Archives For Sin

lightstock_2350_small_user_2741517-2Preaching on Psalm 51 this Ash Wednesday, I noticed something as I followed along with the lector from the pew bible open on my lap. David’s indulgent confession of sin in Psalm 51 ends with this startling moment of recognition:

‘…for you [God] have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give you a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is [only] a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.’

Surely this is a stunning epiphany to anyone who knows the Old Testament wherein sacrifices are frequent, systematized, and not only a delight to the Lord but prescribed by the Lord himself from Mt. Sinai. Consider even the remarkable dissonance- what I discovered Ash Wednesday only because my pew bible was open flat on my lap- of Psalm 51 with the psalm that immediately precedes it:

‘Those who bring their thanksgiving sacrifice [as commanded in Leviticus] honor me…’

Declares God, in Psalm 50.

Israel’s prophets, who come after David and voice God’s judgment upon the greed and false piety of David’s heirs, introduce an even more virulent strain into the bible’s thinking about the necessity and merit of sacrifice. The Christian Old Testament ends with the prophet Malachi heaping scorn upon sacrifices offered in vain, and the angry prophet of the rural poor, Amos, most famously announced God’s wrath thusly:

‘…you that turn justice to wormwood, and bring righteousness to the ground!

…the Lord is his name, who makes destruction flash out against the strong, so that destruction comes upon the fortress.

 

For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins—you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate. Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time; for it is an evil time. Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!

Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light;  as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake.

Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.

Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon.

Take away from me the noise of your songs. I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.’

Those last lines abut justice are familiar to us from Dr. King’s sermon on the National Mall, but excised from their original context they lose their punch and, I suspect for white Christians, turn Amos from a prophet of judgment into a dispenser of vague liberal hope.

For anyone with ears to hear, there is this unresolved tension running throughout the Old Testament as to whether sacrifice is something that God in any way desires or requires.

What do Christians make of this ambivalence regarding sacrifice when we consider what we consider the ultimate sacrifice, Christ’s expiatory offering of suffering and death upon the cross? 

Is God’s self-giving in the Son through the Spirit pleasing to the Father, as the poet of Psalm 50 might imagine? Or is the murder of an innocent scapegoat upon a cross but another example of what Amos decries as the status quo’s practice of turning justice into wormwood? Worse, would God look upon us, who turn such an injustice as the crucifixion into a pleasing, even necessary sacrifice, and thunder ‘I hate, I despise, your worship?’

9780374298470Marilynne Robinson, in her essay Metaphysics, writes:

‘I know the Bible interprets Christ’s passion as expiatory, the world’s suffering as the consequence of sin, for which Christ is a guilt offering. I note as well that when God speaks through the prophets about sacrifice he treats it as the expression of a human need he tolerates rather than as anything he desires.

Certainly the death of Christ has been understood as expiation for human sin through the whole length of church history, and I defer with all possible sincerity to the central tenets of the Christian tradition, but as for myself, I confess that I struggle to understand the phenomenon of ritual sacrifice, and the Crucifixion when explicated in its terms. The concept is so central to the tradition that I have no desire to take issue with it, and so difficult for me that I leave it for others to interpret. If it answered to a deep human need at other times, and it answers now to other spirits than mine, then it is a great kindness of God toward them, and a great proof of God’s attentive grace toward his creatures.

I do not by any means doubt the gravity of human sin or question our radical indebtedness to God. I suppose it is my high Christology, my Trinitarianism, that makes me falter at the idea God could be in any sense repaid or satisfied by the death of his incarnate self.’

Is our thinking, I wonder in Lent, that Christ’s cross is a necessary sacrifice for sin a ‘kindness’ God permits because, though God hates all devotion devoid of any concern for justice, it’s just this offering, needful or not, that delivers what God truly desires: a broken and contrite heart?

39164Facebook alerted me that this post has its 2 Year Anniversary today.

It’s important to note what I failed to note previously.

The question is posed not to me, but to Francis Spufford, the author of the dynamite book, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, who gives what I think is a terrific response to the question regarding his writing style:

“Why do I swear so much?

To make a tonal point: to suggest that religious sensibilities are not made of glass, do not need to hide themselves nervously from whole dimensions of human experience. To express a serious and appropriate judgment on human destructiveness, in the natural language of that destructiveness.

