sees a piece of God from our patch of the world he’s created and from the front seat of the life he’s unfolding for us.

Cancer, in other words, gives me a perspective on my faith I didn’t have prior to it.

Rather than remaking God in my likeness (though I’m with Barth- I do that plenty), I think my experience these past 8 months, 7 nadirs and 40 odd days of chemo-poison allow me to see something of God I could not have seen before.

Something you cannot see yet, Jason.

Without intending it, in the years to come, you will shortchange the significance of Christ’s suffering on the cross, emphasizing in its place the prophetic, social justice work that landed Jesus there.

If you’re honest (you won’t be) your selective focus will owe in part to the fact that you don’t think the world or the Church needs another preacher preaching ad tedium on the blood of the cross, and, less defensible, your emphasis will owe to the most loathsome sort of tribalism. You won’t want to be counted among those kinds of preachers. Those kinds of Christians.

The be-all of discipleship isn’t inviting Christ in to your heart. Its end-all isn’t your personal salvation. The means to get there, discipleship or heaven, isn’t by contemplating the suffering of Christ…you will preach in some form nearly every Sunday.

Discipleship, you will press and not let up, is about doing the things that Jesus did in the way that Jesus did them: feeding the poor, clothing the naked, lifting up the lowly and forgiving the enemy, dispensing grace and speaking the truth to power and using words (only) when necessary.

Discipleship, you will preach and teach, requires rolled-up sleeves and dirty hands, for following Jesus is all about stooped-over foot washing. And you’ll emphasize this definition of discipleship not just in your preaching but in how you allot your time, how you design programs for the church and how you conceive of its mission.

Now that I feel a shell of myself, with thinned out blood and an off balance brain and verities I once took for granted gone, I can see how incomplete and partial has been my take on the faith.

In admitting I’ve shortchanged the significance of Christ’s suffering on the cross, I’m not suggesting that Christ’s cross is a symbol for the ineffable mystery of suffering. I don’t believe there’s anything inexplicable at all about the cross.

It is simple. He lived a fully human life, the life God desires of each of us, and we- the world, the Principalities and Powers, humanity, you and me- killed him for it. There’s no mystery there, or, at least, not the mystery we like to ponder before the cross while quieting exonerating ourselves from it.

Here’s what I mean when I say that I’ve shortchanged Christ’s suffering and here’s what I can see from the chemo chair:

How do the ill participate in the ministry of Christ?

Or the dying?

Because if we take seriously the fact that we’re baptized into Christ’s suffering and death- not just deputized to continue his earthly (healthy) ministry- then those 3 hours on the cross are every bit as integral to discipleship as the compassionate, prophetic ministry that landed him there.

Only now, with stage-serious cancer, do I recognize how for over a dozen years I’ve circumscribed discipleship in such a way that excludes people like the person I presently am.

When it comes to you, Jason, this question will hit with the equal and opposite force of that aforementioned mother’s slap:

How do the sick participate in Christ’s ministry?

Never say Jesus lacks a sense of humor- even if his followers frequently do- because I think the answer for how we think of discipleship lies in your least favorite chunk of scripture: 1 Corinthians 12 and 13.

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body…For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body…”

In the years to come, you will spend considerable time attempting to dissuade brides and grooms from using this passage in their wedding ceremonies, especially the ‘love is patient…’ pericope which concludes it. You’ll point out how Paul’s not speaking to individuals in 1 Corinthinans and especially not to love stuck couples about to be married. Paul’s addressing the gathered community, the church, the Body of Christ.

When it comes headstrong brides and indifferent grooms, 9 times out of 10 your persuasive efforts will prove futile.

But as much time as you will expend steering people away from this passage, you will spend surprisingly little time reflecting on it, which I can now see is a shame. Because if each of us are parts of Christ’s Body only, individual, discrete parts- a hand here, an ear there, an eye- then it stands to reason that we’re called to, responsible for, just a part of Christ’s ministry, imitating that part of Jesus’ life our situation in life allows.

Let someone else speak Truth to Power.

Someone else can roll up their sleeves and clothe the naked.

I’ve freaking got cancer.

I don’t have the energy to feed the hungry.

And, frankly, I don’t have the peace of mind right now to be a peacemaker.

But if Paul’s right, then me facing my illness and suffering with my imperfect approximation of Jesus’ ‘Father, into your hands, I commend my spirit’ is every bit an authentic expression of discipleship as serving at a homeless shelter or extending grace to a prodigal.

Instead of saying we’re only responsible for a part of Christ’s ministry, perhaps its better to put it this way: God doesn’t need us to live Jesus’ life; Jesus already lived the life God gave him. We’re called to live this life, our particular life, the life God’s given us, as Jesus might live it if he were us.

The question is not: how can I be just like Jesus given the particularities and pressures of my life?

The question is: who would you be if Jesus were you, with all the particularities and pressures of your life?

Who would you be if your life (with cancer and fear, pain and panic attacks) was the life God gave Jesus to live?

In time, Jason, you’ll discover how that’s as relevant a question for pastors as it is for every one else.

Blessings,

Jason

Of the disciples fleeing Jesus’ execution, theologian Stanley Hauerwas writes:

‘The disciples have not yet understood the radical character of Jesus’ Kingdom that would challenge the violence of the world by refusing to respond to it on the world’s own terms…What they failed to understand was that Jesus is more radical than those who rebel against Rome or other empires using the force of arms. Rome knows how to deal with those who oppose it on its own terms. What Rome and all empires fear are those who refuse its terms of battle.

Jesus has more time than Rome to engage in the world of calling into existence a people who have learned to live trusting in the righteousness of God.’

Faithfulness, Hauetwas argues, is fundamentally about patience, a commitment to work in this world confident that, in Jesus Christ, God has already disclosed to us the way of the world.

My friend, Brian Stolarz, knows about patience; consequently, whether he’d own up to it or not, he knows more than most about faithfulness to God’s righteousness. He also knows, thanks to yours truly, that in scripture righteousness is just another word for justice. I’d be remiss if I didn’t add that I count Brian one of those gifts with whom cancer has given me the chance to nurture a deeper friendship; he’s been there for me.

Just as he’s been there for others:

As I’ve blogged about before, Brian spent a decade working to free an innocent man, Alfred Dwayne Brown, from death row in Texas.

Alfred Dewayne Brown had been convicted of a cop-killing in Houston. Despite a lack of any forensic evidence, he was sentenced to be killed by the State on death row.

Brown’s IQ of 67, qualifying him as mentally handicapped, was ginned up to 70 by the state doctor in order to qualify him for execution. This wasn’t the only example of prosecutorial abuse in the case.

You can read the previous posts about Brian’s work and watch our dialogue sermon from last summer here here and here.

 

Since the analytics tell me that many of you followed the story on the blog, I’m happy to post that Brian sent me giddy texts yesterday afternoon letting me know his patience had finally paid off. After having his conviction dismissed earlier this year, Texas finally released Alfred to his family last evening.

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And what’s amazing, and fitting to Hauerwas’ observation above, is that Alfred is not angry. Despite the time lost for him and the time sacrificed by Brian, God has given us more time in resurrection to live lives worthy of the Kingdom.

You can read last night’s story about Brown’s release here.

The reporter for the Houston Chronicle, by the way, who helped bring publicity to Alfred’s case by relying on Brian’s work, won a Pulitzer this year.

Here’s a video of Alfred’s release. If you understood Hauerwas’ quote above, then you’ll know it’s an Easter video.

 

Untitled101111

I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

Cancer has gotten me off writing these for a few months now but, back by semi-popular demand, I hope to get back in the swing of things.

You can find the previous posts here.

III. The Son

9. What do we mean by saying Jesus was ‘truly human?’

We do not mean that Jesus was as fully human as you or me.

Jesus, as the God-Man, has no human existence apart from his divine existence and our humanity is not like that at all.

While it’s often proclaimed in sermons on Christmas and about the Cross that Jesus being ‘truly human’ means he’s as human as you or me, to suppose that Jesus is every bit as human as you or me might be correct in terms of the biological bits- if you’re a man- but, beyond biology, such a suggestion bends backwards the entire trajectory of Christian salvation.

 

The mission of Jesus from the Father is not the mission to be tortured and crucified; what the Father wished is that Jesus be human, truly and authentically human.

The grammar of Christian salvation is not that Jesus, the truly human one, is just like us, who are sinners through and through; the grammar of salvation is that, through Jesus, the truly human one, and by the power of Spirit and Sacraments, we might become as human as him.

We are not his aspiration.

He is ours.

To be fully, truly human- this is the command Jesus perceived to have been placed upon him by the Father. The fact that to be fully human meets with rejection, betrayal, torture and crucifixion is not something God the Father planned but is a consequence of the world as we’ve constructed it.

To be fully human is to love and to love, in the world as we’ve made it, is to suffer.

So then, to say that Jesus is ‘fully human’ is to confess that Jesus is the first human after a long list of begats in which God’s original intent for humanity came to fruition.

To live a fully human life, as Jesus does, is to embody the greatest commandment: to love self, neighbors and God without qualificaiton or fear.

From the very beginning this was the intent for humans made in the image of 3-Personned God, who just is Love and Friendship.

To profess that Jesus is fully human then is not to argue that he was really like us.

To profess that Jesus is fully human is to express the hope that we can become as human as him.

5-marc-chagall-painting-of-jesusMy theological muse, Herbert McCabe, cautions against any understandings of Good Friday that are insufficiently historical, that is, those ‘atonement theories’  that are exclusively religious or theological.

The very fact that Jesus was crucified suggests the familiar cliche that ‘God willed Jesus to die for our sin’ is not nearly complex enough nor this worldly:

“Some creeds go out of their way to emphasize the sheer vulgar historicality of the cross by dating it: ‘He was put to death under Pontius Pilate.’

One word used, ‘crucified,’ does suggest an interpretation of the affair.

Yet [that word] ‘crucified’ is precisely not a religious interpretation but a political one.

If only Jesus had been stoned to death that would have at least put the thing in a religious context- this was the kind of thing you did to prophets.

Nobody was ever crucified for anything to do with religion.

Moreover the reference to Pontius Pilate doesn’t only date the business but also makes it clear that it was the Roman occupying forces that killed Jesus- and they obviously were not interested in religious matters as such. All they cared about was preserving law and order and protecting the exploiters of the Jewish people.

It all goes to show that if we have some theological theory [about the cross] we should be very careful.

This historical article of the creed isn’t just an oddity. This oddity is the very center of our faith.

