Archives For Resurrection

Bigger than Burning

Jason Micheli —  April 18, 2016 — 1 Comment

 

995790_828275210634911_6003199688436457051_n     This weekend I preached on John’s Easter story as part of our ‘Building Lives’ capital campaign. For the first time since planting a church I preached with a screen and projector. Here’s the PDF of my manuscript with the slides included for those dying to see: Sermon with Slides

Attachment-1     Um, excuse me.

Eyes up here.

Look at you. Put a screen in front of your faces and you’re as glued to it as my kids do when they watch Game of Thrones.

Anyway-

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. So I figure a picture as sexy and impressive as this one has to be worth at least, what, three thousand words? In which case, thus endeth the sermon. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

This picture was taken three weeks ago on Easter Sunday when, in my sermon, I noted how in Matthew’s resurrection story God’s angel doesn’t bother reassuring Caesar’s people to be not afraid. Maybe, I preached, for people like us, people like Caesar’s people- people for whom the kingdoms of this world work pretty darn well- the proper response to the news of resurrection is fear.

Maybe we should be scared, I concluded.

To which, one of you primped and seersuckered listeners, was later overheard from two tables down at River Bend Bistro excoriating my sermon, complaining that “his point was absurd and insensitive and he was even vulgar in getting to it.”

And while stabbing his breakfast sausages with feral glee, this Easter brunch begrudger was overheard griping “It was almost like he didn’t care whether his sermon hurt our feelings or not.”

Fair enough. Both my spouse and my Strength Finders report rank me low in the sensitivity department. Fine. Whatever.

But then, from across his two top bistro table, his wife, reportedly threw up her hands over her french toast and groused aloud: “Easter’s supposed to be comforting not upsetting.” And then, as if polling the brunch crowd, she asked: “What’s so scary about Easter?”

Obviously it didn’t take long for my post-cancer honeymoon to end and things to settle back to normal. Don’t worry, though, I’ve since reconciled with Dennis and Sharon and I got their permission to share that anecdote so no harm, no foul.

I’ll you tell though that question still sticks in my craw “What’s so scary about Easter?” because “Sharon” wasn’t the only one who asked me it on the way home Easter Sunday.

(It wasn’t Sharon, but it did happen.)

What’s so scary about Easter? Isn’t it obvious?

I mean, you don’t even have to turn to scripture to realize what’s so scary about Easter. Clearly, Exhibit A is the Easter Bunny. At least Santa lets you sit on his lap. Has anyone ever come across a single one of those little rodents who would let you hold them without nicking up your arms?

And as soon as my youngest began Family Life at school this spring, he started asking me where the Easter Bunny gets these eggs? Does she baby-snatch them? Is she in a close, committed relationship with a rooster? Is she even a she? He wondered while riding shotgun in my Bronco.

The Easter Bunny is creepy scary.

I mean-

Have you seen the 2001 film Donnie Darko?

Frank

In that movie the Easter Bunny managed to come across as even creepier than Patrick Swayze playing an oily self-help guru-

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That’s even more terrifying than Patrick Swayze singing “She’s like the Wind” all the way to the top of the charts in 1987.

That’s scary stuff. And as Bodhi says in Point Break:

     “Fear causes hesitation and hesitation causes even your worst fears to come true.”

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     And, we all know, nobody puts Bodhi in a corner.

It’s not just Patrick Swayze and the Easter Bunny that are flesh-crawling frightening.

     Mark and Matthew, Luke and John- the Gospels all agree: the very first reaction to news of the resurrection is fear.

The soldiers guarding the tomb faint from fear.

The women, come to anoint the body, run away. Terrified.

The disciples lock the door and cower in the corner.

The first response to the news “Christ is Risen” is not “He is Risen indeed!”

It’s panic.

Fear.

Terror.

Why?

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Why are they so scared?

Are they afraid that what Caesar did Jesus might still be done to them?

Or do they fear the news that this particular Jesus has come back? This Jesus who harassed them for three years, who called them to abandon their family businesses and complicated their lives with talk of cross-bearing.

Are they afraid that they’re not finally rid of this Jesus after all? Is Jesus what’s so scary about the news “Jesus has been resurrected!”?

Or-

Is it the word itself that makes them white-knuckled afraid?

Was that word, resurrection, enough to provoke not just awe but frightened shock?

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Before you get to the New Testament, the only verse in the Old that explicitly anticipates resurrection is in Daniel 12.

Not only was Daniel the last book added to the Hebrew Bible, it was the most popular scripture during the disciples’ day.

For their entire history up until Daniel’s time, the Jews had absolutely no concept of heaven. When you died, you were dead.

That was it, the Jews believed. You worshipped and obeyed God not for hope of heaven but because God, in and of himself, was worthy of our thanks and praise.

But then-

When Israel’s life turned dark and grim, when their Temple was razed and set ablaze, when their Promised Land was divided and conquered, and when they were carted off as exiles to a foreign land, the Jews began to long for a Day of God’s justice and judgement.

If not in this life, then in a life to come.

     And so the resurrection the prophet Daniel forsees is a double resurrection.

Those who have remained righteous and faithful in the face of suffering will be raised up by God to life with God.

But for those who’ve committed suffering, they might be on top now in this life but one day God will raise them up too, not to everlasting life but to everlasting shame and punishment.

So, in the only Bible those disciples knew, that word ‘resurrection’ was a hairy double-edged sword, even scarier than Patrick Swayze and the Easter Bunny. Resurrection wasn’t about lilies and cloud-wisped harps.

Resurrection was about the justice owed to the suffering and the judgment that belonged to God.

     In the disciples’ Bible, if you were long-suffering, resurrection was good news.

If you were good.

If you weren’t, resurrection was hellfire and damnation.

You can imagine, then, how those disciples heard that first Easter message. If God had raised Jesus from the dead, Jesus who was the only Righteous One, the only Faithful One, as St. Paul says, then that must mean God was about to judge the living and the dead.

The disciples are afraid of the Easter news not because they fail to understand resurrection but because they do understand. They knew their scripture, and they knew they’d abandoned Jesus.

They’d denied ever knowing him. They’d turned tail, turned a blind eye, washed their hands of his blood. They’d scapegoated him into suffering, and stood silently by while others mocked him and taunted him.

They’d let the world sin all its sins into him and then left him forsaken on a cross.

For sinners like them, resurrection could only mean one thing: brimstone.

What’s so surprising about the Easter news isn’t just that the tomb is empty but that hell is empty too.

It’s shocking that the Risen Christ doesn’t encounter his disciples and indict them:

I was naked and you were not there to clothe me.

I was thirsty and you were too long gone to give me something to drink.

I was a prisoner and you stood in the crowd pretending to know me not.

I was hungry for justice, wretched upon the cross, and I remained a stranger to you.

The shock of Easter isn’t just the empty grave it’s that God comes back from the it and doesn’t condemn the unrighteous ones who put him there.

All of them- while they were yet sinners, God comes back from the death they’d consigned him to and he doesn’t pay them the wages their sin had earned. He forgives their sin. He spares them the everlasting judgment and shame they had every reason from their Bibles to expect.

What should’ve been terrifying news becomes good news.

But-  pay attention now, that good news- that isn’t the Gospel.

     The Gospel is bigger than the forgiveness of our sin.

The Gospel is bigger than our being delivered from damnation; it’s bigger than burning.

Because when the Risen Christ slips behind our locked doors on Easter night, the first word he says to his disciples is “Peace.”

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And that word “Peace” it’s not the first century equivalent of “S’up.”

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Or, “Howdy.” Jesus isn’t like “Hey, how’s it going guys?”

John renders it into Greek, eiríni. It comes to us through the Latin, pax. Jesus would’ve spoken it in Aramaic, ܫܠܡ, which the disciples would’ve received from the Hebrew: שָׁלוֹם.

And in the Hebrew Bible, shalom doesn’t mean simply “peace.” It’s a thick, pregnant word that means health, prosperity, wholeness, restoration, and repair- all of it. Literally, shalom is “the state where nothing is broken and nothing is missing.”

“Why have you forsaken me?”

“Forgive them for they know not what they do.”

Those are the last words of the Old World, and peace, shalom, is the First Word of the New World, and it’s not an incidental salutation. It’s the word that summarizes what God is doing in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Practically everyone in the world can recite John 3.16 by heart.

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But even though Tim Tebow has plenty of time on his hands now he, like everyone else, forgets the very next verse:

“God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that through him the world might be healed.”

     God did not send the Son into the world to condemn it but to heal the world, to repair the world, to restore the world, to shalom it. That’s what the Easter Gospels want you to see.

The judgement that word ‘resurrection’ signaled comes not to us but to our Judge, who was judged in our place and who comes back from death and forgives us.

And the life with God that word ‘resurrection’ promised is a life here, now and forever, where the Kingdom comes- just as he taught us to pray. The life promised by that word ‘resurrection’ isn’t an evacuation but a restoration.

It’s not about a new location; it’s about a new creation.

New Creation- that’s why John gives you the otherwise embarrassing detail that Mary took Jesus, wearing only his birthday suit, to be the gardener.

John wants you to see that Mary is right. He is the Gardener. He’s a New Adam for a New Creation. The Old World died with him in the Good Friday night- he put Sin to death- and now God walks in the garden not in the cool of the evening but in the dawn of a new day.

John wants you to see that just as the Old World had been born in a garden, on Easter a New World is inaugurated in a garden where Jesus, like a Second Adam, walks with another Eve, naked and unashamed.

You see- don’t you?

See that what John wants to show you through story is what Paul proclaims in his preaching:

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the New Creation has come: the Old World has gone, the New World has arrived.”

“God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself and Christ has given us the ministry of reconciliation.”

The ministry of restoration. The ministry of healing and repair. Of שָׁלוֹם.

It’s our work now- that’s what John shows you next, when a presumably still naked Jesus breathes on to them.

Weird- unless what John wants you to see is that just as God in the first garden takes the adamah, the soil of the earth, and breathes into it the breath of life and from it brings forth life, Jesus takes the grime of these disciples’ fear and failure and he breathes upon them the Holy Spirit, the breath of life.

He reconstitutes them. He shaloms them, as a new humanity, and then he gives to them his new creation work of makings things on earth as it is in heaven.

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The Gospel- the message we proclaim- isn’t that Christ died for you. No, that isn’t the Gospel because judgement is only one half the meaning of that word ‘resurrection.’

And our message isn’t that God loves you. I wish it were that easy, but the other half of that word, resurrection, asks so much more of us.

     The Gospel isn’t just that you’ve been saved from burning.

     The Gospel is that you’ve been saved for something.

שָׁלוֹם

If that’s the whole Gospel, if that’s both sides to that word “resurrection,” then the question we need to ask isn’t “If you died tomorrow, do you know where you’d spend eternity?”

The right question to ask is “Is anything keeping us from entering Christ’s New Creation work fully?

Does anything prevent us as a community from living a life worthy of our Easter commissioning?

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Perhaps you’ve heard already during this capital campaign that the debt we carry costs us about $22,000 per month.

You heard that right: $22,0000 every month. More than Aldersgate pays its pastors in a year, it gives to BB&T for a debt it has carried longer than it has had Dennis leading it.

So let me rephrase that Gospel question: could we fulfill more of our New Creation calling without that debt?

Before you answer, consider:

In 2012, we raised money for and we built a kitchen for an elementary school in Chikisis, Guatemala, a community where that school provides the only hot, healthy meal those hundreds of kids will eat during the day.

That kitchen cost us about $15,000 or about 3 weeks worth of debt payments.

In 2013, we raised money for and we built a clinic in the neighboring village of Chuicutama because those highland communities are too remote for easy access to medical care.

The clinic cost us about $35,000, a little more than what we pay out in 6 weeks to BB&T.

Next, we fundraised and we built a complete sanitation system for Chuicutama. We worked our tails off, and I got in all kinds of trouble with the bishop for using the word ‘toilet’ in church because when you’re lucky enough to take toilets for granted you’re lucky enough to judge the word toilet inappropriate

That project took 2 years and cost about $50,000. It was the biggest project we’ve ever done and it still only cost us 9 weeks of debt payments.

This summer we’re building a high school in that community and an irrigation well in Ft Apache, Arizona. The well costs less than a month’s worth of debt payments.

Does anything prevent us as a community from living a life worthy of our commissioning? You tell me.

Already this year Aldersgate helped a woman, with two young children, who was undergoing treatment for breast cancer and unable to work for a few months.

We assisted a nurse whose teenage daughter was the victim of violent, physical abuse by her boy friend and unable to work.

We paid rent for a young mother whose husband had lost his job. They have a 3 month old boy, a 3 year old boy, and a 1 yr old daughter with Downs Syndrome.

And none of it comes close to what we give BB&T in a month.

On Sundays we make dinner, go into DC, turn on soul music, set out tables and chairs, and sit down for a meal with not for the homeless, treating them like people not charity cases, like they are the brothers and sisters that Jesus Christ has in fact made them to us.

And in a year we do that for less than we spend on 1 week’s worth of debt.

It’s not that buildings are bad. No, I taught confirmation in Shepherd Hall just last Sunday. It’s the space where we shape our kids’ character. It’s not that the building is bad; it’s that the debt is sinful.

Aldersgate is changing lives around the world and not too far from here.

But we could be doing so much more.

That Toilet Project- it’s so desperately needed in the surrounding communities in Guatemala we literally could build 1 sanitation system per year until I’m older than Bernie Sanders.

We could do so much more.

In our own neighborhood even. Just think- at Stratford Landing Elementary there are 200 kids living in poverty. 100 of the kids there have no father in their lives and all but 3 of them live in poverty too.

And, it’s not just about spending money. It’s about whether we want to keep expending so much of our church’s time and energy and so many of our most talented lay people on debt work instead of on Gospel work.

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You know-

The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced I was wrong this Easter. What’s really frightening about Easter, scarier even than the Easter Bunny and Patrick Swayze, is the fact that the Risen Jesus believes we’re capable of more than we think we’re capable of.

It’s unnerving to think that Jesus thinks we can accomplish more significant things than the the status quo we settle for, that we’re capable not just of charity but his shalom.

When you think about Easter in those terms, you’ve got to wonder if, subconsciously at least, our debt isn’t like that locked door the disciples try to put between them and the Risen Christ.

Maybe it’s our way of keeping Easter at a comfortable remove from us.

If so, it should scare us that the Risen Jesus apparently has no trouble slipping past the doors we try to close against him.

 

 

 

 

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Near the end of Kurt Vonnegut’s war novel, Slaughterhouse Five, the narrator envisions a bombing mission in reverse. Fires go out. Homes are repaired. Bombs that were dropped over towns and cities are raised back up through the sky into the bodies of the American planes. The bombers fly home backwards where they are taken apart rivet by rivet and, eventually, even the soldiers become babies.

Vonnegutt’s vision is one where the violence and death of war is undone. Original beauty is restored.

While Vonnegutt was himself one of the 20th century’s most articulate atheists, he might be chagrined to discover how thoroughly biblical was his version of hope. Slaughterhouse Five reads like it was ripped off of the prophet Isaiah (65) or St John (Revelation 21-22).

Of course, if God did not actually, literally, physically raise Jesus’ cold, dead body from the tomb, then it’s just what Vonnegutt took it to be: fiction.

Somewhere along the way I discovered that the most contentious, disputed doctrine among the every Sunday pew people isn’t homosexuality, abortion, or biblical authority.

It’s belief in the resurrection of the body.

The literal, physical, historic and material resurrection of Jesus from the tomb as the first fruits of our eventual literal, physical, historic and material resurrection from our tombs, caskets and urns.

I know many more Christians who cross their fingers during that part of the creed (‘…and the resurrection of the body…’) and who are willing to argue with me about it than I do Christians willing to debate the ‘social issues dividing the church.’

The (mainline at least) Christians get their panties in a bunch like no else when you suggest that belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus is the lynch pin of Christian orthodoxy.

Except…it is.

Don’t believe me read the Book of Acts. Every sermon of the first church revolves around the resurrection. Peel away your penal substitution prejudice and read Paul again- it’s resurrection through and through.

Times may change but you can be damn sure cowardly Peter didn’t let himself get crucified upside down because he held a ‘Search for Spock’ doctrine of the resurrection (when we remember him, it’s like he’s still here with us).

I’m not even arguing science or history right now. I’m arguing linguistics.

Christian speech falls apart without Easter.

Resurrection’s the verb that makes sense of all Christian language.

Without it, Cross and Incarnation and Sermon on the Mount are all unintelligible, free-standing nouns.

Jesus might’ve thought all the law and the prophets hang on the greatest commandment, but- think about it- we’ve absolutely no reason to pay any attention whatsoever to anything Jesus said, thought, or did if God didn’t vindicate him by raising him from the dead.

Actually. Really. Truly.

If the resurrection is just a metaphor, then Jesus’ teaching and witness is just another way that leads to Death.

Even worse, if you still insist that Jesus is God Incarnate, the Image of the Invisible God but deny the resurrection you’re arguing that violence, suffering and tragedy is at the very heart and center of God’s own self-understanding- rendering a God not worthy of (mine, at least) worship.

In other words- in John Howard Yoder‘s words- without the actual, physical, literal resurrection of Jesus we’ve no basis to assert that the way of Jesus goes with the grain of the universe.

In other words- mine this time- if God did not vindicate Jesus’ words and way by raising him from the dead, we’re in absolutely NO position to say his teaching about the Kingdom (see: cheek, turning of) corresponds to any present or future reality. 

If there’s no high Christology, there’s no intelligible ‘way’ of Jesus, and if there’s no Easter, there’s no Eschaton.

We’re only yet into Eastertide, the season where for 50 days Christians remind ourselves that Jesus Christ, raised from the dead once for all, is, despite the Church’s best efforts to render him otherwise, a Living Lord.

There’s no better time than the season of resurrection to wonder if the Wesleyan Quadrilateral can bear the weight of our Easter God.