But most of all, in order to help me nerve myself up for the foolishness, in my own setting, of what I am doing. To relieve my feelings as I inflict on myself an undignified self-ejection from the protections of irony.

I am an Englishman writing about religion. Naturally I’m f@#$%^& embarrassed.”

I am an Englishman writing about religion. Naturally I’m offing embarrassed. Perfect answer.

Perhaps more revealing about the above quote is that while swearing makes few appearances in Church, irony abounds. But truth- emotional truth- more reliably resides with the former than the latter.

Spufford’s Unapologetic is that on two counts. It’s an unapologetic defense that Christianity entails a good deal more than believing in fairies. It’s not even- primarily- about belief Spufford argues. It’s also not a traditional work of apologetics- the rational defense of Christian doctrines. Beliefs. Ideas.

More like compass and map, Spufford thinks that Christianity gives us the tools to name truthfully our emotional experience in the world– tools, he points out convincingly, atheism lacks wholesale. Secular materialism, after all, can offer a rival explanation for the origins creation, but what it absolutely cannot do is offer any sort of hope.

The fallacy at the heart of new atheism, Spufford observes, is the assumption that if we could just do away with God, Christianity and the Church- accept that there’s probably no God- then we could all just get on with enjoying our lives.

But, Spufford counters, enjoyment is just one of many emotions.

“The only things in the world that are designed to elicit enjoyment and only enjoyment are products, and your life is not a product…to say that life is to be enjoyed (just enjoyed) is like saying mountains should only have summits…This really is a bizarre category error…What it means, if it’s true, is that anyone who isn’t enjoying themselves is entirely on their own. It amounts to a denial of hope of consolation, on any but the most chirpy, squeaky, bubble-gummy reading of the human situation. St Augustine called this kind of thing ‘cruel optimism’ 1500 years ago and it’s still cruel.”

Unapologetic is bracingly honest and laugh-out loud funny and I couldn’t commend it enough. In chapter 1 he deconstructs John Lennon’s utopian song, Imagine (‘the My Little Pony of philosophy’).

And in chapter 2 gives a clear-eyed acronym for what Christians mean by that freighted word Sin:

HPtFtU:

The Human Propensity to F Things Up.

Neither Thomas Aquinas nor Richard Dawkins have anything as simple and jarringly true as HPtFtU.

Atheists may have a rival explanation for the universe’s origins. What they do not have is language to reveal how it is that very often our lives are not what we want them to be while nevertheless being the product of all the wants we chose along the way.

Spitting in Sin’s Face

Jason Micheli —  February 15, 2016 — 6 Comments

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     This past weekend was my official return to Aldersgate after a year on medical leave. Returning meant more to my family and me than we could have anticipated, and we’re grateful for the warm welcome the congregation showed us.

     Kevin Spacey, as Keyser Soze, says the greatest trick the devil played was convincing us he doesn’t exist. I think the greatest trick Sin plays on us is convincing us that it still has power over us. Here’s my sermon from the first Sunday in Lent, in which I attempted to underscore our liberation from Sin by first laughing at the power of Death and then spitting on Sin. The text, as if there could be another, was Paul’s baptismal passage in Romans 6.1-11.

     ‘Whoever has died with Christ [through baptism] is free from sin.‘      

Speaking of death-

A year ago this week, I woke up from abdominal surgery to a doctor telling me I had something called Mantle Cell Lymphoma, this incredibly rare, aggressive cancer with long odds for a happy ending.

I don’t want to be melodramatic about it, but I thought I was going to die.

When you’re convinced you’re going to die, you think about it. You can’t help dwelling on what it will be like, the moment you pass through the veil between living and everlasting. When you think you’re going to die, you fixate on it, obsess over it, daydream and nightmare about it.

And you daydream not only about your death but about your funeral too.

I daydreamed a lot about my funeral. I visualized the whole service, starting with the bouquets. I know its popular nowadays to request that, in lieu of flowers, money be sent to this or that charity.

Not me. In the funeral in my mind, this room is wearing more fauna than Brooke Shields in Blue Lagoon, like each and every one of you took out a line of credit at FTD.