It is the insertion of this bald empirical historical fact that makes the creed a Christian creed, that gives it the proper Christian flavor. It is because of this vulgar fact stuck in the center of our faith that however ecumenical we may feel towards the Buddhists, say, and however fascinating the latest guru may be, Christianity is something quite different.

timothy-radcliffe

Christianity isn’t rooted in religious experiences or transcendental meditation or the existential commitment of the self. It is rooted in a political murder committed by security forces in occupied Jerusalem around the year 30 AD…

Before the crucifixion Jesus is presented with an impossible choice: the situation between himself and the authorities has become so polarized that he can get no further without conflict, without crushing the established powers.

If he is to found the Kingdom, the society of love, he must take coercive action. But this would be incompatible with his role as as meaning of the Kingdom. He sees his mission to be making the future present, communicating the kind of love that will be found among us only when the Kingdom is finally achieved.

And the Kingdom is incompatible with coercion.

I do not think that Jesus refrained from violent conflict because violence was wrong, but because it was incompatible with his mission, which was to be the future in the present.

Having chosen to be the meaning of the Kingdom rather than its founder Jesus’ death- his political execution- was inevitable.

He had chosen to be a total failure. His death meant the absolute end his work. It was not as though his work was a theory, a doctrine that might be carried on in books or by word of mouth. His work was his presence, his communication of love.

In choosing failure out of faithfulness to his mission, Jesus expressed his trust that his mission was not just his own, that he was somehow sent.

In giving himself to the cross he handed everything over to the Father.

In raising Jesus from the dead, the Father responded…

This is why Christians sat that what they mean by ‘God’ is he who raised Jesus from the dead, he who made sense of the senseless waste of the crucifixion.

And what Christians mean by ‘Christian’ are those people who proclaim that they belong to the future, that they take their meaning not from this corrupt and exploitative society but from the new world that is to come and that in a mysterious way already is.”

Untitled101111I’ve become convinced that its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

You can find the previous posts here.

III. The Son

7. What Do We Mean By Incarnation?

We mean that God the Logos, without taking off divinity, puts on humanity in Jesus.

What we do not mean by the incarnation is the nativity. We do not mean that incarnation can ever be shorthand for Christmas, as though God taking flesh and redeeming humanity could be isolated to only one discrete moment in the Son’s life.

The incarnation does not name a single moment in Jesus’ life as the footwashing, crucifixion or the resurrection do.

Quite the contrary, the incarnation names everything from the Spirit’s overshadowing of Mary to Jesus commending the same Spirit back to God upon the cross. The incarnation is not an event distinct on the timeline of Jesus’ life from the cross.

Rather Jesus’ faithfulness unto the cross is but one manifestation of what it means for the Word to be incarnate.

The incarnation is the given behind all that Jesus says and does.

Likewise, incarnation means humanity is not perfected simply as a consequence of the Word assuming flesh.  The incarnation does not heal humanity of temptation until the Word is tempted in the wilderness. The incarnation does not redeem humanity of its fear until Jesus experiences it in the garden of Gethsemene. The incarnation does not rescue humanity from its violence until the Son carries a cross instead of picking up a sword, and humanity is not freed from death until he suffers and overcomes it.

The cross, then, is not in distinction from the incarnation; it is a product of it.

“Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God” – 1 John 4.1-3

§8-10: Incarnation Quiz

Jason Micheli —  December 17, 2014 — 3 Comments

Untitled44Here’s a pop quiz based on the first 10 sections of Athanasius’ On the Incarnation.

 

1. Prior to the Incarnation, God the Word was:

A) Far away from us with God’s back turned against us because we are sinners and God is holy.

B) Nearer to us than we are to ourselves because even prior to the Incarnation the Word imbues all things in creation and holds them in existence.

C) In Heaven.

Bonus: What does it say about us that we typically think of God as remote? 

 

2. According to St. Athanasius, God the Word took flesh in order to:

A) Suffer God’s wrath in humanity’s stead.

B) To pay the price, suffering sin’s penalty for us.

C) To die our death and, in doing so, exhaust Death of its power over us.

D) To demonstrate God’s holiness by demonstrating the wages of sin upon the cross.

Bonus: What does it say about us that we interpret the cradle and the cross punitively when Genesis 1 speaks of death as sin’s consequence in no such tones?

 

3. Athanasius identifies the debt paid by the Incarnate One as:

A) God’s honor

B) Sin

C) Fidelity

D) None of the Above

Bonus: Why do we literalize scriptural metaphors like ‘debt’ when the Church Fathers felt free to use them without explaining exactly how they worked. 

 

4. For Athanasius, the place and purpose of Christ’s teaching in the Incarnation is: 

A) For us to get right with God through right actions.

B) To describe for us the ideal human life which will be possible only in the Kingdom.

C) To show us what we should do because Jesus told us to do it.

D) To reveal the means by which our tarnished humanity may be restored in God’s likeness.

Bonus: Why do so many of our understandings of how Jesus saves us on the cross have little place for the life and teaching of Jesus? 

 

You don’t really need the answer key do you?

Redacted Scripture: Torture

Jason Micheli —  December 16, 2014 — 1 Comment

According to the Pew Research Center, 60% of American Christians support the use of torture against suspected terrorists.

According to Red State, 54% of those who attend church at least once a week support the use of torture.

According to my email inbox after I ‘liked’ Brian Zahnd’s blog post ‘You Can’t be a Christian and Support Torture’ the % is at least 60.

And 100% of the time, reading those emails, I’m like WTF?

Not only do I oppose torture because I have many friends and congregants in the military whom I do not want to see harmed because of a practice that only inflames extremists, makes it easier for them to recruit and thus prolongs conflict, I oppose it for the simple reason that, as a Christian, I believe God took the flesh of an innocent man who was tortured as a suspected terrorist against the Empire.

Since we preach the foolishness of Christ crucified tortured, I thought it worth revisiting the Passion story.

The Redacted Passion Story.

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As soon as it was morning, they [raised the terror alert and] held a consultation with the whole security council. They [gagged and] bound Jesus Yeshua Bin Yosef and led renditioned him away to Pilate’s the Administration’s headquarters black site to accuse him [for enhanced interrogation].

Pilate The Administration interrogated him, ‘Are you [the terrorist who claims to be] King of the Jews?’

The suspect answered him, ‘You say so.’

Then they accused him of many things. Pilate The Administration asked him again, ‘Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.’

But Yeshua Bin Yosef made no further reply, so that Pilate The Administration was incredulous.

Now at the festival he used to release a prisoner for the people in order to placate them, anyone for whom they asked. Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder and terror during an insurrection. So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate The Administration to do for them according to his custom.

Then he answered them, ‘Do you want me to release for you the terrorist who claims to be the King of the Jews?’ But they administration officials stirred up the people [with fear and patriotic fervor] in order to have him release Barabbas for them instead.

Pilate The Administration spoke to them again, ‘Then what do you wish me to do with the man terrorist you call the King of the Jews?’

They shouted back, ‘Torture him!’ The Administration asked them us, ‘Why, what evil has he done?’

But they we shouted all the more, ‘Torture him!’

‘Shall I crucify torture your leader?’ Pilate The Administration asked.

‘We pledge allegiance to no one but the emperor nation’ they we cried.

So Pilate the Administration, wishing to satisfy placate the crowd us, washed his hand of Yeshua Bin Yosef’s blood [and so did we] and released Barabbas for them.

And after flogging depriving Yeshua Bin Yosef [of sleep for 7 days], they handed him over [for additional enhanced interrogation techniques].

Then the [private] soldiers [contracted by the government] led him down into the courtyard of the palace pit; and they called together the whole cohort goon squad.

They clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some barbed wire into a crown, they put it on his head. And they began saluting him, ‘Hail, the King of the Jews!’

They struck his head with a bat, spit on him, and then they knelt down in homage to him [and shoved a tube up his anus for rectal feeding].

Only after mocking him, they stripped him naked. Then they led him out to torture him.

[They broke his legs and forced him to stand for days.]

[They locked him in a wooden box no bigger than a casket.]

They even compelled a stranger to carry his cross to taunt the naked Yeshua Bin Yosef [with snapping and snarling dogs]; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus.

Then they brought Yeshua Bin Yosef to the place called skull. First, they offered him wine mixed with myrrh; but he did not take it. And they tortured him, dividing his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take.

It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified water-boarded him.

The accusation top secret file on him read, ‘The terrorist who claims to be the King of the Jews.’

Along with him they water-boarded two criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 

Those who passed by heard about it on cable news [happy they were ‘safe’] derided Yeshua Bin Yosef, shaking their heads and saying, ‘Aha! You who would blow up our temple, save yourself, and come down from the cross up from the water!’

In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, government officials were also mocking him among themselves and saying, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come up from the water now, so that we may see and believe.’

[Nearly drowned and gasping for breath,] Yeshua Bin Yosef cried out: ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.’

Those who were water-boarded with him also taunted him.

When it was noon, darkness a cable blackout came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Yeshua Bin Yosef cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ 

Having breathed his last, Yeshua Bin Yosef was buried in an undisclosed location.

[His followers either fled in fear or were rounded up and tortured themselves.]

[Pilate The Administration, having washed its hands of their blood, pointed to the fact that the Temple was still standing and the people were safe as justification for its alternative interrogation methods.]

[At least, 60% of Roman citizens supported their methods as well.]

Calvinism: Old Debate, New Day

Jason Micheli —  September 19, 2014 — 1 Comment

CalvinismDebate_BannerTo prove that I’m not completely a narcissist- or that I’m at least sufficiently self-aware to pretend that I’m not a narcissist- I thought I would offer you a few nuggets from others that have come my way and proved fruitful for my own reflection:

Brian Zahnd is a pastor, author and blogger who, like me, has been deeply influenced by David Bentley Hart and the work of the early Church Fathers and Mothers. Brian recently represented what I’d call the ancient view of God and the atonement in a debate with Calvinists sponsored by Christianity Todayzahnd-photo

Don’t let the Calvinists’ propensity to machine-gun scripture citations fool you into thinking they’re making an argument, and don’t let it fool you into missing how deeply biblical Brian’s argument is itself.

The videos are long and, if you’re a theology nerd, that’s wonderful. Listen while you make dinner.

 

 

 

I saw a friend on FB post something regarding 9/11 with the words ‘Remember But Remember Rightly.’

Oddly enough it’s the same chord I tried to strike in my sermon on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Whether it measures up to the challenge of the FB prompt I’ll let another judge.