For those of you who have not had to pledge allegiance to it for Methodist ordination exams, the Quadrilateral describes how Wesleyans conceive of the doctrine of revelation. Calling it the Wesleyan Quadrilateral is an anachronism but we can attribute it to him honorifically for Wesley did practice the methods of the Quadrilateral in his preaching and teaching. It’s popular to analogize the Wesleyan Quadrilateral to a three-legged bar stool, an ironic analogy for a people who once foisted tee-totaling upon America.

3-legged-stoolImagine Scripture as the seat of the stool, on which we/the church/the world (it’s never clear) rests. The three legs of the stool, which equally support and balance it, are Tradition, Reason, and Experience. In other words, we Wesleyans deploy the creedal tradition, our mental faculties, and our experience of the world to illumine the bible.

It’s common today to praise our particular Wesleyan approach to scripture as a perspective perfectly suited for the contemporary world; in that, it avoids the dangers of fundamentalism on the one hand and an unmoored mysticism about the bible on the other.

Having recently dipped back in to Karl Barth, the theologian on whom I cut my teeth, I’ve wondered what sort of theological Kung Fu Barth might wreak upon the Quadrilateral.

The tendency in United Methodism to remodel the stool so that Scripture becomes no longer the base but a fourth leg equivalent to Tradition, Reason, and Experience, underscores, I think, a latent deficiency in how the Wesleyan Quadrilateral treats scripture and, more importantly, the Living God who freely chooses to speak through it.

I expect Barth, whose massive Church Dogmatics are best understood as a theology of revelation, would object to our Wesleyan Quadrilateral on that specific ground. We Methodists, reared on Enlightenment liberalism, approach scripture not unlike archaeologists armed without excavation tools, Reason, Tradition and personal Experience, in order to extract some meaning or truth from the text. Such a posture, Barth would argue, unavoidably conjugates scripture’s testimony into the past-tense. We ask with Experience, Tradition, and Reason what the biblical text meant in its original context, what God said, and it’s up to us, using those same tools, to infer an application for today.

Contrary to the Quadrilateral, Barth insists that scripture is not a sourcebook but is a living witness. It’s not an inanimate object but is the means through which Christ elects to speak. Scripture is not the word of God, bound in the past; scripture is the medium by which Jesus Christ, the Word of God, reveals himself. John Wesley was an Enlightenment era priest so it’s not surprising perhaps that the Quadrilateral attributed to him reflects the modernist tendency to begin with ourselves instead of God. If he was feeling punchy, I imagine Barth might imply that we Wesleyans with our Quadrilateral actually betray docetic tendencies with scripture. It only ‘seems’ like revelation but isn’t really to us for it requires us to yield any word.

Against us, Barth proclaims again and again that Jesus Christ, as the Risen Living Lord, is the agent of revelation NOT the object of revelation. The Risen Christ is the Revealer not what is revealed. And, I wouldn’t have admitted this when I applied for ordination, I think this is the view of revelation the contemporary world- or, at least the mainline church- needs today.

For Barth, Jesus is not only a Living Lord but he’s free. Our knowledge of God, our faith in God, is in God’s hands not ours.

Our Tradition, Reason, and Experience will deliver us nothing of God unless God so elects.

The word of God, for Barth, isn’t waiting in the pages of scripture, dead and dormant, waiting to be sought. You can only seek a god who is dead. The Living God seeks after us.

The Word of God, Jesus Christ, is alive and discovering us. Truth isn’t just sitting there in the pages of scripture waiting to mined by our lights; Truth is a resurrected person moving outside of scripture, encountering us, calling us, transforming us.

Scripture is not the record of how God met us in Christ.

Scripture is the ground on which the Risen Christ elects to meet us today.

Christ is Risen.

He is Risen indeed.

And indeed (sorry NT Wright) it’s not with ambiguity.

I marked this Holy Week by dipping again into the work of the late Dominican philosopher, Herbert McCabe. Here is an excerpt from his essay on Easter Vigil.

In it, McCabe reads the Easter stories as they are, straight up, in the Gospels- not as full-throated victory shouts but as qualified, murky signs of something more to come.

Jesus’ resurrection, says McCabe, belongs better to that category the Church calls sacraments.

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“The cross does not show us some temporary weakness of God that is cancelled out by the resurrection.

It says something permanent about God:

not that God eternally suffers but that the eternal power of God is love; and this as expressed in history must be suffering.

The cross, then, is an ambiguous symbol of weakness and triumph and it is just as important to see the ambiguity in the resurrection.

If the cross is not straightforward failure, neither is the resurrection straightforward triumph.

The victory of the resurrection is not unambiguous; this is brought out clearly in the stories of the appearances of the risen Christ.

The pure triumph of the resurrection belongs to the Last Day, when we shall all share in Christ’s resurrection. That will not, in any sense, be an event in history but rather the end of history. It could no more be an event enclosed by history than the creation could be an event enclosed by time.

Perhaps we could think of Christ’s resurrection and ours as the resurrection, the victory of love over death, seen either in history (that is Christ’s resurrection) or beyond history (that is the general resurrection).

‘Your brother’ said Jesus to Martha ‘will rise again. Martha said ‘I know he will rise again on the last day.’ Jesus said ‘I am the resurrection…’

Christ’s resurrection from the tomb then would be just what the resurrection of humanity, the final consummation of human history, looks like when projected within history itself, just as the cross is what God’s creative love looks like when projected within history itself.

Christ’s resurrection is the sacrament of the last times.

Just as with the change in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, the resurrection can have a date within history without being an event enclosed by history, without being a part of the flow of change that constitutes our time.

The resurrection from the tomb then is ambiguous in that it is both a presence and an absence of Christ. The resurrection surely does not mean Jesus walked out of the tomb as though nothing had happened.

On the contrary, he is more present, more bodily present, than that; but he is, nevertheless, locally or physically absent in a way that he was not before.

It is important in the Thomas story that Thomas does not in fact touch Jesus but reaches into his bodily presence by faith.

It is important in the Mary Magdalene story that Mary does not at first recognize Jesus.

Here is a resurrected, bodily presence not too tenuous but too intense to be accommodated within our common experience.

So then Christ’s resurrected presence to us [through the sacraments] still remains a kind of absence: ‘…we proclaim his death until he comes again.’

995790_828275210634911_6003199688436457051_nLibby asked. Here’s the Easter sermon from this weekend. Texts: Matthew 27.15-28.10 1 Corinthians 15.12-17a

There’s a lot of Jesuses out there you can choose.

For example, there’s the Jesus on the cover of the sympathy card I received from one of you a year ago.

Jesus is depicted from the rear. His cloak is piled around his ankles falling on the tile of a bathroom floor. Someone- maybe his mother, Mary- is holding his long, dark hair back away from his face. He’s squatting.

You know it’s Jesus even from the rear because you can see his wounded feet tucked under his knees. And his pierced hands are gripping the sides of a toilet bowl with the lid up.

He’s about to hurl.

The speech balloon above Jesus’ head reads: ‘Don’t listen to my followers. I never said my Father won’t give you more than you can handle.’

There’s a lot of Jesuses out there to choose.

I don’t think I realized how many until last year.

At the beginning of Lent last year, I learned I had Mantle Cell Lymphoma, this incredibly rare, aggressive, and incurable cancer. I’ll spare you the grisly, melodramatic details.

Easter is not a day to dwell on me sniffing Death and living again.

Suffice it to say, by this time last year I’d received hundreds of sympathy cards and emails, and I discovered just how many different Jesuses are available to us.

 

One came to me as a YouTube link to a music video titled ‘Cancer Jesus’ wherein a skinny, bald Jesus who looks either like Sinead O’Connor in the ‘Nothing Compares to You’ video or like a caucasian Fight Club Gandhi.

This Cancer Jesus is wearing a hospital gown and, to an electronica soundtrack, Cancer Jesus gatecrashes a concert and then proceeds to get medieval on a fictitious boy band who, I guess, must symbolically represent cancer.

There’s a lot of Jesuses out there to choose.

One card I received showed Jesus wearing not a crown of thorns but a stocking cap, crucified on two IV poles. ‘Feeling forsaken?’ this Jesus asks. ‘Remember, I’m with you always’ he goes on on the inside of the card.

There’s a lot of Jesuses to pick.

Like the pen and ink Jesus who stood in the middle of a card with sheep on one side of him and goats on the other side and above him were the redacted words from Matthew 25: ‘….I was naked and you clothed me; I was hungry and you fed me; I was in chemo and you gave me medicinal marijuana.’

That card came from a seminary student. An Episcopalian.

 

When it comes to Jesus, you have a lot of choices available to you- even if you don’t have cancer.

I mean-

If you want a Jesus who sounds more like a horny boyfriend than a Lord and Savior, you need only tune your radio to 91.9 FM.

If you want a Jesus who sounds more practical and helpful than a Vitamix, you can tune in to Joel Osteen after church this morning.

There’s lots of Jesuses to choose.

If you want a Jesus so good-looking he makes me question my own sexuality, then you just have to wait until August when Paulo from season three of Lost plays Jesus in the remake of Ben-Hur.

If you want a Jesus who leans forward towards all of your pet social justice issues then all you have to do is login to www.progressivechristianity.org or, I suppose even, www.umc.org.

Or, if you prefer your Jesus camouflaged in red, white, and blue then you can order the Duck Dynasty Faith Commander Bible (I’m not lying, such a thing exists) from Amazon for the hardcover price of only $21.14.

There’s a lot of Jesuses out there.

 

There’s even more than one Jesus to choose right there in Matthew’s Gospel.

——————————

One of the things we forget in all our Easter piety is that there was always going to be three crucifixions on Good Friday.

There was always going to be a man in the middle named Jesus.

————————

If you were a Jew in Jesus’ day, Rome’s invasion left you with three political options.

If you wanted to hang on to your wealth and status then you could collaborate with the enemy. Think King Herod.

Instead of collaborating, you could spiritualize your faith and use Rome’s oppression as an opportunity to call people to reform and holiness. This was the route taken by the Pharisees.

A third option, popular with the masses, saw the overthrow of Rome as the only faithful option. Those who chose this option were called Zealots, and they pushed for an armed Revolution that would return Israel to the glory it had known under King David.

Depending upon your point of view, the Zealots were either terrorists or freedom fighters.

The real Barabbas was not like the suave, manscaped actor who played him last Sunday in Fox’s The Passion: Live. 

The real Barabbas was a Zealot, and the Gospel indicates that he was something of a folk hero to the pilgrims gathered for Passover.

Every year, at Passover, to keep a lid on any Revolutionary fervor, Pilate had two choices. He could crucify some Jewish insurgents just to remind everyone who was in control. Or, he could release a prisoner in order to appease the crowds.

Usually, Pilate chose both.

So Pilate lines them up, side by side, and gives the crowd a choice.

And notice, here it is, according to the Gospel: they’re both named “Jesus.”

They both bear a name which means ‘Savior.’

The one’s last name ‘Bar-abbas’ means (you don’t even have to know Hebrew to figure it) ‘son of the Father.’

The other, not by name but by origin, claims the same identity. To be the Son of the Father, the Son of God, the Father.

In other words both of them are named ‘Jesus, son of the Father.’

They’re both criminals in the eyes of the chief priests.

They’re both opposed to the Powers that be.

They both ignite within their People the hope that one day soon they will be delivered.

Pilate lines them up, side by side. These two Jesuses.

‘Pick one’ Pilate asks.

You get your choice.

Between a Jesus who tells you to return hate with love, or a Jesus who gives you permission to strike back at those who do you evil.

You can choose between a Jesus who says: ‘those who pick up the sword will die by it,’ or a Jesus who invites you to take up arms against the world’s villains.

 

A Jesus who promises to liberate the poor or a Jesus who becomes poor and invites you to do the same?

Pilate lines them up, side by side. Two different Jesuses.

Pick one, Pilate says.

Jesus Barabbas asks his people to take up arms, to make his country great again.

The other Jesus asks his people to take up their cross and follow.

Matthew says that the chief priests ‘persuaded’ the crowds to choose Barabbas over Jesus.

But you know as well as I do, they didn’t have to try very hard.

The reason we hang crosses on walls is so we don’t lie to ourselves that we’d ever choose a different Jesus than the crowd chose.

————————

Of course, the promise and the threat, the good news and the bone-wracking, bad news of Easter is that we’re not the only ones who make a choice.

Even louder than we can cry crucify him, even before Jesus’ body is cold and buried in the ground, God announces his choice- by splitting rocks into shards, cracking open the graves of the dead, and quaking the earth itself.

God calls forth his entire creation- rocks, graves, tectonics- to witness that this is the Jesus God wants, this is is the savior God chooses.

That’s what resurrection meant for the first Christians: vindication.

Resurrection was about God declaring with the rumbling of the earth and the shock of zombies and a verdict as loud as an empty tomb that this Jesus is the life God intended for us from the very beginning.

 

For three years, this Jesus had taught a different kind of Kingdom than that other Jesus, a Kingdom where the poor are lifted up, where those who curse us are blessed, where strangers and aliens are welcomed not walled off, where those who have hungered for justice are filled with good things.

A Kingdom where cheeks are turned and enemies are prayed for, where trespasses are forgiven even when the trespassers know exactly what they’re doing.

He preached a Kingdom of mercy not might.

For three years, this Jesus had taught this kind of Kingdom, and on Friday we put all our chips on the kingdoms of this world and we bet on a president called Pilate to have the last word.

But then on the third day, God rocks the earth, pops open the grave and plucks this Jesus up from the dead and says ‘Yeah, my Kingdom is exactly like that.’

And just in case you’re deaf to the shaking of the foundations, God rolls away the stone from the tomb, a stone that bore King Caesar’s image, and God has his angel sit down on top of it.

God’s angel sits his butt right down on King Caesar’s face and says ‘This Jesus, he’s not here, he is risen.’

Don’t miss this. This is everything Easter-

The cross shows Jesus’ commitment to his teaching of the Kingdom. He doesn’t repay evil with evil on his way to Calvary. He turns the other cheek all the way to the cross and, from the cross, he forgives his enemies and even prays for them with his dying breath.

The cross shows Jesus’ commitment to his teaching of the Kingdom and the empty grave shows God’s confirmation of it.

The empty grave shows God’s confirmation of it.

God’s vindication of Jesus.

This Jesus is exactly what the sign above his head says he is: a King.

——————————-

Of course, the bad news is that a King requires not your opinion but your obedience.

A King demands not to be invited, subjectively, in to your wishy-washy heart.

A King demands your objective loyalty over all other allegiances.

Look-

I’m just like you. I’m fully invested in the kingdoms of this world. If it were up to me, I’d choose a different Easter.

I’d prefer to think of Easter as a metaphor for springtime renewal- even though it’s winter in Israel now.

I’d prefer to imagine Easter as story about how our soul lives on after our body dies- even though that’s pagan not scripture.

I’d prefer to dismiss Easter as a primitive superstition- even though resurrection was no easier to swallow for the ancient Christians than it is for us.

If it were up to me, I’d choose a different Easter.

I’d choose to think of Easter as a sign we’ll go to heaven after we die- even though Jews like Jesus didn’t believe in heaven.

I’m just like you. The kingdoms of this world have worked out pretty well for me so, if it were up to me, I’d pick a different sort of Easter.

I’d take tulips and bunnies over tremors and zombies. I’d choose an Easter where my soul flies away into the sweet bye and bye. I wouldn’t choose this quaking invasion by God that shakes loose any excuse I might have not to pick up my cross and follow.

I’d choose anything other than this Easter where God grabs creation by the collar, shakes away our obfuscations, and shouts with an empty grave: ‘What do I have to do to get your attention?! This is the way and the truth and the life I want from you.’

I’m with you.

I’d like to have Easter / and / have my world left alone.

My life is pretty good. Like most of you, I’ve got the right skin color, the right passport, and the right education to make the principalities and powers of this world work for me.

If I were to swap my citizenship to his Kingdom, it would rock my world to rubble.

It would feel like an unnatural disaster.

That’s what St. Paul is getting at when he says ‘If Christ has not been raised, our faith is futile.’

If God has not resurrected this Jesus then we’re off the hook, you can take what Jesus taught or you can leave it. Allegiance not required.

If God has not resurrected this Jesus, then you can put his Kingdom teaching away in to a nice, gilded box and bring it out on Facebook when it suits you.

But-

If God has raised this Jesus from the dead, then we Christians-

We welcome strangers and aliens, we pray for our enemies, we forgive those who trespass against us, we show mercy to those who curse us and show compassion to the poor, we offer grace where it’s not deserved.

We do so not because we have a My Little Pony naiveté about the world, not even because it’s a strategy to make the world a better place. It probably doesn’t work.

But we do it simply because Jesus commanded us.

And God has raised this Jesus from the dead, so he’s not just our teacher.

He’s our Lord and King.

—————————-

Look, I’m no different than you.

I’m a nice guy. And I need to be needed. You can ask Dennis- they don’t let you become a United Methodist pastor unless you’re fundamentally risk-averse and narcissistic.

 

I want you to like me, especially you every Sunday types who pay my health insurance.

I wish it was my job to comfort you with any of those other versions of Easter that we’d prefer over this one.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t ordained to serve you. I was ordained to serve this Risen Lord. To herald this Easter announcement.

And just as much as you, I’d like to ignore this Easter. I’d rather choose another Jesus.

But I can’t because this Jesus…he’s alive.

He is. Trust me, after the year I’ve had- I know it.

——————————-

But I understand. It’s no wonder we put so many Jesuses out there to choose from because the Jesus God chooses- it would shake our world if we took him seriously enough to give him our obedience.

Our loyalty. Our pledge of allegiance.

Maybe (look again) that’s why the angel at the tomb doesn’t bother to tell Caesar’s guards ‘Do not be afraid.’

The angel tells the women with their spices not to be afraid, but the angel doesn’t say ‘do not to be afraid’ to Caesar’s people.

