Archives For Racism

To be a Virginian

Jason Micheli —  February 7, 2019 — 2 Comments

This one comes from my friend and colleague, Reverend Drew Colby.

There’s an anonymous quote which gets recited on occasion in Virginia that goes like this:

“To be a Virginian either by birth, marriage, adoption, or even on one’s mother’s side, is an introduction to any state in the Union, a passport to any foreign country, and a benediction from above.”

This week we are reminded that to be a Virginian is also to be acquainted with the disease of racism. As revelations about our governor and attorney general have surfaced, many of us Virginians are honestly unshocked; but not unmoved.

For white Virginians there are likely a spectrum of reactions to the news. Mine was, in part, to reflect on my own racism. I’ve never painted my face black. I’ve never worn a KKK hood. But I do remember the first time I said the N-word. I didn’t say it as a put-down or epithet. I said it the way my black friends seemed to say it.

I went to a predominately Black school and so I had heard the N-word used commonly by my Black classmates. Like all middle schoolers I was trying on new identities to fit in. I even loosened my West End of Richmond braided leather belt and pulled down my pleated khaki shorts once I got on the bus each day so I could “bust a sag” like the cool kids. I ended up just choking off my husky rear end half-way down so I looked like I had two buts.

It was in 6th grade gym when we were playing basketball and I thought I’d try to fit in by talking like the cool kids too. A classmate made a three pointer and that’s when I said it.

“Nice shot nigga…”

I know, it’s cringy on so many levels.

The room went silent and frozen except for the slow bounce of the basketball coming to a stop.

“What did you just say?” asked my classmate.

Another long silence.

Then my friend Ricky spoke up:

“He didn’t say nothin’. Come on let’s play.”

Ricky checked the ball and we moved on. With those words “He didn’t say nothin’,” my sin was blotted out. I had been given mercy. I had been saved. And I believe that Ricky offered me that day is, unfortunately, one of the only things that can save Virginia.

As my friend Jason Micheli once said on his podcast, these days:

“Those who want to expose privilege often do so in finger-wagging ways; and those like me immediately get defensive.”

That’s a good part of what we’ve seen in the last week, and in many ways it’s something we see everywhere these days. As famous people are “found out” to have made major mistakes, intentional sins, and horrifying yearbook photos, they’re called out and, rightfully, exposed as unworthy of the position and prestige of the office they occupy. What seems to happen in the aftermath is a variety of forms of self-preservation, particularly a stance of defensiveness with an excuse-laden apology that no one is really eager to accept.

What I haven’t seen much of, but what I regret to report may be the only way to get from the feigned racial reconciliation we have had thus far in Virginia to actual reconciliation, is some version of what post-apartheid South Africans called amnesty. Perhaps if these politicians were told they would be permitted to stay in office if they were willing to give a full account of their racism, they would have the space necessary to actually, honestly, confess and repent.

The absolution in our liturgy always comes after the confession of sin, it’s true, but if every Sunday is a little Easter then the confession is only made possible in light of the mercy made known to us already in Christ and him crucified.

The Law, Paul says, not only accuses us but exhortations from the Law elicit the opposite of their intent.

Thus, call-outs in our culture, as appropriate and righteous as they are will only exacerbate racism not eliminate it.

Amnesty Mercy is what we need.

Mercy is what all of us need.

To be a Virginian is to be acquainted with the disease of racism. Not just acquainted, afflicted. To be a White Virginian is to have inherited the legacy of slavery like a gene, to have been born into it like, well, like sin. To be a White Virginian is to have a particular version of Psalm 51 to pray, “Indeed, I was born guilty, a racist when my mother conceived me.”

In Virginia our racism is so pervasive and thorough that the only way through it is to seek and swallow the good but grueling declaration “your sins are forgiven.”

The alternative, shame, is too much to bear.

And, as a future post about post-apartheid South Africa will suggest, I really believe it is only in the context of unmerited forgiveness that we can truly know our sin, have the space to face it honestly, and repent.

Maybe that way we could one day say “To be a Virginian either by Birth, Marriage, Adoption, or even on one’s Mother’s side is, by the grace of God, to be acquainted with both the sin of racism and the joy of reconciliation.”

The Bottomless Glass

Jason Micheli —  January 21, 2019 — 1 Comment

John 2.1-11

Were you all paying attention? 

Jesus responds to Mary’s alarm that the already drunk guests have run out wine by making more wine for them to drink. 

Listen to the story again:

Jesus doesn’t just top off their glasses. Each of those stone jars held atleast 25 gallons of water. That’s 150 gallons. 

I did the math: 

4 quarts to a gallon

1 quart equals roughly 6 glasses

Giving you a minimum grandtotal = 2160 glasses of wine-that-had-been-water.

I mean, unless Pat Vaughn is at your party that’s a prodigal amount of booze. 

And Jesus makes not 3 Buck Chuck, Jesus makes the best wine for drunk people to drink. 

He pours bottomless glasses of top shelf wine for people too drunk to appreciate drinking it. He takes the water from the stone jars and transforms it into gold medal wine for people too far gone even to notice what he’s gone and done.As the master of feast says to the groom: “Everyone brings out the best wine first and then the cheap wine after the guests have gotten hammered, but you have saved the best wine for now when they’re sloppy drunk.” 

In other words, he’s saying: “It’s a waste.” 

Their taste buds are shot. They’ll probably just spill it all over themselves. And come morning— with the hangovers they’re going to have— you can be sure they won’t even remember drinking it. They won’t remember what you’ve done. 

For them. 

It’s wasted on them, the maitre’d says to the bridegroom. 

Your gracious act, it’s wasted on them.

There’s more going on here than just a miracle. 

————————

In fact, the word miracle isn’t even the proper word to use about today’s Gospel text. Jesus, in John’s Gospel, doesn’t do miracles. Jesus, in John’s Gospel, performs signs— only seven of them. Each of these seven signs serves to foreshadow what Jesus will do fully in what John calls Christ’s hour of glory. And in John’s Gospel, Jesus’ hour of glory is his humiliation when he’s hanging naked and accursed on the cross. 

This is why John decorates this first sign, the wedding at Cana, with so many on-the-nose allusions to the cross and resurrection: 

        • Jesus and the disciples arrive to the wedding party on the third day just like Mary Magdalene will arrive at the empty grave on the third day. 
        • When Marry worries: “They have no wine” Jesus responds “My hour has not yet come,” which basically means: It’s not time for me to die.
        • Jesus calls his Mother Woman, which sounds like he’s backtalking his Mom until you remember the only other time he’ll similarly address his Mother: Woman, behold your Son. 
        • Even the abundance of wine: Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and the Psalms- all of them prophesy that the arrival of God’s salvation will be occasioned by an abundance of the best wine.

All seven signs in John’s Gospel, then, point to the Gospel, to what God does in Christ through the cross, and this first sign— its intended for you to see how the Gospel Christ brings is distinct from the Law. Right before the wedding at Cana, John tells you— he telegraphs it: “The Law indeed was given through Moses, but Grace and Truth came through Jesus Christ.” And then immediately after this wedding at Cana, Jesus pitches his Temple tantrum, flipping off the moneychangers and hollering to all who can hear that his crucified body will be the New Temple. In other words, the truth that was thought to reside in the Temple has arrived in Christ, and the wedding which comes before his Temple tantrum shows how grace has come in Christ. 

And Grace is not the Law. 

That’s why John gives you this seemingly random detail about the six stone water jars. 

According to the Law, the water in the stone jars was used for washing away sin. The jars were made of stone not clay because clay is porous and the water would get dirty in clay jars and the whole purpose of these jars is to remove impurity. 

The water in the stone jars was for the washing away of sin and shame. 

But it didn’t work.

And you know it didn’t work because John tells you there were six stone jars, and six (being one less than seven) is the Jewish number for incompleteness and imperfection. So if the abundance of wine signifies our salvation, these six stone water jugs signify our sin. 

On top of that little detail, John tells you that the wine at the wedding feast has run out.

According to the Mishna, Jewish weddings in Jesus’ day lasted seven days. And under the Law, it was the obligation of the bridegroom and his family to provide a week-long feast for the wedding guests. 

This wedding is only on day three. They’ve got four more days to go. There’s no reason they should’ve run out of booze so soon. 

The bridegroom and his family simply failed to fulfill their duty under the Law, which is to say their shame is deserved. Which is to say, they do not deserve what this other Bridgegroom, Jesus Christ, does for them. So what John shows you with these six stone jars and this one family in shame is what the Apostle Paul tells you. The Law (commandment-keeping, rule-following, morality, the rituals of religion) is powerless to produce what it prescribes. It cannot make us righteous. 

“For God has done what the Law could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh.” 

What John shows you here is what the New Testament Book of Hebrews tells you: that all our religion and morality— the Law—  “can never make perfect those who practice them, and, as such, they only remind you of your sin.”

Just as Jesus announces in the second half of chapter two that he fulfills and replaces the Temple, here in the first half of chapter two he signals that he fulfills and replaces the Torah, the Law. He answers his Mother’s urging by telling the servants to take these six stone jars, symbols of the Law, and then he tells them to fill the jars with it. To fill them to overflowing. 

Do you see? It’s a sign not a miracle. 

It’s meant to help you see— see that Jesus fills and fulfills all the commands and demands of the Law by his own perfect faithfulness.

When they draw out the wine-that-had-been-water, it’s not any of that Yellow Tail swill. It’s vintage, already aged, all from the very best year. And there’s an abundance of it.  It’s a sign not a miracle. You’re meant to see— see that out of the Law is drawn the Gospel of Grace, the wine of salvation. 

Wine, which Jesus says in an Upper Room, is his blood shed out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 

Here at Cana, he transforms what we do to make ourselves righteous before God into a sign of what God does to make us righteous.

Christ’s sign shows what Paul says. 

The Law— all the thou shalts and thou shalt nots in and out of the Bible (and scripture says the Law is written not just on tablets of stone but on every human heart, believer and unbeliever alike, so the Law also includes all the shoulds and musts and oughts we hear in our society and in the back of our heads)— all of it is the Law. 

And all of it is powerless to produce in us what it commands. 

That’s what you’re supposed to see in this sign.

The Law can charge us to give thanks, but it cannot make us grateful. 

The Law can exhort us to offer hospitality to the Other, but it cannot make us more hospitable. 

The Law can command us to love the stranger who is our neighbor as ourself, but it cannot make us loving. 

    ———————-

Fifty-five years ago Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. preached from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Fifty-five days ago I took my son, Alexander, to the DMV in Lexington, Virginia to get his learner’s permit. 

We have a house in Lexington and the DMV there is small so I thought it’d be quicker than waiting all day at a DMV up here. 

Sure enough, we got there and our number was called in less than a minute. My wife Ali, who is an attorney mind you, had already made sure she sent us off with all the requisite documents per the DMV’s website. 

We stepped up to the counter when called and handed over the goods. AM talk radio was droning on in the office behind them. 

Sorting through the documents, the woman at the counter— without even looking up at us— announced: “There’s no birth certificate. He needs a birth certificate to get a learner’s permit. It’s the law.”

“He has a certificate of foreign birth,” I said, “the same as any kid born on a military base overseas. That certificate says he’s as American as you.” 

“I don’t think,” she said, still not looking at us, “I need birth certificate. It’s the law.”

“Not according to the DMV website,” I said. 

She looked up from her clipboard. She sighed like we were a colossal waste of her time. And with blank contempt on her face she said: “Well, if he wasn’t born here in America, then how’d he get into the country? Legally?”

“What?” I said. 

“I’m adopted,” Alexander replied, “from Guatemala.” 

I could tell from the epiphany that spread across his face that he was piecing together her insinuation. 

“Who are you?” she asked, looking at me.

“What?” I said again. “You’ve got my license and the application right in front of you. I’m his Father.”

“Uh, huh,” she said, sorting through the documents again like I was putting one over her. “I’m going to need to see your passport and birth certificate too.”

“You absolutely don’t need to see either of them. We’ve already given you more than your own website says you require.”

She sighed again: “Let me talk with my supervisor.” She walked to the other end of the counter, two stalls away, maybe ten feet. And I heard her say to her supervisor: “That’s the problem with letting them into the country. We’re so much busier now.” 