I mean- charity is about other people. I’ve lived my whole life as if it’s all about me; at least in death it really is. And so in my daydream you all send so many flowers the sanctuary looks like American Pharaoh exploded all over it.

And back in the narthex, for one last prank on the 8:30 service, Hedy sets up a toilet and, next to it, a roll of appropriately mournful black toilet paper. So in my daydream there’s flowers up here and a toilet back there and in here the pews are packed.

Its standing room only in the lobby. It’s so crowded that Sasha and Malia have to sit on their Dad’s lap, and everyone nods in approval when Pope Francis gets up to offer his seat to Cindy Crawford.

In the funeral in my mind, when it comes time for the processional, Dennis, his voice cracked and ragged from raging Job-like at the heavens, invites everyone to stand. And in that moment my boys stop playing on their iPads and they carry in my casket.

As they bear my casket forward towards the altar, on the organ Liz plays the music from Star Wars Episode IV, the score from the scene when Han and Luke (but not Chewy, for some ethnocentric reason) receive their medals.

Once I’m brought forward in front of the altar table, He Who Must Not Be Named kneels before my casket and quietly confesses his many sins against me and begs me not to haunt him like Jacob to Ebenezer.

Then, he’s followed by a long line of women in veils and stilettos who all look like the woman in the ‘November Rain’ video.

They come forward, each, to lay a rose on my casket, and each of them behind their veil wear an expression that seems to say: ‘You were a man among boys, Jason.’

In the funeral in my mind, as Dennis begins with his lines about the resurrection and the life, the bishop slinks into the sanctuary embarrassed to be running late and second-guessing his decision to show solidarity with me by wearing a bandana and booty shorts.

But as he squeezes into a spot in the back corner, Stephen Hawking assures the bishop in his Speak-N-Spell voice that the booty shorts look quite nice with his clergy collar.

After the opening hymn, Andreas plays my favorite Old Testament song, ‘Female Bears are Eating My Friends.’ As he strums somberly with his eyes closed members of the Journeys Band notice that for the occasion of my funeral Andreas has bought a brand new pair of dutch boy clogs. Plus, he’s wearing his very best Cosby sweater.

When Andreas finishes, Dennis gets up to preach. And because he’s nervous to preach in front of the Dali Lama, Dennis has actually taken notes for the sermon instead of just shooting from the hip.

But then Dennis is overcome with emotion so he hands his notes to Hedy and Hedy stands up in the pulpit and, first, she reads the gospel scripture, the centurion at Christ’s cross: ‘Truly, this was God’s Son.’

And then she looks down at Dennis’ notes and reads what Dennis has prepared: ‘While these words normally refer to Jesus, I think we can all agree that in Jason’s case…’

After the sermon, which in my daydream, does a thorough job of quoting my own sermons, the choir comes to the front, wearing brand-new robes that have my likeness on the back in sequins.

The choir is led by a special guest vocalist who, in my daydream, is always a heavyset black woman (I’m not sure if that’s racist or not) and together they tribute me by singing the Gladys Knight single ‘You’re the Best Thing that Ever Happened to Me.’

Despite the heavyset black woman leading them, the choir veers off key because Ernest Johnson’s eyes are filled with angry, manstrating tears and he can’t see his music to conduct it. So the choir’s singing their heart out even if they’re singing off key and, while they sing, Scarlett Johansson leans over to Dennis to ask why Terri Phillips is wearing a Cinderella costume.

‘It’s what Jason would’ve wanted,’ Dennis whispers to Scarlett and Penelope Cruz just as the choir belts out the final Gladys Knight line: ‘I guess you were the best thing that ever happened to me.’

After the applause dies down, Ali chokes back her tears and anguish, and she steps up to the lectern to eugugolate me. She starts by pointing out how she knew me longer than anyone, from the time she saw me in my speedo at swim practice, which is to say it was love at first sight.

‘So I just want to say,’ Ali concludes and dabs her eye in my daydream, ‘Jason was mostly an okay guy.’

With that, she steps down and afterwards, in the funeral in my mind, there’s no closing hymn or benediction, no ‘Amazing Grace’ or Lord’s Prayer, because at some point during the prayer of commendation the roof is rent asunder as at the Transfiguration.