And, let’s be honest, here in 22308, that’s who most of us are in the story: Caesar’s people, people for whom the kingdoms of this world work pretty well.

Maybe for people like us, we should be afraid.

Maybe for people like us Easter shouldn’t be a comfort.

Maybe Easter should afflict us with the right kind of nightmares.

Maybe we should be afraid.

Because God has raised this Jesus from the dead, he’s alive- I know he is- and that means we’ve already learned more of God’s will for our lives then any one of us are willing to do.

 

 

lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517Dear friends, HEWHOMUSTNOTBENAMED and random visitors,

As you may already know, I’m going on my 10th year at Aldersgate Church and in all that time I’ve taken 1 paternity leave, several long potty breaks and, count them, 0 vacations.

Working with a man like Dennis Perry, a man whose name will go down in history with names like Michael Scott, Gomer Pyle and Roscoe Peco Train, I simply couldn’t afford to take time off of work. I cared too much about you all to allow you to suffer long under Dennis tired, broken body, diminished mental faculties and antiquated job skills.

I couldn’t even get away and let Dennis ‘phone it in’ at work because even then, I knew, the phone in question would be a rotary phone.

Just think, there’d you be, waiting as long for Dennis to complete a thought as it takes to dial a number with a 9 and a 0 in the area code. People of Aldersgate, I just couldn’t do that to you. I love you too much.

Fortunately for you all, Hedy’s arrival on staff has made me as irrelevant, ineffectual and archaic-seeming as Dennis has proven these past many years, which is lucky for me because, now, like Bilbo Baggins, I’m going to be away for a while.

If you skipped church last Sunday, are not on social media or were just trapped under something heavy this week then you might not have heard already that I have the ‘C’ word.

No, no that ‘C’ word. Don’t be so vulgar. This is church.

No, I have that other ‘C’ word.

Cancer.

The irony in all this is the first thing that hit me too: this past year Aldersgate has had a healthy, in-shape pastor and his name was Dennis Perry. I’m never exercising again.

To make a long story short, I’ve suffered abdominal pains since the early fall, pains I chalked up to too much coffee in my stomach, too much fat in my diet or too many church people in my schedule.

That most of you didn’t even know I was suffering such pains, I attribute to a virility that makes Lee Marvin look like Judy Garland.

Last Thursday I had a CAT scan of my abdomen, which showed that my pain was caused by an intussusception, a rare condition (for adults) where my small intestine had inverted and was ‘telescoping’ in on itself. Ali and I met with a surgeon on Friday morning who explained the surgery and warned us as well that she was concerned about what could be causing the intussusception.

The surgeon had hoped she could do the procedure laparoscopically, but when I woke up on Monday evening, feeling like someone had gone at my gut with an electric Thanksgiving knife and a battery acid chaser, I suspected it had been a bigger surgery.

In fact, they removed about 3 inches of my intestine to correct the inversion, and they also removed from my small intestine a 10 by 10 inch tumor baby, whom I’ve since taken to calling- affectionately- ‘Larry.’

Let that sink in: 10 by 10 inches. I can now say I understand what women go through in child birth, which I think should make me even more appealing to the ladies (if such a feat is even possible).

A 10 by 10 inch tumor baby, unlike a real baby, however is not an occasion for cigars and balloons.

The pathologist took initial slides of the tumor immediately after surgery and on Tuesday the oncologist told Ali and me that, even without the exact biopsy results, he knew:

I had a lymphoma that fell somewhere among 5 rare cancers of the blood.

You can imagine how we took that news. I went to the doctor last week thinking I had a gall stone or an ulcer. The idea that my body, which has always been a source of pride in me and arousal in women- the idea that my body was now trying to kill me was a complete shock to us. The idea that if I do nothing at all I’ll swiftly be dead was an even bigger shock.

We cried.

A lot.

I made lots of apologies for all the ways I’ve been a crappy husband because I assumed we had all the time in the world.

Finally, we dried our eyes and told our boys, Gabriel and Alexander, that Daddy has cancer, which is what was making his tummy sick, that I’m still sick and that the doctors are going to work to make me better but it’s going to take a long time and I’ll be sicker in the meantime.

Today is Friday. We met with the oncologist last evening. It turns out:

I have Mantle Cell Lymphoma, a rare, non-Hodgkins form of B cell lymphoma that typically only organ music-loving people the age of the 8:30 service get. Its spread through the GI System and bone marrow.

 

I like to think I’m unique in all things and it turns out I am in diseases as well.

Because it’s a rare, aggressive lymphoma, I’ll be fighting it likewise. I will begin 4 two-part phases of aggressive chemotherapy this coming Friday- not much of a break I know.

Each phase will last approximately a month. The lymphoma has spread to the rest of my system so I’ll definitely be hospitalized again for the first phase as the oncologist wants to monitor my kidneys. Hopefully, hospitalization won’t be necessary for the succeeding treatments. At the end of the 4 phase treatment, it’s likely I will need to undergo bone marrow transplants as well.

All in all, I think its safe to say 2015 will be an exceptionally crappy year for the Micheli household. The Nats better freaking make it out of the first round because I’m not going to have much else going for me this year.

In case you were wondering, I won’t be around much for the next 6 months.

I hope you continue to be around for us though. I’m not normally given to sappy, sentimental nonsense, but I can’t tell you how fortunate we feel to be going through this in a church and a community we’ve come to know so well. Already so many of you have been key to getting us through the dark nights we’ve had. We’re going to need you and we’re not the type to ask so don’t wait for us to ask. Just continue to do what you’ve been doing.

ImamPastorI like to yank Dennis’ chain but without him I’d probably still be in the corner crying and sucking my thumb.

I couldn’t have made it through this week without Dennis and I won’t make it through the weeks ahead without him, so cut him some slack. And even though you know I won’t be preaching for quite a while and you know he’s likely to bore you to tears, please show up at church anyway.

It might not surprise you, but my biggest fear- the thing that wakes me up in the middle of the night with panic attacks- has been about my boys. I don’t want to put them through this and I certainly don’t want them to lose me or the family they know. You can help on their end too. When you see them, please don’t ask about me or my cancer.

Please just treat them like normal kids because a normal life for them is my biggest goal in all of this.

10350435_10204746594086950_2925906432646049018_n

I miss you all. I really do, and I wish I could be there today to say all this to you. And don’t sweat the God thing, people. Please. I never believed before that God does mean-ass stuff like this to people so I’m not hung up on God doing it to me. I don’t believe there’s any mysterious ‘reason’ other than the chromosomal one that cancer- however rare- is happening to me, and I don’t believe there’s a bigger plan behind all of this other than the same plan God has for all of us: to love and glorify him through Christ. I’ve just got to figure out how to do that given my new circumstances.

Finally, don’t pity me.

Cancer’s not all that bad.

For example, just as I was drifting off before surgery I heard one of the surgical staff say aloud: ‘We’re definitely going to need a bigger tube for the catheter…’

See, some dreams do come true. Even amidst nightmares.

– The End. 

PS:  I hope to hell not. 

lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517I know all the words by heart such that even now they’re at the edge of my lips ready to take the jump.

It’s not an accomplishment; it’s the trade. .

Well over 100 times now I’ve stood in the center of a sanctuary or in the middle of a funeral home chapel or at the head of an open grave on the fake plastic grass under an uneven tent or even a few times in a ‘sitting’ room and in front of all number and manner of mourners I’ve recited verses as inextricably linked with my character as ’…it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’ belong to the chorus of Henry V. 

     My lines, if not bald-faced lies or pious candy, signify a great deal more than nothing: ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.’

Sitting here in my kitchen, staring at the baby blue folder folder whose top sheet is labeled ‘Preparing for Your Surgery,’ with my surgeon’s frank Army countenance (‘We won’t know what we’re facing until after your surgery’) ringing on repeat in my head- and my wife’s, it suddenly occurs to me that in all those 100 plus times I’ve never once stood by the dead and looked out at the living and proffered a follow-up question:

Do you believe this?

Do you believe (any of) this? That Jesus is the resurrection and the life? That those who trust in him (even though they die) yet shall they live? Are these just lines? Do you believe it? Really?

I’ve never thought to ask because, for one practical reason, the United Methodist Book of Worship doesn’t instruct me to ask it. For another very intuitional reason, it would seem boorish.

Funerals, after all, are usually emotionally bare (as in, vulnerable not sparse) ocassions with a higher likliehood of truth-telling breaking out compared to the rest of the working week. And if the Pew Surveys and Gallop Polls are to be reckoned accurate, then the priest or pastor who dares to ask ‘Do you believe this?’ should be ready for roughly half the grieving gathered to answer ‘No.’

No, we don’t.

Believe much of any of this.

Indeed I’d wager that the number of those responding in the negative would increase the closer you crept to the front pews, especially on those ocassions where the caskets are shorter or the left behind’s hair less grey, those ocassions where circumstances still seem to demand the wearing of black or where the shoulders are stooped not from age but grief.

I bet, if I asked, I’d hear more no’s up close near the front. And so I’ve never asked the question because neither my ecclesiastical script nor good manners suggest I do so. Jesus does though, in John 11, after speaking the lines whence this funerary quote gets lifted.

The dead Lazarus’ sister, Martha, gives the Gospel’s best example of tearing Jesus a new asshole: ‘If you’d only come when I called, Jesus, my brother would still be alive.’

Jesus responds with a resurrection rejoinder that ends where I begin whenever death enters in: ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’

And then Jesus, unlike me, follows up with the question: ‘Do you believe this?’

     Maybe, like Jesus, I should ask it too, propriety and piety be damned: ‘Do you believe this?’

Because, obivously, it’s a question meant for the living. Jesus isn’t asking what Lazarus believed. Four days dead, serene and sealed in the tomb, nobody cares anymore what Lazarus believed. Not God. Definitely not Lazarus.

No, Jesus is asking Martha what she believes.

When Jesus tells Martha about the power of the Resurrection, what Martha doesn’t get is that Jesus isn’t talking about a power available to us only after we die. He’s not talking about a one day down the road or even on the last day.

He’s talking about a power available in the present, today, in the here and now.

Because if you believe that Jesus Christ has destroyed Death then Resurrection doesn’t just make heaven possible, it makes a bold life possible too.

Because if you believe that Death is not the last word, then we have the power to live fully and faithfully.

And we don’t have to try to live forever.

Here’s what I’ve learned after those 100 plus ocassions delivering my lines for other people:

     When you’re staring at a euphemistically hued folder from your surgeon and when the -c- word has made a grim if hopefully premature intrusion in to your not-yet-graying-life and when wildly melodramatic Lifetime movie-type voices chatter in the back of your head, you don’t much give a damn about forever.

      Longer is all you want. Longer will do. Longer with….

And here’s what you notice:

Martha’s ‘Yes, I believe’ doesn’t guarrantee a happy ending for her brother.

The size of Jesus’ tears outside Lazarus’ grave suggest even Jesus was a little shocked the dead guy walked out newly alive, but, even after all the trouble, Lazarus will die again, of old age and natural causes, or post-op infection perhaps or maybe of a broken heart.

Martha says ‘Yes, I believe’ and no doubt she does, but, seen from Jesus’ POV, she doesn’t grasp at all what it means to believe.

She and Jesus are speaking past each other. He’s talking about his very Being; she’s talking about the Last Day. Even our strongest beliefs barely scratch the surface of what’s True.

In case those first two observations strike you as dissatisfying, here’s the last thing you notice staring at a baby blue folder embossed with the caduceus and your name in hasty yellow marker.

 A God who works by Resurrection is, by definition, a God of surprises- light from darkness and all that- and a God of surprises is, by definition not a genie in a magic lamp.

     The antonym of Resurrection isn’t Death; it’s Predictable.

Perhaps then that’s the best reason not to add to my familiar script and pose that question to mourners: ‘Do you believe this?’

Because even when the answer is in the affirmative, even where the faith is as strong if uncomprehending as Martha’s, ‘Yes’ is still a complicated answer. Now that the shoe gown is on the other foot body, I regret any of the times in those 100 plus that I might’ve implied anything other.

 

Police Shooting Missouri

Over the past week I received not a few emails from the likes of you, dear readers, asking why I had not posted any reflections, missives or rhetorical theo-bombs over the shooting and ensuing violence in Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan, Missouri.

One email asked (with- in my imagination- forked tongue) if I only cared about the poor and dispossessed in Guatemala.

A European subscriber asked if homosexuality was the only current ‘issue’ over which I could muster any passion.

More than several pressed me, wondering if my silence on Ferguson was actually reticence, fear to comment on a story on which my congregation would disagree.

On that point, let me just add here that I serve a largely military community that long ago learned how to integrate its ranks and to do it- comparatively- well, and that the soldiers in my community have sacrificed much so that we could be the kind of nation where OUR POLICE don’t walk the streets dressed like soldiers. 

Allow another aside: Our soldiers sacrifices are for naught if we’ve created a society where our police must walk our streets as soldiers. 

Back to the emailed interrogatories on my radio silence re: Ferguson-

Short Answer: I took a few days off to pass my kids off to their grandparents.

Long Answer: I’m not sure social media contributes anything meaningful to the media feeding frenzy. I don’t trust my own motives in posting, as it will surely just lead to ‘clickable’ post titles and tags. Race relations in America are owed more than 800 word thoughts. I’m not there. I, we, don’t know exactly what happened so better to wait than retract.Write what you know.

But then President Obama et al kept serving up a cliche I do feel warrants a (theological response):

‘Now is the time for calm and peace.’

This in the wake of the nightly looting and violence. In the wake of the shooting (6x) to an unarmed black boy: ‘Now is the time for calm and peace.’

You know our society has jumped the shark when Rand Paul offers the most prophetic word. I hardly condone base, mindless looting, but after living 10 years in DC I know that ‘now is the time for calm and peace’ translates roughly to:

‘Everyone- stop being so angry. Return to your normal lives and wait for change which you will quickly forget until the next Michael Brown or Trayvon Martin.’

‘Now is the time for calm and peace’ means stop agitating in a way that a nearly all-white, militarized police force will be forced to retaliate. Instead, patiently wait for your do-nothing Congress to never deliver any meaningful change and wait for your press to likewise do nothing until the next headline-grabbing story.’

Even if necessary, even if offered by a black President ‘Now is the time for calm and peace’ is a prescription offered by someone who is not ill themselves. It’s the proposal from someone in power.

It’s the suggestion from the status quo to keep everyone’s status, quo.

My real quibble, however, is how President Obama and other pols and pundits mindlessly throw around ‘peace’ as though it’s their word to (mis)use at their pleasure.

Quibble isn’t really the right word.

I’m righteously angry that so many, for whom the status quo serves their status, use OUR word ‘peace’ to maintain the world the way it is- or was 5 minutes ago.

I’m angry because in both Testaments the word ‘‘peace” is shalom. What we hear with the English word ‘peace’ is only a partial definition of ‘shalom.’

It doesn’t mean the absence of violence.

 

Shalom means total well-being. 358x242-ferguson-smoke

Wholeness.

 

Shalom is when/where all things are reconciled.

Set right.

 

Shalom is the final product of God’s very first promise never to abandon God’s creation.

As Brian Zahnd points out, Hebrew-English dictionaries define shalom as the state where ‘nothing is missing and nothing is broken.’

Peace.

Shalom.

It’s the word that motivates the Word that breathes all things into existence.

It’s the word behind the words to the promise to Abraham to (re)bless the whole world.

It’s the word that sums up what God is doing in and through the Word, Jesus Christ.

 

Peace.

Shalom.

It’s the word ministry given to Jesus followers right before the Cross.

And it’s the first word ministry given to them right after Easter.

 

I don’t care how you parse the events in Ferguson over the past week or whose side you take in the altercation that led to the boy’s murder.

It doesn’t matter.

Because calm or not, returning to what was prior IS NOT what the Bible refers to as ‘peace.’

Even if Michael Brown had returned home unharmed, ‘peace’ is not what he would’ve enjoyed. Protesters ceasing and desisting and returning to their homes to scratch out meager wages in an unfair, segregated context IS NOT what the Bible refers to as ‘peace.’ Reporters moving on to the next feeding frenzy IS NOT what the Bible refers to as ‘peace.’ Affluent you and me returning to our normally scheduled TV programming, FB likes or Social Media postings IS NOT what the Bible refers to as ‘peace.’

Shalom.

 

Peace, according to God, according to the Easter Jesus, is when a black President can speak out on a racial issue without half the country reflexively chalking it up to being ‘racially motivated.’

Peace, according to Yahweh, is where there is no death row much less one where 9/10 are black and from neighborhoods even worse than Ferguson and sent there by jurors, judges and lawyers who look like me.

Biblical peace is when you ask someone in a city where is the white school and where is the black school and they have no  freaking idea what you’re talking about.

Biblical peace is where we- police and citizens- don’t fear the ‘other’ because we’ve pushed them and ostracized them and segregated them into hopeless neighborhoods, failing schools and dead-end futures.

Peace, Jesus’ kind of peace, is where America can finally repentantly confront that it is a nation whose prosperity was built upon the blood of slaves, a sin whose effects fester even today.

Peace is where we can confess that sin and seek reconciliation all the while without a need to justify ourselves.

There’s a lot more needed to even come close to that word ‘peace’ but I thought that’s a start.

At least, President Obama is right on one part of his sentence. Ever since Easter, ‘now’ IS the time.

 

 

 

 

Here is the first sermon in the Leaving Left Behind Behind series. Though it’s a sermon about ‘the satan’ the text is from the Easter encounter of Jesus to his frightened disciples in John 20.19-23. ‘Satan’ is a tradition that’s evolved over the course of the tradition so the sermon couldn’t possibly map the entire history. Instead, I chose to focus on the root of the word- which I think yields an insight far scarier than any Al Pacino depiction.

If you’re interested in the treatment below, I highly recommend the Rene Girard book, I See Satan Fall Like Lightening.