She came back to the counter and said to me: “We’re going to run this situation by our main office in Richmond. You’re free to wait here but it could take all day to hear back from them. It’s only right and proper,” she said, “that we make sure everything is according to the law.”

Now it was my turn to sigh. 

“You’ve been a complete waste of our time!”

Alexander didn’t get his permit, but turns out it didn’t take that long to get a response. Turns out when you’re a white guy with a large social media platform and you tweet at the DMV about a Civil Rights violation…turns out they call you back pretty quick.

Fifty-five years ago Martin Luther King preached about a dream, and fifty-five days ago my son tried to get his permit and failed not because of the contents on his clipboard but because of the color of his skin. 

I think we can measure the progress we’ve made on King’s dream by the fact that I’ve got more leeway to tell a story like that from the pulpit than does a preacher of color, Peter or Chenda for example. 

And sure, I have a different style. 

Maybe I told the story differently than the way they’d tell it. 

But, to be honest, if I had that DMV day everyday, or even once a year, I probably wouldn’t have been in the mood to begin this sermon with a silly Mr. Bean clip.

   ———————-

Jesus Christ died not to repair the repairable, correct the correctable, or improve the improveable. 

Jesus Christ died for a drunk world. 

That’s what this sign shows us: that if Jesus Christ makes the very best wine for drunk people to drink, then Jesus Christ in his hour of glory shed the wine of salvation, wasted the wine that is his blood, poured out himself— particularly so— for that prejudiced paperpusher at the DMV. 

That’s the promise we call Grace.  

And sure, it’s offensive. 

By defintion, grace only begins where and when you think it should end.

But grace isn’t just offensive. Grace is offensive. The message of Grace, the Bible says, is the power of God unto salvation. Grace alone has the power to produce in people what the Law commands of them. In other words, the way for that woman in the DMV to be made less prejudiced isn’t the Law. It isn’t by telling her that she ought to be less prejudiced. It isn’t by exhorting her that she should love her neighbor as herself. 

No— pay attention to the story: THE STONE JARS DON’T WORK.

The way for her to be changed (and the passive voice there is everything), the way for her to be transformed like so much useless water into topshelf wine, is to give her not the Law but to give her the Gospel of Grace and to give it to her over and over again, as long as it takes. 

The way for her to be changed is to give her the news that while she was yet a sinner, God in Jesus Christ became her neighbor and loved her as himself. 

Grace isn’t just offensive. Grace is offensive. It is, as the Bible says, God’s weapon in the world. 

And this is why, as your pastors, we may preach out of our stories differently from one another, but we will always proclaim the Gospel of Grace to you because the message of Grace is the power with which God has armed his Church. 

So as your pastor, I pledge that you will never leave here on a Sunday morning not having received the Gospel goods. I promise you’ll never go home not having heard the good news of Grace. 

But that’s not a guarrantee you’ll always leave here happy.

Or comfortable. 

We will always proclaim to you Christ’s punch-drunk love, but the bottomless glass of his Grace isn’t the whole story. 

The six hundred quarts of wine is not glad good news apart from you knowing about the six stone jars and the water that does not work. 

Grace is unintelligible apart from the Law. 

And what the Law does, Paul says— the Law accuses us. It exposes our sin. It reveals how far we fall short. 

So hearing the Law, even in the context of Grace, can make us uncomfortable and worse. 

It’s why Martin Luther said the Gospel is a promise that kills before it makes alive. 

You’ve got to swallow the bitter pill of the Law before you can taste the goodness that is the wine of grace. 

So I promise that you will always leave here having heard the Gospel of Grace, but you will not always leave here having been made happy or comfortable. And that’s okay. Because by your baptism, you’ve been given something better than comfort.

Notice in the story—

The bridegroom and his family who failed to do their duty under the Law, who deserve their shame. Not only do they not deserve what Christ has done for them. They get the credit for what Christ has done. As though, they had done it themselves. The party planner tastes the wine that had been water, John says, and he chalks it up to the bridegroom’s extravagance. They get the credit that is Christ’s credit alone.

You can hear about the unrightousness in our world. You can even hear abour your part in it, witting or unwitting. And you can do so unafraid and without anger. Because the Bridegroom who died for a drunk world— he has gifted you with his own righteousness. 

Are you paying attention? 

It’s what we say at every baptism. 

More importantly, it’s what was said at yours:

“Clothe her in Christ’s own righteousness, that dying and being raised with Christ she shares in his final victory.”

Nothing can threaten that so nothing should threaten you.

The credit of Christ’s permanent perfect record is yours by grace. 

You can be made uncomfortable some Sundays because what’s better even than comfort is the news that God has given you infinitely more than what you deserve. God gives you the credit that Christ our Bridegroom deserves. 

As John shows us here in this sign: “The master of the feast said to the groom- not to Jesus- you have saved the best wine for last.” 

Or, as we say over a different barrel of water: “Remember your baptism, and be grateful.”

   

    

Natasha S. Robinson joins the podcast to talk about her new book, ‘A Sojourner’s Truth.’ Natasha is a Naval Academy graduate, served in the United States Marine Corps, was the Senior Diversity Admissions Counselor in the Office of Admissions at the Naval Academy, and is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary Charlotte.

The journey of one of us is the journey of all of us. In these pages we are drawn into the journey of a young African American girl from South Carolina to the United States Naval Academy and then into a calling as a speaker, mentor, writer, and teacher. Intertwined with Natasha Sistrunk Robinson’s story is the story of Moses, a young leader who was born into a marginalized people group, resisted injustices of Pharaoh, denied the power of Egypt, and trusted God even when he did not fully understand or know where he was going. Along the way we courageously explore the spiritual and physical tensions of truth-telling, character and leadership development, and bridge building across racial/ethnic, socioeconomic, and gender lines. You are invited to bring along your story as well – to discover your own identity, explore your truth-revealing moments, to live unafraid, and to gain a deeper sense of purpose. You can find her work here:
http://www.natashasrobinson.com/books/

Before the interview…Help support the show! 

Go to Amazon and buy a paperback or e-book of Crackers and Grape Juice’s new book,

I Like Big Buts: Reflections on Paul’s Letter to the Roman. 

If you’re getting this post by email, you can find the audio here.

Friday afternoon a year ago, my oldest son and I milled around downtown Charlottesville in the hours before the tiki-torch bearing scare mob descended from the Rotunda, spouting racist nonsense whose ultimate Author I feel compelled by faith to name as Satan.

“Dad, don’t make any jokes about your being Jewish!” I laughed not sure that I should be laughing.

Had we known how the next day would play out, we wouldn’t have laughed.

We saw the empty Emancipation Park with the barricades up festooned in police tape. We saw the omnipresent homeless looking dazed and curious about the stage craft setting up around them. We saw the lonely looking white men boys we’d later recognize in the Washington Post, their faces illumined by flame and fury.

There’s an elementary school near the park there in Charlottesville. Mostly African American kids. I used to work there in their After School program, M-F, when I was an undergraduate. Summers too.

I thought of Christopher Yates the boy who had no father at home whom I took to Long John Slivers on occasion. Back then, he had no idea there were people in the world who looked like me who hated people like him simply because they looked him.

Loitering in Charlottesville that Friday with my son, who is not white and growing in to an ugly but necessary awareness of that fact, I thought of Christopher.

And I got pi@#$%.

Right after he’s baptized, Jesus goes to Galilee. ‘Galilee’ is Mark’s shorthand way of saying ‘on the other side of the tracks. As soon as he arrives, a leper comes up to Jesus. Gets down on his knees begging. Leprosy assaults your body as your skin rots away. But ‘leprosy also attacks your social network.

It brings you isolation. It makes you unclean. It leaves you socially unacceptable. So not only does leprosy make you sick, it stigmatizes you. Which, if you weren’t already, makes you poor.

And according to the Law, a leper’s ‘uncleanness’ can only be ritually removed by a duly vested priest. This leper obviously knows the rules don’t give Jesus the right to cleanse him. That’s why he gives Jesus an out: “You could declare me clean, if you dare.” And Mark says that ‘moved with anger’ Jesus stretches out his hand and Jesus touches this untouchable leper- touches him before he heals him- and Jesus says: “I do choose. Be made clean!”

And while the leprosy leaves him, Jesus doesn’t say ‘come and follow me’ or ‘your faith has made you well.’

No, Mark says Jesus snorts “with indignation.”

ὀργισθείς

Here’s the money question Mark wants you to puzzle out:

     Why is Jesus so angry?

Because this pushy leper didn’t say the magic word?

Because now all anyone will want from him are miracles?

Because this leper is only interested in a cure not carrying a cross?

Why is Jesus so angry?

     In order to answer that question, you have to ask another one:

     Why does Jesus send this ex-leper to show himself to the priests?

The answer Mark wants you to tease out is that this ex-leper had already gone to the priests and with the same question: ‘Will you declare me clean?’

Jesus is angry. Jesus snorts with indignation. Jesus huffs and puffs because before this leper begged Jesus, he went before the priests.

Just as the Bible instructs.

And they turned him away.

You see, the priests in Jesus’ day charged money for the ritual cleansing. And money, if you were a leper, is something you didn’t have. So not only were lepers marginalized and ostracized, they were victimized too. And that, Mark says, makes for one PO’d Messiah.

What Would Jesus Do?

As often as we ask ourselves that question, ‘Get Torqued Off’ isn’t usually what comes to mind.

Jesus only has 19 verses of actual ministry under his belt here and already he’s righteously mad. And Jesus keeps on getting angry, again and again, in Mark’s Gospel.

When a man with a withered hand approaches Jesus in church and the Pharisees look on in apathy, Jesus gets angry. And when Jesus rides into Jerusalem and sees what’s going on, Jesus gets angry and throws a Temple tantrum. And when Peter brings a sword to protect the Prince of Peace, Jesus gets angry and scolds him.

Martin Luther said that God speaks and God still speaks to us in two words, Law and Gospel. Where the latter offers the unconditional promise of forgiveness, the former primes the pump for that grace by stopping us in our tracks, convicting us of our sin, and compelling us to throw ourselves on God’s mercy. Jesus, who is the One Word of God, offers us the latter word through his body but speaks the first word to us not only in his impossible commandments (lust = adultery) but also his anger.

We tend to think that anger is a bad thing, that it’s something to be stamped out not sought after. Some have even numbered anger a ‘deadly sin.’ But we believe that Jesus was fully human, in him was the full complement of sinless human emotions.

Not only do we believe Jesus was fully human, scripture calls Jesus the 2nd Adam.

Meaning: Jesus wasn’t just truly human; he’s the True Human.

He’s not only fully human; he’s the only human- the only one to ever be as fully alive as God made each of us to be. 

Yet Jesus is angry all the time. So anger isn’t always or necessarily a bad thing.

Instead of a flaw in our humanity, anger could be a way for us to become more human, as fully human as Jesus. But how do we know the difference? Between anger as a vice and anger as a virtue?

Scripture speaks of sin as ‘missing the mark.’  That is, sin is when our actions or desires are aimed towards something other than what God intends. When you read straight through the Gospels, you notice how Jesus gets angry…all the time. But what Jesus gets angry at is injustice, oppression, poverty; suffering and stigmatization, abuse and apathy. That’s the kind of anger that hits God’s mark.

As a pastor, I run into people all the time who are convinced either that God is angry at them OR that the god of the Bible is an angry god.

So let me just say it plain:

     The love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for us is unconditional.

     Because the love between the Father, Son and Spirit is unceasing.

     God’s love for us is unchanging because GOD IS UNCHANGING.

We cannot earn God’s love, no matter how hard we try. We cannot lose God’s love, no matter how hard we try. God does not change his mind about us. Because God does not change his mind. Because God does not change.

     God IS NOT ANGRY.

     God CANNOT EVER BE ANGRY.

     Because he’s God.

But Jesus, the True Human Person, the 2nd Adam, the Fully Human One, he gets Angry.

And that means…so should we.

A lot of well-meaning white folks counsel on social media against ‘adding fuel to the fire’ by adding their own anger and outrage. I’m as guilty as the next comfortable white guy of commending moderation simply because it’s the medium that best comports with my comfort. So I sympathize.

I also believe in the Gospel which tells me Jesus died not for the saintly social justice warrior (and not only for the oppressed!) but for the ungodly.