As God the Father declares ‘This is my Beloved Jason in whom I am well pleased’ Jesus and the Holy Spirit descend from the clouds, along with the ghosts of Mother Theresa, Dumbledore, Gandalf and Leonard Nimoy, and together, like the prophet Elijah, they carry me up into the heavens.

And so, then, there’s nothing else to do but go to Wesley Hall where the stage is lined with kegs of 90 Minute IPA, where my boys are back to playing on their tablets, and where the food is piled high around a giant ice sculpture. Of me.

——————

But I digress.

My point is- For a long time, I thought I was going to die.

When I realized I wasn’t going to die, when I got my bone marrow results back a few weeks ago, and I realized the inevitable wasn’t yet, I was so freaking grateful.

Bowled over with gratitude. To God.

I felt so thankful that I promised a vow to God. I swore an oath to God. For the gift of my life, I would offer the gift of my faithfulness. It’s true. I stared at myself in the mirror at my oncologist’s mens room right after I received my results.

I splashed water on my face to make sure I wasn’t daydreaming. I stared at myself in the mirror and I swore, from here on out, I would be a perfect Christian.

No more snark or sarcasm. No more dark cynicism. No more cussing or anger. No more can’t be bothered apathy or little white lies.

 God had rescued me from death so I promised to the mens room mirror: ‘I will never sin again.’

And I meant it. I was doing a pretty job with it until I walked out of the bathroom and over to the elevator. The elevator at my doctor’s office, no matter the time of day, it’s like the DMV was outsourced to supervise the Final Solution. It’s a constipated, huddling mass of people frantic with their self-importance.

So I waited and waited, as the elevator would come and close, come and close, each time too crowded for me. But I was a good Christian. I kept my vow. I was patient. I did not think any dark thoughts in my heart. I did not sin.

So I was doing pretty good, and my turn was next. I was right there at the front of the line.

But as soon as the elevator doors opened, this old guy with wispy white hair and an oxygen mask, out of nowhere, wedged a walker in between me and the elevator doors and, like he was Patrick Ewing, he threw a varicosed elbow at me and pushed me out of the way to wait longer for another elevator.

Patrick Ewing looked at me as the elevator doors closed between us. And he smirked!

And if anyone had been able to read my mind in that moment I would’ve been whistled for a flagrant foul.

On my way home from the doctor, I stopped at Starbucks for a coffee. I was standing at the counter about to pay. Next to me, in front of the other register, a homeless man poured coins out of an empty Cheetos bag and, coming up short, he looked over at me and asked if I had any money.

Without thinking about it, without meaning to, just reflexively (which says a lot about me), I said: ‘I’m sorry, I don’t have any cash.’

My words were still hanging thick in the air when I looked down at my wallet in my hand, which had a wad of wrinkled 5’s and 10’s sticking out of it like a bouquet of dirty green flowers.

Not only had I lied, not only had I refused charity, Jesus says whatever you do to the poor you’ve done it to him so 20 minutes after my I’ll-never-sin-again-oath to God, I’d managed to lie to and stiff Jesus. Not to mention swearing false oaths is one of the 10 Commandments so that was a sin too.

And leaving Starbucks, I accidentally cut a guy off in traffic. It was an accident, not a sin.

But then when he rolled his window down to offer his opinion of me (at the traffic light), and when he offered his opinion of my mother (at the next light), and when he described everything he thought I deserved to do to myself (at the light after that), did I turn the rhetorical cheek? Did I forgive his trespass against me? Did I forgive him 70 x 7 times? Did I offer to walk a mile in his jerk shoes?

No, I said goodbye to him with a sarcastic smile and a one-fingered wave.

When I got home, I watched a clip of Joel Osteen, America’s favorite preacher, that one of you was kind enough to share with me on Facebook. I listened as Joel Osteen talked about how he doesn’t like to preach about the cross or other ‘depressing things.’ He prefers to keep it positive and uplifting.

Jesus says if you’ve lusted in your heart, you’ve committed adultery. By that same moral logic, if you’ve thought about killing someone, knocking in their toilet lid teeth, punching them in their vacant, Botox eyes, pulling out their mousse-hardened hair and turning their syrupy smile upside down- if you’ve thought about it, you’ve committed murder, Jesus implies. Guilty.