You can listen to the sermon here below or on the sidebar to the right. You can download it in iTunes here or download the free mobile app here and listen wherever you are.

My dad had a heart attack a couple of years ago.

I flew up to Cleveland when I got the call. He almost died.

Some of you probably don’t know this about me:

My dad and me- we have a history that started when I was about the age my boys are now. Even today our relationship is complicated and tense and…sticky- the way it always is in a family when addiction and infidelity and abuse are part of the story.

Some hurts never go away and some scores never get settled.

A few days after his heart attack my dad went home.

We were sitting in his garden- just him and me and my stepmom. My dad’s face was black and his nose was broken from where he’d fallen on the street. His chest was sore and his breathing tight from the CPR.

My dad and me, we don’t have the kind of relationship where we know how to just sit in the garden with each other- if you know what I mean.

So we were sitting there, he’d just come back home, he’d just come back from the dead and some of the first words out of his mouth?

He started picking at me.

Picking at old wounds.

Picking old fights.

 

I hadn’t seen him in nearly 2 years. His heart had stopped beating for several minutes. He’d gotten a new chance at life; he’d gotten new life and I’d gotten a new chance at a new life with him. But there in the garden he just wanted to go back at it.

 

There was no ‘I once was lost but now I’m found’ moment.

I thought: Really, you want to do this now? Right here?

But it didn’t take long for me to take the bait, and there I was arguing 20 year old resentments with my nearly-dead-dad.

There we were trading blame and accusation back and forth, blame and accusation.

We didn’t get very far though. A couple of minutes. A couple of raised voices.

And then my stepmom stood up, gestured in the middle of us and scolded: ‘Whatever you think is between you. It’s gone. It’s removed. It’s not here anymore.’

And then she pointed at me or, rather, at the cross on my neck and said: ‘I expect you, at least, to understand that.’

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Alright, you may not be wearing a cross around your neck, but you are here today. So, at least in theory, you should understand too.

So here’s my question:

What did she mean?

What was she talking about?

 

To keep it basic, you could say sin- the sins between us, the sins committed on the other, the sins suffered because of the other.

On a basic level, you could say she was talking about sin.

 

To get more theological, you could say she was talking about Good Friday and Easter, the Passion and the Resurrection, the Empty Cross and the Empty Grave.

On a theological level, you could say that’s what she thought I should understand.

 

But to get specific, painfully, dangerously specific, you could say she was talking about satan.

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     And there’s your question, right?

Satan? What do you mean she was talking about Satan?

Satan is red.

Satan has horns and a tail.

Satan carries a pitchfork. Satan smells like sulfur. Satan slithers on the ground.

 

Satan’s the Prince of Darkness; he rules like a god in Hell, he has dominion over this fallen world especially the House, Senate and Department of Motor Vehicles.

And when Satan speaks, it’s probably in parseltongue.

Sometimes he appears to resemble Al Pacino, but Satan’s a fallen angel, a serpent, a creature.

As in, not human.

Not one of us.

Not like one of us.

Satan’s nothing like us.

So what did she mean? My stepmother, what was she talking about?

 

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Here’s our problem:

Biblically speaking, Satan isn’t a proper name. Later tradition turns it into a proper name but initially in the bible Satan isn’t a proper name. It’s a noun.

‘Satan’ isn’t a person. It’s a title.

Biblically speaking, it’s not Satan with a capital ‘S.’ It’s satan with a little ‘s.’

It’s not Satan. It’s the satan.

In Hebrew it’s ha-satan (שָּׂטָן).

‘Ha’- is the Hebrew definite article for ‘the.’ Ha-satan is the noun form of the Hebrew verb: שָׂטַן.

 

And the first place you find that verb in scripture is in Genesis 3.

After God has created all that is and called it ‘good.’

After God has created Adam and then Eve and called everything ‘very good.’

After the serpent asks Eve ‘…did God really say…?‘

After Adam and Eve wonder whether God is ‘very good’ and they eat.

After God goes looking for Adam and Eve.

And after God asks Adam what has happened…what does Adam say?

     Eve made me do it.

     It’s because of her. It’s her fault. She’s the reason.

     He points the finger. He passes the buck.

     He finds a scapegoat.

Eve’s guilty too, sure, but that doesn’t mean Adam’s not scapegoating her. Rather than deal with and repent of his own sin and guilt, he takes it and puts it on someone else.

     And that’s the first place where you find that verb satan.

     It means ‘to blame.’

     ‘To accuse.’

When we talk about original sin, we always think of Adam and Eve eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

When we talk about original sin, we’re so used to thinking of the tree in the garden that we completely miss how the first sin of humanity against humanity is when Adam blames the only other person he has to share this world with.

     Blame and accusation- satan– that’s our original sin, on each other.

Turn the page and our very next sin is murder, when Cain kills his brother- what Jesus refers to as the foundational sin of the world.

Blame and accusation- satan– leads to violence.

Our original sin leads to the foundational sin of the world.

‘Satan’ is not a proper, personal name- at least not initially- it’s our propensity for blame and accusation- a propensity that inevitably leads to violence.

     ‘Satan’ is not a proper, personal name. The blame game is satan’s name.

     I suppose in that sense it’s the most personal name of all.

It’s less about a supernatural, otherworldly god-like character and more about the spirit of blame and accusation and recrimination and judgment that so easily captivates us and so quickly leads to casualties.

When you dig down to the dirty root of the word, it’s no wonder we’ve preferred to imagine Satan with horns and a pitchfork. Because while ‘Satan’ doesn’t look much like any of us, I don’t know about you but ha-satan is the spitting image of me.

No wonder we’ve preferred to make him the Prince of Darkness and put him down in Hell to rule and reign because that’s a lot less frightening than staring at him in the mirror every morning.

You see, imagining a ‘Satan’ who smells like sulphur is just another way we try to convince ourselves that our s#$% doesn’t stink.

 

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Of course, not wanting to smell our own s#$% is exactly the problem.

The Book of Genesis is the first book in scripture for a reason. You miss what’s going on here in the first few chapters and you lose the plot to the rest of the scripture story.

The original sin of not trusting God’s love and goodness produces the first sin we commit against each other other: satan, blame and accusation.

And our first sin against each other leads to the foundational sin of the world.

Separation from God, blame and accusation of each other and violence, physical and emotional violence.

This is what’s wrong with our world. This is what’s wrong in our relationships, and this is what’s wrong in our communities and nations.

The ancient Jews had a system of dealing with this problem: Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement.

In case it’s been a while since you read your Leviticus, Yom Kippur revolves around the Jewish high priest. The person who represents all of God’s people, the only person who can ever venture beyond the temple veil and into the Holy of Holies, where the ark and the presence of God reside, and ask God to remove his people’s sins.

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Because when he enters the Holy of Holies he enters God’s presence, every detail of every ritual matters.

When he’s done with the ritual preparation, the high priest is brought two goats.

Lots are cast so that God’s will would be done.

One goat is sacrificed to cleanse the temple of sin.

The second goat is brought to him alive.

The high priest lays both his hands on the head of the goat and then confesses onto it all the iniquities of the people of Israel.

The priest removes all the people’s sin and guilt and puts it on the goat instead.

It’s a ritualized exchange of satan, blame and accusation, from the guilty onto the innocent.

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While the high priest prayed over the goat, the king of the Jews would undergo a ritual humiliation to repent of his people’s sins: he’d be struck, his clothes would be torn, the king would ask God to forgive his people for they know not what they do.

When the high priest’s work is done, the goat’s loaded with all the sins of the people. Chances are, you wouldn’t want to volunteer to lead that goat out into the wilderness.

So the man appointed for the task would be a Gentile. Someone with no connection to the people of Israel. Someone who might not even realize that what they’re doing is a dirty job.

That Gentile would lead the goat away with a red cord wrapped around its head- red that symbolized sin.

The name for the goat is ahzahzel. It’s where we get the word ‘scapegoat.’

Ahzahzel means ‘taking away.’

The Gentile would lead the scapegoat to the forsaken place while the people shouted ‘ahzahzel.’

Take it away. Take our sin away.

So that it’s not here anymore.

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Our first sin against each other leads to the foundational sin of the world.

Mistrust of God, blame and accusation of each other and violence.

This is the dynamic at play in the Passion story too.

When Jesus is arrested, he’s brought to whom?

The high priest.

And what’s the high priest do to Jesus? He satans Jesus.

He accuses Jesus. Casts blame on him.

They satan Jesus of blasphemy, but that’s God incarnate standing there before them so who’s really guilty of blasphemy?

You see, they’re putting their guilt and sin onto him.

They satan Jesus of threatening to destroy the Temple.

They satan Jesus of fomenting armed revolution against the empire.

They satan Jesus of teaching that his followers should hold back taxes to Caesar.

They accuse and blame Jesus.

Even though it’s Pilate who wants to destroy the Temple.

It’s Herod who skims off Caesar’s taxes for himself.

It’s the High Priest who breaks the first commandment when he says ‘We have no King but Caesar.’

And it’s the hosanna-shouting crowds who reject Jesus a few days later because they want their Messiah to be a violent revolutionary.

They satan Jesus with their own junk and put it on him.

Then Pilate’s men ritually humiliate this ‘King of the Jews.’ Mocking him. Casting lots before him. Tearing his clothes off him. And then wrapping a branch of thorns around his head until a cord of red blood circles it.

Afterwards, Pilate presents the crowd with two prisoners: Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus Barabbas.

One is the incarnate Son of the Father; the other’s name means ‘Son of the Father.’

It’s like the crowd’s being asked to choose between two identical goats.

And when Pilate asks the crowd what to do with Jesus.

What do the crowds shout?

Not ‘Crucify him!’ Not at first.

First, the crowds shout ‘Take him away!’

Then they shout ‘Crucify him!’

After Caiphus and Herod and Pilate and Caesar and the crowds all put their sin on to Jesus, satanically blaming and accusing him of the very things they’re guilty of, Jesus is led away, like an animal, with a red ring around his head, with shouts of ‘ahzahzel’ ringing in the air- led away from the city by Gentiles to Golgotha.

A garbage dump.

A barren place where some of his last words will be ‘My God why have you forsaken me?’

Our original sin of mistrusting God’s goodness produces our first sin of blame and accusation, satan, and that leads to the foundational sin of the world, violence.

That’s the dynamic at play in every heart, every crowd, every community and every nation.

That’s what the Gospels try to show you.

It’s what John the Baptist meant at the very beginning of the Gospel when he pointed at Jesus and said he’s the one who will ‘ahzahzel the sin of the world.‘

It’s what St John means when he says Jesus was ‘slain from the foundation of the world.’

It’s what Caiphus reveals about us when he decides once and for all to scapegoat Jesus: ‘…it’s better that one innocent man should die…’ than all of us.

We like to imagine Satan as fiendishly red with horns and a pitchfork to go with his tail, but when you look at the Passion story, satan, is found on every face in the crowd.

We like to picture Satan as a mythic, rival to God instead of confronting that satan, blame and accusation, is what we do to each other.

We blame and accuse.

We backbite and judge and gossip.

We find fault.

We point the finger and pass the buck and cast the first and second and third stone.

We satan until we do it to God himself.

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And we still do it.

According to a Pew Survey on Religion in America, those who check ‘None’ when surveyed about their religious affiliation are the fastest growing religion in America.

Surveys have shown that what’s behind the rise of the Nones, in many cases, is an image problem for Christians.

In one survey, when given a list of possible attributes to describe Christians:

81% checked ‘yes’ next to the adjective ‘judgmental.’

85% checked ‘yes’ to ‘hypocritical’ which is just another word for blame and accusation.

Only 70% checked ‘yes’ to insensitive while 64% said they thought Christians were ‘not accepting of those different than them.’

     In other words, when those outside the Church look at those inside the Church they don’t see Jesus. They see Satan, satan.

Blame and accusation.

And that reveals not just an image problem. It shows that we’ve lost the plot.

We’ve forgotten the very first thing it means to confess ‘Christ is Risen Indeed.’

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When you go back to read Leviticus, about the Day of Atonement, one of the things you realize is that once that scapegoat is loaded down with all the sins of the people and sent away into the god-forsaken wilderness to die, the last thing you want is to have that goat come wandering back.

Cain sure didn’t want Abel coming back.

Scripture says the innocent blood of Abel cries out from the ground.

Innocent scapegoats coming back just leads to more satan, blame and accusation, until it leads to revenge and retribution.

     You don’t want the scapegoat coming back.

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     Think about it- that kind of news would be absolutely terrifying if you were guilty or had had any kind of hand in it.

But Jesus he’s the scapegoat slain from the foundation of the world, the scapegoat of scapegoats.

And he wasn’t just innocent, he was God.

After he’s led away to forsaken Golgotha to die and left in a tomb never to be heard from again, he comes back.

He comes back.

And it’s turn the other cheek time no more.

He throws Caiphus up on a cross of his own and he gives Pontius Pilate a dose of his own medicine and he says to the hosanna-shouting crowds: ‘Pay back time.’

No.

He doesn’t even bother with Caiphus.

He doesn’t give Pilate a dose of his own medicine, he grills his disciples fish.

And the first thing this scapegoat says to them, the first words out of his Easter mouth, the first word of God’s New Creation is ‘Peace.’ שָׁלוֹם

Which is the Bible’s shorthand way of saying ‘I forgive you.’

‘I want to restore not retaliate.’

‘I want to heal our relationship not harm it more.’

‘I want to make all things new.’

      The first word of Resurrection is the opposite of satan.

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I’ve been a minister now for 13 years.

I’ve pastored in 4 churches, 1 hospital and 1 prison.

And in at least 1 way, you’re all the same.

All of you could tell a story like the one I told you about my dad and me in the garden.

All of you have someone in your life who might say: ‘I forgive you, let’s move on.’

But the next time a fight erupts, you know, it’s all over again. All the archived animosities will come out.

All of you have someone in your life with whom it’s never done. It’s never finished. It’s never put to rest.

Someone with whom you can try to put it behind you, but next time it’s right there between you again. Like it never left.

All of you have someone in your life for whom what you’ve done is never done with.

Someone for whom the past is only in the past until it comes back tomorrow or next year.

It’s never gone once and for all.

And for some of you, that someone in your life is you.

You’re the one who can’t put it away, can’t send it away, who always brings it back to where or how it started.

You can’t face and repent of your own junk and so you’re always looking to put it on someone else.

     We like to picture Satan red with horns and a pitchfork to go with his tail, but when you dig down to the dirty root of the word you realize that ‘Satan’ is not a proper, personal name.

     The blame game is satan’s name.

And if the first word of Resurrection, the first word of God’s New World, the first word that summarizes everything Jesus did and everything he undid- if the first word on Jesus’ Easter lips is ‘Peace,’

Then there should be no margin of error in the surveys: 100%

Christians should be known as those people who renounce the blame game in Jesus’ name.

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Looking at Lent: Lazarus

Jason Micheli —  April 11, 2014 — 1 Comment
This is from Janet Laisch:
When Christians began creating art in about AD 200, Raising of Lazarus scenes still seemed far too pagan. Matisse like art covers catacomb walls with abstract shapes and lines adapting pagan symbols with purposeful variation: Eucharist vines replace acanthus leaves. No crosses yet.  After meeting Christ, Christians refrained from creating art for nearly 200 years not just because of the Old Testament commandment against graven images but also because Christians equated making art with paganism. By the first half of the third century, Old Testament stories decorated the walls of catacombs, especially the Jonah story which could be understood as a precursor to Christ’s resurrection.
About five hundred later, New Testament scenes including the Raising of Lazarus also appear. The earliest versions followed standardized minimal iconography because even then Christians feared worshipping the image and the revelry of making it. The purpose of these early scenes is only meant to remind believers of Christ’s ministry to encourage prayer and worship. The Raising of Lazarus (see below) depicts a larger than life Christ as young, beardless and like a magician holds a wand as he waves it toward a much smaller entombed and completely mummified Lazarus. The perspective is close up without Mary, Martha or a crowd and the scale accentuates Christ’s divinity.

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Once Christianity became the official religion of Rome under Constantine ca AD 312, Christian art changed dramatically from depictions on catacomb walls to elaborate government sponsored mosaic programs covering the walls of Basilicas where Christians worshipped in public. Even in the sixth century, artists depicted the Raising of Lazarus in a similar way: the focus remained on the miracle and relationship between Christ and Lazarus.
Though now believers lingered over details and studied the relationship between many images as part of a larger program of art just as reading about Christ’s ministry is better understood as a whole.  The image below depicts a sixth century mosaic from the Basilica Sant’ Apollinaire Nuovo in Ravenna. The gold background represents the eternal, heavenly space so like God eternal, the image transcends time and reminds the viewer that this NT scene prefigures Christ’s resurrection and our own resurrection.  Lazarus’ face is visible unlike earlier versions in catacombs.

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By the twelfth century, iconography for Raising of Lazarus has changed as seen in the icon (image below) from St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai. Now a throng of people fill the space as well. Among the crowd Martha and Mary stand or kneel in prayer while individuals cover their noses disgusted by Lazarus’ pungent death smell. These icons much like the earlier mosaics encourage the viewer to study the image and experience the story as a participant in the crowd. The gold background represents heavenly space and time eternal.

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Even throughout the Renaissance, the iconography changed very little; though artists became increasingly interested in depicting three dimensional space and human emotion. Giotto’s fresco (shown below) from 1305, uniquely shows a disciple, most likely Peter, because of the halo and short cropped beard or Thomas who is specifically mentioned in this Biblical passage touches Lazarus. On Lazarus’ right, two women cover their noses disgusted while Martha and Mary kneel at Christ’s feet. Overall, Giotto conveys stoicism through calm and controlled brushwork.