Here it is: 9-11-300x205

Psalm 137

9/11/11

It’s a date seared into memory.

587.

587 BCE

Five- hundred and eighty-seven years before Jesus.

 

The date the unthinkable happened.

A date that would be shared by all

and yet an experience that, for each and every person who survived it,

would be incredibly personal too.

 

The date they were attacked

when they never thought they could be:

their’s was a nation too strong.

They were, literally, ‘one nation under God.’

 

And yet they were

attacked.

By an enemy from far away.

An enemy they didn’t know

and would never really understand.

 

Their enemy razed the city.

Buildings

that had once been symbols of blessing and wealth

reduced to rubble.

 

Many died.

And there was much heroism.

 

For a time

the nation appeared rudderless.

And the familiar language of faith

stuck in the throat.

 

Not long after the attack

there were deployments.

Deployments of the nation’s

best and brightest

and, too often,

the tragically young.

 

The deployments split families.

Marriages were stretched across a crucible of time and distance.

Children grew up faster than their parents returned home.

Spouses worried if their partner would ever return.

Or if they would return the same person.

 

They named the deployments Exile.

 

587:

a date that seemed to change everything.

A date they’d always remember.

 

I remember

where I was.

 

Working in the mailroom at Princeton

my supervisor, Vince, got a call from his wife

who was in the hospital dying of cancer.

The nearest TV was mounted in the corner outside the dining hall.

The TV was on mute.

And for a while all of us standing there staring up at the buildings

we were on mute too.

Until the tower fell

and the silence became a chorus of whispered ‘Oh my God’s.

Then we watched

what everyone else everywhere else watched:

the towers falling one after another

as though they were made of sand or ash

the dust-covered New Yorkers running for their lives

the firemen forsaking their lives

the bodies falling from broken windows

having chosen what they took to be a better fate.

 

I remember Vince, a Catholic,

his fair-skinned face turned a splotchy red

as he pointed angrily at the TV and asked me through clenched teeth:

     ‘Just where the hell is God right now?’ 

For the first time Vince had just realized

that ours is a God who isn’t always useful

in a crisis.

 

I fumbled some responses to answer Vince.

And that was the first time I realized

sometimes words

even religious words

just won’t do.

 

I remember that afternoon

at the elementary school where I tutored

all of us determined not to tell the children

what had happened.

The adults all had tears in their eyes

but tried to smile them away for the kids

who knew better even if they didn’t know what.

The school

like everywhere else

felt like a funeral home.

 

I remember the lanes of Route 1

running north in to NYC empty

traveled by nothing but trash blowing in the breeze.

I remember the digital DOT signs outside my apartment

blinking the auspicious alert: ‘All roads into NYC closed.’

 

I remember running into a classmate that evening.

Joseph was Egyptian.

He’d just had insults hurled at him at WAWA

by passersby too angry and too scared to learn

that he was, in fact, not a Muslim

but a cradle Presbyterian.

 

I remember my sermon that Sunday after Tuesday.

My first sermon ever.

The pews were filled to capacity.

But more notable than how many were there

was who wasn’t there

who would never be there again.

I remember the prayer list that Sunday swelled 8-fold

with lists of sons and daughters and grandchildren and nieces and uncles

and what floor of which tower they worked on.

I remember my sermon that Sunday wasn’t good or bad.

It was inadequate.

Words just wouldn’t do that day.

 

I remember my counseling professor

the Wednesday morning after.

All of us in class still shaken and numb.

Someone asked him how we should respond

as Christians.

He made mention of the prophet Jeremiah

and then told all of us who were married

that we should respond by going home

and making a baby.

I remember how that struck me

as unconventional

and maybe inappropriate.

I didn’t understand what he’d meant

until I held my son for the first time

six years after that Tuesday.

I remember the first high school graduate I ever prayed with

before he shipped off to basic training

and who knows what else.

I remember the first time I flew after 9/11

from the Newark Airport

looking around me

scared and suspicious

in a way I wasn’t raised to be

and had never been before.

I remember after I was appointed here

going to visit at Walter Reed

and understanding

maybe for the first time

both the tragedy

and the honor

in what our men and women in uniform sacrifice.

I remember the conversations I’ve had with you

5 and 6 and 7 and 8 and 9 and 10 years

since that day.

Listening to you tell me about your deployments

and learning how your work is far more complicated

than what fits onto a bumper sticker

whether its red or blue.

 

Listening to you tell me

what its like

to hold your family together

while your spouse is deployed.

What it’s like

when your little kids have trouble remembering

the parent who’s not there

what it’s like

when your teenager starts to resent

the parent who’s not there.

What it’s like

to have a baby

with your husband not there.

What it’s like

to listen to the news

everyday

on eggshells.

 

Psalm 137

is the only psalm

out of 150

that can be dated reliably.

 

Most psalms

because its poetry

you have to guess at the context.

So Psalm 51

‘Against you and you only, Lord

    have I sinned’

we guess is about David

and his sin with Bathsheba

and his murder of her husband.

Or Psalm 72

‘Give the king Your judgments, O God 

    And Your righteousness to the king’s son.’

we can guess is about the crowning of Solomon.

 

With most psalms you have to guess.

But not Psalm 137.

Psalm 137 was written just after it happened

just after the enemy

invaded

killed

destroyed

and took the nation’s strongest citizens away

to Babylon.

 

Psalm 137 is very obviously written

by those living as prisoners and exiles in their enemy’s land.

It’s written in response

to their enemy’s taunts and jibes:

Where is your God now?’ 

    Now that your city’s in ruins 

    Sing a song for us of your God 

    Sing us a song of Zion

    A praise song.

 

But notice

how these victims respond.

Notice what they do.

They refuse.

They don’t plaster over the pain

with piety or platitudes.

They don’t try to justify their faith.

They don’t defend God

with answers or explanations

or arms.

They don’t take the bait.

They don’t answer.

They don’t sing a song of Zion.

They don’t avenge.

They weep

and lament

and they remember.

 

They remember:

life as it was before

and should be again.

They remember:

what was done to them

who and what was lost.

 

And they plead for God

to remember them.

 

When they were victims

when they couldn’t sing

when they couldn’t praise or pray

when they couldn’t answer why this had happened

when no other words would do

God’s People remembered.

 

The psalmist even writes

if God’s People don’t remember

one day

music and praise and prayer

won’t just be difficult

it will become impossible:

‘Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth

     if I do not remember…’

 

As painful as remembering is

not remembering

says the psalmist

will be even more painful.

Because without remembering

you forget the way things were

and you resign yourself

you surrender

to the way things are now.

Or you resort

to the ways of the world.

For the victims of the exile

for God’s People

memory offers hope.

Remembering is resistance.

To remember is to refuse to be a victim

Because

to remember is to not lose sight of

to not let God off the hook for

the way things should be in this world.

 

As a pastor

words are my job.

Words are what you pay me for.

Standing in the pulpit on Sundays

when something happens to you

when you come to my office looking for advice

you expect me to have a word.

 

But on days like this

I don’t much want to be a pastor.

Because on days like this

I’m suspicious of words.

 

I’m mindful that it’s religious words

murderers say to themselves

to make a martyr’s drama out of a crime.

I’m mindful that no words of mine

(or any pastor)

can answer or explain or ameliorate what happened.

I’m mindful of the preacher’s temptation

to exploit a terrible experience

just to make a pious point.

On days like this I’m suspicious of words

because I know

maybe better than any of you

how often we use religious words

to deceive ourselves

and cover-up our pain.

I could preach you a sermon

about how new life comes out of death

about how light shines in the darkness

about how God, in Christ, bears the wounds of the world

with us

about how ‘suffering produces endurance

     and endurance produces character

     and character produces 

     hope.’

And it’s not that those things are not true.

It’s not that those things are inadequate.

It’s that those words are premature.

Ten years is still too soon for those words.

After 9/11

there were many preachers who were quick

to get to the affirmation and praise.

And I suspect after this 9/11 it’ll be much the same.

But the Bible knows its own dates like 9/11.

And in the Bible

the People of God never do that.

They never rush prematurely to praise

or certitude.

Nor do they retaliate.

In the Bible the People of God

grieve and protest and complain

with sorrow and rage and anxiety

for years and years and years and years and years.

They remember.

So today I simply invite you to take this psalm as your cue

and do what people like you in the Bible do.

Remember

those who died

the heroism that was the only clear and steady thing that day.

Remember

those who’ve born the burden of protecting us in the years since

and the families who’ve born them

the children and the youth who’ve known nothing in their lives

but war and fear and terror.

Take this psalm as your cue

and remember how united we were after that day

and how unafraid we were before that day.

Take this psalm as your cue

and remember what was done to us.

Because it’s in remembering that we refuse to settle.

Take this psalm as your cue

and call on God to remember

that he’s promised us better.

When no other words will do

God’s People

remember.

Untitled30

The word to which Inigo Montoya refers in the Princess Bride is ‘inconceivable.’

For many people outside the Kingdom of Florin, it’s inconceivable that another Word doesn’t mean what they think it means.

From cliched, Christian-speak catch-phrases (‘wherever 2 or 3 are gathered’) to familiar flannel-graphed VBS stories (‘Truly, this was God’s Son’), Christians are guilty of routinely misunderstanding, misquoting, misapplying or just plain MISSING verses of scripture.

So I offer you (in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit) the 15 Most Misunderstood Bible Verses.

#14: The Centurion’s Confession

“Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said: ‘Truly, this man was the Son of God.”

(Mark 15.39 NRSV)

Adam Lewis Greene is a graphic artist who specializes in book design. Greene recently began a kickstarter campaign to produce an elegant, readable, novelized version of the Bible.

‘Bibliotheca’ as he calls it struck a chord, quickly exceeding Greene’s initial fundraising goal of $30K by almost $1.5 million.

Evidently others saw in the Bible what Greene sees: an unreadable book.

As a book designer, Greene notes that the encyclopedic format of most Bibles, with thin pages, small fonts, tight margins, lack of white space, unfriendly chapter breaks, distracting verse and footnote citations obscure what scripture fundamentally is: a narrative.

A story.

Meant to be read as you would a novel or a memoir from the beginning to the end.

Reading John’s Gospel, say, in one sitting from start to finish can reveal more about John’s message than any scholarly commentary.

We miss something of the original intent, Greene argues, when we divvy John’s Gospel up into discrete units that we then bloodlessly cross-reference with a hundred other small units of scripture.

The Bible’s encyclopedic form lulls us into forgetting that the evangelists weren’t writing numbered verses. They were creating art; that is, they composed their narratives in such a way as to have an affect upon us.