After I broke that commandment, I made the mistake of going to the Soviet Safeway just down Ft. Hunt.

I was in the Express Line, the Express Line, the 15 Items or Less Line.

I was in line behind this blue-haired woman who had 28 items in her cart. 28. I know because she was moving so slow I had time to count the 28 items in her cart at least 28 times while we stood in the 15 items or less aisle.

But I didn’t say anything. I didn’t sigh out loud or point to the Express Line sign that she should’ve been able to see since it was nearly as big as her perm.

No, I didn’t complain.

I didn’t gripe that I had places to go and people to see. And I didn’t complain when she pulled out a stack of wrinkled, mostly expired coupons to try to haggle the price down.

No, I kept my vow. I was Jesusy good.

But then when it came time to pay, the old lady reached in to a purse the size of El Salvador and after searching in it for…oh, I don’t know…forever…what did she pull out?

That’s right: a checkbook.

It was big and fat and had like 8 rubber bands wrapped around it and old deposit slips sticking out everywhere.

And after she then searched for her ‘favorite pen’ she filled the check out like she was signing a Syrian Peace Treaty and then she carefully tore the check out of the checkbook and then she marked the transaction down in her checkbook register with crossword puzzle care and then- finally- she handed the check to the teenager working the cash register, the teenager who had clearly never seen nor processed a check in his life.

‘Oh my Lord! You should just keep a goat in that purse because the barter system would be a quicker way to pay!’ I didn’t say to myself.

If the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control, and so the opposite of all that produce must be sin, right?

God rescued me from death, and still my new life of sinless perfection was shorter lived than Lincoln Chaffee’s presidential campaign.

—————-

     ‘How can we who died to sin [in baptism] go on living in it?’ 

     Paul asks at the beginning of Romans 6.

I know our teachers all lied to us and told us there’s no such thing as a stupid question, but there is and this is one. The answer is not only obvious it’s ubiquitous. How can we go on sinning? Uh, very easily, Paul. I can do it without even trying.

‘How can we go on sinning?’! The better question is how can we not go on sinning? It’s what we do. It’s who we are.

‘How can we who died to sin [in baptism] go on living in it?‘ It’s a rhetorical question. Paul obviously thinks its not only possible but expected for those who’ve been buried in baptism to live free of sin.

According to Paul here, roughly 93% of my waking life should be impossible. I’ve been baptized. I’ve died to sin- Paul means that literally not figuratively- so my sinful life should be impossible. Your sinful life should be impossible.

Maybe you’re different, to me it’s Christ’s life that feels impossible.

But if Christ died to sin and we with him then why? Why do we so often and so easily sin?

So what gives?

What’s the disconnect between what Paul assumes to be true and what we assume to be obvious?

Who’s wrong?

Are we wrong? Is sin really easier to shake than everything in our lived experience leads us to suppose?

Or is Paul wrong? Have we not really died with Christ, died to sin, so that we can live free of it?

But if Paul’s wrong, then that means the Gospel’s wrong too. Christ, good dude though he was, did not set his people free by overcoming the pharaoh of Sin. And we who have been plunged under with him in baptism have not died with him so we have no share in him.

How can we go on sinning?

How can we not go on sinning?

The assumption are not compatible. So who’s wrong? Paul? Or you and me? What’s the disconnect?

     It’s almost as though when we talk about Sin, Paul and you and me, we’re talking about two different things.

—————

     In the ancient Church, baptism would be performed almost exclusively on Holy Saturday, the day when Jesus is as dead as you will one day be, when, as the Church says, Jesus is our Passover, passing over from Death to Life.

The baptismal ritual wasn’t a sentimental one with babies and lacey heirlooms. Instead it was imagined and staged like a funeral. In the middle of the Easter vigil, after the Exodus story was read, the worshippers would move outside to the baptistry.

Often those to be baptized were carried in caskets.

When they reached the flowing water, before they stripped naked to shed symbolically their old self and before they were plunged into the water just as the sea drown the chains of Pharaoh’s army, those to be baptized would face West, the direction where the light of the sun sets and the darkness rises.

They would face West and they would renounce Sin.  They would declare their independence from it.