I can think of no better image of ungodly than that picture of tiki-torch lit rage on a face like mine in front of a statue of a slave master like Thomas Jefferson from a year ago.

The mystery of our faith is not only that Jesus Christ, who is the immutable God in the flesh, embodies the righteous anger befitting the fulllness of humanity, but also, despite such anger (or, because of it?), dies for the unrighteous and ungodly enemies who provoke his ire.

Perhaps it’s only in that mystery that we’re all, white and black/progressive and not, united.

 

During the recent Day of Service at the Virginia Annual Conference of United Methodism, some clergy and laity took part in an in-service on racial reconciliation sponsored by a commission of the larger Church. My good friend Rev. Drew Colby shared these thoughts there and for the blog. What Drew says about race specifically I think could be extended to the category ‘social justice’ more broadly, particularly in a culture such as ours that is increasingly polarized into Christian flavored political tribes.

“I am a proud associate pastor. A group at our church has been meeting for about nine months. Inspired by the protest and tragedies in Charlottesville they started meeting to discuss racial reconciliation. They’ve used resources that the General Commission on Racial Reconciliation has offered and they have learned a lot. I want to offer something else that may help continue to move the conversation forward; and that is the Gospel.

GCORR does good work charting the nature of systemic racism. Fortunately (or unfortunately as the case may be) such resources addressing the nature of systemic racism are not hard to find in our culture. Many other outlets are examining the reality of systemic racism in our culture and many do so better than the Church. If someone is looking for a thorough and thoughtful analysis of systemic racism and how it impacts all of us unawares, I’m not sure the Church is the institution to which they should turn. I don’t mean this apologetically. I mean only to suggest that this isn’t the particular gift God has given the Church to offer our culture when it comes to race and racism.

I think the GCORR’s work could have even broader impact if it helped Christians use more theological language in our conversations about race.

That is, I wish our conversations on racial reconciliation (and social justice) could more often begin with the acknowledgment that Jesus Christ has already begun and guaranteed our reconciliation. Indeed, I suspect it would change the tenor of our debate about race (in the Church, at least) if it was couched in terms of scripture’s gospel promise that reconciliation- including racial reconciliation- is already an accomplished fact to celebrate and not an aspiration to exhort. The Gospel given to us by St. Paul isn’t that the dividing walls between races should be torn down but that in the cross of Christ they have been brought down. The difference between those two tenses, between the indicative and the imperative, changes the entire tone of our discussion from exhortation to invitation. Contrary to what one of the preachers at Annual Conference said, it’s NOT our job to redeem the world but to celebrate that in Christ the world has already been redeemed and to invite people to live into this, the true story of the world.

To frame our discussion of race more theologically would help us see clearly that as the Church, we are coming at this broad and insidious societal problem from a unique Chistological perspective. We start with an eternal hope—Wesley might even say an assurance—about what it is that is possible in the Power of the Gospel. And this is the Gospel of Jesus Christ: that racism is a sin, for which demon possession is the best NT correlative, which means it is something Christ has born in his body and from which the Risen Christ is working to heal us.

When white people like me are afraid of seeming racist, I think it shows our lack of faith that our sins are forgivable. No, that our sins are forgiven.

Forgiven people are unafraid to confess our need for forgiveness and sanctification. GCORR works to deconstruct our denial or avoidance of racism. The help I think I really need, and I don’t think I’m alone, is help articulating and remembering how, as a disciple of Christ, racism is something I may confess, unafraid, trusting that Christ has broken down the dividing wall, and in his Name grace abounded and still abounds sufficient to reconcile what was divided.

Thanks to saturation coverage of what feels like a Foggy Bottom edition of Jersey Shore, you’re forgiven if you didn’t get word that today Christians et al marked the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s murder by marching on the National Mall to end racism. A friend asked if I’d be participating today. While I joined the Million Minister March in the fall, I could do so today.

“I’ll write a blog post instead,” I joked.

Then it occurred to me that, more than a lazy man’s excuse, it could prove more productive to write a post for the contrarians rather than to march with the like-minded, to reflect on why Black Lives Matter matters for the All Lives Matter masses.

I recall how it was sometime after the Ferguson shooting, the images of a militarized police and a rioting black citizenry in the papers, that I first noticed the All Lives Matter flags draped from front porches and over hedges here in the neighborhood. Facebook comments and threads followed.

And, of course, all lives do matter.

But the incontestable obviousness of such an assertion is exactly what makes rebutting it so fraught.

Black Lives Matter.

All Lives Matter.

It took my theological muse Stanley Hauerwas, who is not only white but poor white trash (proudly so), to point out that story is exactly what is at stake. 

African-Americans, Stanley noted to me over his shrimp and grits, have a particular, peculiar story to tell that can be neither lost nor obfuscated if America (or, even, the Church in America) is to be a truthful people.

Black Lives Matter matters because it recognizes how African-Americans share not only a common story but a story which reminds them how they need one another and need each other to remind them of the Enemy they face.

The problem with All Lives Matter is that it emerges from no peculiarly shared, community-bound story.

All Lives Matter, at best, is a universal principle.

As people who worship a God who took particular flesh in a specific crucified Jew, Christians refuse to speak in terms of generic universal truths.

Because it emerges apart from any particular shared story, All Lives Matter can only imply that white Americans should feel threatened by the African American imperative to remember and retell their own story. The felt threat is a symptom of our inability as Americans to grapple truthfully with how we are a slave nation. The harmless hagiography we teach our children about Martin Luther King is but another symptom, yet another is our denial over the many unseen ways in which racism still grips us. As a father of two hispanic/indigenous Mayan children, I’m often taken aback by how my own racism blinds me to how they’re seen and perceived.

That many feel threatened by Black Lives Matter and do not how to locate themselves within that particular ugly story, opting instead for the generic unthreatening alternative All Lives Matter, demonstrates, I think, how conversations about race and racism become unintelligible to the extent they get abstracted away from the particular language of sin and redemption.

Without the ecclesial language of the Church, and the low anthropology with which it views the old Adam that abides in every one of us, we’re left instead with the American myth or moral progress as our alternative.

The presumption that we’ve overcome racism thus becomes a part of how we understand ourselves as Americans; All Lives Matter thus threatens our self-understanding. As Joe Winters argues in Hope Draped in Black, the narrative of progress- or, as Gerhard Forde would term it, the glory story- is not only a false narrative it is, like all lies, a pernicious narrative, for it’s “truth” relies upon minimizing conflicts and contradictions. Black Lives Matter agitates against the myth of moral progress and requires the telling of stories in tension with it.

The story-less mantra All Lives Matter reveals, how there are only two options in dealing with a wrong so wrong, like slavery and racism, it seems nothing can be done to make it right. The first option is to forget it, which the glory story of American moral progress unintentionally invites us to do. The only other option is to frame the story of the wrong with in the story of sin and redemption. In other words, white Christians in America, who ought to be confessing their badness every Sunday, should be the last white people in American offended by the notion that they too might be racist in ways visible and invisible. White Christians possess their own particular story, not the generic story of All Lives Matter, but the story of the One who rose from the dead for our justification.

That is-

White Christians possess a story which punctures the stifling myth of moral progress by insisting that we are always at once, simultaneously, sinful yet reckoned in the right only according to God’s gratuitous forgiveness.

While Christians possess the very story that should gird us to engage the difficult truth-telling and truth-hearing required by a conversation about race and racism, the problem is that the pernicious myth of moral progress is more than merely an American myth.

The glory story, with its high anthropology, is the story laid over top the Gospel story every Sunday in countless churches.

Black Lives Matter thus militates against not only the self-understanding we receive in the public square but from the pulpit as well.

As Hauerwas argues:

“Racism is a sin that can only be dealt with by the gifts of the Holy Spirit. If slavery is a wrong so wrong there is nothing you can do to make it right, the only alternative is to be drafted into a history of God’s redemption that makes confession and forgiveness a reality. Only those who are willing to be forgiven are those who can seek reconciliation with those they have harmed.”

For American Christians to be a truthful people, white and black Christians must share their stories with another, testing their testimonies against the truthfulness of the cross. Just as God’s siding with the enslaved Israelites is part of God’s rescue of his entire creation, so too white Christians in American should have the courage of their convictions to see how the particular story represented by Black Lives Matter is a story that includes their redemption too.

The theologian Gerhard Forde argues that the way we make any moral progress as Christians- the only way to sanctification- is by a daily dying; that is, by returning over and again to our justification, the news that we’re sinners graced by God.

To the extent then that white Christians shut our ears to the painful and angry stories of Black Lives Matter with All Lives Matter we risk not only truthfulness but our own holiness.

Hammer Time

Jason Micheli —  February 14, 2018 — Leave a comment

     Ash Wednesday – Matthew 6

I want to thank you all for coming out tonight instead of staying home and watching the Charlie Brown Ash Wednesday Special with your kids.

There is a Michael Bolton Big Sexy Valentine’s Day Special, but there’s no Peanuts Ash Wednesday Special. Nobody grew up watching a stop-motion Burl Ives saying ‘Hey kid, you’re a sinner and you’re going to die.’

Ash Wednesday doesn’t get anyone like Kris Kringle or Krampus. Starbucks doesn’t unveil any Sin-themed soy lattes for Ash Wednesday.

Christmas has been commercialized and loaded down with crap. Easter has been sentimentalized by bunnies and butterflies and metaphors of springtime renewal, but, there aren’t any Ash Wednesday office parties.

Meanwhile, we ship our ill and aging off to die in private while we put inflatable Grim Reapers in our front lawns on Halloween in the hopes that death will turn out to be a joke because when we lie awake at night we know our sin is not make believe.

What we mean by the soot we smear on Ash Wednesday- culturally speaking- remains an unsullied message. There’s no marketing, no media, no movie tie-ins or product placements for Ash Wednesday.

Nobody but Christians want anything do with talk about Sin and Death, which is a shame because, as allergic as our culture is to the ashes, what we do with them tonight has more to do with love actually than any saccharine Hugh Grant movie.

As allergic as our culture is to Death and Sin, what we do tonight with oil and ash is about love actually.

Because when you do away with the concept of sin, the category of shame is your only alternative. With sin, what’s wrong with me is just what’s wrong with me. Leaving sin behind is lonely-making. Without a concept of sin, there is no correlative category of grace, and you’re left only with what St. Paul would call the crushing accusations of the Law.

Accused by the Law and in the absence of Grace, we self-justify. We perform and we pretend. We wear masks- like Jesus condemns in our text tonight. We project a purer false self out into the world, which of course is just a way to shame others lest we be shamed first.

This is what I mean-

Frances Lee is a Cultural Studies scholar in Seattle. In an article entitled Excommunicate Me from the Church of Social Justice, Lee describes her decades-long exodus out of a shame-based conservative evangelical Christianity only to find the same sort toxic dogma practiced by progressives in the social justice-minded activist communities where she landed.

She writes:

“There is an underlying current of fear in my community, and it is separate from the daily fear of police brutality, eviction, discrimination, and street harassment. It is the fear of appearing impure.”

Both communities, Lee argues, both sex-obsessed evangelicals and justice-driven progressives seek to justify themselves in the relentless pursuit to acquire purity according to the standards of their convictions.

Law, whether it’s law according to evangelicals or activists, always accuses, and Lee notes how the need in progressive social justice communities to be reckoned as pure produces a suffocating, shaming fear of being counted as impure:

“[A kind of] social death follows after being labeled a ‘bad’ activist.

When I was a Christian, all I could think about was being good, showing goodness, and proving to my parents and my spiritual leaders that I was on the right path to God. All the while, I believed I would never be good enough, so I had to strain for the rest of my life towards an impossible destination of perfection.

I feel compelled to do the same things as a [progressive] activist a decade later. I self-police what I say in activist spaces. I stopped commenting on social media with questions for fear of being called out. I am always ready to apologize for anything I do that a community member deems wrong, oppressive, or inappropriate- no questions asked. The amount of energy I spend demonstrating purity in order to stay in the good graces of fast-moving activist community is enormous.

Progressive activists are some of the judgiest people I’ve ever met, myself included. At times, I have found myself performing activism more than doing activism. It is a terrible thing to be afraid of my own community, and know they’re probably just as afraid of me.