The bad design of most editions of the Bible, encouraging us to read scattershot as we would a reference book, leads to bad readers of the Bible.

Perhaps no verse of scripture makes Greene’s point as clearly as the centurion’s ‘confession’ at the end of Mark’s Gospel:

‘Truly, this man was the Son of God.’

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Crucified, Jesus has just cried out ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?!’ which itself is a verse from Psalm 22, a prayer the Roman centurion would not have known.

Seeing the would-be King nailed naked to a tree and ostensibly crying out in anguish, this soldier says ‘Obviously, this was the Son of God!’

Son of God? Based on what exactly?

As far as he knows this rabble-rousing rabbi has died an indignant death, abandoned by his followers and by his God, with his movement in tatters.

What would compel a Roman centurion suddenly now to see Jesus as the Son of God?

It doesn’t jive with what Mark’s just told us nor with how he’s unfolding his story.

In spite of the incongruity, Christians persist in interpreting this soldier’s statement as a noble, sincere profession of faith. The centurion thus becomes the Gospel’s first reader, modeling the reaction we should have to encountering the crucified Christ.

On a baser level, the centurion becomes exhibit A for how even a Gentile can see what the Jews do not see: ‘Duh, this was the Son of God.’

Such an interpretation, I believe, reduces Mark’s sophisticated narrative to the kind of unsubtle ‘art’ you’d expect of a Kirk Cameron movie.

Instead the centurion’s ‘confession of faith’ in 15.39 is yet another instance of the irony that thematically unites Mark’s entire Gospel.

Take Adam Greene’s advice.

Read Mark straight through, it’s short. You’ll see: irony abounds.

Only demons recognize Jesus’ authority.

The man who can exorcize demons is accused of having one.

The blind see what the seeing cannot.

He says to give to Caesar what belongs to him, but he’s just implied everything belongs to God.

The mock title above his head (‘The King of the Jews’) turns out to be true.

The ones who charge him with blasphemy commit it in doing so.

When he cries out to God, the crowd thinks he’s soliciting Elijah.

God condescending to be God-with-us in Christ results in us condescending to sin so that we can be me-without-God.

The ‘vindication’ of resurrection results in fear that produces a final failure when Mark concludes his Gospel by telling us the Easter witnesses ran away scared and didn’t say anything to anyone.

There’s a good grammatical reason not to read 15.39 as a confession of faith in Jesus as the Son of God, but the simpler reason is just to read Mark, from start to finish.

“You are the King of the Jews?” Pilate sneers at Jesus.

“Hail, the King of the Jews!” the soliders taunt.

“So, you are the King of Israel?” the bystanders mock and laugh at the Cross.

And “Truly, this was the Son of God” says the centurion.

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In other words:

“Yeah right, this was the Son of God” is the better interpretation.

“Truly, this was the Son of God…Not” best captures how Mark thinks the world  responds to the foolishness of the Gospel.

The centurion’s comments are part and parcel of a story festering with cynicism and sarcasm.

The centurion’s ‘confession’ at the foot of the Cross is but another instance of the irony Mark employs in telling a Gospel that he believes can only be received properly as a scandal and offense.

That we persist in hearing the centurion’s confession as sincere only implicates us in the irony.

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Does God abandon his People, Israel? That’s the question running through the entirety of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. It’s also a question Marc Chagall, a Jew, struggled with in his art during the horrors of the 20th century.

For a recent sermon on Romans 8, I invited friend and art historian, Janet Laisch, to bring Paul’s wrestling to light by bringing Chagall’s artwork of the Crucified Christ to light.

You can listen to the sermon here below, on the sidebar to the right or download it in iTunes under ‘Tamed Cynic.’

Like the Psalmist using words to pray for God’s protection and forgiveness, Chagall one of the most famous modern artists and a Russian Jew used his art to pray to God for protection and forgiveness.

Like Paul in Romans 8, Chagall asks—through his art and poetry—if God has abandoned has abandoned the Jews.

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This is Chagall’s Vitebsk a pen and ink on paper show the Pale of Settlement or territory on the outskirts of Vitebsk, within the border of Tsarist Russia where Jews like Chagall were forced to live.

Chagall was born July 6, 1887 and created art until the night before his death in 1985.

On the right, Chagall is holding a paint palette and is out of proportion—too large—for the space. In real life, Chagall was too “large” for the Pale and eventually move to St. Petersburg to study art, then Paris, is exiled in USA and returns to France until his death.

The church dominates the horizon in this drawing and in real life even for Jews like Chagall, the church dominated his life. The church led anti-semitic pogroms where Christians raped and even murdered Jews that Chagall witnessed growing up in the Pale. The state condoned the church.

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This image, Rain, 1911, charcoal and oil, shows the compound where Chagall lived with his large family of eight surviving children; he was the oldest and his mother doted on him. Compared to Christians outside the Pale, their clapboard home was modest though compared to other Jews living on the compound, Chagall’s family lived well. His mother ran a grocery—foreground right—which supplemented his father’s job as factory worker. They rented out huts on the compound for extra income which enabled Chagall to attend school with Christians.

This led to an artistic awakening. After he first saw a classmate drawing, Chagall decided he wanted to become an artist. His mother accepted and his father gave-in to Chagall and they paid for art lessons and for him to move to St. Petersburg. He became so successful there that a benefactor paid for Chagall to move to Paris.

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After moving to Paris, Chagall painted I am My Village (1911) and is characteristic of his work. It has bright colors, expresses joy through whimsical symbols—two small figures in the center show one upright and one upside down– and folk references: Vitebsk town and a woman milking the cow. He ignores rules for realistic color and proportion in favor of whimsical designs. His friend Picasso complimented as one of the best modern artists other than Matisse and of course, Picasso himself.

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However, Chagall’s art and prayers become more sad between 1933-52 coinciding with German Aggression, WWII and the Holocaust. Like Psalm 44, Chagall paints lament poems and prayers. This photograph shows Chagall painting Solitude.

After Chagall returns from Israel, he focuses on Old Testament and other bible scenes. Chagall wrote about Israel, “I walked the very streets Jesus walked.” Thus, Chagall, a Jew, follows Christ’s footsteps.

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This image is Solitude, an oil on canvas from 1933. It marks the year Hitler becomes Chancellor. The painting like Romans 8 seems to ask God if he has abandoned the Jews. Vitebsk, in the background, is recognizable by the church steeples. In the foreground an Hasidic Jew, perhaps even Chagall, wears a prayer shawl or tallit and clutches the Torah. He looks very depressed. The fiddle beside him, if it were being played might console him. Beside it, a white cow, the original title of this work, and also a reference to Israel herself from the Old Testament. The depressing answer—Chagall feels- is given away by the angel in the night sky flying away. Chagall feels abandoned but continues to pray.

This Russian icon represents the work Chagall would have remembered and loved from sneaking into Christian churches. Chagall wrote, “for me Christ has always symbolized the true type of Jewish martyr. The symbolic figure of Christ was always very near to me, and I was determined to bring him out in my young heart.” Crucifixion_of_Jesus,_Russian_icon_by_Dionisius,_1500

Between 1938-52, Chagall painted a series of crucifixion images. He is not the first Jewish artist to paint the crucifixion. In the late 1800s artists responded to Theologians who sought to remind Christians that Christ was a Jew. Chagall was the first Jewish modern artist though. And other followed. None painted as many. Some said he was obsessed painting more than 30 crucifixions in a span of 14 years.5-marc-chagall-painting-of-jesus

White Crucifixion from 1938 is the first in the series. Chagall painted it in response to the Nights of the Broken Glass where Christians did almost nothing to stop Jews from being murdered. It is also Pope Francis’ favorite work of art.

Here Chagall juxtaposed Christ’s suffering with contemporary Jews’ suffering. Chagall painted a complex theology. In the center, Christ is the Christian Messiah—with a halo and the white light descending from the top of canvas represents divine light like a Russian icon.

Also, Jesus is a Jew.

He wears a tallit, the acronym INRI is written in Hebrew, “Jesus of Nazareth—King of Jews”

Above the cross, Old Testament prophets replace Christian angels and at the base of the cross the candles may reference Yom Kippur. Chagall repeatedly included symbols of Yom Kippur in the crucifixion images.

Circling Christ are the atrocities committed again Jews. A Nazi soldier is burning and desecrating a synagogue. Other recurring images: wandering Jew—who Chagall identifies with himself—refugees: woman clutching a baby, man clutching a Torah, a man with a sign “I am Jew, a boat of refugees, a burning town with a small cow, and Communists soldiers carrying the red flag march forward. We know that the communists were no better friend than the Nazis to the Jews.

 

Chagall paints these images as a prayer pleading for help from God and help from Christians.

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Another Crucifixion image, Persecution from 1941 coincides with Chagall fleeing France and escaping to America before the Nazi invasion. Chagall feels guilt that he is safe while is brothers and sisters are not.

Again, Chagall emphasizes that Christ is a Jew. He wears a tallit and the chicken at the base of the cross is a symbol of Yom Kippur.

After fleeing to USA, Chagall refers to himself as the wandering Jew, “The man in the air in my paintings…is me.. it used to be partially me. Now it is entirely me. I’m not fixed anyplace.” In Medieval Christian legend, the wandering Jew who was present at the crucifixion was doomed to wander the earth forever until he accepts Jesus as Messiah.

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This photograph captures an ancient Jewish folk custom that Chagall practiced. The chicken is whirled three times above their head and sins are symbolically transferred to the chicken so they are free of sin for the new year

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Another crucifixion from the war years is Descent from the Cross 1941. Here Chagall identified himself with crucified Christ. The INRI acronym is replace with Marc Ch. He is dealing with the guilt of being safe in USA while his brothers and sisters suffer. A man with a chicken head helps Chagall down—the chicken head symbolizes Yom Kippur that Chagall will be forgiven. An angel flies in from right and hands the artist a paint palette and brush—symbolizes a resurrection. Chagall wrote a poem about this and other paintings where he painted himself as a crucified Jesus.

 

The gift of painting is from God. Chagall’s prayers are answered. God does not abandon him.
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Yellow Crucifixion from 1942 is Chagall’s response to Nazis “Final Solution.” Newspapers disclose that Jews were being moved from ghettos to concentration camps for extermination. The yellow background symbolizes the yellow star of David—labeled Jude—which Jews were forced to wear. 
The yellow smoky background may symbolize the poisonous fumes of extermination—the Jews like sheep to slaughter.