And then, they would spit.

They would spit in Sin’s face. They would spit on Sin. They would draw up all the disgust and anger, all the self-loathing and pain, they could muster in their mouths and then they would spit in Sin’s face.

Here’s the thing-

You can’t spit in the face of a behavior.

You can only spit in the face of a person.

And really, it only has righteous power if you spit in the face of a person who thinks they control you. In the face of a Master.

—————

     When it comes to Sin, Paul and you and me, we don’t mean the same thing.

We think of sin as behavior. We think of sin as something we commit, like lying or cheating on your husband or lusting in your heart to do grave bodily harm to Joel Osteen.

We think of sin as behavior, but Paul thinks of Sin as a Power.

You can think of it as Darkness with a capital D. You can call it Satan if you like. If you’re a nerd, you can compare it to Sauron’s ring of power.

But to understand Paul you have to understand that he understands Sin not as our behavior but as a Power outside of us, as a Pharaoh, as a Master, whose will it is to have dominion over us, to bind us.

Our little ‘s’ sins are just signs and symptoms of our enslavement to the power of Sin with a capital S.

So for Paul, sin isn’t about our behavior. Sin is about our status, which Master do we believe we belong to?

For Paul, sin isn’t about what we do or don’t do. It isn’t about who we are on the inside or behind closed doors. Sin is about where we are.

Do we believe we’ve made an exodus in Jesus Christ? Or not? Do we believe we’ve passed over from the Kingdom of Sin to the Kingdom of God?

We think of sin as things we do that disobey God’s will and provoke God’s anger.

But not Paul.

Paul doesn’t think of sin as disobeying God’s will for you.

Paul thinks of sin as obeying Sin’s will for you.

     Paul thinks of sin as obeying Sin’s will for you.

That’s how Paul can ask a rhetorical question like ‘How can we who died to sin go on living in it?’

It’s ridiculous to him that we would go on living under sin because we’ve been set free from the Power of Sin.

Sin’s let God’s People go. That Master no longer has any dominion over us or claim to us. That’s not who we belong to anymore. And Paul’s not being metaphoric.

     Paul believes emphatically that when we are joined in baptism by faith to Christ’s death something objective happens.

    We are moved, transferred, from the Kingdom of Sin to the Kingdom of God, and it’s a 1-way, once for all, no going back, nothing you do can undo it, kind of journey.

As we say with bread and wine, Christ has set us free from slavery to Sin.

That’s why Paul’s question is rhetorical, and rightly so. Why would you live your life as though the Power of Sin had any claim on you? That’s like obeying a Master who no longer owns you, submitting to a Ruler who’s already been deposed, fearing an Enemy that’s already been defeated.

Why would you want your life to be a prison when you’ve passed over with Christ from Egypt to freedom?

Paul doesn’t mean that baptism is a magical inoculation that makes it impossible for us to sin. He means to it’s impossible for us to see ourselves as slaves to it, to our sins.  We’ve been set free. That doesn’t mean we’re free of sins. It means we’re free from Sin. We’re free to choose a different story for ourselves. We’re free to turn from our sin, and we’re free to turn away the sins of the world. We’re not powerless against the sins in our lives nor are we excused to be passive about the sins in the world.

We’re free.

—————

     Okay, but that just leaves a big, fat question on the table: How?

How do you do it? If we’re free from Sin, how do we live free of sins?

Chances are, you didn’t hock many loogies at your baptism, and even though you can’t be rebaptized, it’s never too late to take a page from the wisdom of the past and spit in Sin’s face. Renounce it.

Look in the mirror even and pretend its Sin with a capital S staring back at you and spit in its face. Announce your rebellion.

Maybe you were abused. Stare that sin down and spit in its face and announce to it: ‘I don’t belong to you.’

And how about that anger you can’t keep from spilling out onto the people you love- look it in the eyes and spit in its face and tell it what my kids tell me: ‘You’re not the boss of me.’

The prejudice you try to justify, the spending that fills a hole no one can see, the resentment and regret that’s crippled your marriage, the callousness that’s grown up over your wounds- give it all the dead-eye stare.

Spit in its face and say to it: ‘You have no claim on me.You’re not my Master.

I don’t even live in Egypt anymore.’