“Ultimately,” says Frances Lee- and, pay attention- this is the point on Ash Wednesday- “the quest for purity is a treacherous distraction for the well-intentioned.”

——————————

     What Frances Lee describes is what the Apostle Paul means when he warns that our well-intentioned efforts to acquire righteousness on our own lead to death.

It kills us.

Frances Lee escaped the toxic dogma of one community only to discover it again in an opposite sort of community.

She left her evangelical Church hoping to find respite from the demands of purity and relief from the suffocating pretense those demands require.

In St. Paul’s terms, she fled the Law but the Law found her.

Yet she had been searching for Law’s opposite.

Grace.

What Frances Lee found in neither, not in her evangelical upbringing nor among her progressive activists, is what the Church offers you tonight with oil and ash and a promise that sounds frightening at first.

     “To dust you came and to dust you will return.”

Ash Wednesday is the antidote to the treacherous distraction of the well-intentioned because the medicine administered tonight is not grim but, to those who know they are sick, it is the good news of the gospel.

No matter how much booze you give up or how much bible-reading you take on for Lent, tonight isn’t about penance in a quest for purity and it’s not about needing to pretend when you fail to find that purity through your piety.

Ash Wednesday isn’t about your performance in life or your piety in religion at all. Ash Wednesday is about the grace of God given to us and for you in Jesus Christ and him crucified.

In other words-

Ash Wednesday is about grace.

Ash Wednesday is about freedom.

Freedom from the fear of your impurity.

And freedom from the fear of death.

(Death being the wage paid for your impurity)

Ash Wednesday is about grace.

But it’s not your fault if you experience some cognitive dissonance tonight.

Ash Wednesday can look and sound like it’s exactly the sort of righteousness-chasing, purity-performing that Frances Lee critiques and, even worse, what Jesus Christ forbids.

After all, in the Gospel passage assigned for every Ash Wednesday, Christ in his Sermon on the Mount commands us to do the very opposite of what it appears we’re about to do.

We will practice our piety before others; there is no ad space more public than your forehead.

We will disfigure your face with oily ash, and then we’ll send you forth with unwashed faces not into the privacy of your prayer closet but out into the world where you will be tempted to repeat after the Pharisee “Thank God, I am not like other men.”

Ash Wednesday’s promise of grace can get lost in the contradictions.

And there’s more than a few contradictions tonight.

For example, when you come forward tonight, we’ll say “Remember that from dust you came and to dust you shall return” but then we’ll mark your forehead with ash not dust.

Hang on-

God formed Adam not from ash but from the dust of the earth, and when you die- and, news flash- you’re not getting out of life alive- it’s dirt I will throw on your casket, mud not ash.

Shouldn’t we be soiling your head with soil not ash?

Sure, ash is a symbol for repentance and mourning in scripture, but it’s a pile of ashes Job sits on in sackcloth not a smudge streaked across his brow.

If you’re not clear about what we do here tonight, then, despite your good intentions, the ashes and the oil will be but another example of what Frances Lee calls a treacherous distraction.

That is, they’ll be nothing more than an exercise of purity-seeking piety, a work of worship that, King David tells us tonight, God despises- a work of worship that God tells the prophet Isaiah is no better than a filthy rag.

In which case, it’s probably a mercy there aren’t any Charlie Brown Ash Wednesday Specials.

——————————

     Because the stakes are high then, I want to set your ashes straight before you come forward for the cross.

The first point- I know, another 3-point sermon. If you want me to give these up for Lent you better tell me tonight. The first point to know about the ashy cross we smear across your fore-head is that it’s a cross.

What we do tonight with oil and ashes is not a treacherous distraction.

It’s not, as Jesus warns, practicing your piety before others because the cross on your forehead marks you out not as a pious person but as an impious person.

The cross is absolutely irreligious.

The cross is a reminder the very best of our piety put God to death; therefore, on Ash Wednesday Christians come out of the closet and with a soot scarlet letter freely admit that we are not just flawed and not just broken (that’s a romantic Christian word) but sinners.

Sin is the only word that appropriately names our racism and our prejudice, our violence and apathy and avarice.

We are the worst text messages that we send. We are the email we accidentally reply all to. We are the school shootings we tolerate.

We’re sinners.

The cross on your forehead announces that before God’s Law you are a failure.

You have not loved God with your whole heart. You have not loved your neighbor as much as you love yourself, and you haven’t even begun to love your enemies.

In fact, loving your enemies is just one of the many commandments you’ve left undone- and that’s the real problem for most of you, what you’ve left undone.

You see, like Job’s, the cruciform ashes are ashes of mourning because the cross on you is the outward, visible sign that inside and unseen the hammer of God’s Law has crushed your sinful heart; so that, no longer curved in on itself your heart has no where else to turn but the grace of God alone.

What’s important about the ashen cross is that it’s a cross.

So don’t worry about Jesus’ warning tonight.

What we do with ash and oil tonight does not violate Christ’s command against virtue-signaling because the cross signifies your vice. It brands you not as someone who thinks he’s holy but as someone who knows his need.

A soot colored cross is more inclusive than any rainbow flag.

Tonight Christians remember that- on paper at least- we are, in fact, the most inclusive people in the world.

We are all sinners.

Smudged or not smudged. Christian or not, activist or evangelical, whether you’re resisting or making America great again- none of us are clean. None of us are pure. All of us would love to have a John Kelly keeping our secrets.

There is no need for us to shame one another because between us there is no distinction.

We are- all of us- sinners.

——————————

     And the wage paid out for sin is death. The wages of sin is death, the Apostle Paul writes.

We mix up our metaphors tonight, dust…ash…dirt…sin…death…because the wage for the sin we should mourn with ashes is a death marked by the throwing of dirt.

Or the sprinkling of water.

And this is the second point you should understand as you come forward tonight.

     The words we will say to you invite you to remember that you’re going to die.

The cross we smear on you invites you to remember that you deserve to.

That’s as offensive and counter-cultural as anything Christians do.

You deserve to die.

And you have.

You have.

     The cross on your forehead isn’t just a symbol of your sin. The cross on your forehead is a symbol of your death to sin. That is, the cross is an oily and ashen reminder of your baptism. ‘To dust you came and to dust you shall return’ – you’re gonna die- is grim godawful news not good news unless it presumes the prior promise that by your baptism you have already died.

     You will die, sure. To dust you came and, when your DNR kicks in or the safety net gets gutted or your children lose their patience, you’ll just as surely return to the dirt.

But the death that should haunt. The death that should keep you up at night, meeting God in your sins, the death that should haunt you is a death you’ve already died.

You’ve already been paid the wages your sins have earned.

What you have done and what you have left undone- what you have coming to you has already come to you by way of the grave we call a font.

By water and the Spirit, God drowned sinful you into Christ’s death.

The death Christ died he died to sin, once for all. The death Christ died he died for your sins, all of them, once, and in his blood by your baptism all your sins have been washed away.

The way we mix the metaphors tonight it’s not your fault if you missed it. What we do tonight neither confirms Frances Lee’s critique nor does it contradict Christ’s commandment. This ash is not a means to achieve purity or practice piety. We’re not inviting you to pretend or perform or prevaricate or protect your impurity from the shaming of others.

We do not smudge our foreheads to solicit God’s forgiveness for our sins. We smudge our foreheads to celebrate God’s once for all forgiveness of them.

The dust on your forehead says: “You were dead in your trespasses.”

But the cross on your forehead says: “You have been baptized. Into his death for your trespasses.”

The wages of sin smudged on your head is good news not grim news.

Your sin, though incontrovertible, cannot condemn you. There is therefore now no condemnation for you. The seal of that promise is your baptism into his death. The sign of that promise is the symbol of his death smeared on your temple.

And that promise should give you not only joy, it should- as Paul says- shut your mouth up. It should stop whatever words of judgment you might have on your lips because the ash marks us out as those who know that the Judge was judged in our place.

Of all the people in world we should be the least judgiest. Or at least the quickest to own up to it.

——————————

     “Where is our humility when we examine the mistakes of others?” Frances Lee asks in her essay.

“There’s so much wrongdoing in the world. And yet grace and forgiveness are hard to come by in my circles.”

Humility and Grace and Forgiveness- in this circle at least, they shouldn’t be hard to find.

And that’s my final point:

The most important thing about the ashy cross you’re about to receive is that it won’t remain there.

You’re going to wash it off.

You’re going to wash it off because you’ve not only died with Christ to sin, but in your baptism you’ve been raised with Christ too. Because it’s not just that your sins have been reckoned to Christ, it’s that his purity has been imputed to you. As the Apostle Paul says in another Ash Wednesday reading: ‘He who knew no sin was made to be sin so that we might become the purity of God.’ 

He makes himself our sin.

He makes us his purity.

In other words-

However ‘woke’ you think are, whatever righteousness you have, whatever purity you have- it didn’t come from you.

Indeed, it had to come from outside of you.

By way of your baptism.

As gift.

Just to make sure you didn’t miss the offense of that exchange, Martin Luther referred to the purity we do posses as ‘alien.’

Our alien purity. Our alien righteousness. Alien- as in, we don’t have either, purity or righteousness, on our own.

So what you’re doing tonight, by wearing a cross and then, just as quickly, washing it off again, you’re puncturing the inflated anthropology our culture gives you. The flattering self-image to which our culture would convert you- tonight, you’re kicking it in the ash, and you’re opting instead for a low anthropology.

As stern and old fashioned as it sounds, with ash you’re insisting that ‘No, we’re not- none of us- basically good people who are doing our best so that God can do the rest.’

We’re worse than flawed. We’re more than broken. ‘Nobody’s perfect’ doesn’t begin to put it right. We’re sinners.

And that’s how what we do here tonight is about love actually.

Such a sober assessment about ourselves is the only true path to patience and empathy and understanding for another- because acknowledging the worst about you is the surest way for you to accept it another.

So, ironically, or maybe not ironic at all, what you do with ash tonight has everything to do with that other holiday tonight.

For, if the fruit of a low anthropology is compassion and empathy and understanding and acceptance, then

Being able to say “I am a sinner who deserves to die” is the necessary precondition to saying “I love you, unto death.”

 

 

Back in the day, Ruben taught Jason Barth, Luther, and Calvin for the first time. Now, they’re both black sheep, closet Reformation guys in Catholic and Wesleyan folds respectively. Ruben Rosario Rodriguez teaches theology at St. Louis University and is the author of the powerful new book Christian Martyrdom and Political Violence.
In the 2-part conversation, Jason and Ruben talk about racism, liberation theology, the limits of post-liberalism, and martyrdom as a necessary possibility to any definition of Christian ‘witness.’
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It turns out Teer Hardy is good for more than just Orioles stats and an alt-right side-part. Speaking of the alt-right, Teer scored us press passes for Monday’s One Thousand Minister March in Washington DC. The march (ostensibly at least) was for clergy to pray with their feet and been seen standing out against the sin of racism, a seemingly more needful witness after Charlottesville and the Donald’s legitimation of it.

Just so you know how hard a working podcast we are for you, we got there 4 hours early to get our press credentials and interview folks as they arrived.

In this interview you’ll hear from rabbis, ministers, two women leaders from the National Council of Churches, and even, at the end, from Martin Luther King III.

I preached this Sunday at my good friend Todd Littleton’s church, Snow Hill Baptist, outside Oklahoma City. Todd followed the same schedule through Romans this summer as my church. My text was Romans 14.1-12.

If you’re all caught up on Game of Thrones

     If, like Todd Littleton, you’ve already watched every episode of all 4 seasons of Bachelorette in Paradise

If Donald Trump’s tweets have lost some of their luster, but you’re afraid to tell your friends you’ve turned to Rachel Maddow

     If you’re looking for something new to watch, then I suggest you check out Stalker, a dark, dystopian science fiction film from the 1970’s. I discovered it on Netflix after I’d binge-watched all 7 seasons of Californication.

Stalker tells the allegory of 3 men who journey across a post-nuclear wasteland.

Shrouded in mystery, the character called Stalker guides two other characters, who are cryptically named Writer and Professor, across the burnt out remains of a devastated civilization.

Stalker is leading them to an apocalyptic oasis called the Zone. Stalker has promised them that at the center of the Zone is a place called the Room.