The Divine Christ—halo—is a Jew. He wears the prayer bands on arm, phylactery on forehead and at the base of the cross the ladder is a symbol of Yom Kippur—as are the green torah scroll, the candle and horn.

Chagall juxtaposes suffering Jews with Christ’s suffering. On the left, the ship sinking, a drowning man and two struggling in the water may reference the tragedy SS. St. Louis—the refugee boat that after landing in Cuba only disembarked a few Jews—sending the majority back to Europe and back to the Nazis.

Next, the Holy Family on a donkey may reference their flight into Egypt and their escape from Herod who murdered Jewish babies.

A man with a sign “I am Jew” wanders while a village burns.

Chagall wants the viewer to equate the suffering Jews with Christ. They are from the same stock. They need our help—he prays and pleads.

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This image, The Crucified from 1944, depicts a horrific nightmarish street scene where three crucifixions line the streets and three more Jews die in the snow. The only living person is the fiddler on the roof. It coincides with the German occupation of Chagall’s boyhood home, Vitebsk. Chagall is very explicit. Contemporary Holocaust victims are suffering like Christ suffered. Like Christ they are innocent.

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Chagall painted Apocalypse (shown above) in 1945, the same year when pictures of concentration camp victims were published. Like the title implies Chagall saw the Holocaust as great battle between good and evil. He seems to pray that God must see Jews on the right side? Christ is naked. He is completely exposed and humiliated like the victims. He is no longer shown divine but Jewish. He wears phylactery—mini prayer book—on his forehead, his tallit is nailed to the cross. The Nazi soldier like a monster from the apocalypse has a tail. Chagall laments the loss of humanity—that nothing was done.

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This crucifixion image is much more hopeful. Exodus from 1952 captures the postwar return of the Jews to what is left of their homes. The flame on the bottom, left indicates that homes do not offer much. They are still in need of our help. Christ as a Messiah—with halo—lights the way. The crowd moving looks happy and hopeful. Some smile and talk. At the top right, a rooster—symbolizes forgiveness. The Jews must move forward with their lives. The woman in a wedding dress is Chagall’s beloved wife and Moses—Chagall’s birth name– at the bottom right may be the artist himselfreuniting with his fellow Jews.

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After the war, Chagall continues to explore religious Old Testament stories and crucifixions though the colors are brighter and more cheerful. In Romans 8, Paul referenced the sacrifice of Issac as an Old Testament event that prefigures the crucifixion. The subject is hopeful. God does not abandon us, the angel intercedes before Abraham sacrifices his son.

Chagall also designed many stained glass images for Cathedrals throughout Europe and America.

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Chagall’s stained glass offers a beautiful expression of God’s love. Chagall depicts the crucifixion on the top left. In the center, a couple embraces and is surrounded by flowers. Chagall in this image designs a crucifixion image as Christians understand it—God’s ultimate sign of love. Chagall here creates an answer to his prayers.

God never abandons his people.

Untitled9Here’s my sermon from this weekend. While we’ve been taking a look this summer at how Paul uses the Psalms in his letter to the Romans, I thought the Psalm he uses in Romans 11, Psalm 94, warranted exclusive focus.

It ends with the verse ‘The Lord our God, the Lord will wipe our enemies out’ for goodness sake.

You can listen to the sermon here below, on the sidebar to the right or download it in iTunes here.

 

‘Just what the hell is your problem?! Reverend?!’

Because it was New Jersey, at first I thought she had a problem with my holding the church door open for her.

Her sorta, kinda of a question had been loud enough to stop the worshippers ahead of her on the front steps outside. And she was obviously angry enough that everyone behind her in line suddenly weren’t in a hurry anymore.

‘Just what the…is it with you?! she asked exasperated.

Little did I know then how that would become the defining question of my pastoral career.

She had close-cropped Terri Gross hair and the kind of horn-rimmed glasses you expect to be distributed by the Democratic National Committee.

I’d seen her come in to the sanctuary as the service began; I’d never seen before. Like most of the crowd who gathered that evening she was a stranger, a visitor, a mourner, searching for meaning in a place she hadn’t searched before.

     It was Wednesday evening, September the 12th.

The day after.

I was still just a student at Princeton. I was approximately 7 weeks in to my first gig as a solo pastor at a small church that’s no longer there.

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Irma, the church organist, and Les, the church accordion player (yes, the church had an accordion player) had helped me put up some xeroxed signs around town that morning.

I didn’t really know what I was doing other than to think offering a worship service might be a good idea.

‘Service of Lament’ read the xeroxed signs I stapled into telephone poles.

The small sanctuary was Christmas crowded that evening, filled with bloodshot eyes and tear-stained faces I’d never seen before.

My preaching text that night was that ‘For such a time as this’ line from Esther, a little book rife with violence and ethnic hatred and where God seems not present at all.

The other scripture passage I used as the opening prayer: Psalm 94, a clench-fisted communal cry for vengeance.

Vengeance against our enemies.

I remember I had to print the psalm in the bulletin because the United Methodist Hymnal Committee chose not to include it in the hymnal.

Because I used it as the opening prayer not the scripture reading, we didn’t follow the final verse ‘the Lord our God will wipe our enemies out’ with ‘This the Word of God for the People of God/Thanks be to God.’

But we did say ‘Amen.’

As in: ‘May it be so.’

 

It seemed the kind of prayer that captured how everyone felt that day. I didn’t notice the volume go soft before we got to the amen.

So I was caught off guard when the woman with the short hair and arty glasses met me at the front doors with: ‘What in the…is your problem?!’

‘Um, excuse me?’ I replied.

     ‘Praying for God to wipe out our enemies?! Isn’t that the same kind of religious fanaticism that led to yesterday?!’

I tried to diffuse her anger with ill-advised humor.

So I said: ‘Oh no, ma’am, it’s much worse than that. That word ‘wipe out’ in the psalm, daka, it’s the same Hebrew word from the flood story. It’s actually a prayer for God to do to our enemies what God did to all those who didn’t make the 2×2 cut.’

I was new to ministry, but I could tell I’d just stepped in it.

‘Christians aren’t even supposed to have enemies!’ she shouted softly. ‘They’re supposed to love everybody.’

Then she pointed her finger at me scoldingly and asked:

     ‘Do you really think Jesus would approve of you praying something like this?’

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She’d greeted me by asking what was my problem, but what she’d hit upon with her question was our problem.

As in, you and me. Christians.

What do we do with a scripture passage like this? A foam-in-the-mouth prayer that desires the destruction of our enemies?

We believe in Jesus, the one who in his Magna Carter on the Mount commanded us to LOVE our enemies.

 

Would Jesus really approve of this psalm?

What do we do with it?

 

Of course, for the heretics and anti-semites among us, the easiest thing to do is just dismiss Psalm 94.

Dismiss it as one of those Old Testament texts. One of those angry, jealous, wrathful God passages. One of those Old Testament texts.

Like the passage in Samuel where, because God is holy and we are not, a boy named Uzzah is struck down dead for accidentally touching the ark.

Psalm 94- we could say it’s like that, one of those Old Testament texts.

The problem though is that those Old Testament texts, warts and all, are stuck on to every promise God makes to his People Israel. And if you dismiss those, you’re left with a Jesus in the New who has no promises for you.

So what do we do?

Do we chalk it up to context? Put it in perspective?

Do we say that this prayer, Psalm 94, gives voice to the voiceless? That it’s anger and rage and lust for payback are exactly what you’d expect to hear from an impoverished and exploited people?

It is. And it does.

So we could chalk it up to context and remember that the people who prayed this weren’t like us at all and maybe feel a little better about this bible passage.

At least until we remember that over and over again God promises to be on the side of people like the ones who prayed this prayer.

People not like us at all.

And that puts me right back feeling a little queasy about what I should do with a passage like this.

 

Maybe we could go the other way with this passage. Just say no.

No, Jesus would not green light the defeat and destruction of your enemies.

But, no worries, because that’s not what’s going on in this passage.

It’s not as troubling and incongruent as it sounds at first, we could say.

Because praying to God to avenge you- as ugly and visceral as it seems- IS  a way of acknowledging that vengeance, no matter how bad you want it and how justly its deserved, isn’t yours to mete out.

Praying to God to avenge you is a tacit recognition that vengeance belongs to God alone.

And so we could say that a passage like Psalm 94 isn’t as nasty as it sounds. We could say that giving over your vengeful rage to God is a way of giving up your claim to it. That it’s better to put your hate and violence into prayer than into action.

I think there’s something to be said for that.

But the words still stick in the throat, don’t they: ‘The Lord our God will wipe them out.’

Even if it’s about putting your anger into prayer not action, it still doesn’t sound very Jesusy. It’s hard to imagine the Jesus who commanded us to love our enemies green-lighting the defeat of our enemies.

‘Do you really think Jesus would approve of a prayer like that?’

She asked me a second time.

She’d upped the ante with the anger in her voice.

But I was just a 3rd semester theology student. Just in my 3rd month of ministry. I hadn’t yet been dressed down by an exiting worshipper as I am by He Who Must Not Be Named here at Aldersgate every week.

So I didn’t know what to say. Not knowing, I simply told the truth:

      “Not only would Jesus approve of a prayer like that,’ I said, ‘Jesus prayed that prayer.”

She shot me the kind of look I’d reserve for Pat Robertson or Joel Osteen and she walked out. Disgusted.

But it’s true.

As a Jew, Jesus would’ve prayed 3 times a day, the shacharit in the morning; the minchah in the afternoon; and the maariz in the evening.

3 times a day.

And each of those 3 devotions would’ve included at least 1 psalm. At the very least, Jesus prayed this prayer every 50 days. At a minimum, Jesus prayed for the defeat of his enemies 7 times a year.

So when you do the math, you discover that as Jesus hung on the cross and said ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do’ he had prayed for the defeat of them at least 210 times in his life.

That means when Pontius Pilate executed a gathering of Galileans for worshipping Yahweh and mixed the Jews’ blood with the blood of animals as a final insult, chances are Jesus had prayed ‘Lord, how long shall the wicked exult’ in the past month.

210 times.

That means when King Herod conscripted the poor in Galilee to construct his palace at Sepphoris, ‘they crush your people, Lord’ had only recently been prayed on Jesus’ lips.

And when Herod took John the Baptist’s head, it wasn’t long after that Jesus prayed ‘God will repay our enemies for their sin; the Lord our God will wipe them out.’ 

     Like any good Jew of his day, Jesus would’ve had it memorized.

     210 times.