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In 1609, Caravaggio broke from tradition, heightening the drama by painting Lazarus still dead and almost naked in the center foreground of this oil painting. Martha holds her brother’s head while a man steadies his torso; thus, Caravaggio, followed Pieta iconography instead of Lazarus iconography viewing Lazarus’ Resurrection as a precursor to Christ’s death and ultimate Resurrection.
The Pieta or the pity depicts the deposition from the cross and Mary holding Christ. The stark contrast of light and dark only further dramatizes an already charged emotional scene. Caravaggio also identifies Christ as the Second Adam by borrowing from familiar iconography; Christ extends his arm in the same manner as Adam extends his arm toward God in Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling.

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Art contemporary to Caravaggio’s includes this Rembrandt etching in which the dramatic use of light and dark is rendered again. Rembrandt’s composition and figural poses became the inspiration for another great Dutch master, Vincent Van Gogh who in 1890 painted a colorful version.

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Van Gogh layered paint so thickly that it resembled carvings for a woodcut and has a three-dimensional sculptural quality. Though he used Rembrandt’s work as inspiration, Van Gogh painted it uniquely his own.  Unlike Rembrandt’s Van Gogh’s is a close-up view cropping out Jesus and the crowd to focus our attention on Lazarus, Martha and Mary who rests at Lazarus’ feet. Christ appears absent; though God’s presence is symbolized through the sun. Van Gogh, the son of a preacher who spent time as a pastor, may have identified with Lazarus’ resurrection as a parallel to his own salvation while convalescing at the mental asylum in St. Remy after the famous incident when Van Gogh cut off part of his ear.

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The Raising of Lazarus is such a popular image for artists as it makes us see that Christ “is the resurrection and the life.” Just as surely as Lazarus had died, Christ resurrected him. Mary and Martha felt so abandoned when Christ waited to return while they mourn their brother’s death without Him, yet while they mourned, Christ had a plan, saying to his disciples, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I will go and wake him up.”

When Christ returns, Martha and Mary each rebuke him, “If you would have been here, Lord, my brother would not have died.” The crowd questions Christ a third time, “He gave sight to the blind man, didn’t he? Could he not have kept Lazarus from dying?”  As believers they know that God can do anything so they ask why Christ didn’t intervene. Christ says, “For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.” Christ says he wants us to “see the full glory of God.”

This story like a microcosm of life shows how we anticipate Christ’s return, how we question death and tragedy like Mary and Martha.  Christ had a greater plan and made his plan known the day he returned. Christ returned; he did not abandon. Christ said “I am the resurrection and the life.” Then Christ resurrected Lazarus. Christ does not only say these powerful words, he proves them and He will again.

Brian BlountThanks to logistical wizardy of Teer Hardy (Ryan to my Michael Scott) we’ve started to do a weekly podcast here at Tamed Cynic.

For this installment, we’ve got the President and Professor of New Testament at Union Seminary, Brian Blount.

Dr. Blount was my teacher when we were both at Princeton. His work has focused on the Kingdom of God, the Gospel of Mark and the Book of Revelation. His new book is Invasion of the Dead: Preaching Resurrection.

For this podcast we discuss resurrection, revelation, zombies and whether contemporary Christians should preach what Paul said or do what Paul did. 

Come back to check out future installments. We’ve got Stanley HauerwasBrian Zahnd and Robert Two Bulls in the queue.

You can listen to the interview here below in the ‘Listen’ widget on the sidebar.

You can also download it in iTunes here.

Better yet, download the free mobile app here.

Emmaus @ Bass Pro Shop

Jason Micheli —  March 3, 2014 — 1 Comment

38_4495672_11I closed out Revolution of the Heart sermon series this weekend with a sermon Luke’s Emmaus story in chapter 24. You can listen to it below below or on the sidebar. You can also download it in iTunes under ‘Tamed Cynic’ or download the free mobile app and listen that way. 

 

      1. Emmaus @ Bass Pro Shop

 

It was the third month since we’d last spoken or seen each other, leaving the most recent wounds to fester and scar.

I was one the road.

Heading towards Richmond.

And as I drove with the radio low, I tried to work out- out loud- just what had happened, why things had gone the way they did, how this was neither what we’d hoped for nor ever expected.

I talked all of it out aloud.

As though there were was someone alongside next to me in the car.

I stopped on the way even though there was no need. I just sat there, still, working over every slight like something stuck in the teeth.

I’d only been given an address, no name or destination.

‘It’s just off 95,’ she’d typed, ‘so it will be convenient for us both.’

The slightly nagging voice in my GPS told me to get off at Exit 89 in 1 mile, and after announcing my obedience every few hundred yards she told me my destination would be on the left.

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     Maybe it’s an Italian thing, but in my familia we’re good at fighting. Our arguments aren’t just episodes; they’re full blown productions- operas- with the winner going to whomever gives the most committed, dramatic performance.

 And our arguments are never original productions.

They’re always sequels where it’s like a voice offstage says ‘Previously on Lost’ and then we rehearse all the old episodes that brought us to this most recent installment.

(I’m sure no one can relate.)

Even in the most litigious, operatic of families, there comes a point where the juice is no longer worth the squeeze and you stop arguing.

But since fighting is all you know how to do, you stop talking altogether.

That’s the place my mom and I were at.

It was going on the third month when she sent me a message: ‘Let’s meet for dinner somewhere.’

I know I’m the ‘reverend.’ I’m the professional Christian. I’m the one with the bible knowledge in my head and the Holy Spirit in my heart.

But the meal wasn’t my initiative. The invitation came from her not me. I replied back to her: ‘Sure’ and I suggested a couple dates and asked for a destination. She sent back only an address. A seemingly random place along the road. I didn’t even try to find it on a map.

I replied again ‘Okay.’  And then with much sarcasm and equal parts cynicism, I entered the date in my iPhone Calendar along with the title: ‘Reconciliation Dinner.’

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     The day of- I typed the address into Google Maps and 100 miles later it announced that my destination was on my left.

I slowed the car and stared to the side and concluded that my mom must be punking me.

Because there on my left was the Bass Pro Shop.

It’s a manure-colored structure that stretches as far as the eye can see.

In case you’re unfamiliar, Bass Pro Shop is a shopping mall exclusively for hunting and fishing.

Imagine if Costco sold only those blueberry muffins and you have idea of the scale and specificity that is Bass Pro Shop.

Now some of you know me better than others so let me just clarify by saying that I’m not really a Bass Pro Shop kind of guy.

Not exactly in my element at the Bass Pro Shop.

I double-checked the address my mom had sent me.

I was afraid that to call and question the choice of meeting places would only provoke another argument so I got out of the car and walked the 2 miles through the parking lot to the store, all the while feeling like a contestant in the Hunger Games headed towards the Cornucopia.

Like a lumberjack of yore, I walked through the heavy, fake-timbered front doors and then pushed my waist through a turnstile.

     If Virginia is a red-leaning state, then I think it fair to say that the Bass Pro Shop in Richmond is like that spot on the planet Jupiter.

For example, after I walked through the turnstile, to my left, where you might expect a coat check at a swankier establishment, customers were checking their concealed handguns.

“Did you bring a weapon with you, sir?” the Walmart Greeter asked me. “Weapon? Uh, just these,” I said, holding up my 2 hands.

He kinked his eyebrow as though he was thinking there’s no way you could stand your ground with hands of such unimpressive caliber.

I stood there, staring back over at the gun check.

“Are you looking for something, sir?” the Walmart Greeter asked.

“Um, I was just wondering where I can tie up my horse” I joked.

He didn’t laugh. You could tell it struck him like a good idea.

I’d gotten there early. I had time to kill, and I still had birthday shopping to do for Gabriel so I wandered the store.

After a while, another employee asked me if she could help me.

‘Yeah, do you sell fishing poles here?’ (at the Bass Pro Shop)

She looked at me with the sort of empathy one reserves for stroke patients and pointed in the direction behind her.

I walked past ladies camouflage lingerie in the women’s section, Duck Dynasty onesies in the kids’ section and ‘Gun Control Means Using Two Hands’ outdoor thermostats in the home and garden section.

Finally I happened upon not simply a fishing section but an entire forest of fishing poles. And behind it, hidden like a high stakes baccarat table, was an entire fly fishing section.

I browsed, and every now and then I would let out a manly grunt like I knew what I was looking at. Eventually I let myself get taken advantage of and I bought Gabriel a boy’s fly rod and reel and then, checking the time, I hiked back to the front of the store to meet my mom.

I stood outside next to a steel deer-hunting stand and waited for her.  We said hi and walked inside and stepped through the turnstile.

“Do you have any weapons with you?” the same Walmart Greeter asked her.

“Just these two” I said again, and he rolled his eyes at me.

     It turns out that in addition to a 2 story waterfall and a day care center for your gun dogs, the Bass Pro Shop also has a full-service restaurant and bar in it.

Because… why would it not?

And we all know nothing goes better with hunting than a few appletinis.

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The restaurant was decorated like Applebees’ but with a swampy alligator theme. Captain Sig Hanson from Deadliest Catch was catching something on the flat screen over the bar.

The hostess sat us awkwardly in the middle of the dining room where we were surrounded by a busload of elderly ladies and a high school cheerleading squad.

At first we tested the temperature before we tiptoed too far into conversation: nice to see you, how are you, what’s new with you, how are the boys?

That sort of thing.

We must’ve looked like we were deep in conversation.

Because when the waitress came over to take our drink order she apologized for interrupting us.

As the waitress walked away, my mom said: ‘I’m sorry…for everything.’

‘Me too’ I said.

And then we got down to the brass tacks of what each of us was sorry for.

After a while, the waitress brought us the glasses of wine we’d ordered along with a loaf of bread on a wooden cutting board.

Probably because it gave us something else to say, something safely rote and memorized, we said grace.

We didn’t hold hands or make a show of it or anything.

     We just quietly said grace.

     And having blessed the bread, I took it.

     And because the waitress forgot to leave us a knife, I broke the bread.

     Into two pieces.

     And I gave the bread to my mom.

___________________________________________

     If you read straight through Luke’s Gospel, from beginning to end, one of the things you notice is how Jesus is always eating at someone’s house.

     In fact, some of Jesus’ most critical teachings come around a dinner table.

     “I’ve come not for good, righteous, religious people but for sinners.” Jesus says that after he’s poured another round at Levi’s house. Levi the tax collector.

“If you can’t admit that you have much to be forgiven for you can’t possibly show very much love.” Jesus serves that up before the appetizers are served at Simon the Pharisee’s house.

 

“You do plenty of bible studies but seldom do you do the bible.” Jesus says that as soon as he sits down at another Pharisee’s house when they notice he hasn’t washed up for supper.

 

“Make yourself low so as to raise someone else up. Like, when you have a dinner, treat your guest as if they were host” Jesus says when he’s a guest at the leader of the Pharisees’ house. “And whenever you have a dinner don’t just invite your friends, that’s not what my Kingdom’s like. Invite the poor and the lame. Invite the stranger and the estranged.”

 

“The Kingdom of God is about actively seeking out the lost not waiting around for the lost to find their way to you” Jesus says on the way to Zaccheus’ house.

 

When you read Luke’s Gospel straight through, one of the things you notice is how Jesus practically eats his way to the Cross.

 

Luke records 6 meals Jesus shares in the course of his ministry.

 

A seventh comes the night Jesus is betrayed, when Jesus deviates from the ancient script and, taking bread and wine, says “I’m the only way for you to pass-over from despair to new life, from sorrow to celebration, from bondage to freedom.”

“And just so you don’t forget that-

Whenever you break bread or pour out wine

Do it in remembrance of me.”

Luke tells you that Jesus celebrates 7 suppers on the way to the Cross.

     7- the Hebrew number for perfection, completion, for the sum total of creation.

     7 Suppers.

     Which makes this meal at Emmaus the 8th Supper.

The Resurrection is on the 8th Day. 1024px-Caravaggio.emmaus.750pix

In a 7 day week, the 8th Day is just the 1st Day all over again.

The Old Creation began on the 1st Day.

And the New Creation begins on the 8th Day.

The first meal of the Old Creation was when Adam and Eve broke God’s only command and, scripture says, “they ate and their eyes were opened” and they were ashamed of themselves and blamed each another and hid from God.

The first meal of the New Creation is when Cleopas and another- who’s probably his wife- they break bread and, scripture says, “they ate and their eyes were opened and they recognized” and they ran back reconciled and rejoicing about resurrection.”

     The numbers aren’t accidental.

     Luke wants you to see that this 8th Meal at Emmaus is the 1st Meal of the New Creation.

It’s Luke’s way of saying that this meal at Emmaus is the summation of all the ones that came before it, that everything Jesus said and did at those 7 other supper tables can be found here in this 8th one, the first one of the New Creation.

Which is why, I think, before they sit down for this 8th Meal, Luke points out how these 2 disciples – they know their bibles. They know everything there is to know about Jesus.

     They know the Christmas story, that Jesus is from Nazareth.

They know he preached like and performed deeds like the prophets of old.

They know he was righteous in a way like no else but Moses.

They know the Apostles Creed, how Jesus ‘was crucified under Pontius Pilate.’

They know he was to be the Messiah who would save his People from Sin.

They even know that the tomb is empty.

And that women have seen him raised from the dead.

      They know everything there is to know.

     Except what any of it could possibly mean for them. In their lives.

Before this 8th Meal, when Luke shows you how much they know but how little grasp, Luke wants you to recall those other meals.

Like the one at Simon’s house where Jesus praises a sinner over a Pharisee and makes the point that it’s not how much bible you know it’s much bible you do.

Luke wants you to see in this 8th Meal the other 7 before it.

That’s why, before this meal at Emmaus, Luke points out how even when this stranger opens up the disciples’ minds to the scriptures and their hearts are burning inside with them from the spiritual high, they still don’t recognize Jesus right there in front of them.

When Luke shows you how their spiritual high in their hearts doesn’t do anything to open their eyes, Luke wants you to remember those other meals.

Like the one at the Pharisee’s house, where Jesus says his Kingdom is not about your high. It’s about your low. It’s about humbling and lowering yourself for another.

Before this 1st Meal of the New Creation, these 2 disciples have everything there is to know about Jesus in their heads and they have spiritual fire in their hearts..

But Jesus is not made visible at this 8th Meal until they actually DO what Jesus said at those other 7 Meals.

Jesus is not made visible until they refuse to let this stranger remain a stranger.

They don’t let him slip away to the next town.

They don’t let a possible relationship go lost.

Because the Kingdom is about seeking after people.

They invite this stranger to dinner not just their friends.

And these 2 disciples- they humble themselves. They turn convention upside down and they treat this guest as though he were the host.

That’s why he’s the one who blesses and breaks the bread.

And don’t forget the biggest thing of all-

For all they know this scripture-quoting rabbi on the road, who’s playing dumb about the crucifixion, is a Pharisee.

This stranger certainly sounds like a Pharisee.

He talks like a Pharisee talks.

For all they know he’s an enemy who killed Jesus.

And so their invitation to dinner is itself a gesture of forgiveness and reconciliation.

 

These 2 disciples have everything there is to know about Jesus in their heads and they have spiritual fire in their hearts…

     But Jesus is not made visible at this 8th Meal until they actually DO

what Jesus said at those other 7 Meals.

 

pastedGraphic_4.pdf

The waitress at the Bass Pro Shop brought us our glasses of wine along with a loaf of bread on a wooden cutting board.

We offered a blessing.

And then I took it, the bread.

And I broke it.

And I gave it.

     And then suddenly right before our eyes…

No.

It doesn’t work that way.

It’s not like our eyes were suddenly opened or that Jesus appeared to us in front of the paper-mache alligator on the wall.

I think that misses what Luke’s trying to show us.

It’s not that Jesus was suddenly made visible to us.

It’s that everyone around us- the elderly ladies on their bus trip and the high school cheerleaders and the bartender in front of the flat screen and the waitress with the flair on her apron- if they knew our story and heard us seeking after what had been lost, refusing to let our estrangement make us strangers…if they knew our story and heard us offering forgiveness and saw us breaking bread- in remembrance- then they just might see Jesus.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

matisse-chapel.01I’m a big believer that funerals need to be worship services in witness to the Resurrection not merely memorials of the deceased. Funeral sermons need to be expositions of scripture not eulogies. Death needs to be boldly confronted and called out as an enemy of God.

And I agree that all of above becomes increasingly important the further our culture drifts from any trace memories of the Gospel proclamation.

All that said, I think preachers (or the professors who train them) make a mistake to think all the heavy-lifting, the Resurrection pointing and Death confronting, has to happen in the sermon.

As Catholics would point out, that’s why we have the liturgy.

To suppose that everything important must be conveyed through preaching betrays an impoverished (and in-artful) form of Protestantism.

The whole of the liturgy, of which the sermon is only 1 piece, should witness to the Resurrection, but the Resurrection is NOT the only doctrine Christians profess nor is it the only doctrine relevant for a funeral.

Generically affixing 1 Corinthians 15 to every dearly departed leaves out another, equally (more?) important, just as culturally forgotten Christian doctrine.

The incarnation.

Funeral preaching needs to proclaim not just that God will be with us one day, ‘after the first things have passed away.’ Funeral preaching needs to proclaim that God has been with us, in the flesh, in Jesus Christ and therefore all of our days before the last day have been charged with the grace, presence and love of God.

Sometimes, I think, funeral preachers need to let the liturgy take up the Easter message so that the sermon can take up the Christmas message. Sometimes funeral preachers need to point not to what is to come but the grace that has already come to pass. In other words, sometimes the funeral sermon needs to name not the gathered’s hope but their gratitude for how God’s love has been incarnated in their lives.

To show what I mean, here’s a funeral sermon I wrote late this week, using the story of Jesus’ circumcision and the holy family’s encounter with Simeon and Anna.

The Holy Family: Luke 2.21-38

As is my habit, I changed today’s scripture passage several times this week, changing my mind from one text to another until my assistant,Terri, finally told me I had to make up my mind or the scripture readers would kill me.