In the Room, Stalker tells them, they will achieve their hearts’ desire. In the Room, their dreams will come true. In the Room, you will get exactly what you truly want.

Initially, it sounds like a promise worth a journey.

Only, when they arrive at the threshold of the Room, Writer and Professor get cold feet. They’re overcome with second thoughts as the frightening thought occurs to them: What if we’re stranger to ourselves?

‘What if I don’t know what I want?’ Writer and Professor, in turn, ask Stalker.

‘Well,’ Stalker explains to them, ‘that’s for the Room to decide. The Room reveals you, it reveals all, everything about you: what you get is not what you think you wish for but what you most deeply wish for.”

At the edge of the Room, what had sounded like a dream starts to feel like a nightmare. Rather than escaping the ruins of God’s apocalyptic judgement, it feels like they’re about to enter into it.

Anticipation turns to dread as Writer and Professor both have an epiphany that terrifies them: What if they don’t want what they think want?

In other words, what if they’re not who they think they are?

In a book about the film, critic Geoff Dyer says:

“Not many people can confront the truth about themselves. If they did, they’d take an immediate and profound dislike to the person in whose skin they’d learn to sit quite comfortably for years.”

Eventually, Writer and Professor run away, terrified at the prospect of standing before the Room and having their true selves laid bare.

Watching Stalker this dark, dystopian sci-fi flick from the ’70’s, you’d never close out Netflix, check it off on your queue, click off the clicker, and say to yourself That was a happy story. 

You’d never leave a review on Rotten Tomatoes to evangelize strangers You’ve got to check out this story about the Room “to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secret is hid…” 

You might say it’s a good story, a good flick, a good scare.

But you’d never say it was good news.

———————

    So how is this passage next up in Paul’s queue, “We shall all stand before the judgement seat of God,” how is this good news?

Judgement?

This sounds like bad news.

But the Apostle Paul left the bad news behind back in chapter 3.

Back when he said that “…all are under the Power of Sin…there is no one righteous; not one…all have turned aside and stand condemned.” 

That was 11 chapters ago. The bad news was 11 chapters ago.

Since then, the Apostle Paul’s message has been Gospel- the good news that we are justified not by anything we do but by what Christ has done.

For us.

That what matters is not our faith (or lack thereof) but Christ’s faithfulness.

That what counts- what God reckons- is not our unrighteousness but Christ’s righteousness.

It has been good news for 11 chapters.

Paul’s apostolic announcement has been about freedom:

Freedom from the Law.

Freedom from having to do right.

Freedom from the burden of human performance.

For 11 chapters, it’s been the good news of our freedom:

Freedom from judgement because, Paul told us, “…while we were yet enemies of God, God in Christ died for the ungodly.”

Freedom from guilt because, Paul told us, “…Since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God; we are now justified by his grace as a gift.”

Freedom from condemnation because, Paul promised, “…There is therefore now NO CONDEMNATION for those who are in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

———————

     But-

If there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus

If nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus

If nothing we do can separate us from the love of God- nothing:

Not our participation in persecution or war

Not our habits that lead to hardship or distress

Not our apathy that enables nakedness and peril and famine

If nothing we do-

If nothing we turn a blind eye to-

Can separate us from God, in whom there is now no condemnation, then how is this good news: “We shall all stand before the judgement seat of God?”

——————-

     Now, I realize this is a Southern Baptist Church in a state redder than the Ayatollah, which means, chances are, this is your second favorite scripture verse after John 3.16.

But I can tell you nothing tightens the sphincters of east coast liberals quite like a verse such as this one: “We shall all stand before the judgement seat of God.”

Still, even if the verse doesn’t make you fret with holy fear or sweat with sudden self-awareness, even if this verse doesn’t bother you, you still have to square it with the 11 chapters that have come before.

You still have to square this “…everyone will come before the judgement seat of God” with what Paul said 4 chapters earlier that “…everyone who confesses with their lips that Jesus Christ is Lord will be saved.”

Which is it? Everyone will be judged? Or everyone will be saved?

How does “…all will stand before the judgement seat of God…” square with chapter 11 where Paul said that all will be saved, that God will be merciful to all.

Judgement. Mercy.

Which is it, Paul?

It can’t be both/and can it?

That everyone who confesses Jesus Christ will be saved and everyone will stand before the judgement seat of God?

How do we square it?

Because you have to do something with it.

You can’t just dismiss it as a throwaway verse because the Apostle Paul doubles down on it in verse 12: “…each of us will be held accountable before God’s tribunal…”

In fact, Paul repeats it almost word-for-word to the Corinthians: “We must all appear before the judgement seat of God.”

And you can’t dismiss this verse about judgement because the Apostle Paul here sounds like Jesus everywhere- all over the Gospels, Jesus warns of the Coming Day of Judgement.

As in his final teaching before his Passion, Jesus promises that he will come again to judge the living and the dead, gathering all before him.

Not some.

All:

unbelievers and believers

unrighteous and righteous

the unbaptized and the born again

All- not some- all, Jesus says, will be gathered for judgement.

    The “saved” are not spared.

And all will be reckoned according to who fed the hungry and who gave water to the thirsty and who clothed the naked and who welcomed the immigrant.

And who did not.

“All shall stand before God for judgement,” Paul says.

Just like Jesus said.

And according to Jesus’ Bible that reckoning will be a refining.

A refining fire, says the prophet Malachi, where our sinful self- even if we’re saved- will come under God’s final judgement and the the Old Adam still in us will be burnt away.

The corrupt and petty parts of our nature will be purged and destroyed.

The greedy and the bigoted and the begrudging parts of our nature will be purged and destroyed.

The vengeful and the violent parts of our selves will be purged and destroyed.

The unforgiving and the unfaithful parts of us, the insincere and the self-righteous and the cynical- all of it from all of us will be judged and purged and forsaken forever by the God who is a refining fire. 

Now, keep in mind- purgation is not damnation.

     Purgation is not damnation. 

But neither is it pain free. Neither is it pain free.

Again, how is this good news?

What’s Paul doing saying this here, in chapter 14?

Paul left the bad news behind, back at the beginning.

But the promise that you will stand before the judgement seat of Almighty God- stripped and laid bare, all your disguises and your deceits revealed, naked wearing nothing but your true character- admit it, it sounds awful.

It doesn’t sound at all like anything to which you’d say: ‘Amen! Me first.’

   ——————-

     A couple of Fridays ago, my oldest son and I milled around Charlottesville. I went to college there and now we have a house nearby.

Alexander and I walked around Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall and UVA’s Grounds just before the tiki-torch-bearing scare mob descended from the Rotunda shouting “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us.”

“Dad, don’t make any jokes about discovering you’re Jewish” Alexander whispered to me. I laughed, not sure if I should be laughing.

We saw the empty Emancipation Park snaked with metal barricades and draped with police tape.

We saw homeless men looking dazed and curious about the stage craft and street theater setting up around them.

We saw the lonely-looking white men- boys- wearing white polos and khaki cargo pants, whose faces, illumined by flame and fury, we’d later recognize in the Washington Post.

We grabbed a coffee and a soda just off the side street where Heather Hoyer would be murdered the following day.

Meanwhile, some of my clergy colleagues were in an adjacent church training for non-violent protest, learning how to lock arms, how wash away tear gas, and how roll over to protect your liver when you’re being kicked or beaten.

There’s an elementary school near the park there in Charlottesville, most African American kids. I used to work there in their after school program, Monday through Friday, when I was an undergraduate.

Walking around the park with my son, I thought of Christopher Yates, the boy who had no father at home, whom I took to Long John Slivers on occasion.

Back then, he had no idea there were people in the world who looked like me who hated people like him simply because they looked like him.

Walking around that park on Friday with my son, who is not white and is growing into an ugly but necessary awareness of that fact, I thought of Christopher.

And I got angry- righteously angry- at those who would fill the park the next day.

“God damn them all,” I whispered, making sure my son could hear.

———————-

     That Sunday I led the long pastoral prayer in my congregation.

And what I prayed…I prayed about them.

I prayed about them, those whose thoughts and actions betray allegiance to the gods of bigotry.

I prayed about them, those whose apathy and excuses and silence tolerate hate and harm.

“Bring your judgement to them, O God,” I prayed.

“Bring judgement to those who embrace terror, racism, and violence…” I beseeched.

Bring your judgement I begged.

Bring your judgement- upon them.

God damn them all. 

It was a good prayer, I thought.

Not everyone agreed.

One man, whose mother I buried and whose kids I confirmed, fired off an email complaining about “the Stalinist regime of [my] ministry.”

“Please don’t use this event as an excuse to ram progressive orthodoxy down our throats. More religion and less politics!!!!!!! Please!!!!

At least he said the magic word.

I read his email and sighed and, under my breath, I said “Bless his heart,” which you might not have here in Oklahoma- it’s a southern euphemism for “@#$% @#$”

    ———————-

     Still another worshipper took me to task for my prayer that Sunday.

Frank is in his 80’s, a retired Old Testament Professor from Greenville College. He and his wife moved to my parish a few years ago to be near his daughter.

After the final Sunday service had finished and the crowd had petered away and the ushers were cleaning up the pews, Frank shuffled up to me.

He was hunched over as he always is, a knobby cane in one hand and a floppy bible in a carrying case in the other hand.

He stopped, I noticed, to face the altar wall and, with his cane in his hand, genuflected the sign of the cross, tracing it across his lips and then his chest.

Almost always Frank has nothing but unfettered praise for me, which makes him not only the President of the Jason Micheli Fan Club but it’s only member.

Almost always Frank has nothing but praise. Not this time.

Shaking my hand, he shook his head in a ‘there you go again’ kind of way.

And he said: “Well, Reverend, you certainly were bold to pray for judgement on them.”

I was already beaming.

Ignoring my self-satisfied smile, he added: “You just weren’t nearly bold enough.”

“Professor, I don’t know what you mean…”

He cut me off with a “Tssskkk….” sound between his teeth.

“You only prayed for them. You didn’t pray for our judgement.”

“But…” I started to protest, “I was there. We weren’t the ones with hoods or tiki-torches.”

“Everyone in this country is sick with judging- judging and indicting, posturing and pouring contempt and pointing the finger at someone else,” he said, pointing his finger at me.

He raised his voice a little as well as his hunched-over posture: “As Christians, we’re supposed to put ourselves first under God’s judgement…”

“…Because we’re the only ones who know not to fear the Judge…” I completed his sentence for him.

He smiled and nodded, like I’d just passed his exam.

“Christians like to say that every Sunday is a little Easter, but, every day- every day is Ash Wednesday where we bear the judgement of God on behalf of a sinful world.”

He tapped his cane on the carpet and lifted up his bible by the straps as if to say: It’s all right here if you’d just read it. 

———————-

     And it is- all right here.

The Apostle Peter makes Paul’s same point when he writes in his letter that “Judgement begins with the household of God.” 

The household to which Paul writes, the church in Rome, was divided against itself over issues of food and worship.

It reads in Romans like an obscure, arcane issue, but wipe the dust off their dispute and you discover it’s really the same debate you see spun out all over social media, on CNN and Fox News, and across the front page of your newspaper (if you still trust them enough to read them).

It was a debate over politics and identity.

It was an issue of ‘Us’ vs. ‘Them.’

The community in Paul’s Rome had split into factions, drawn lines, created competing tribes whose divisions had calloused and calcified into contempt.

Sweep the dust off this argument and you see that the community in Paul’s Rome was no different than the community in the Rome we call America.

Carnivores vs. Vegetarians.

It’s different in form but not in function from Democrats vs. Republicans.

Meat-Eaters vs. Non-Meat-Eaters – it’s the same dynamic as Black vs. White, Conservative vs. Progressive, Racist vs. Righteous.

Every time, in each instance- it’s like Pink Floyd said; it’s Us and Them.

And to them all, the Apostle Paul admonishes: “Do not judge…for we will all stand before the Judgement Seat of God.”

“Judgement begins with the household of God.”

Pay attention now-

Paul isn’t arguing (a la The Donald) that there are “many sides” to every issue. Paul isn’t asserting that every possible practice or perspective is permissible. Paul most certainly isn’t urging acceptance for acceptance’s sake or tolerance for tolerance’s sake.