     So when Jesus throws his Temple tantrum and screams ‘you’ve turned my Father’s House into a den of thieves,’ it wasn’t too long previous that he’d prayed ‘the proud and wicked say ‘the Lord does not see.’

     And when Jesus takes bread and wine and tells the 12 that he’s like Moses delivering the slaves from Pharaoh, it couldn’t have been that long since all 13 of them had prayed ‘O Lord, you God of vengeance, shine forth!’

    It hadn’t been very long. At the most: 50 days.

    Maybe that day Jesus prayed this prayer.

    For the defeat of his enemies.

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    “Not only would Jesus approve of a prayer like that,’ I said, ‘Jesus prayed that prayer.”

But I was just a student, still only a rookie pastor. I didn’t know what to say.

Because if it’s true that Jesus the Jew prayed this prayer, then the better answer to her question would’ve been another question:

     Who do you think Jesus had in mind when he prayed this psalm?

Who do you think Jesus pictured when he prayed for the defeat of his enemies?

     It’s the better question.

     Because to ask ‘Who did Jesus have in mind when he prayed Psalm 94?’ is but a way of remembering that Jesus had enemies.

     I mean- we know Jesus had enemies, but so often we act as though Jesus didn’t know he had any enemies.

     Which of course makes the cross an abstract, a-historical solution to our spiritual problem: sin and salvation. Or worse: it treats the cross as inadvertent, unhappy end that Jesus didn’t see coming.

    So often we act as though good, loving Good Shepherd Jesus never had an impolite or unkind thought in his head. Not so.

     To ask ‘Which enemy did Jesus have in mind when he prayed Psalm 94?’ is but a way of remembering that he had them.

    For Jesus to be fully human- as human as you or me- in 1st century Galilee means that Jesus had enemies. Enemies he wanted to defeat. Enemies he wanted to defeat as much as anyone else in Israel.

     You see, it’s not until you remember that Jesus had enemies whose defeat he prayed for that you’re able to hear his gospel the way he intended it to be received.

     Because when Jesus commands his followers to love their enemies and pray for them, there’s a 1 in 3 chance he was thinking of King Herod.

     And when Jesus commands his followers not to resist evil and violence with evil and violence of their own, the odds are even better Caesar and Pilate immediately came to everyone’s mind.

    And when Jesus commands them to forgive a fellow believer who’s wronged you, I’m willing to bet the Scribes and Pharisees were on Jesus’ mind. They plotted against him at least that many times.

     It’s not until you remember that Jesus had enemies he wanted to defeat that you’re able to hear his gospel rightly.

     But maybe we don’t want to hear it.

     Because once you hear his gospel rightly, you can’t help but notice how Jesus does exactly as he says.

     For when the Scribes and Pharisees finally condemn Jesus and come for him in the Garden, Jesus tells his followers to put away the sword.

     And when Jesus is mocked, beaten and scourged, he makes good on his commandment.

     He doesn’t retaliate.

     He turns the other cheek.

     And when Pilate and Herod and Caesar and the priests and the soldiers and the crowd and you and me crucify him- when his enemies crucify him- Jesus responds by loving them: ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.’

     He dies rather than kill.

     He doesn’t resist evil with evil. He suffers it. He dies to it.

     And in dying to his enemies, Jesus defeats them. Destroys them, scripture says. Triumphs over them.

     When we forget Jesus had enemies he wanted to defeat as much as anyone else in Israel, we then don’t know what to do with a scripture passage like Psalm 94.

     We think we need to dismiss it as one of those Old Testament texts replaced by the New. But the confusion we feel about a passage like Psalm 94 is really our confusion about Jesus.

     Because it’s not that the prayer in Psalm 94 is antithetical to Jesus. No, Jesus is God’s answer to the prayer in Psalm 94.

     Pay attention, this is everything.

     Jesus doesn’t replace Psalm 94.

     Jesus enacts it.

     It’s not that the prayer for our enemies to be defeated is the opposite, alternative to Jesus’ teaching that we should love our enemies.

     No, it’s that love of enemies is the way we defeat them.

     We completely miss the revolution Jesus leads from the get-go because all our faith is in the kind of battles we wage.

     Love of enemies is not Jesus telling us we should passively endure our enemies; it’s his strategy to defeat them.

     The cross is not how evil defeats Jesus.

     The way of the cross is how Jesus defeats them.

     The way of the cross, the way of suffering, forgiving, cheek-turning love is the way we ‘wipe them out.’

     And I know- at this point someone always wants to argue that Christ’s enemy loving offensive just isn’t effective in our world.

     But today, right now, the crucified Christ rules the Earth from the right hand of the Father.

     And Caesar? He just has a salad named after him.

     So you tell me what’s more effective.

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     After the woman with the short hair and glasses stepped out the sanctuary doors in disgust, a few strangers later a 50-something man came up to me.

     His thick white hair had a severe part on the side. You could tell from his dress that he’d come straight from work. His red tie matched the color of his countenance.

     When he shook my hand, he pulled me towards him in a ‘I know it was you, Fredo’ kind of way.

    And he said, angrily: ‘I’m not a religious person, but you’ve got a lot of nerve.’

    ‘Here we go again’ I thought.

     ‘Where do you get off praying that? Forgive those who trespassed against us?! Did you see what they did?! Just where did you get an irresponsible idea like that?!’

     ‘Uh, well, um…Jesus’ I said.

     He shook his head. ‘This was my first coming to a church. I can see I haven’t missed anything.’

     And he stormed out.

     I wonder-

     If our discomfort with a psalm like #94, if our dismissals of Christ’s commandment to love our enemies is because we’d like to go on thinking Christians can be Christian without having enemies, or just having the same enemies everyone else has.

      I wonder if our discomfort and dismissals are because we’d like to go on thinking we can follow Jesus without making enemies.

     Making enemies for the way we follow Jesus.

Untitled10111I’ve become convinced that its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

You can find the earlier installments here.

Here are questions 27-28

I. The Father

27. If God is all-powerful and all-knowing then what is evil?

There are two kinds of evil: evil suffered and evil done.

To evil suffered we give the name ‘creation.’

To evil done we give the name ‘no-thing.’

Evil suffered is what comes to a creature from outside it, the evil that happens to a thing for which it is not itself responsible.

Evil suffered is relative in that the suffering of one creature comes about by the flourishing of another; for example, when a lion eats a lamb the evil suffered by the lamb is real but it comes about by the lion simply fulfilling its lion-ness.

Evil done is particular to responsible beings, as in, wickedness.

Evil done is ‘nothing,’ meaning it’s an absence or privation within a person.

A wicked person does not possess within them something called wickedness. There’s no such thing as ‘wickedness’ in and of itself. Rather a wicked person is someone with an absence of good, a person who fails to be fully human.

If we were ‘free’ in terms of being independent from God, then evil suffered would present the only problem of evil, for God, having no control over our free actions, would not be able to prevent evil done.

However, since God is the cause of all things, both evil suffered and evil done present problems for believers in God.

“He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”    

– Matthew 5.45

28. If God is all-knowing and all-powerful, is God responsible for evil and suffering?

Responsible? Yes.

But guilty? No.

If God is the cause of all our actions, even our ‘free’ acts, then God is the cause behind both evil suffered and evil done in that God has created all things in the world and continually holds all things in existence.

In the case of evil suffered, God has created and continually holds in existence a world in which the flourishing and fulfillment of one creature leads to the suffering of another. A tumor flourishing as a tumor leads to the suffering of the person with cancer.

A lion fulfilling it’s lioness leads to the suffering of the lamb.

So God is responsible for much of the evil suffered in the world, but God is not ‘guilty’because there is not another kind of world God should have created. A world where God stops the lion from eating the lamb, for example, would be a world where God prevents the lion from fulfilling its lioness. In other words, a world of machines rather than a world of creatures.

In the case of evil done, God has created and continually holds in existence every person who commits evil. Even as those people commit evil, God holds them in existence. Their evil acts are never ‘free’ in the sense of being independent from God so in this sense God is responsible for evil done.

However, God is not ‘guilty’ of evil done for evil is not a thing which God has created. Evil is a privation, an absence, identifiable only in relation to the good God has made. Evil is a defect, the failure of people to flourish and fulfill their humanness.

Whereas there does not seem to be another world free of evil suffered that God should have created, it does seem possible that God could have created a world where humans do not fail to fulfill their humanity.

That God did not create such a world is a deep mystery to which we can only reply by way of the Cross.

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” – Romans 12.21

Here’s my sermon from Sunday occasioned by the baptisms of Tyler and Parker.

The texts for the sermon were Romans 10.1-10 and Psalm 19.

You can listen to the sermon here below, on the sidebar to the right or you can download it in iTunes here.

 

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Dear Tyler and Parker,

 

In the event the bishop has whisked me away to another parish or, more likely, exiled me to the Eastern Shore, allow me to introduce myself.

I’m the right reverend Jason, as in I’m right in most things and reverent about very few. I’m the one who baptized you.

Sorry.

By now, confirmation age, you’re old enough to realize that what I’ve done to you commits you to struggling with some inconvenient choices.

     ‘Will you serve God or Money?’ is one such dilemma.

‘Will you study hard to get as far up the ladder as you can or will you live the posture of servant?’ is another.

‘Will you trust that happiness is what can be captured in a filtered, homogenized Instagram pic or will you cross your fingers and trust that happiness is found among those who hunger and thirst for God’s justice?’ is still another choice.

 

They’re inconvenient choices because in every case the choice your baptism commits you to goes against the grain of both country and culture.

     Therefore, your baptisms- if done rightly- make you not just a Christian.

They make you odd.

By the time you read this letter, Tyler and Parker, you’ll be the age when ‘odd’ is about the last thing you’ll want to be. By the time you read this you’ll be an age where what you want most is to conform, blend in, be normal- a desire from which we never recover.

I won’t be shocked then if you’d like to register your complaint with me for what I’ve done to you in baptizing you. But, truth be told, you should take your gripes up with your parents too. They were more than just accessories to the crime.

Your baptism? They did it without your consent. They did it against your will even. They didn’t wait until you were old enough to ‘understand’ whatever that may mean.

They didn’t postpone your baptism until you could choose it for yourself, and in that your parents may have done the boldest thing they could ever do for you.

Tyler, Parker-

I can guess what you’re thinking: it was just a bowl of H2O. In a school cafetorium at that.

True, but trust me: your baptisms may be the most counter-cultural acts your government employee parents ever commit.

     By baptizing you into the way of the Cross- BEFORE you can make up your mind for yourselves, your parents prophetically, counter-culturally acknowledge that you don’t have minds worth making up.