Spit in its face. Stare down your shame, and declare your disobedience. Say to your shame and self-loathing:

You may call me a slut

You may call me an addict, a freak, a loser, a disappointment

You may tell me I’m a failure, I’m fat, I’m ugly, I’m old, I’m whatever

But just as God declares of Jesus at his baptism so God declares of me because I’m in him and he’s in me and so I’m a beloved child of God and with God’s only Son I’ve passed over from captivity.

The only chains on me are the ones I put on myself.

Stare Sin down. Spit in its face. Laugh at it.

And say to it: Why would I obey you? I’ve been set free.

—————

      This time last year I thought I was going to die.

Just a few weeks ago, I thought the good news was that I wasn’t going to die. And I’m not saying I’m not happy about it…but in this place, the good news is that with water and promises by people like you I’ve already died.

With and in Christ.

So I don’t need to make any promises, take any vows, or swear any oaths to become a completely different person.

No, I only need to learn how to become who I already am.

Free.

 

 

 

 

16th-St-Baptist-Ch-WalesScot McKnight, who hosts the popular Jesus Creed blog, has invited me to post a series of reflections during Lent on Fleming Rutledge‘s new book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of JesusFleming Rutldge BandWhite

I want to give Scot the love and force you to read it over on his site so here’s my teaser:

The spiritual intuition of god in your garden will never lead you to submit to a naked, homeless, cheek-turning, executed Jew.

Perhaps more importantly, ‘spirituality’ will never compel you to identify with the world’s forsaken as a necessary implication of your faith.

Vague spirituality, untethered from orthodox tradition, certainly won’t require you to identify with the world’s forsakers.

But the cross, where Christ dies for the ungodly, demands exactly that, as offensive and counter-intuitive as it is to all our natural religious and moral impulses.

Okay, whistle wetted, read the post here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2016/02/12/fleming-rutledge-and-the-atonement-by-jason-micheli/ 

 

Here’s my sermon from Ash Wednesday. You can listen to below, in the sidebar to the right, or download the Tamed Cynic app here.

Psalm 51

Maybe its the last dregs of chemo brain, but am I the only one who hears ‘…against you, you alone God, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight…’ and thinks ‘eh, that’s a bit much?’

I mean, I don’t know what you look like in your baby photos but I look absolutely adorable. Even back then I had a face any woman could love. Did God really look at me, wearing an OshKosh onesie and a world weary expression, and think to God’s self: Baby Jason, he’s a miserable, wicked sinner? Is God’s ego really so fragile?

True, I’ve been a sinner since I hit puberty and received my first SI Swimsuit Edition in the mail, but from the moment my mother conceived me?

And I don’t know if my guilt extends all the way back to the womb like today’s scripture contends- seems awfully grim- but I know my guilt extends at least as far back as yesterday to that guy I cut off in traffic on Route 1.

Even if I am everything he swore at me (at the next traffic light) and even if my mother is everything he shouted at me (at the next light) and even if I deserve to do to myself everything he suggested I do to myself (at the light after that), to say that I rebel against God, day and night, and that I’ve done evil in his sight sounds a bit heavy handed, more than a little over the top.

Is God really so quick to anger and abounding in steadfast wrath? Shouldn’t God be at least as nice as Jesus?

—————

     We’ve all heard the cliche that the Church is a place not for great saints but for great sinners. ‘The Church,’ as the sign out front of Bethlehem Baptist Church said last week, ‘is a hospital for sinners.’

Fine. Whatever.

But-

What about just average sinners? What about mediocre sinners?

Like you? Like me?

Just read through the Ash Wednesday liturgy the Church with a capital C has given us- there’s no room in it for us run of the mill, grump at your kids, cheat on your taxes, fall asleep watching Game of Thrones types of sinners.

Or take another scripture that’s a standby for Ash Wednesday, where Isaiah says we’re such rotten sinners that ‘…all our good deeds, to God, are like filthy rags.’ It’s over the top.

And consider King David who wrote Psalm 51. David is exactly like a Game of Thrones character. David is a peeping tom, a sexual predator, a murderer and a religious sycophant. David collected 100 foreskins just to impress his girlfriend and I’m willing to bet at least 99 of them came from reluctant donors. David tore off his clothes and danced naked on the altar of the covenant.