No, when Paul implores the Christians in Rome not to cast judgment, he’s instead instructing them to bear it.

To bear judgement.

Upon themselves.

When Paul reminds them that we will all stand before the judgement seat of God, he’s not warning them of coming condemnation. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

Paul isn’t preaching fire and brimstone. Paul’s pointing to their baptisms.

He’s reminding them of their calling, their commissioning.

He’s exhorting them to imitate Christ.

———————

     Frank smoothed his tie underneath his jacket but it flopped out again as he hunched back over and shuffled out of the narthex.

He turned around a few steps later, pushed his glasses back up his nose, tapped his cane on the carpet, and then pointed its end at me.

He said:

“We talk all the time about imitating Christ, about being his hands and feet, and doing the things Jesus did. Most of the time we’re talking about serving the poor, forgiving another, or speaking truth to power.’

“But if the most decisive thing Jesus did was become a curse for us, taking on the burden of judgement for the guilty, then the primary way Christians imitate Christ is by bearing judgement on behalf of the guilty.”

———————

     The primary way Christians imitate God-for-us is by bearing judgement for others.

Don’t you see- that’s how this is good news.

It’s us. We’re the good news.

We’re the good news of God’s judgement. We’re the followers of Jesus Christ who, like Jesus Christ, mimic his willingness to bear the judgement of God on behalf of the guilty.

We’re the good news in this word of God’s judgement.

In a world sin-sick with judging and judging and judging, indicting and scapegoating and recriminating and casting blame- we’re the good news God has made in the world.

     Just as Jesus said, the first will be last and the last will be first.

We who are baptized and believing, we who are saved and sanctified- we who should be last under God’s judgement thrust ourselves to the front of the line and, like Jesus Christ, say “Me first.”

Rather than judge we put ourselves before the Judgement Seat.

Rather than condemning and critiquing, we confess.

     We bear judgement rather than cast it.

We listen to the guilty. We never stand self-righteously at a distance from them. We never forget that ‘there but for the grace of God’ we’d be just like them, and that them not us, them- the ungodly, are the ones for whom God died.

We bear judgement rather than cast it.

We confess: our own sinfulness and guilt, our own racism and violence and pettiness, our own apathy and infidelity and failures to follow.

Knowing that there have been plenty of times we’ve seen Jesus thirsty and not given him a drink, plenty of times we’ve seen Jesus an immigrant and not welcomed him.

Knowing that even when we have seen Jesus hungry and fed him that doesn’t change the fact that even our good deeds, our best deeds, are like rags, for not one of us, really, is righteous and there is no distinction, really, between any of us.

We bear judgement rather than cast it.

Because we know we can come before God’s Judgement Seat expecting to hear the first words spoken when God came to us: “Do not be afraid.”

We’re the good news in this word of God’s Judgement.

——————-

     Stalker, that dark, dystopian sci-fi flick from the ’70’s about a Room to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secret is hid…”  it’s a disturbing, unsettling, thought-provoking film.

It received hundreds of positive reviews.

It helped inspire HBO’s West World.

The British Film Institute ranks it #29 on its list of the 50 Greatest Films of All Time.

It’s a good movie.

But you’d never call it good news.

You’d never call it good news.

Not unless the cast included a few more characters, people who thrust the terrified Writer and Philosopher aside at the threshold into the Room and said to them “Me first.”

 

 

 

 

 

Our friend of the podcast, Dr. Jeffrey Pugh, was present this Saturday for the counter-demonstration to the alt-right Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. We thought it was important to hear from Jeffrey about his experiences and observations. We also thought it important to extend his thoughts as far as possible so we invited a handful of other podcasters to join us for the conversation.

Todd Littleton of the Patheological Podcast, Scott Jones and Bill Borror of New Persuasive Words, Doug Pagitt of Doug Pagitt Radio all participated with us.

Here it is.

Give us a rating and review!!!

Help us reach more people: Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Oh, wait, you can find everything and ‘like’ everything via our website.

If you’re getting this by email, here’s the link. to this episode. Since there’s so many voices in this, I thought I’d post the video too. You can find it here.

     My Alexandria neighbor, Richard Spencer,  and the alt-right have planned a Unite the Right rally near my alma mater, in Charlottesville, Va. It’s set for tomorrow to lament the loss of white culture and protest the removal of a confederate statue downtown. Various clergy collectives have counter-demonstrations planned that day, which I’d attend if I did not have a funeral to preside.

Below my man-crush and muse, Stanley Hauerwas, speaks Christian about race in a way I often find lacking in the public square and on social media.

“Standing up to evil” or “Resisting hate” or “Equality not hate” are laudable sentiments but, from a Christian perspective, they’re just that, sentiments. They are so because they are insufficiently Christian.

The word justice is unintelligible for Christians apart from the content named by Jesus Christ. Appeals to equality are likewise spurious for Christians, for Christians can rightly remember our nation’s history and we know the white men who wrote about equality at our founding were all slaveholders.

And hate and evil aren’t specific enough words for Christians to describe racism.

Sin is the word Christians must use first.

Our sin of racism is how the Power of Sin, and our bondage to it, manifests itself in the world.

If there’s a contribution Christians can make to the public square when it comes race, it’s speaking Christian.

Christians must resist racism as Christians not as Americans.

Keeping our lingo liturgical not political for the one to whom we offer our liturgy is a more compelling and powerful politics. For example, for Christians, particularly white progressive Christians, the first step in combating racism and privilege is acknowledging one’s own culpability and blindness; that is, confession.

A posture of confession can avoid perpetuating antagonisms such that everyone becomes ensconced in their positions; moreover, confession is a practice that produces empathy not only for the victims of racism but the victimizers as well. Empathy for only the former leads to self-righteousness that further inflames the latter. Empathy for the latter is the offense Paul calls ‘Gospel.’ Only such an empathy that sees, as Hauerwas puts it, “Slave holders were trapped too” approximates the love revealed to us through the God who died for the ungodly.

Stanley says:

…African Americans were persecuted and you have to give a reason for that.  If you had black skin, it justified you not having the position that whites had.  And this has become a self- fulfilling project.  Blacks live the life that confirms the stereotypes and now part of the challenge for African Americans is not to let this happen… White liberals need black suffering for moral identity but it is very destructive to use white guilt to further your cause because the guilty get tired of being guilty.

Then there is the game of “I’ve been more victimized than you have been.”  Some are given moral identity through the status of victimization but you need them for moral identity more than they need you and that does not underwrite the narrative of victimization.

[We get out we get out of the trap of history] through forgiveness and reconciliation.  But we have to first be willing to be forgiven. Giving forgiveness puts us in a position of power. We must not let history be our fate but history must be one that aims at reconciliation. White slave holders were trapped too. They didn’t know any other way of being. Racists are trapped. Offer an alternative, another way of life is to offer reconciliation.

If I were an African American, I’m not sure I would trust a white person.

We have trouble imagining the everyday slights that are part and parcel of a racialized society.  For example, a few years ago, they were having a debate as to whether or not there should be a black cultural center.  White liberals thought, “No, that’s re-segregation.”  African Americans have to live around whites that have very different styles and habits.  You need to get away.  Worship is a good work but we have to find a creative way of doing this… With the best of wills, we have a lot of trouble understanding white privilege. Power dulls the imagination.

The argument of whether or not slaves could be baptized- they were baptized and that was the signal that slavery was a clear contradiction… because you baptize human beings.  Christians produce knowledge of its bad faith through the practice of worship.

Here in Alexandria this week the local gym made news by canceling the membership of Richard Spencer, leader of the Alt-Right (racist, anti-Semitic and xenophobic) movement. Identified by a Georgetown Professor, the gym cancelled his membership after a confrontation provoked by the professor.

Maybe it’s because we’re about to kick-off a summer long series in Romans, but reading the article in the Washington Post recently, my first thought was “That’s what makes the Church different than the gym.” I don’t know Dr. Fair, the Georgetown Professor, but if she’s a Christian rather than agitate for his removal from a club her first response to Richard Spencer should have been to invite him to the club we call Church.

Of course, I’m not suggesting Richard Spencer is entitled to whatever views he wishes to hold. As a Christian, I don’t believe we’re entitled to whatever beliefs we wish to believe; I’m required not only to believe in Jesus but to believe Jesus and what Richard Spencer believes contradicts much of what Jesus says and does.

So I’m not suggesting Richard Spencer is entitled to his noxious views nor am I minimizing the sort of person Richard Spencer appears to be in public. By all accounts Richard Spencer’s awful hipster side-part comes accompanied by monstrosity. He’s racist. He’s anti-semitic. He’s xenophobic. He’s nationalist, which is idolatry. Given that string, he’s likely homophobic and sexist to boot. He is exactly what that professor called him: “a Nazi, a cowardly Nazi.”

I can think of no one who fits the definition better:

Richard Spencer is ungodly.

And St. Paul says it’s exactly someone like him for whom Christ died (Romans 5.6).

Christ didn’t die to confer blessings upon nice people like you or me. Christ died for the ungodly so that they might become a new humanity. Richard Spencer is precisely the sort of ungodly person we should invite to Church where the Word of the Cross might work mightily upon him, delivering him from his bondage to the Power of Sin.

“Bondage to the Power of Sin,” complete with capital letters, is the only way to speak Christianly about Richard Spencer’s racism; in fact, I believe someone like Richard Spencer calls attention to the ways both progressive and evangelical Christians minimize, and thus miss, what the New Testament generally and what St. Paul particularly mean by ‘Sin’ and ‘Salvation.’

Liberals tend either to eschew all talk of sin and focus on (our building) the Kingdom or imitating Jesus or they preach against (systemic) sin with which their listeners already concur. Conservatives meanwhile tend to reduce sin to the vices of individuals and salvation to that individual going to heaven. Neither is big enough.

If you think of sin as something we do, then you cannot understand what the Son of God came to do.

For the Apostle Paul, sin isn’t primarily something we do. We’re not free to choose to do the sins we do.

Sin is an alien Power- synonymous with Death and Satan- we are all under (Romans 3.9) from whom not one of us is able through our own agency to liberate ourselves. Only the faithfulness of Christ unto the cross is able to rectify what the Power of Sin has broken in God’s creation, and only the power of the Gospel proclamation of this work of God, which is itself the working of God, can free us from our bonds to a Power that doesn’t yet know its been defeated.

Salvation for Paul isn’t about individuals going to heaven when they die; salvation is cosmic because all of creation- that pretty passage we read at funerals- is in captivity to the Power of Sin. Salvation isn’t our evacuation from earth to God; salvation is God’s invasion of earth in the cross of Jesus Christ, the Power that looks like no power.

Sin isn’t just something we do; it’s a Power to which we’re all captive such that it makes no Christian sense to distinguish between good people and evil people. We’re all captive such that good and evil runs through each of our hearts.

Only when you understand scripture’s view of Sin as a Power and our sinfulness as bondage to it can you understand why and how Paul can claim something as offensive as there being no distinction whatsoever between someone like you and someone like Richard Spencer.

We’re all captives to a Pharaoh called Sin, which is to say, we’re all ungodly.

To invite Richard Spencer to Church then isn’t to minimize or dismiss his noxious racism or odious views. It’s to take them so seriously that you invite him to the only place where he might hear the only Word with the Power to free him and create in him a new humanity.

Likely inviting him my church would be as bad for business as the gym here judged it would be bad for their business. Maybe ‘bad for business’ though is what Paul means by the scandal of the Gospel.

You haven’t really digested the offense of the Gospel until you’ve swallowed the realization it means someone like Richard Spencer might be sitting in the pew next to you, his hand out to pass the peace of Christ which surpasses all understanding.

 

In all the commotion of Holy Week, I forgot to push our latest conversation from Crackers and Grape Juice.

In Episode 89 (we’ve been at this almost a year now and we’re nearing #100!), Teer Hardy and I talk with our friend and colleague Drew Colby about racism.

Drew Colby is a UMC elder, pastor, and one of the podcast’s biggest fans. And critics. 

Coming up on the podcast:

Martin Doblmeier of Journey Films. Followed by Robert Jenson and Rod Dreher of Benedict Option fame. Stay tuned and thanks to all of you for your support and feedback. We want this to be as strong an offering as we can make it so give us your thoughts.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here

We’re breaking the 1K individual downloaders per episode mark. 