You don’t have minds worth making up; that is, not until you’ve had your minds (and your hearts and your habits too) shaped by Christ.

How could you possibly make up your own mind? Choose for yourself?

After all, what it means to be free, to be fully human, is to love God and love your neighbor as yourself just as Jesus loved. So how could you ever make up your own mind, choose for yourself, until after you’ve apprenticed under Jesus?

Tyler, Parker-

I realize telling you you don’t have minds worth making up on your own sounds offensive. If it sounds like I’m being offensive in order to get your attention it’s because I am.

Indeed I have to be offensive.

We live in a culture that thinks Christianity is something you get to choose (or not), as though it’s no different than choosing between an iPhone or a Droid.

Notice no one in our country thinks it unusual to raise their children to love their country, to serve their country and even die for it. But people do think their kids loving God, serving God and possibly suffering for God should be left up to their own ‘choice.’

It’s just such a prejudice that produces nonsense like the statement: ‘I believe Jesus Christ is Lord…but that’s just my personal opinion.’

When engaged couples tell me they’re going to let their children choose their religion for themselves when they’re older, I often reply to those couples that they should raise their kids to be atheists, for at least that would require their children to see their parents held convictions.

Our culture teaches us to think we should get to choose the Story of our life for ourselves.

Which, in itself, is a Story none of us got to choose.

Which makes it not just a Story but a Fiction.

A lie.

     It’s a lie to suppose that the choice is between religion or no religion.

It’s a lie to suppose that the choice is between faith or no faith.

It’s a fiction, to believe the choice is either the Christian Story or No Story.

Today we baptize you against your will, before you can make up your own mind or choose a Story for yourself. We do so because if we do not make you a participant in the story of Christ then another rival Story will soon and surely takes its place over your life.

The Story of More. Or Might.

Today by immersing you in a Story not of your own choosing your parents go against the grain of the culture.

     It’s a prophetic act that’s made all the bolder when you pause to consider that in baptizing you your parents accept that one day you may have to suffer for their convictions, the convictions that brought you to the font.

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Tyler and Parker-

You’re just confirmation age, still only padawans, so you might be wondering how in the world what we do to you today could lead to you suffering because of the convictions we mediate to you.

After all, you might be thinking, ‘Christianity is about a personal relationship with God. Faith is private, a matter of the heart.’

Isn’t that what Paul means when he gives what sounds to us like a more eloquent version of the Sinner’s Prayer in Romans 10? Isn’t Paul saying that faith is what we believe (personally and privately) in our hearts?

Actually, Paul doesn’t mean anything like that, but for you to see that requires you to know Paul’s context.

When Paul wrote Romans, around the year 55, Christianity was a small, odd community amidst an Empire antithetical to it. Christians were a nation within a nation. Christianity represented an alternative fealty to country and culture and even family.

     Baptism then was not a religious seal on a life you would’ve lived anyway. It was a radical coming out.

It was an act of repentance in the most original meaning of that word: it was a reorientation of everything that had come before.

     For to profess that ‘Jesus is Lord’ was to simultaneously protest that ‘Caesar is not Lord.’

     As you’ll learn in confirmation Tyler and Parker, the words mean the same thing: Caesar, Christ. They both mean King, Lord.

You cannot affirm one with out renouncing the other.

Which is why in Paul’s day and for centuries after when you submitted to baptism, you’d first be led outside. And by a pool of water, you’d be stripped naked. Every bit of you laid bare, even the naughty bits.

And first you’d face West, the direction where the darkness begins, and you would renounce the powers of this world, the ways of this world, the evils and injustices of this world, the world of More and Might.

Then, leaving that old world behind, you would turn and face East, the direction whence Light comes, and you would affirm your faith in Jesus and everything that new way of life would demand.

In other words, baptism was your pledge allegiance to the Caesar named Yeshua.

If that doesn’t sound much like baptism to you, Tyler and Parker, there’s a reason for that.

A few hundred years after Paul wrote his letters, the Caesar of that day, Constantine, discovered that it would behoove his hold on power to become a Christian and make the Empire Christian too.

Whereas prior to Constantine it took significant conviction to become a Christian, after Constantine it took considerable courage NOT to become a Christian.

After Constantine, with the ways of the world ostensibly baptized, what had formerly been renounced became ‘Christian-ish.’

Consequently, what it meant to be a Christian changed. It moved inside, to our heads and hearts.

What had been an alternative way in the world became a religion that awaited the world to come.

Jesus was demoted from Risen Lord of the Earth to Secretary of Afterlife Affairs.

Which meant ‘faith’ became synonymous with ‘beliefs’ or ‘feelings.’

Tyler and Parker-

I apologize for the historical detour, but I do want you to see how it’s the shift that happened with Constantine that makes it possible for us to read Romans 10 and assume that when Paul writes about faith he’s talking about our personal beliefs or private feelings or that when mentions ‘salvation’ he has life after death in mind.

Nothing could be further off the mark.

Because for Paul the word faith is best expressed by our word ‘loyalty.’

Allegiance.

To discover just how complicated being loyal to Christ can get, you need look no further than verse 4 of that same passage, where Paul says that Christ is the telos– the end or the aim or the goal- of the Law.

Of course, by Law Paul means Torah.

By Torah Paul means Scripture.

By Scripture Paul means Revelation.

And by Revelation Paul means….Everything.

     Everything God had heretofore revealed to his People all of it telegraphs the way of Christ.

     All those strange kosher laws in Leviticus? They anticipated the day when Christ would call his disciples to be a different and distinct People in the world.

‘Eye for an eye?’ It was meant to prepare a People who could turn the other cheek.

The ‘You shall have no other gods’ command was given so that we could recognize that kind of faith when it finally took flesh and dwelled among us.

When Paul writes that Christ is the telos of the Law, he simply dittos what Jesus himself says to kick off his most important sermon: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

     Another way of saying that is how Paul puts it in a different letter when he writes that ‘Jesus is the eikon of the invisible God.’ 

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     Parker, the way your wood-working Father might translate that would be to say:

The life of Jesus displays the grain of the universe.

     And that’s why being loyal to Christ can be so difficult and complicated, Tyler and Parker, because if the life of Jesus displays the grain of the universe then Christianity entails a hell of a lot more than believing in Jesus.

     It’s about following after Jesus.

     It’s about immersing ourselves in the way of Jesus, which by the way is what the word ‘baptize’ means.

     Immerse.

     Tyler, Parker-

     What Paul intends by calling Jesus God’s Telos is the same claim with which we wet your heads:

     That the truth of the universe is revealed not in the grain of the judge’s walnut gavel, not in the grain of the banker’s mahogany desk and not in the grain of the oval office’s mahajua floor.

     The grain of the universe is revealed in the pattern of life that led to the pounding of nails into wood through flesh and bone.

     If you’re tracking with me that can sound like bad news as often as it sounds like Gospel. Because if Jesus reveals the grain, the telos, of the universe, then that means:

The way to deal with offenders is to forgive them.

The way to deal with violence is to suffer.

The way to deal with war is to wage peace.

The way to deal with money is to give it away.

And the way to deal with the poor is to befriend them.

The way to deal with enemies is to love them and pray for them.

And the way to deal with a world that runs against the grain is to live on Earth as though you were in Heaven.

Perhaps now, Tyler and Parker, you’re beginning to intuit how what we do to you today- if we follow through on our end- will make you two a lot more dysfunctional in our world than you otherwise would have been.

 

It’s no wonder our culture- Christians included- would prefer us simply to ‘believe.’

Believe in a generic god. Or just believe in the freedom to believe.

 

The “beauty of nature may lead you to declare the glory of God,” as the Psalmist sings, but the beauty of nature won’t ever lead you to a Jew from Nazareth.

And you can be safe and damn certain it won’t ever lead you to a Cross.

But the way of the Cross is the path we commit you to today.

 

If I’m honest, a part of me feels as though I should say I’m sorry, for if you stay true to that path you’ve no reason to suppose it’ll turn out any better for you than it did for Jesus.

 

On the other hand, Parker, your Dad’s a pretty good carpenter. He can tell you that whenever you work against the grain, even when that seems the easiest, most obvious thing to do, eventually you’ll run into difficulty. And ultimately the fruit of your labor will not be beautiful.

 

Perhaps as much as anything that’s what it means to have faith in Jesus, the telos of the universe. It’s to trust that in the End the shape of his life will have made yours beautiful.

Sincerely,

Jason

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images“I knew Alfred Dewayne Brown was stone cold innocent the moment I met him. I am from Northern New Jersey and was a Public Defender with the Legal Aid Society in Brooklyn, New York, so I have developed a strong “bullshit” meter. I can usually spot a lie better than a polygraph. When I first met Dewayne on Death Row in Livingston, Texas, 60 miles north of Houston, I knew the man was 100% innocent. 

I had absolutely no doubt. When I walked out of Death Row for the first time, I did all I could to fight back tears and keep from being sick because I was so excited and nervous at the same time. I was also scared as hell and worried whether it was too late to save his life and that I was going to be there at the prison watching him die right in front of me.”

– One Big Setup: The Alfred Dewayne Brown Story 

To my mind, other than the Cross itself, the most compelling reason for Christians to oppose the death penalty is that it commits what belongs to God alone (the taking of life) to a system which is vulnerable to human error and moral corruption.

To insist that system is immune to such error risks violating the first commandment, as it places a degree of faith in the criminal process that belongs to God alone.

Or, in Pauline terms, it values our justice system over God’s justice.

What scripture calls ‘idolatry.’

images-1My friend and parishioner, Brian Stolarz, begins his forthcoming memoir with the above confession.

Apparently not everyone’s BS radar is as well-calibrated as Brian’s, for Alfred Dewayne Brown (pictured below) was sentenced to be killed by Texas without any physical evidence to corroborate the charge of murder, despite having an IQ which- by law- should’ve precluded him from capital punishment and in the face of the fact that the state’s only witness had been bullied into perjuring herself.

Even a BS radar half that of Brian’s could’ve sniffed out Alfred’s innocence, or, if not his innocence, at least detected sufficient doubts to give his lynch mob pause on their way to Calvary. brownalfred

Last week Arizona botched the execution of Joseph Wood, who died nearly 2 hours  after the supposed ‘lethal’ injection administered by his executioners.

Joseph Wood gasped and struggled for nearly 2 hours before he finally died. Who’s to say how many seconds or minutes or hours Wood’s killing fell shy of qualifying as ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’

Wood’s botched execution provoked outrage and incredulity among most of the public, callous, satisfied jeers among some of it and promises of (not independent) ‘review’ among the public’s officials.