I changed the scripture several times, but, talking with Sam and Susanne and Mark in the days before and after Jane died, my mind kept coming back to this Gospel reading from Luke 2.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. What does this story have to do with Jane?

What in the world does this story about the Holy Family taking the infant Jesus to be circumcised and there encountering two people named Anna and Simeon have to do with Jane? Or why we’re here?

The reason I kept changing my mind about the scripture passage is because I knew this would strike you as an usual story for a service of death and resurrection.

I mean, for one thing there is no mention of the resurrection in this story. Jesus is not yet the Risen Savior; he’s just a little boy. And even where death is hinted at in this story, it refers not to ours but to Jesus’ death.

It’s an unusual story for a day like today.

You come to church on occasions like this expecting to hear John 14 or 1 Corinthians 15 or Revelation 21.

You come to church on days like this expecting to hear Jesus promise that he goes to prepare a place for us.

You expect to hear Paul proclaim that death has been swallowed up in Easter victory.

You expect to hear John prophesy of that day when the first things will pass away, when mourning and crying and pain will be no more.

But you don’t come to church on days like this expecting a…Christmas story.

Especially not one with characters, like Anna and Simeon, characters we don’t even bother with at Christmastime.

I admit it’s an unusual story for a day like today.

Just chalk it up to Exhibit B that the Schrage-Norton family does not lend itself to predictable scripture passages.

It’s an unusual story for an occasion like this, yet I kept coming back to it this week.

I know Jane preferred the bible’s poetry to its prose; nonetheless, I kept wondering about this passage from Luke 2- because I couldn’t help but wonder what someone as opinionated as Jane would have to say about it.

For starters, let’s not even dwell on the fact that a dignified South Georgia lady like Jane would probably blush and take issue with the ‘c’ word at the beginning of this scripture passage, even if it did cause her to chuckle to herself because this story of the baby Jesus coming under the knife might’ve reminded her of a not too different knife she once threatened to take to her son-in-law.

Once she got past the undignified beginning of today’s story, it’s easy for me to imagine Jane pointing out Simeon as someone after her own heart, someone she could relate to, someone she could sit beside at parties or family gatherings and pass the time engrossed in intellectual discussion.

After all, when Simeon first lays eyes on the infant Christ his immediate impulse is to recite poetry of all things.

And Jane loved poetry.

She read it and dog-eared it and underlined it and circled bits of it.

She memorized poetry and she forced others to memorize it too.

No matter how Jane might feel about the unmentionable beginning of this passage, I bet Jane would appreciate the poetic gesture with which Simeon greets the Holy Family.

What’s more, Simeon’s poem is littered with biblical quotes and historical clues. Luke doesn’t tell us much about Simeon, but just from his poem we can tell Simeon was not an ignorant man. He was smart and well-studied.

Luke does not tell us Simeon was a professional scholar so probably he was the product of a lifetime of self-education and self-improvement. Probably he was someone with an insatiable curiosity about the world, someone with an even bigger appetite for learning.

It’s obvious just from his poem alone that Simeon was probably someone who liked to say ‘I want you to hear a little something I read…’

He was probably someone like Jane.

Except…

on the other hand-

Jane was someone who liked to sing and dance- whether it was the jitterbug or the Beach Boys. Jane could guffaw and squeal and cackle louder than anyone in the movie theater.

Jane loved afternoon milkshakes topped with 30 minutes of ‘I Dreamed of Genie.’ Jane could throw a dinner party for complete strangers at an afternoon’s notice.

Jane knew how to have a good time.

And though Luke tells us he’s been anointed by the Spirit, Simeon doesn’t exactly come across as someone who knows how to have a good time.

Their mutual love of poetry aside, I imagine that if Luke 2 were the assigned reading for one of Jane’s discussion groups then Jane would say that someone like Simeon strikes her as an overly serious sort of person.

Not to mention, Jane had 7 grandchildren and once famously worried that she would never stop having grandchildren.

In contrast to Simeon, who apparently had no experience with children whatsoever, I bet Jane would point out that when you see a baby for the first time, you don’t say ‘this boy is assigned to be the cause of the falling and rising of many.’

No, you just say ‘Oh, what an adorable baby! Can I hold him?’

This story about Anna and Simeon and the Holy Family- this might not be the story you expected to hear today, but it’s a story about which I expect Jane would have plenty to say.

For example, even though Luke doesn’t say so explicitly I bet Jane could make a convincing case that Mary was the reason that Mary and Joseph brought their child to church on the accustomed day.

Even though it’s not spelled out in the text, I bet Jane could persuade us that Mary was the person responsible for making sure the Holy Family worshipped as they were supposed to worship, with turtledoves and pigeons.

Luke doesn’t say it was all because of Mary, and actually I doubt Jane’s humility would allow her to say it either, but you would because you know that raising your children in the faith- more often than not, that’s something a mother, a wife, does.

And then there’s Anna.

This may not be the story you expected to hear today, but I expect someone like Jane would not be able to resist giving someone like Anna a piece of her mind.

I mean, after Anna loses her husband, she stays in church all day long, every day, praying and fasting.

Never leaves.

And to an extent, I think Jane would appreciate that.

Church was important to Jane too, important enough that she made sure her kids memorized the Psalms.

And for years Jane studied transcendentalist philosophy so I doubt Jane would minimize the significance or the power of prayer.

And, we all know, once he finally convinced her to marry him, Jane loved ‘her Sam.’ So it’s not difficult, at all, to imagine Jane sympathizing with someone like Anna, sympathizing with someone who’s grieving the loss of a beautiful and beloved spouse.

Still though, Jane had a Southerner’s sensibility. Jane hated, deplored, idle time. Anything that might resemble or result in laziness.

Of all the poems she loved, Jane’s favorite poem was one titled ‘Keep-a-Goin.’

So sympathy and spirituality notwithstanding, I’m willing to bet that eventually Jane- as in Penelope’s grandmother- would lose her patience with someone like Anna. I’m willing to bet that eventually Jane would tell Anna how it is. I’m willing to bet she’d say to Anna: ‘I can’t help how I am, but this is my opinion: Are you going to sit here forever?‘

There’s too much to do, Jane might say, to sit here all day, every day, in grief.

There’s art to see and new food to try and requiems to hear and operas to watch and places to visit and grandchildren to take with you. And at the very least, you could curl up on the couch with the Reader’s Digest.

Just keep-a-going.

Jane might say.

To the grieving

Anna.

I changed today’s scripture passage several times this week before I finally crossed my fingers and went with my gut. I’d be lying if I said that Sam’s high expectations for my preaching today did NOT induce a paralyzing writer’s block. And I admit it’s unusual story for a day like today, not the sort of story you expected to hear.

Fact is, it is a story about which I expect Jane would have much to say, but to be honest that’s not the reason I couldn’t shake this scripture passage.

What really drew me to this story-

What made me think of this story, many months ago, the last time I saw Jane and Sam share a booth at Faccia Luna and watched as Sam made Jane laugh and made her eyes light up and made her cheeks blush and made everyone else in the restaurant assume everything was completely fine and normal with his wife

What made me think of this story again last week in the hospital, seeing Sam and Susanne and Mark with Jane

What made me think of this story earlier this week as I listened to Susanne and Mark talk about how their own kids cared for Jane these last 8 years

 What really drew me to this story is the way that 2 bystanders, 2 spectators, 2 outside observers, like Simeon and Anna, are able- instantly- to identify and name what Mary and Joseph do not yet themselves fully recognize.

Sure, Mary and Joseph know that what they share between them in Christ is unique. They know their vantage point- it’s special. They know that what they share between them is better than anything they could’ve hoped for or expected.

They know it’s already changed them in forever kinds of ways. They know not every family has the privilege of the relationship they enjoy.

And Mary and Joseph, they know that what they share together with this person, because of this person, is unique to them. It’s their relationship. It’s their family. The stories and the memories and the inside jokes are all theirs.

Mary and Joseph know that no outsider, no spectator could ever begin to understand or appreciate what it’s like to be a part of their family.

But still-

Strange as it might sound, there’s something BIGGER- more FUNDAMENTAL- about what they share between them that they themselves do not fully recognize.

Two outside observers identify in no time at all what Mary and Joseph do not yet themselves understand.

Which means, I guess, that when you’re in the thick of it, living it, day to day, you need an outsider, a bystander, a spectator, a 3rd party, to name it for you.

To identify precisely what it is you have in your embrace.

To give you a sense of the proportions that only become visible when you step further away.

Mary and Joseph, they needed someone else to point out to them that what they shared between them- it wasn’t just precious; it was the very presence of God.

If the Holy Family needed someone else to point it out to them, then maybe your family does too.

So let me just make plain what is so plain to see for all the rest of here.

The love you shared with Jane- the love you showed to Jane- it wasn’t just precious; it was the presence of God.

What you shared- it wasn’t just good or great even; it was the grace of God.

Whether it was Penelope and Tallulah performing puppet shows last week at the foot of Jane’s bed- just as they had done when they were little girls

Whether it was the grandkids each taking their turn to be Jane’s protector, her guardian, her care-giver

Or whether it was Sam, who these past 8 years fed Jane and and dressed her and carried her. How he made her laugh and sang to her.

How he did her make-up and her hair and learned how to redirect her frustrated dementia with a few steps of the tango, every day showing her a love that was patient and kind, a love that never grew resentful, a love that beared all things, a love that, Paul tells us, will abide in the Resurrection.

If the Holy Family needed an outside observer to identify it for them, then it can’t hurt to point out to you what is so plain to see for all the rest of us here:

that the love you shared with Jane is a love that could only have come from God

and therefore it is the love of God.

This story from Luke 2, it’s usually only read around Christmastime when we remember how the love of God took flesh in the Holy Family.

But today- you remind us that the love of God takes flesh again and again and again in our own lives. And Paul reminds that that love will abide, that it will take flesh again one day.

 

The word ‘holy,’ after all, just means ‘different.’

And you all are a different kind of family.

I admit this story of Simeon and Anna is an unusual story for a day like today, but then you all are an unusual family.

A holy family.

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

 
*Nerds: pic is from the Matisse Chapel in Vence, France.

 

 

 

Skeptical BelieverWe continue our Skeptical Believer sermon series this weekend with the theme: ‘Questions Don’t Hurt God’s Feelings.’

At least, fingers-crossed, we’re hoping they don’t hurt God’s feelings.

Just kidding.

As part of the series, I solicited questions and arguments from you all. Here’s one insisting the challenge go the other way:

“I believe in God and I ‘follow’ Jesus and I even believe he was resurrected, but I have hard time believing that Jesus is God.

I think that makes everything more confusing than is necessary (Trinity) when there’s probably another explanation. Isn’t there?”

Despite, what many people assume Resurrection doesn’t reveal Jesus’ divinity. Nor even is it meant, primarily, to secure or signal our life after death.

Resurrection is vindication.

There’s a story in 2 Maccabees that’s unknown to most Christians today but would’ve been formative for all the Jews of Christ’s day.

Antiochus IV Epiphanes is persecuting the people of Israel. But the problems aren’t all from outside Israel. A Hellenizing movement has developed and lured God’s people away from the Torah, erasing the distinctions that mark them out as the people of God.

In the story, Antiochus attempts to force seven brothers and their mother, by suffering severe torture, to eat pig.

After the first brother is killed, the others encourage each other to entrust themselves to the God who judges justly: “God will have compassion on his servants.”

Maimed and tortured, what possible deliverance can these brothers hope for? There’s personal vindication:

“You, who are marked out for vengeance, may take our present life, but the king of the universe for whose laws we die will resurrect us again to eternal life.” (2 Macc 7:9).

Just as with Easter, Resurrection here equals God’s vindication of God’s suffering faithful–and the evidence that God is a greater, more powerful King than the kings of the earth who torture and take a life.

The fourth brother professes to the king:

“Death at the hands of humans is preferable, since we look forward to the hope that God gives of being raised by him. But for you there will be no resurrection to life.” (2 Macc 7:14). 

Yet it’s more than personal vindication; it’s corporate too.

The fifth of the seven brothers:

While looking at the king he said, “You, though human, have power among human beings and do what you want. But don’t think that God has abandoned our people.” (2 Macc 7:16). 

You see, this brother connects their suffering with the people’s sins: the brothers are faithful, yet they are suffering for the sins of the people.

And they have faith that their suffering won’t be the last word:

“Don’t deceive yourself in vain. We suffer these things because of our own sins against our God. Things worthy of wonder have happened. But don’t think you will escape unpunished after trying to fight against God.” (2 Macc 7:18).

It’s in the long monologue of the seventh brother that the atoning significance of their death becomes central:

“We are suffering because of our own sins. If our living Lord is angry for a short time in order to rebuke and discipline us, he will again be reconciled with his own servants. But you, unholy man, the most bloodstained of all people, don’t be so proud without having cause. Bloated by futile hope, you raise up your hand against the children of heaven. You haven’t at all escaped the judgment of the almighty God, who oversees all. Now our brothers, who endured pain for a short time, have been given eternal life under God’s covenant, but you will suffer the penalty of your arrogance by the righteous judgment of God. Just like my brothers, I give up both body and life for the ancestral laws. I call upon God to be merciful to the nation without delay, and to make you confess, after you suffer trials and diseases, that only he is God. Also I hope through me and my brothers to stop the anger of the almighty, who is justly punishing our entire nation.” (2 Macc 7:32-28).

The suffering of the brothers in 2 Macc is:

Because of the people’s sins

Which in turn has provoked the just wrath of God.

Their own suffering, however, is due to a faithful obedience to God’s law.

And this should have the effect of abating God’s anger and inclining God to mercy.

To recap, in a nutshell:

A righteous one is martyred precisely because of this faithfulness.

The obedience of the martyr turns God’s anger to mercy, and the people are delivered.

Despite their faithfulness, the martyr receives another’s just penalty.

God vindicates the obedience of the faithful one by raising him from the dead.

So, to return to the question:

It’s quite possible to retain a belief in the resurrection of Jesus that does not require a corollary belief in his divinity.

Jesus, then, is the Righteous One, the Faithful One, whose obedient life lived for God all the way to the Cross, God vindicates by raising him from the dead.

Incidentally, the ‘Righteous One’ is exactly what Paul calls Jesus in Romans 1, and this story from 2 Macc is what Paul has in mind when he writes that it’s the ‘faith of Jesus Christ’ which justifies us.

Obviously someone determined towards cynicism could argue that 1st century disciples, knowing this story from 2 Macc, applied posthumously to Jesus, but even some cynicism is a bridge too far for me.

To so suggest, after all, flies in the face of 2 Macc’ logic and the rest of the tale which concludes with the formerly oppressed Jews, with God’s mercy now on their side, meting out ass-wooping violence upon their enemies.

“They called on the Lord to listen to the shed blood of those who had appealed to God for help” (2 Macc 8:3).

“Once he organized his army, the Maccabee couldn’t be stopped by the Gentiles, because the lord’s wrath had turned into mercy (2 Macc 8:5).

NOT a Jesus story.

 

reza-aslan-muslim-zealot-book-author-slams-Jesus-christianity

This past weekend we concluded our sermon series on Reza Aslan’s best-selling book, Zealot.

Dennis Perry, my associate pastor, brought the homiletical thunder.

Or at least a couple of sermonic sparks.

Here’s Dennis’ sermon:

      1. Whose Jesus, Reza Aslan?

Borg, Bras and Clergy Collars

Jason Micheli —  September 24, 2013 — 5 Comments

In my sermon this weekend I tried to approach the question of Resurrection by putting the onus on the person who disbelieves the Church’s historic claim.

‘Why is the burden of proof always on the believer?’

It’s a damn good, table-turning question I think.

And it wasn’t originally my question. I thought giving credit where credit is due would not only be appropriate but illuminating.

Back in 2007, I went to the National Cathedral to listen to a panel discussion that the Cathedral was hosting.

The theme of the event was “The Church in the 21st Century” and for the event the Cathedral had gathered well-known speakers and scholars like Tony Jones, Diana Butler Bass, and, someone dear to my own heart, Marcus Borg.

Actually, I think Marcus Borg is a unimaginative, knee-jerk, liberal fundamentalist hack. Bless his heart.

Like Reza Aslan, the author of Zealot, Marcus Borg has made a career out of regurgitating old Aryan arguments and outdated, hackneyed scholarship to make the claim that the Jesus of the Gospels bears little resemblance to the “real” Jesus of history.

The Gospels, Borg argues, are not stories grounded in real history; they are instead myths and metaphors which convey deeper spiritual truths and universal existential principles.

dc-Marcus-Borg-speaking-to-a-group-300x160In other words, the “real” Jesus never really said: love your enemies, turn the other cheek, forgive 70 x 7, get rid of all your stuff and give it to the poor, a rich man’s getting into heaven is about as likely as shoving a fully-loaded camel through the eye of a needle.

According to Borg, the “real” Jesus never really said those things and thus the “real” Jesus never really expected us to do them. Not surprisingly, Marcus Borg is wildly popular in denominations like the United Methodist Church.

At the National Cathedral, Marcus Borg was the rock star of the panel, and by the time I arrived there was already a horde of Episcopal priests gathered up front staring at Borg so ecstatically I thought they might start to swoon or throw their bras and clergy collars at him.

Not wanting to be mistaken for one of Borg’s fanboys, I sat in the back with the civilians, scooting into a pew next to a tiny, old man who was wearing a knit suit.

Because the theme was ‘the Church in the 21st Century” and because we were surrounded by Episcopalians, it didn’t take long for the panel to steer the discussion toward which Christian beliefs were outdated and needed to be rethought and reinterpreted for the modern world.

And it didn’t take long for that discussion to get around to the resurrection.

With an air of enlightened self-importance, Marcus Borg droned on about how what matters is not that God raised Jesus from the dead; what matters is that the disciples experienced resurrection in their hearts.