Help us reach more people: 

Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’s not hard and it makes all the difference. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Oh, wait, you can find everything and ‘like’ everything via our website.

If you’re getting this by email, here’s the link. 

13502037_1615405398788080_7321135075900787492_nIn the wake of the 2016 election, Morgan Guyton from the Crackers & Grape Juice posse and author of How God Saves the World from Us talks with Suhuey and Jen, United Methodist Hispanic Youth, about how racism recently intruded upon a gathering of youth in North Carolina.

Be on the lookout for future episodes with next week with Brian McLaren and Father James Martin and, this week, a special book debut episode to launch my book Cancer is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage Serious Chemo. For that episode, Teer Hardy spoke with an all star lineup including Tony Jones, Todd Littleton, Jeffrey Pugh, Kendall Soulen, and JC Herz. 

The Cracker & Grape Juice team will be part of Home-brewed Christianity’s Theology Beer Camp this January in L.A.. There’s only 15 tix left so if you’d like to be a part of it, check it out here.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here

We’re breaking the 1K individual downloaders per episode mark. 

Help us reach more people: 

Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’s not hard and it makes all the difference. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Oh, wait, you can find everything and ‘like’ everything via our new website: www.crackersandgrapejuice.com

If you’re getting this by email, here’s the permanent link to the episode.

 

maxresdefaultFor Episode 53 we have another installment of Fridays with Fleming (Rutledge). I invited my friend and new member of the Cracker and Grape Juice Posse, Taylor Mertins, and Fleming’s #2 Fan, Kenneth Tanner, to be a part of our conversation.

We recorded this several weeks ago, talking with Fleming Rutledge about a variety of subjects including preaching preparation, Black Lives Matter, difficult sermons, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

Be on the lookout for future episodes with next week with Becca Stevens, Brian McLaren, and Father James Martin.

The Cracker & Grape Juice team will be part of Home-brewed Christianity’s Theology Beer Camp this June in L.A.. There’s only 15 tix left so if you’d like to be a part of it, check it out here.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here

We’re breaking the 1K individual downloaders per episode mark. 

Help us reach more people: 

Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’s not hard and it makes all the difference. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Oh, wait, you can find everything and ‘like’ everything via our new website: www.crackersandgrapejuice.com

If you’re getting this by email, here’s the permanent link to the episode.

Grace and Justice

Jason Micheli —  September 28, 2016 — 1 Comment

13508867_1727468317501237_4081123759408282246_nMy friend the poet, writer, and undertaker Thomas Lynch likes to say that Christians are those people who show up. Show up, he doesn’t need to add, when shit gets real.

According to Tom’s measure, my good friend Brian Stolarz is one of the best Jesus people this side of the first dozen. Brian showed up for me in ways I can’t begin to convey when I learned I had this cancer, and, before me, Brian showed up Alfred Dewayne Brown, an inmate on Texas Death Row.

My oncologists kept my heart beating and my lungs breathing, but Brian is one of the people who kept me alive when I expected to die. Brian is also the one who showed up when Dewayne was scheduled to die for a crime hardly anyone even bothers anymore to argue he committed.

Brian tells the story of Dewayne’s unjust conviction and his own laborious journey to D’s exoneration in his forthcoming book, Grace and Justice on Death Row: The Race against Time and Texas to Free an Innocent Man. 

I love Brian like a brother, and I’ve spent a weird amount of intimate time with Dewayne Brown. They’re both honest, and honest about their experience working together and then working towards a reversal of Dwayne’s connection.

Below is an excerpt from Brian’s book.

If you’d like to hear him speak, check him out this Thursday at the African American Hall of Fame Project. 

Intro

I knew Alfred Dewayne Brown was stone-cold innocent the moment I met him. He was a 25-year-old, soft-spoken gentle giant with a 69 IQ living in the Polunsky Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in Livingston, Texas, north of Houston. Polunsky is where Texas houses people before it kills them. In 2005 he had been sentenced to die for the murder of a police officer, and he had been living on death row pretty much ever since. I was working for K&L Gates, a high-powered mega-firm in Washington DC, longing for a case I could be passionate about. I had worked for a couple of years as a public defender for the Legal Aid Society in Brooklyn, New York. It was a steady parade of fallible, devious, and occasionally innocent people, most of whom were short on money and shorter on luck. I felt something at Legal Aid—passion for my work.

In and out of the precinct houses, holding cells and courtrooms I developed a more than functional “bullshit meter” about people accused of breaking the law. I can usually spot a lie or a liar better than a polygraph operator. I don’t mean to brag, but just this one time I’ll quote the late Muhammad Ali who said, “It ain’t bragging if you can back it up.” I’m not bragging, I’m just saying after one look, I had absolutely no doubt—none—that Alfred Dewayne Brown had not committed the heinous crime for which he had been convicted and for which Texas was going to kill him.

When I left the Polunsky Unit an hour later, I promised Dewayne I would do my best to get him out of there. I also tried to both fight back tears and to keep from being sick to my stomach. I was grateful for the chance to save his life but scared it might be too late.  The gravity of the situation set in instantly. I did not go to graduate school to save lives—that is what doctors do. But now I was given the opportunity to save one, and I was determined to do it. In fact, it became my legal, personal, and religious mission to do so.

But, I could not ward off the thought that I might one day travel to Texas, stand behind a glass window, and watch a group of my fellow citizens carry out a medical procedure to end his life against his will. I was sick thinking I might have to watch. I vowed to my wife that if I watched him die I would hang up the law license forever and go start a pizza parlor. I am from New Jersey, after all.

I had a lot of work to do. At the Houston airport a few hours later, I was waiting for my flight, lost in thought about just how much work it would be, when I was accosted by a friendly, toothpick-wielding woman offering free samples of her cuisine around the food court. Unable to resist, I ordered and devoured some of her best General Tso’s chicken. I cracked open my fortune cookie. “You love challenge,” it said. I laughed and looked up to a ceiling painted with fake clouds. Was this some kind of divine but sick joke? I put the fortune in my wallet, where it remains to this day next to a picture of my three kids.

I know your initial reaction to all of this is to say, “Yeah, sure, all the people in prison say they are innocent.” Hell, even members of my own family didn’t believe me when I came home from Texas and said he was innocent. Believe me, I would be the first one to tell you if he were guilty. Many of my current and former clients were, in fact, guilty of what they were charged with. But, in that one moment, that first time I met him, something rocketed through to the deepest part of me; he didn’t commit this crime. I understand your hesitation. Maybe you have your own BS meter. Come along with me on this ride and you too will see what I saw and felt, what I feel. This man is what I believed him to be from the very second I saw him—innocent. And he would have died if there was no one to stand up for him.

Excerpt from Chapter Called “Family, Faith and Growth”

And we went to church. A lot. I basically lived at my grandparents’ church, Blessed Sacrament in Paterson, New Jersey. If I sat through mass with my grandmother and behaved myself and said all the responsorial psalms correctly, I got one dollar. My grandparents’ house had religious artifacts all over the place, with a huge Virgin Mary statue in the backyard, and a large poster of Jesus over their bed. We went to bingo nights, tricky trays, fish frys, community service projects, and many special events at the church. I was too young to fully realize it, but that parish formed my religious foundation.

Once during the decade-long effort to exonerate Dewayne Brown, I left the prison where he was being held. A church group was passing out bibles to the public and fish platters to the prison staff. The prison staff was “Doing God’s Work,” proclaimed a banner draped over a table.

I asked if I could have a fish platter. They asked me if I was a prison guard. I said I was a defense attorney for one of the men on death row. They looked at me like I was Satan himself and pushed the fish platters back away from my hand. Instead of a platter, they handed me a bible. One woman recommended I read it to my client before he went to the Lord.

I didn’t want to say what I was thinking: that a benevolent and just God would probably not be cool with the execution of an innocent man, or anyone for that matter. I wished I had the right biblical passage I could throw back at her but I didn’t. I wish I had said that an eye for an eye makes everyone blind and that I believed in the Jesus who told us to turn the other cheek and love each other and seek redemption and forgiveness, and in Saint Francis who taught me that it is in pardoning that we are pardoned. I just took the bible and said thank you. That night I read some Psalms and some New Testament passages in my hotel room, and I went to sleep thinking about Dewayne (as I often do) and (as I also often do) my religious upbringing.

I loved growing up in the Catholic Church, first at my grandparents’ church and then my family’s church, St. Mary’s, a Franciscan parish in Pompton Lakes, New Jersey. At St. Mary’s, I met the men who shaped my spiritual life, Father Michael Carnevale and Father Kevin Downey. They taught me about life, love, tolerance, and how to serve others. When I got married many years later, Father Mike came to Dallas to officiate my wedding. He delivered a thoughtful sermon about love and perseverance, saying that “love is the fruit of the struggle,” and then, because he was a wiseass like me, he turned to the crowd and said, “I now present Mr. and Mrs. Anna Stolarz.”

Growing up in a Franciscan parish had a huge impact on who I became and what I value in life. The parish took the foundation I had from my grandparents’ church and formed my Christian spirit. I felt alive every time I was on the grounds of my church.

Saint Francis of Assisi is my favorite saint for his dedication to serving the poor. We have a sign in our home that is an excerpt from the Prayer of Saint Francis that says, simply, “for it is in giving that we receive.” And I make sure my kids try to live their lives that way in their daily actions and in church service projects.

Before we had kids, Anna and I went to Italy for two weeks and made sure that we stopped in Assisi just to see and feel the holy ground where he lived. And, of course, it is very cool that Pope Francis chose his name after Saint Francis. I was fortunate to get a ticket to the Papal Mass at Catholic University in September 2015, and I was five feet away from him when he processed in.

My time at Catholic University Law School in Washington DC in the 1990s clarified and solidified my desire to continue my religious mission to serve others while using my skills as a lawyer. It was why I became a public defender in Brooklyn, why I always did pro bono work when I was in private practice at the law firm of K&L Gates, and why I do pro bono work today. And I will always do it.

I received an award in 2007 for taking the most pro bono cases for indigent people from the Catholic Charities Legal Network, a division of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of Washington that places cases for needy individuals with volunteer lawyers. In 2014 I received the Caritas award from Catholic Charities, the highest service award the organization gives in service to the poor. And I am very fortunate to have Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of Washington as a trusted client. Father John Enzler is the CEO, and he is one of those unique, wonderful shepherds who is focused on service to the poor and needy and says that when it comes to service: “say yes every time you can and no only when you have to.”

But I didn’t, and don’t, do pro bono work for awards or recognition. I just think it is a duty of any lawyer to give their talents back to those who can’t afford a lawyer. It’s that simple to me. It is the perfect confluence of my legal training and my religious upbringing. And it makes me feel alive inside every time I do it. Pope Francis said that “we all have the duty to do good,” and my duty was to Dewayne. That duty was why I stayed with his case until I hugged him in 2015, why I love him like a member of my own family today, and why I thank God every chance I get that he is out of prison.

 

http://www.amazon.com/Grace-Justice-Death-Row-Innocent/dp/151071510X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1461681239&sr=8-1&keywords=brian+stolarz

 

Original Sin

Jason Micheli —  September 23, 2016 — 2 Comments

160921160806-03-adam-rhew-charlotte-protests-large-169According to a congressman in North Carolina black protestors there in the South- in the South (in case you missed the emphasis: in the South) hate white people because white people are successful. That’s the real reason they’re angry. He’s since offered the boilerplate politico mea culpa that in the moment he said something he didn’t really mean, but we all know that it’s exactly in those moments, guard down and heart out, when we’re most likely to say what’s really on our mind.

According to police Keith Scott was carrying a gun and thus his shooting was justified because (dot, dot, dot) we all know a black man with a gun warrants suspicion.

According to social media, Terence Crutcher had his hands up and had his back to police to put his hands on his car when he was manslaughtered murdered so, Facebook friends testify, the officer involved must be a racist.

And then the many memes:

The Donald is a fraud. Hillary is a liar. Obama is a Manchurian President. Michelle hates America. Immigrants are rapists and Republicans are racist.

A third of us want to keep all Muslims out.

Another third want to flee to Canada if that third get their way, thinking about that third how the other third think about 3/3 of Muslims.