What’s truly outrageous and, I believe, sinful is how the chair or the syringe or the noose is only 1 example of how the capital punishment apparatus is fraught with corruption and prone to error.

In Alfred Dewayne Brown’s case, the hold-it-in-your-hands evidence that would’ve supported his alibi all along (a phone record) was- all along- HIDDEN in the garage of a homicide detective.

Before you utter ‘What the…’ to yourself, wait:

Alfred’s IQ, which marks him as mentally retarded, was ginned up by the state’s doctor so as to nudge Alfred a nose past the qualifying line.

BTW:

Let’s not forget the moderately salient point that the grand jury’s foreman, whom transcripts unambiguously identify as leading a pile-on against Alfred’s girlfriend, was a retired cop.

A retired cop.

In a cop killing.

Jury of his peers.

The aforementioned doctor has been censured.

The cop with the garage and the prosecutor who turned the blind eye?

Not sure.

The girlfriend bullied and jailed to induce her to perjure herself?

She’s since changed her testimony.

Back to her original testimony.

Alfred Dewayne Brown?

Still on death row.

Despite consensus of his innocence.

In a twist of irony only Pontius Pilate could appreciate, all-but-exonorated-Alfred sits on death row while Texas decides whether or not it will grant him a ‘new trial.’

Brian shared his story of working for Alfred’s life in a sermon earlier this summer. You can watch it below.

You can read the latest stories about the grand jury’s foreman and its treatment of Alfred’s girlfriend here, here, here and here.

What happened to Joseph Wood on the table in Arizona happens to innocent (usually black) people in interrogation rooms and jury rooms more often than most of us would like to confront.

To turn a blind, blithe eye to such injustice, however, places us under St Paul’s auspicious words:

“I have great sorrow and anguish. For I testify of them that they may have great zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For not knowing the justice of God, and seeking to establish their own form of justice, they did not submit to the justice of God.

For the Messiah is the aim of all law so that justice may be based on loyalty to him.” 

– Romans 10.3-4

(Theodore Jennings, trans)

The more internet outrage and chatter Alfred’s case generates the quicker Texas will be compelled to give him a new trial or, even better, his freedom.

So leave a comment, ‘like’ it on Facebook, retweet it or forward it on to a friend.

A small gesture towards God’s justice that could go a long way. Do the right thing.

 

 

 

rev-charles-moore-327x388You may have missed it in the mainstream press.

Last week a retired United Methodist pastor in Texas set himself on fire in a shopping center parking lot.

Rev. Charles Moore intended his self-immolation as an act of social protest against the death penalty, homophobia and racism of both his denomination and his home-state.

Not only did Moore see his suicide as his destiny, he saw it as an unavoidable act of faithfulness- the place where his Gethsemane led.

Methodists, I think it’s fair to say, aren’t known being particularly exciting or taking up extraordinary means to make their point. Moore’s immolation, however, reminds Christians that the line between mysticism and mental anguish has always been a fine one.

While I certainly don’t want to make hay of another’s struggles of the soul, I do think it worthwhile pondering whether Moore’s self-immolation can be construed as faithful according to Christian grammar.

In letter he wrote in June, Rev. Moore drew an analogy between himself and the Protestant saint of the 20th century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

“This decision to sacrifice myself was not impulsive: I have struggled all my life (especially the last several years) with what it means to take Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s insistence that Christ calls a person to come and die seriously. He was not advocating self-immolation, but others have found this to be the necessary deed, as I have myself for some time now: it has been a long Gethsemane, and excruciating to keep my plans from my wife and other members of our family.”

Of course, any student of history could point out the obvious distinction that renders such an analogy erroneous: Bonhoeffer didn’t commit suicide.

Bonhoeffer didn’t choose death or martyrdom.

Bonhoeffer chose a path of faithfulness he knew might well lead to his death.

The difference could not be greater nor could their appropriation of the cross be more divergent.

Self-immolation is (I hope is clear) an outlier but nonetheless it relies upon a certain logic of the cross that is quite mainstream: the belief that a greater good can come from suffering and death.

Such a belief consequently baptizes suffering and death as means towards greater aims for it reads the Cross as what God requires/desires in order for the transaction of redemption to be complete.

The myth of redemptive suffering/violence IS a myth.

To put it more clearly if more crudely only a penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement can lead to someone like Rev. Moore construing his own self-inflicted suffering as a divinely sanctioned means to a social justice end.

It’s a broad generalization but this IS a blog after all:

Rev. Moore’s logic of the Cross is no different than the understandings preached from pulpits on most Sundays and sung in nearly every 19th century hymn and contemporary CCM song.

Rev. Moore’s self-immolation reveals how destructive such interpretations of the Cross can prove.

My recent theo-crush, the late Dominican philosopher Herbert McCabe once wrote: timothy-radcliffe

“Jesus teaches us two things.

First, he teaches that in order to be a human being we must love fully and without condition.

Second, he teaches us that if we do love this way, they’ll kill us.”

More ably put perhaps but this is the same point McCabe makes when he writes:

 “The mission of Jesus from the Father is not the mission to be crucified; what the Father wished is that Jesus should be human…And this is what Jesus sees as a command laid on him by his Father in heaven; the obedience of Jesus to his Father is to be totally, completely human.

Thus, Jesus was crucified because he was human not because the Father planned to have him killed for some greater cause.

We must always remember and never shy away from the fact that we crucified Jesus, not the Father. 

We have created a world that is characterized by suffering and death—by oppression, torture, and even crucifixion. We must not become confused on this point: God never causes suffering. God is always God for us, always for human flourishing, always for love.

Jesus was killed not because God wanted him to be killed but because we wanted him to be killed.” 

McCabe seeing Jesus as the truly human one is a point not altogether different from what Paul means in Romans 1 and 3 when he identifies Jesus as the Faithful One.

Because Jesus shows us what it means to be authentically, fully human, he also accordingly reveals to us what it means to be faithful. And what we see revealed by Jesus is not someone desiring death nor someone who sees violence as the means by which God chooses to redeem.

Rather in Jesus the Faithful One we see a lover of God who accepts- with no small amount of terror and regret- his death rather than resort to violence himself.

Without Easter, the Cross just is what Rome intended it to be: tragic.

And when we remember that the Cross is what we do to Jesus not what God does to Jesus we can see Rev. Moore’s act for what it so sadly is: suicide.

 

hobby_lobbyWhile corporations are now considered people- religious people- under the law (I hope all corporations start tithing now), prisoners on death row continue to be deemed less than creatures under the law.

They can be killed.

To teach us that killing is wrong (let’s hope they were guilty).

For profit entities that bring you cheap wicker baskets made possible by child labor (not to mention population-control policies which incentivize abortion) are now more of a ‘person’ than the flesh-and-blood people behind bars, the former eliciting more of our empathy and moral outrage than the latter.

“I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison a morally afflicted CEO and you came to visit me.”

You wouldn’t know- at all– from the media coverage, but while SCOTUS handed down the Hobby Lobby decision activists, Christians and clergy gathered this week on the front steps of the Court to protest the death penalty.

Chances are you’ve heard plenty about the Green family who owns Hobby Lobby and how they’ve been praised for taking a principled stand for Christ.

RNS-CLAIBORNE-COLUMNChances are you haven’t heard anything about this Christian quietly walking across Texas to show his solidarity with those his state plans to kill in the coming months and years.

That you might have only heard about the protest here speaks volumes about the holes in our Christ-centered compassion.

Christian culture is sex-obsessed, singling out a few discrete issues around which to hoist the banner of ‘life.’

Protestants would do well to learn from our Catholic friends who insist that disparate issues like abortion, poverty , healthcare and executions all belong to a single ‘seamless garment’ of life.

My own United Methodist tradition nears schism fighting over our official language labeling homosexuality as ‘incompatible with Christian teaching.’

Little commented upon is the fact that our Discipline also views the death penalty as black-and-white at odds with the Gospel, for the death penalty

“denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore and transform all human beings.” 

Translation:

In the death penalty we stop God from doing what God wants to do in people.

Change them.

That half of all United Methodists and many of its clergy support state-sanctioned killing in violation of our Discipline receives not one iota of the indignant moral outrage these days reserved for clergy presiding at same-sex unions.

Pastors aren’t brought up on charges for supporting the death penalty in the face of church teaching.

Sex is just sexier.

Plus, it requires less of us where Jesus’ requisites are concerned: that we love sinners.

Or at least begrudgingly admit that Jesus loves them.

On the front steps of the Court today you’ll find people who hold many moral and legal reasons they oppose the death penalty:

There is no way to remedy mistakes. 

There is discrimination in the application of the death penalty. 

Application of the death penalty tends to be arbitrary 

The death penalty involves medical doctors, who are sworn to preserve life, in the act of killing. 

Executions have a corrupting effect on the public. 

The death penalty is an expression/confession of the absolute power of the State. 

Even the guilty have a right to life. 

CrucifixionThe reasons are many but for Christians there’s a single primary motivating view.

It’s a view, I would argue, that cuts closer to the quick of the Gospel than do the drivers behind the other competing issues which preoccupy Church and Culture:

The New Testament teaching that we do not put sinners to death because Christ has already been put to death for every act of human sinfulness.

It is in the face of Christ that we see the full extent of how God’s mercy meets God’s righteousness.

God says in the Old Testament that vengeance belongs to him.

Only in the New Testament do we see how literal God meant it.

For in Jesus Christ God bears the full penalty of our rebellion against God and neighbor on the cross.

Here’s my sermon interview with a friend and death penalty attorney, in case you missed it:

 

16 CARAVAGGIO 02 THE SERMPON OF STEPHEN

 * The Stoning of Stephen

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* The Beheading of St. Paul

Caravaggio-Crucifixion_of_Peter

* The (Upside Down) Crucifixion of Peter

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The Woman Jesus Refuses to Condemn to a Legal Execution

(aka: The Woman Caught in Adultery )

St Andrew Apostle

* The Whipping and Crucifixion (on an X-Shaped Cross) of Andrew

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* The Stoning (and Clubbing) of James, Jesus’ Brother

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* The Execution (by Arrows) of Jude

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* The Assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero

 

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* The Hanging of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

 

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God’s Mercy for Cain by God (Following the First Murder)

 

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* The Execution of Jesus (aka: God Incarnate)

* = Lawful executions of innocents carried out by the official governing bodies of the time