For that matter, Borg continued doling out his koan-like nonsense, it doesn’t really matter if Jesus was never actually crucified. It’s doesn’t matter if Jesus never said or taught any of the words attributed to him by the Gospels. It doesn’t matter if someone named ‘Jesus’ from Nazareth was never born- virgin or not, we can suppose.

It doesn’t matter because what matters is that it’s experienced as true in us.

It struck me then that it’s appropriate Borg deems the Gospels myth since his entire theology revolves around another myth: Narcissus.

The panel continued on that nonsensical line for a while.

Finally, during the Q/A the old man next to me got up and shuffled up to the microphone. He was small and had white hair and must’ve been in his 80’s I guessed.

Softly into the microphone, he said:

‘Tell me, Dr Borg, was the tomb empty? Or not?’

 

With what sounded like a rehearsed reply, Marcus Borg said:

‘If I had to bet a dollar or my life, I’d bet there was no tomb. And if there was a tomb then it was not empty.’

 The old man’s mouth dropped.

 And Marcus Borg added: ‘Of course there was no physical, literal resurrection. That’s impossible.’

The old man shuffled back to my pew and sat down.

And then he leaned over and with genuine anger in his voice, he asked me:

“Why is the burden of proof always on the believer?

Shouldn’t someone who doesn’t believe the Resurrection have to come up with a better explanation for everything?”

But that wasn’t all.

While the man whispered in my ear, Borg had resumed his condescension:

‘We all know dead bodies DON’T come back to life. The Resurrection violates everything we know about nature.’

And the old man muttered underneath his breath:

‘But that’s exactly the damn point.’

 

How Can We Trust the Gospels?

Jason Micheli —  September 16, 2013 — 2 Comments

zealot_reza_aslanThis Sunday we continued our sermon series reflecting on the arguments in Reza Aslan’s bestseller Zealot. For my sermon, rather than a single sermon or a 3-Point Sermon, I preached 3 separate sermons spaced throughout the worship service.

I’ll post the audio here soon.

Trusting the Gospels Historically: Philippians 2.5-11

Twenty years ago, my mother uttered those words that have since gone on to become synonymous with American Exceptionalism:

‘Let’s go to Costco.’ 

Actually, my mother said ‘Let’s go to the Price Club’ because that’s what it was called back then.

We’d never been to the Costco before and if my mom was prepared for what we found inside, I sure wasn’t.

It was like a shopping mall for the apocalypse.

“No wonder all my Mormon friends’ parents shop here” I remember thinking.

It’s been 20 years, but I can still remember how that day, in addition to a tub of frozen Pork BBQ and a gallon of black olives, I talked my mom into buying me a copy of the Stephen King novel, Gerald’s Game, a book which in hindsight should’ve been titled 69 Shades of Grey and should never have been allowed into the hands or the mind of 15 year old me.

It’s been 20 years, but I can still remember like it was yesterday how that day at Costco my mom bought herself a compact disk- they were called ‘CD’s’ back then. It was the soundtrack to the major motion picture, The Bodyguard.

In case you don’t remember, The Bodyguard was the ’90’s version of the Twilight movies, except instead of werewolves and vampires it starred a balding, swollen Kevin Costner as the eponymous hero and Whitney Houston as a pop star whose troubled personal life echoed Houston’s own.

The movie was typical for both stars. Whitney Houston sang as she always did on stage and Kevin Costner attempted to act as he always does on screen.

Giddy with romantic projection, my mom laid the CD into the shopping cart and headed to the register.

As you no doubt remember, The Bodyguard lasted longer in the daydreams of suburban women than it did at the box office, but the theme song from the film became a sensation.

It sold a million albums in its first week. It won a Grammy. In the 20 years since, it’s sold 45 million copies and it remains the bestselling movie soundtrack of all time.

It was 20 years ago.

But I remember how when we go to my mother’s Honda Accord, she frantically ripped the CD from its packaging with her teeth, like a solider trying to staunch a comrade’s bleeding.

She turned the key in the ignition, slid the CD into the mouth of the console, and then, like a desert wanderer reaching out towards a mirage that’s too good to be true, she pressed the Play button: ‘I Will Always Love…”

After a few moments, she pressed Pause and looked over at me and in complete seriousness said: ‘Isn’t this great?v‘Kevin Costner’s just so…’

She sighed like Maggie the Cat and her mind wandered and I tried to keep my mind from following wherever hers was going.

Since we didn’t live far from Costco, we sat there in the car, in the parking lot, in the afternoon rain, listening to the next 3 tracks of The Bodyguard soundtrack.

It was 20 years ago.

So I’m sure some of the details of my memory are off.

I’m sure if you asked my mother or my sister, who was also there, they’d recall the details of that day a bit differently.

Because, after all, they’d viewed that day through their own eyes and so would remember it from their own perspective.

Their takeaway from our Costco trip might not be the same as mine.

And none of us knew that, one day, there’d be a reason, I’d be trying to commit those moments of memory to paper.

But once you allowed for variations in detail and changes in emphasis and shifts in perspective, our story would be the same but different.

And each of us would be telling the truth.

20 years, after all, isn’t that long ago.

I’d never tell my mother this but I can still sing all the words to ‘I Will Always Love You’ which I do in the shower.

And I still remember that the next 3 tracks of that album, in order, are: ‘I Have Nothing,’ ‘I’m Every Woman,’ ‘Run to You,’ and ‘Queen of the Night.’

20 years isn’t that much time.

20 years is a short enough amount of time that if I lied or embellished too much or made things up, my mom and my sister would know.

And after just 20 years, you would know what was true and what was not true.

For example, if I told you The Bodyguard was a good movie, you would know that was wrong.

Its only been 20 years- that’s not enough time for you to forget the truth of how awful it really was.

And if I told you that Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner had good chemistry in the movie, then you could think back and know that that doesn’t jive with your own memory, which tells you that marionettes would have been more believable.

It’s only been 20 years.

If I told you that Kevin Costner is a good actor, you’d know that’s a lie.

20 years isn’t enough time to invent a myth that contradicts everything we know to be true about Kevin Costner.

It’s only been 20 years.

I can’t lie and tell you Kevin Costner’s a good actor when there’s too many people still alive, people who were there to see for themselves, movies like Waterworld, The Postman, and 3000 Miles to Graceland

There’s too many people still around who know the true story on Kevin Costner; 20 years just isn’t enough time to change the story.

It’s not enough time to take the once-promising but ultimately-disappointing actor we know as Kevin Costner and reinvent him as a god of stage and screen.

But that’s exactly what popular books like Reza Aslan’s Zealot and even Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code would have you believe.

The assumption behind popular books like Zealot is that we could take an ordinary, flawed actor like Kevin Costner and in no more than 20 years convince everyone who’s seen his movies that he’s really an actor on par with Daniel Day Lewis.

You see the popular skepticism about the trustworthiness of the Gospels is the assumption that the real Jesus of history was not the Jesus we find in the Gospels, but was instead probably either a great, inspiring human teacher or a great inspiring human revolutionary who either died a tragic death (in the case of the former) or died a symbolic death (in the case of the latter).

Therefore…

The assumption goes, Jesus’ followers attributed myths to him, myths like his divinity and his resurrection, only much, much later.

Making claims about Jesus neither Jesus nor his first disciples made about him.

The problem with that assumption is that it has no answer for the scripture you heard today from Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

What you heard read- it’s actually a song, a Christian hymn, that was popular enough for Paul to quote it and assume his audience would know it.

This song that speaks of Jesus being the eternal God made flesh in the form of a humble slave.

This song that alludes to God raising Jesus up from the dead.

This song that climaxes with echoes of Daniel 7 where every tongue confesses and every knee bows down in worship.

Of Jesus.

This song, according to scholarly consensus- Christian and non-Christian scholarly consensus- originates at the latest to 20 years after the crucifixion.

And probably more like 15.

      Think about that.

This song is closer to eyewitnesses’ own experience of Jesus than we are to Whitney Houston’s ‘I Will Always Love You.’

This song which speaks of Jesus in some of the most sophisticated theological language in the entire New Testament was sung by people who had actually known Jesus.

Think about that.

At the same time the first Christians were proclaiming in oral form what we know as the Gospels, they were already putting that proclamation into praise songs and prayers.

Think about that.

Among a Jewish People that had for hundreds of years suffered persecutions and executions for refusing to worship anyone else but the God of Israel, we have proof that in just 15-20 years thousands of them were worshipping Jesus.

Which broke the first and most precious commandment and was the worst of sins.

Unless it were true.

20 years is not a lot of time.

If it’s true that I can still remember all the words to ‘I Will Always Love You,’ then there’s a good chance that this song (from Philippians) is based not on myth but on memory.

Trusting the Gospels Politically: Mark 1.9-11

 

10 Years ago I was at a funeral home in Lexington, Virginia for the visitation hours of a funeral I would celebrate the next day.

As I usually do at funeral homes, I wore my clergy collar, which costumes me, to Christians and non-Christians alike, as a Catholic priest.

When you’re a pastor, visiting hours at a funeral home are nearly as painful as parties or wedding receptions.

There you are, trapped in a room full of strangers who desperately do not want to talk to a professional Christian.

Even worse are the people who do, and you’re forced to plaster a fake smile on your face as someone tells you about the latest Joel Osteen book.

So there I was, making the rounds, making small talk, when this middle-aged man in a too-tight polo shirt and a Dale Earnhardt belt buckle, shook my hand, called me ‘Padre’ and then proceeded to ask me if I had read Dan Brown’s latest bestseller, The Da Vinci Code.

“No, I haven’t read it” I lied. “What’s it about?”

He went on to tell me in breathless tones the now familiar fantasy that “the real Gospel message” was politically subversive and had been suppressed by the Church and by Caesar, that the Gospels as we know them are redactions, edited to support the status quo and consolidate the authority of the Empire.

“Sounds fascinating” I lied.

“Oh, it is- and the truth is kept from people today by a secret group called Opus Dei, ever heard of them?”

“Heard of them?” I whispered. “Don’t tell anyone, but I’m actually a member.”

“Well, then you should definitely read it” he said without a trace of irony.

“Tell me,” I asked, “have you actually read the Gospels?”

He didn’t blush.

He just said: “I’ve seen the Mel Gibson movie.”

Reza Aslan’s bestselling book, Zealot, is a slightly less fantastical version of Dan Brown’s own.

Reza Aslan’s central thesis is that the one verifiable, historical FACT of the Gospels is what we recite in the Creed: that Jesus of Nazareth “was crucified by Pontius Pilate.”

Crucifixion, Aslan notes correctly, was a punishment reserved exclusively for crimes of sedition against the state.

Therefore, Aslan speculates, the “real” Jesus was not the Jesus we find in the Gospels.

If we know Jesus was crucified then the “real” Jesus must have been a zealot, a member of a 1st century Jewish movement, which agitated for the violent overthrow of Rome.

     If Jesus died on a cross by definition he was a revolutionary.

After his death, Aslan argues, the politically subversive message of Jesus was expunged from the record.

The once politically-charged Gospels were spiritualized to make them amenable to the Empire in which Christians lived.

Now, Reza Aslan’s thesis is half-right, and he gets right something a lot of Christians miss.

 

     Jesus was/is political. Jesus was/is subversive. Jesus was/is revolutionary.

     Reza Aslan is right about all of that.

     You don’t get sent to the electric chair for being a spiritual teacher or saving souls for eternal life.

But Reza Aslan is wrong about the manner in which Jesus was a political revolutionary, and he’s wrong to imagine this subversive message is not to be found in the Gospels.

It’s all over the Gospels, from beginning to end. That’s why Christians were persecuted for hundreds of years.

For example-

Take the passage you heard from Mark 1, Jesus’ baptism.

As Jesus comes up out of the water, Mark says the sky tears violently apart and the Holy Spirit appears as a dove and descends into Jesus.

Now remember, Mark’s writing to people who knew their scripture by memory. And so when Mark identifies the Holy Spirit as a dove, he expects you to know that no where in the Old Testament is the Spirit ever depicted as such.

Instead Mark expects you to remember that the image of a dove is from the Book of Genesis, where God promises never to redeem his creation through violence.

Mark expects you to know that applying the image of a dove to the Holy Spirit means something new and different.

And keep in mind, Mark’s Gospel wasn’t composed for us but for the first Christians, still living right after Jesus’ death in the Empire.

So when Mark depicts the Holy Spirit as a dove, he expects those first Christians to think immediately of another, different bird.

The Romans, Mark assumes you know, symbolized the strength and ferocity of their Kingdom with the King of the birds: the eagle.

     It’s right there: Dove vs Eagle. A collision of kingdoms- that’s what Mark wants you to see.

And that’s not all.

Because the very next verse has God declaring: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well-pleased.’

That’s a direct quotation from Psalm 2, a psalm that looks forward to the coming of God’s Messiah, who would topple rulers from their thrones and be enthroned himself over all the kingdoms of this world.

Mark expects you to know Psalm 2.

Just as Mark assumes you know that the prophet Isaiah quotes it too when God reveals to him that the Messiah will upend kingdoms not through violence but through self-giving love.

     Mark shows you a Dove.

And Mark tells you Beloved Son.

And then after his baptism, the very first words out of Jesus’ mouth are about the arrival of a new kingdom, God’s Kingdom.

And next, the very first thing Jesus does is what any revolutionary does, he enlists followers to that Kingdom. Not soldiers but the poor.

Reza Aslan argues that you can’t trust the Gospels.

You can’t trust them because the radical, revolutionary message of the “historical” Jesus isn’t there, that it’s been expunged. That the Gospels you have have been rendered safe and sanitized for the status quo.

But from the very first chapter of Mark all the way through to the first Christian confession of faith- ‘Jesus Christ is Lord (and Caesar is not)-’ the Gospel is politically subversive from beginning to end.

As Paul says, Jesus’ obedience to God’s Kingdom, all the way to a cross, unmasked the kingdoms of this world for what they really are and, in so doing, Christ disarmed them.

Reza Aslan is correct: only political revolutionaries wound up on Rome’s crosses.

But the mistake Reza Aslan makes is in assuming that the only revolution with the power to threaten the status quo and change the world is a violent one.

      Reza Aslan assumes the only effective revolution is a violent one.

 

     And so,  Reza Aslan completely misses just how politically-charged and radical the Gospels are because he doesn’t believe that any Kingdom can defeat its enemies by loving them.

And to the extent that you miss how politically-charged and radical the Gospels are, perhaps its because you don’t believe it either.

But just remember, it’s 2,000 years later and there’s a whole lot of us who believe that Jesus is Lord.

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

Trusting the Bible Personally: John 21.2-20-25

I got this Bible as a gift from Woodlake United Methodist Church when I confirmed, back when I was 17 or 18 years old.

Truth be told, I didn’t actually open this Bible until I went to college; in fact, I didn’t read a single word of the Bible at all until after I was confirmed- that is, until after I became a Christian.

In other words, I became a Christian without the Bible.

Or rather, I didn’t need to believe in the Bible to believe in Jesus because, when I was a teenager, through the mediation and witness of my church, I met the Risen Christ.

Or, to be grammatically correct, thanks to the mediation and witness of other Christians in my church community, I was encountered by the Risen Christ.

John concludes his Gospel with the cliffhanger that he’s just scratched the surface of what Jesus said and did.

     Which, on the one hand, means John thinks he’s told you enough; John thinks he’s told you all you everything you need to know this Jesus.

But on the other hand, it also means John doesn’t think the Gospel’s about proving the case for Jesus beyond a shadow of a doubt.

If that’s what the Gospel was about then surely John would include every possible piece of evidence, leaving no stone or story unturned.

Not to mention, if the Gospel was meant to prove the case for Jesus then you can bet that Matthew, Mark and Luke probably would’ve gotten their stories straight.

And you can be damn sure the ancient Church would’ve allowed only 1 Gospel into your bibles.

But they didn’t. The ancient Church included all 4 Gospels, and they did so knowing those 4 Gospels were filled with all the chronological inconsistencies and internal contradictions that folks like Reza Aslan want you to get hot and bothered over.

     The Gospels aren’t trying to prove anything about Jesus because that would imply you can know Jesus by reading a book about Jesus.

     And you can’t.

     You can’t know Jesus by reading a book about Jesus.

The Gospels don’t try to prove; they bear witness to something that only be known by experience and encounter.

When we say the Gospels are trustworthy, we don’t mean they’re objectively provable.

When we say scripture’s the word of God we mean not that its the literal word of God but that its a trustworthy pointer to Jesus Christ, the one-capital-W- Wrod of God.

     When we say the Gospels are trustworthy, we mean they’re more like windows.

     And the purpose of a window is not for you believe in the window.

The purpose of a window is to help you see what exists outside the window. Beyond the window. Independent of the window.

When I say I believe the Gospels are trustworthy, I mean that- like windows- in them and through them, I see the Jesus I’ve already met.

I know the Gospels are trustworthy because I know Jesus Christ.

 

     You see,

I don’t believe in Jesus because I believe in the Bible.

I believe in Jesus because I’ve met him.

 

I don’t believe in the the resurrection because I believe in the Bible.

I believe in the resurrection because I know Jesus Christ is alive and so God must have raised him from the dead.

 

I don’t believe in the virgin birth because I believe in the Bible.

I believe in the virgin birth because I know the Risen Christ and if Jesus is resurrected then that’s the start of a whole New Creation and virgin birth sounds like a good way to describe how it must’ve all began.

 

I don’t believe Jesus loves me because the Bible tells me so.

I believe Jesus loves me because Jesus told me so.

And tells me so.

And what I find in the Gospels is confirmation of the Jesus I already know.

 

And therefore I trust them.

 

Can I prove that?

Of course not.

Neither can I prove that I love my wife.

All I can do is bear witness. Like those Christians at Woodlake UMC bore witness to me; so that, one day I might be encountered by Christ myself.

The Gospels are like windows.

And some Christians spend their whole lives at distance, debating the merits and measurements of the window.