We’re everywhere projecting motives onto other people. Drawing lines. Culling into tribes. Rallying the righteous to our side. Pretending to know, by virtue of soundbites and campaign slogans and ticker tape summations and hot am air, who is good and who is evil.

The Christian reading of Genesis 1 is that original sin is occasioned by the tempter’s inducement for Adam and Eve to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

“But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God,* knowing good and evil.”

Christian interpretation typically fixes original sin onto the first clause in that last sentence: “You will be like God.” We fell then because of our desire to ascend. To be like God. To take God’s place. In essence, to not have God over us to whom we’re accountable.

But, lately, I wonder.

As any good writer knows, if you can work it, the main point should always fall last in your sentences (“knowing good evil”). And as any preacher knows, the emphasis should always be on the verbs (“knowing”).

So I wonder.

I wonder if original sin, the sin into which we’re all born, the sin which binds us in captivity and from which Jesus means to save once and for all, is our desire to appraise one another, to know good and evil, to be like God in Christ, separating who we take to be the goats from the sheep. That is, is our base sin our desire to know, like God, who is good and who is evil? Are the “All Lives Matter” memes, the “Blue Lives Matter” tweets, and “colorblind” FB rants just an updated form of picking the fruit from the tree?

I wonder because this morning my good friend Teer Hardy and I interviewed Ian McFarland, author of From Nothing, for our podcast. In it, Ian explained how the Christian belief in creation from nothing is shorthand for the confession that everything in existence owes its existence at every moment of its existence to God.

Everything. Always. Everywhere. At every moment.

Is from God.

Though he didn’t put it into original sin terms as I just did, Ian argued that creatio ex nihilo requires Christians to refrain from regarding anything in creation as nothing or no good or evil. It’s all from God. It’s all sacrament and none of it- no one– is slop or scrap.

If I’m right, then America still has a race problem and a problematic politics, but they’re no longer problems so much as they’re manifestations of original sin. And that’s good news because we (i.e. the Church) have an antidote to that disease: Jesus Christ.

He is the One by whom Adam and Eve and each of us and all that is- all that is- were created.

And through cross and resurrection all of us, good or and evil, are in him. To separate sheep from goats on social media like is to perpetuate a problem for which God has already provided a solution.

 

 

 

 

 

160706064731-baton-rouge-police-shooting-alton-sterling-cell-phone-video-polo-sandoval-dnt-nd-00010108-large-169“What’s happening to America?”

I’ve overheard such comments, exasperated and worried, frequently of late. Baton Rouge, Minnesota, Dallas, Nice, Baton Rouge again: “Has the world lost its mind?”

I sympathize with the sentiment; nonetheless, it betrays a naivete of which Christians, of all people, should not be guilty precisely because Christians, of all people, are those people who know we’re guilty. Sinners, that is.

Christians do not have the optimistic assessment of human nature or romanticized visions of our societal institutions such that we could be shocked or surprised by news stories of police corruption, racial furor, and terrorism.

During World War II, the Catholic worker Dorothy Day based her advocacy for Christian nonviolence not on utopian delusions about the Church or upon Christians’ distinction apart from the common lot of sinners but on a deep penitential awareness of Christians’ solidarity with all other human beings in sin. Day believed nonviolence was the mandate upon Christian practice not because Christians are fundamentally peaceful creatures but because we’re not at all. We’re sinner; that is, Day preached Christian nonviolence not because we’re a people who know peace is the better way in the world but because we’re a people who know we cannot be trusted with violence.

Rather than asking “What’s happening to America?” (Because, of course, the correct answer is that nothing new is happening to America, it’s just being videoed with greater frequency today), Christians should be pointing out- confessing- that it’s not just that we’re all individual sinners. We’re sinful creatures who create sinful, sin-prone institutions. Of course police departments and justice departments can be corrupt and, even, racist. Of course movements like Black Lives Matter can be not entirely innocent or have members whose motives are pure. Of course America continues to reap what it sowed in the antebellum south.

A woman who worships at my church, who’s obviously a skilled writer in addition to being a gardener, put it this way to me:

“Gardeners understand original sin because the weed seeds are already in the soil – they’ve been there for years. In fact, the work you do to break up the soil, to prepare it for something good, brings weed seeds up to the surface. All the compost and aeration you put in the soil makes it prime real estate for weeds as well as for your plants.”

Christians have a language to describe what video and social media expose with alarming regularity these days. The language of Sin. We’re all captive, as St. Paul says, to the Principalities and Powers, and we’re all from time to time, unwittingly even, in service to them, aiding and abetting, despite our best intentions, whom Paul calls the “prince of this world.”

It’s a language I hear almost no one speaking, possibly because you cannot speak it without also simultaneously confessing your own complicity. Even I, for example, perpetuate a racism that my own boys, who are not white, will inevitably be effected by one day.

Sin is the reason why appeals to unity (“We’re all Americans”) ring false and hollow. As the theologian William Cavanaugh argues:

“our mysticism of nationalism tends to occlude our class divisions such that those who point out the class divisions in American get accused of waging class warfare, which is analogous to arsonists complaining that the fire department keeps reporting to the blazes they’ve set.”

You can replace “class divisions” with “racial divisions” and Cavanaugh’s point still holds. Baton Rouge, Minnesota, Dallas et al- when so many are shocked and anxious these days, Christians should be those people who are not surprised at all that another fire has come ablaze, for only through such an unsurprised people will others hear the news that we cannot, even in America, save, redeem, heal, or even better ourselves.

Gardening and fire-fighting are apt metaphors for the work Christians call confession, for Christians know that we’re seldom in a position to know the truth about our sin until we have made our lives available to others in a way that we might be shown the truth about ourselves, especially in matters where the wrong cannot easily be made right, which, as Stanley Hauerwas says, “is the character of most matters that matter.”

In other words, making confession is not possible apart from making the relationships necessary to expose the extent of our sinfulness. Black lives matter for, without them, white Christians cannot know ourselves sufficiently to confess our sin.

 

officer-involved-shooting1I’m not preaching today. It’s the last day of my vacation.

It’s probably a good thing I’m not preaching today. In light of Philander Castile and Alton Sterling and the Dallas murders and Micah Xavier Johnson’s rage, it would be hard to stick with the biblical text. I’d be torn. I’ve always admired the way Karl Barth preached in Germany throughout the rise of Nazism and then in Basel throughout WWII without nary a mention of either in his sermons.

I agree with Barth that to comment too much on current events in the sermon risks making the event at hand seem more determinative to our lives than the gospel event.

It risks luring us into amnesia, forgetting that, no matter how grim the world appears, it’s not our calling to save the world. Rather, the Church is called to witness to the news that it’s already been saved in Jesus Christ through cross and resurrection.

My admiration and agreement with Barth’s homiletic notwithstanding it was difficult for me to notice this Sunday’s assigned lectionary readings and not grasp at the convicting connections.

In the Gospel lection from Luke, Jesus tells the almost hackneyed parable about the ‘Good’ Samaritan.

Here’s the point about the parable that gets missed in most sermons on it: Jesus told this story to Jews.

When Jesus tells a story about a priest who comes across a man lying naked and maybe dead in a ditch, when Jesus says that that priest passed him on by, none of Jesus’ listeners would’ve batted an eye. NO ONE in Jesus’ audience would’ve reacted with anything like ‘That’s outrageous!’ EVERYONE in Jesus’ audience would’ve been thinking ‘Ok, what’s your point? Of course he passed by on the other side. That’s what a priest must do.’ Ditto the Levite. They had had no choice- for the greater good.

According to the Law, to touch the man in the ditch would ritually defile the priest. Under the Law, such defilement would require at least a week of purification rituals during which time the priest would be forbidden from collecting tithes. The tithes are for alms, which means that for a week or more the distribution of charity to the poor would cease.

And if the priest ritually defiled himself and did not perform the purification obligation, if he ignored the Law and tried to get away with it and got caught then, according to the Mishna, the priest would be taken out to the Temple Court and beaten in the head with clubs.

Now, of course, that strikes us as archaic and contrary to everything we know of God. But the point of Jesus’ parable passes us by when we forget the fact that none of Jesus’ listeners would’ve felt that way. As soon as they see a priest and a Levite step onto the stage, they would not have expected either to do anything but what Jesus says they did.

If Jesus’ listeners wouldn’t expect the priest or Levite to do anything, then what the Samaritan does isn’t the point of the parable.

In Jesus’ own day a group of Samaritans had traveled to Jerusalem, which they didn’t recognize as the holy city of David, and at night they broke in to the Temple, which they didn’t believe held the presence of Yahweh, and they looted it. And then they littered it with the remains of human corpses- bodies they dug up and bodies killed.

So, in Jesus’ day, Samaritans weren’t just despised or ostracized. They were a lot more than heretics. They were Other. Less than human.

Just a chapter before this parable, an entire village of Samaritans had refused to offer any hospitality to Jesus and his disciples. In Jesus’ day there was no such thing as a Good Samaritan.

That’s why when the parable’s finished and Jesus asks his final question, the lawyer can’t even stomach to say the word ‘Samaritan.’ The shock of Jesus’ story isn’t that the priest and Levite fail to do anything positive for the man in the ditch. The shock is that Jesus does anything positive with the Samaritan in the story. The offense of the story is that Jesus has anything positive to say about someone like a Samaritan.

It’s not that Jesus uses the Samaritan to teach us how to be a neighbor to the man in need. It’s that Jesus uses the man in need to teach us that the Samaritan is our neighbor.  So when Jesus says ‘Go and do likewise’ he’s not telling us we have to rescue every needy person we encounter. I wish. Unfortunately, he’s telling us to go and do something much worse.

Jesus is saying that even those we regard as Other care for those in need; therefore, they are our neighbors.

No, even more so, Jesus is inviting us to see ourselves as the one in the ditch and to imagine our salvation coming to us in the Other.

And if they are potentially the bearers of our salvation, then we have no recourse but to love them at least as much as we love our more proximate neighbors.

Like you, all week long I’ve watched Americans choose the hashtag that most represents their tribe and communicates their worldview. I’ve read the social media shaming accusing those who are silent about these complex issues as being no better than the perpetrators. I’ve seen white friends post pictures of cops being ‘nice’ to kids in their community (as though that nullifies systemic racism and does anything but inflame those angry at our ignoring it) and I’ve read exhausted, rage-filled posts from black friends. I’ve noticed the NRA being slow to defend 2nd Amendment rights when a concealed-carry permit carries a black man’s name on it and I’ve listened to (white) opinion writers naively wonder what is happening in America that so many black men are gunned down by police- as though it’s the occurrence of such violence and not the videoing of it that is the new development and as though such violence was unrelated to the scores more black men wasting away in our prisons.

My point is that all of us- white, black, and blue, left and right, pro-gun and pro-gun control- have a propensity to see others as Other.

This propensity is what scripture calls Sin and it is what Paul, in today’s other lectionary reading from Colossians, refers to as the “darkness” from which Christ has transferred us but to which we are all still stubbornly inclined.

Speaking of Sin, it wouldn’t have been lost on Jesus’ listeners that when it came to #jewishlivesmatter and #samaritanlivesmatter neither party was without sin. All had done something to contribute to or exacerbate the antagonisms between them.

All were sinners because all are sinners.

Into our tribalism of hashtags and talking past points, Jesus tells a story where we’re forced to imagine our salvation coming to us from one who is absolutely Other from us, from one we would more likely see as less than human. Jesus would have the Black Lives Matter protester imagine their salvation coming to them in the form of a card-carrying NRA Member. Jesus would invite the white cop to envision Alton Sterling as the one coming to his rescue and the finger-wagging liberal to see salvation coming to them from someone wearing a Make America Great Again cap.

Jesus tells this parable about people like us to people like us and if he were telling it to us after this week,  I wonder if instead a general ‘Go and do likewise’ he would challenge us to go out into our local communities, seek out someone who is Other, and learn their freaking first name. For as long as the Other remains a general, generic category to us these issues of racism and violence and ideologies will persist. We need to take this story and make it for us the “Parable of the Good Samaritan named __________”

Such concreteness of relationship- of listening, of naming sin as sin, of repenting and reconciling- is the only thing that will lead to peace precisely because it is the way of the One who has already brought peace by his cross and resurrection.