But I can promise you that just looking through the window to see what it’ll show you is a much more interesting way to live.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

zealot_reza_aslanAs I posted earlier, during our September sermon series, Zealot or Savior, we’re reflecting on the questions raised by Reza Aslan’s bestselling book, Zealot.

I’m also trying to catch up on my Barth reading. With tones of a mother-in-law, some of you have noted I’m behind.

Foregoing 1.1 §12.1-2 (Holy Spirit), which I think is Barth at worst, forcing theological dogma upon scriptural texts (the HS is the love exchanged between the Father and the Son) at the expense of the clear intention of the authors.

Instead I decided to press ahead into 1.2 §13.1-2.

Happily, Barth and Aslan intersect in a revealing and possibly fruitful way.

Like other popular ‘Real Jesus’ fare and the more scholarly historical-critiques works they simplify and rehash for a buck, Aslan’s attempts to get at the Jesus behind the canon begin with what becomes a determinative premise: the Resurrection as an historical impossibility.

If only Aslan brought the same degree of critical rigor to examining his own presuppositions as he does to the received canon and the Jesus within it.

Aslan et al take it as self-evident that Jesus was an impressive, inspiring existential teacher of compassion (Bultmann), an apocalyptic sage (Borg) or a violent revolutionary (Aslan) whose death on the cross was either the result of a tragic misunderstanding or signaled the failure of Jesus’ intentions.

Bound by their own Enlightenment presuppositions, such critics then uncritically deduce that, with their leader fallen, the first followers of Jesus either had an inner, spiritual experience of Jesus a la Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (if we remember him it’s like he’s still with us) or the disciples simply invented out of hand the resurrection story and started to worship Jesus as the divine Messiah.

Sounds plausible, right? Unknown

Actually, not at all.

And if such scholars weren’t so wedded to their modernistic world view, they would know better.

But scholars like Borg and Aslan never mention how the existential ‘experience’ they attribute to the post-cross disciples is an incredibly modern projection on to a culture, period and religion that new no such rubric.

Jews- and Gentiles- didn’t experience reality that way nor did they narrate their reality that way.

What’s more, and more important, is the FACT that 1st century Jews did not expect a resurrection- anyone’s resurrection- until the general resurrection at the End.

Not only did they not have a belief structure in place to posit something like one man’s (a failed Messiah no less) resurrection from the dead, that they would in their lifetimes start to worship this Jesus as God (with sophisticated, high theology) violates the most basic foundation of their faith:

the first commandment.

Whether you believe or not is one thing. But to dismiss, as Aslan and others do, from the outset that there must be a real story behind the story is to not take seriously enough the serious questions:

How is it the first disciples claimed to have been encountered by something (the resurrection of a crucified Jew) they had no contextual reason to expect or invent?

What seized these observant, faithful Jews that was so compelling it prompted them (allowed them) to violate what was otherwise the most sacrosanct of laws?

After all, if the first commandment was that malleable to these Jews they would’ve saved themselves much suffering and persecution by violating in Caesar’s favor rather than Christ’s.

In 1.2 of the Dogmatics, Barth begins by wondering what it means for God to reveal and speak and we, as humans, can even know that God has/does reveal(ed).

Barth is frank where Aslan and others obfuscate.

Barth admits that when it comes to our knowing and God’s revelation, there are only two possible options.

We can begin with our own experience and understanding of the world (Aslan) which eventually brings us to the impossibility of God’s revelation.

Or, we can start with and accept in faith the “actuality” of God’s revelation of himself to us in Christ.

There’s only two choices Barth makes plain, but, Barth insists, they are choices. We’re not bound to the first option.

So, rather than trying to get at the Jesus behind the text, which always prove an elusive golden calf, Barth begins with the event of God’s self-revelation in Christ.

We can trust what the Bible says, in other words, because we already know what God has said/says in Jesus Christ. Jesus, the Word made flesh, corroborates the words of scripture. Not the other way around.

And if this sounds like a semantic shell-game, Barth insisting we can know because ‘the bible tells us so,’ then I think Barth would point you back, as he does here in the CD, to what a counter-intuitive surprise it is that the first confession (historically attested outside scripture) was:

“Jesus is Lord”

Aslan, Borg et al would have the first Christians, wholesale, committing idolatry rather than surrender their own modernist assumptions.

But where Aslan, Borg et al think Christianity was originally a set of teachings or a this-worldly political agenda, Barth won’t let us forget the one indisputable fact of Christian history:

The first Christian believed SOMETHING HAPPENED.

Something happened that caused them to rethink all their religious assumptions, forsake all their categories of shame and power, reread their sacred texts, commit what would otherwise be the worst of sins (idolatry) and ultimately sacrifice their lives on crosses of their own.

You can believe or not believe Resurrection.

You can dismiss it as an historical possibility out of hand.

But you can’t dismiss that the first followers of Jesus were so compelled as to reorient their entire minds and lives that SOMETHING HAD HAPPENED.

 

Christian-Wiman-200x200Peter, I like to imagine, was a preacher after my own heart- and not just because of the ample baggage he carried with him into the pulpit.

I’ve always loved- relied upon- the full-throated, ballsy way Peter begins his Pentecost sermon:

“You people of Israel, listen to this. Jesus of Nazareth, you people used those outside the law to nail him and kill him. But raised him from the dead.” 

And when you stop to recall that Jesus’ tomb was only a stone’s throw away from Peter’s listeners, you realize it’s one hell of a way to begin a sermon.

You had him killed. He was buried right over there. God raised him from the dead. He’s not there anymore. 

And when you stop to consider that any one of Peter’s listeners at any moment could’ve gotten up from Peter’s preaching and simply walked over to Jesus’ still fresh tomb to see for themselves whether or not this preacher was a liar, you quickly realize that Peter’s preaching in no way allows for any vague, spiritualized notion of resurrection.

Similarly, I’ve always leaned on the way Paul defends the resurrection not by way of scripture or philosophy but by ticking off all the names of the people encountered by the Risen Christ. Over 500 of them. Including, last of all, Paul himself.

Paul won’t coddle any pablum that tries to water down this defiant declaration of resurrection to a limp existential feeling that ‘Christ is with us still.’

Of course that limp, reductive, hesitant, existential feeling (love is stronger-fingers crossed-than death) is precisely what many of us call ‘Easter.’

RELIGION_680X382Take, for example, this exchange cum confession from the conclusion of the article I posted last week from Texas Monthly about the poet Christian Wiman:

“When asked if he believes that the son of God, the Word made flesh, was actually crucified and placed in a tomb only to rise again after three earthbound days, Wiman glances up at the ceiling of the perfectly quiet conference room in the stylish offices he will soon vacate. His eyes close behind his rectangular glasses. It’s probably unfair to ask a poet and a conflicted Christian, a man who writes carefully and slowly and wonderfully, to opine off the cuff about a topic so weighty. He does believe it, he says, though not in the same way he believes in evolution or in the fact that the earth revolves around the sun. It is a different sort of belief, a deeper kind of truth. Finally, he finds the words: “I try to live toward it.”

Okay, so this isn’t as limp and lifeless a profession as, say, ‘Jesus is still alive in our hearts’ but it’s still nowhere in the neighborhood of Peter’s clear-eyed profession:

You had him killed. He was buried right over there. God raised him from the dead.  

I bring this up because a reader of the blog asked if I would respond to Wiman’s appraisal of the resurrection.

‘Isn’t it just Bultmannian pablum?’ I think was the exact question.

And to bait me even further, the questioner compared me, in sarcastic tone and depth of substance, to Bishop Will Willimon.

Nice.

To return the flattery with a kindness of my own, I wanted very much to drag Christian Wiman through the rhetorical mud. I wanted to stuff Wiman with straw and then knock him over with heavy-handed prose.

But, truth be told, I can’t bring myself to do it.

As much I don’t want the Willimon comparison to slip away, I can’t write Wiman’s comments off as ‘pablum.’

And not just because I admire Wiman’s poetry.

I can’t because Wiman has cancer. Will always have cancer. Near certain death has intruded upon his life at several junctures. Tumors in his blood have welled up to push and stretch at his skin. Pain has at times crippled him.

Wiman, therefore, is someone who’s carried a burden I only know from a distance, which makes him someone who would know very well how empty are our culture’s spiritual cliches.

He’s also someone, I imagine, whose own likely shortened life has prompted him to wrestle earnestly with what Peter and Paul have to say about life after death.

And so I’ll have to save the snark for another day. Christian Wiman’s words may not be Christian enough for me.

They may not bear too close a resemblance to Peter’s words, but I’m wiling to grant that they are nevertheless words hewn on faith.

 

 

 

 

 

2007_resurrection_iconThis week I’ve tried to give as much attention to the themes of Easter and Resurrection as we normally give to Holy Week and Crucifixion. The focus reminded me of this reflection I wrote on 1 Corinthians 15 several, gosh more like 5 1/2, years ago. As we went through the process of adopting our second son, Alexander, who was then 4 years old, the agency required us to answer questions on their Statement of Faith. One of those questions had to do with the resurrection.

Question: Explain your understanding of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and how it informs your life.

On Friday night two Fridays ago, I left dinner warming in the oven and I drove to the Gables on Route One to be with a church member and his family as he died. By the time I arrived his eyes were almost empty. His hands were clenched tightly against his chest, and his breathing was rough and shallow.

For a while I just listened as his wife and son and told me stories that made them smile through their tears. While they shared, my eyes wandered around the room and took in the evidence left by a marriage nearly sixty years old: photos and cards from grandchildren, trinkets collected from travels round the world, and elegant black and white photos taken back when their love was still new and the adventure of their life together had only begun.

After the conversation tapered off into silence, I asked if I could pray. With my hand on his head I prayed into his still-listening ear but loud enough for his family to hear.

And in my prayer I did my best to gather up all the gratitude I’d just heard shared and to give that gratitude back to God, and I closed with the affirmation that nothing he had done in this life and nothing Death brought could separate him from the love of God in Christ Jesus. I said ‘Amen’ and his family said ‘Thank you.’

     But…if Christ has not been raised from the dead, then they should have said: ‘You’re a liar.’

Because if Christ has not been raised, then I have no idea what can/cannot separate us from God’s love.

On the Saturday following I met here at the church with a youth about to leave for college. She was anxious with all the questions you might expect:

‘What am I supposed to do with my life? Who am I meant to become? Whose voice am I supposed to listen to?’

And she was even more anxious because Christians like you all had convinced her that maybe the answer wasn’t as simple as ‘What do I want?’

Sitting there in my office, with the Saturday band warming up in the sanctuary, I told her all the things her parents don’t necessarily want me to say but you all pay me to say:

‘It’s not about success. Don’t just do what your parents want. Money won’t make you happy. The only way to happiness is by finding a way to serve others; your heart will always be restless until you give it to something bigger than yourself.

‘Jesus said,’ I said, ‘the only way to find your life is by losing it.’

     Of course, if Christ is not raised from the dead then that’s about the worst advice I could give anyone. Because if he’s not Risen then that means Jesus lost his life and he never got it back it again.

Earn. Succeed. Enjoy yourself, I should’ve said. You’ve only got this life to live.

On Sunday morning, in between worship services, a parishioner here at Aldersgate lit into me, complaining about my sermon from the week previous.

‘That was just irresponsible,’ he groused, ‘and caustic and rude. Maybe nobody else caught what you were implying but I heard it. I can’t believe you’d preach a sermon like that! Who said we’re not loving?!’

And I replied, in love: ‘Gosh, I don’t know why God would use my words to speak that particular Word to you.’ He glared at me and walked away.

But, you know, if Christ has not been raised then I could’ve just said:

‘Look, what’s the big deal? They’re just my words. Ignore them. Forget about them. It’s not like we’re dealing with a Living Christ who might be trying to use me to speak to you.’

That Sunday evening I received a phone call at home from a church member. She was upset and hurt by how she’d been treated by other church members. She expected more from a church, she said. She expected Christians to act better than that.

I listened and apologized and said:

‘That’s not always the case, and it’s unfortunate we can act that way because our community is supposed to be a sign of the Kingdom to come.’

Then again, if Good Friday is the last this world ever heard from Jesus then that Kingdom isn’t coming. And I would’ve been better off saying:

‘Yeah, churches are made up of people- what do you expect?

We’re no different than anybody else.’

On Monday morning I walked all around this building during Vacation Bible School, and I watched and listened as volunteers taught 260 little children be-attitudes from scripture.

All told it was a successful week.

Unless, of course, Christ is not alive, in which case the week was, at best, a waste of time, and, at worst, cruel. After all, such beatitudes, that way of living, will only get them killed.

Just look at Jesus. He was crucified, died and was buried…and that’s it.

     Later that Monday afternoon, a woman knocked on my door. Her voice was defeated and her face was splotchy sad. And in between tears and trying to catch her breath, she told me how her marriage was coming apart at the seams and that there was nothing she could about it.

‘There’s no hope,’ she told me.

‘On the other hand,’ I said, ‘it’s just when you think there’s no hope that there is. That’s what we believe here. That there’s never no hope.’

On the other hand, if Christ is not risen then I am nothing but a glib fool, and I would have done better to say:

‘you’re right it sounds hopeless’ and given her the number of a good lawyer.

Tuesday morning came and so did a man needing what the church calls an assurance of pardon. He came to my office and, sitting nervously in one of my red chairs, he confessed to me the kind of father he’d been: angry and absent, violent and abusive in every way but physical.

And he told me how that was some time ago, how he’d tried to make amends, to reconcile, to change.

‘I’ve prayed about it countless times,’ he told me, ‘but I need to know if I’m forgiven.’

I assured him that if his heart was sincerely penitent then, yes.

‘That’s what the Cross means,’ I said.

     Yet, if Christ has not been raised, if the empty tomb isn’t and never was, then I don’t have a clue whether or not the Cross is good enough for God. And I can’t assure you of anything.

On Wednesday afternoon I received an email. It was from a church member. The subject line told me the message was about our budget shortfall at Aldersgate and the challenge that might pose for our Mission and Outreach efforts.

The message was short and to the point. Maybe it was typed on a Blackberry. It said only:

‘If Jesus wants to bless our ministries to the poor, then he will give us everything we need to do so.’

That’s true, I thought…as long as Jesus is a Living Lord. Otherwise, forget about it.

If Christ has not been raised…then on Thursday when I stood in the sanctuary for that man’s funeral and when I looked in to his grandchildren’s numb eyes and when I told them that their life with him and their love for him was not lost but would one day be made new again…

If Christ has not been raised, then I was just talking out of my a@#.

Because apart from the Risen Christ, I don’t know into what oblivion any of us will pass.

And that Thursday evening, I sat in the living room of an Aldersgate family, a family shocked and scared by the sudden intrusion of cancer into their lives. And, holding their hands, I prayed that Jesus would heal and I prayed that Jesus would comfort and I prayed that Jesus would strengthen.

And my words might have been what they needed to hear. My words might have uplifted them. My prayers might have given them the strength they needed to face the next day or the day after that or, maybe, even the day after that.

     But if Christ has not been raised, if Death has not been defeated, then all my words were nothing more than pious-sounding placebos.

     And like all placebos, sooner or later…they won’t work. 

If Christ has not been raised…

And on Friday I received an email from Katherine, one of our missionaries in Cambodia, describing to me her work there, what she calls her ‘small steps towards God’s New Creation.’

And on Saturday I stood behind the altar table and I broke bread and blessed a cup of wine.

And on Sunday I stood in this pulpit and presumed to preach.

And just the other day I sat on the playground here at church with my son and we watched the sun begin to set in the sky. And both of us thought it was beautiful…

     But all of it, if Christ is not raised from the dead/if the message isn’t true/if the tomb isn’t empty/if he’s not alive forevermore then all of it is, in some way, a lie.

     If our hope turns out to be anchored to nothing more than this life then all of it is, in some way, pitiful.

Question: Explain your understanding of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and how it informs your life.

About a month ago, our adoption agency asked Ali and I if we would consider adopting a five year old boy who needed a placement. His name is Alexander. Like Gabriel, he’s from Guatemala. And he needs a family, they told us. 539808_4152239606532_1566826576_n

For several weeks now, we have been considering it and praying about it and recently we decided to say yes. This has all happened very fast, our lives have changed very fast and, chances are, he will be with us very soon.

Our adoption agency is a Christian agency.

     In addition to the endless legal documents and forms we must fill out, the agency also requires the two of us to complete a Statement of Faith form.

They want to know not just that we’re fit to parent a child; they want to know what beliefs and convictions inform our parenting. And they don’t mess around.

     The very first question on the form was that one about resurrection.

I began to fill out that form this week. As I did so, I thought about the kind of life I’d want to show Alexander, and I thought about my life here- not because this is my job but because this is my church.

I’m part of a church, I wrote.

Every Saturday we gather around a Table sure that Jesus is there too and sure that Jesus can use a simple meal of bread and wine to grow us in his image.

Every Sunday we open up an old book and read from it because we believe the Risen Christ can use old words to speak to us like new.

I’m part of a church, a place of prayer- not just mental wish-lists or sentimentality- but people genuinely interceding with the Living Christ for one another.

I’m part of a community. And, yes, much of the time we’re imperfect or impatient with one another or unkind. But I’m part of a community that nonetheless tries to be a sign of New Creation.

I’m part of a church. It’s a place where forgiveness is sought and given. It’s a place where Democrats are friends with Republicans and where soldiers pray for peace and pacifists pray for soldiers. How does that happen apart from resurrection?

I’m part of a church. It’s a place where volunteers give time that they don’t have to children that aren’t theirs to form them in a way of life that makes no sense if Christ isn’t risen from the grave.

I’m part of a church that works all over the world on behalf of the poor and the forgotten. Not because it makes them feel good. Not because it’s charity.

But because these people believe their work is a down payment on a Kingdom world Christ will one day deliver.

     I can’t prove resurrection, but I’m part of a church. 

    And from where I sit, Jesus rises from the grave nearly every day.