Even by the Jersey Shore standards of his Old Testament day, David was terrible, a terribly exceptional sinner.

I mean, it’s no wonder hardly anyone brings their kids to Ash Wednesday service. You all come here to confess how you don’t pray as much as you should or how you feel badly about blocking your neighbor on Facebook or how you’re secretly thinking about voting for Trump and what do we do?

Bam, we hit you over the head with ‘…against you, you only, God have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.’

And then, as if that wasn’t overkill enough, we invite you to participate in this liturgy of sackcloth and ash that derives, lemme tell you, from the ceremonies for the reconciliation and forgiveness of grave sinners, like torturers and rapists.

When it comes to you and me, the scripture, the ceremony- it misses the mark.

—————

     King David’s language in Psalm 51 is beautiful, but as gorgeous as the words are, it’s bad language. It’s to use the language badly because it misses the mark about you and me and just what kind of sinners we are.

Here, of all places, we shouldn’t lie or exaggerate about ourselves, most especially to God from whom, about us, no secret is hid.

So, let’s be honest. Most of us are ordinary, mediocre sinners. Boring even.

I mean, the average United Methodist church would be way more interesting if we sinned like David, but I for one, after the year I’ve had, don’t have the energy for that.

We are not great sinners. We’re not rebelling day and night against God.  We haven’t been guilty since our mother’s first trimester. I dare you to come up with even one truly evil thing you’ve done.

No matter what the baptists will tell you, you’re not totally depraved. When God made humanity he called it ‘very good’ and then God considered you and me good enough to put on skin himself. So, no, you’re not totally depraved.

We’re not great sinners. We’re not murderers or predators or spiritual psychopaths. Other than Dennis Perry, I’ve not seen one of you dance naked at the altar. So forget the psalm. Forget David’s confession for a moment and let’s be honest.

     Your sins do not offend God.

     There, I said it.

Your sins do not offend God.

No doubt you commit ordinary, mediocre sins against a great many people in your lives, probably against the people you love most. And probably your sins leave most of those people PO’d at you. But your sins- they don’t anger God.

Let David narrate David’s experience for himself, but let’s be honest about ours. There’s a difference between David and you. He’s a lot more interesting of a sinner. Fine. Whatever. So be it.

Let’s be precise, David’s a Game of Thrones sinner and most of you are basic cable, Modern Family kinds of sinners.

You may hate your ex or grumble about your pain in the butt neighbor, but those sins don’t mean God takes it as though you hate God.

No, your sin just means you’re lazy and shallow and stingy and careless in how you love God and love your neighbor.

You haven’t been committing evil since you were teething- that’s insanity. No, you just screen your mother’s calls. You won’t forgive that thing your spouse did. You don’t give near the value of your beach rental to the poor. You’re only vaguely aware of the refugee crisis.

Those are the kinds of sinners you are. We are.

But compared to David? Don’t flatter yourself, you’re not much of a sinner.

No matter what the liturgy says, you haven’t been guilty since the day your mother conceived you.

I know it’s Ash Wednesday, but we don’t need to exaggerate how sinful we are just to prove how gracious God is.

Seriously, don’t take yourself too seriously.

As it turns out, not taking yourself too seriously as a sinner is the best way to understand what sin, for most of us, really, is.

—————

     Sin isn’t something you do that offends God.

They’re not errors that erode God’s grace. They’re not crimes that aggrieve God and arouse his anger against you. They’re not debits from your account that accumulate and must be reconciled before God can forgive you.

Don’t take yourself so seriously.

     Sin is about where your love lies.

     Sin has nothing to do with where God’s love lies.

God’s love, whether you’re a reprobate like David or a jackass like me or a comfortably numb suburbanite, doesn’t change. Because God doesn’t change.

There’s nothing you can do to make God love you more and there’s nothing you can do to make God love you less. The Father’s heart is no different when the prodigal returns than on the day he left his Father.

God’s heart is no different whether you leave here with your forehead smooth or smudged tonight.

So before you come up here today to put on ash, before we invite you follow Jesus into the wilderness for the 40 days of Lent, don’t think it has anything to do with where God’s love lies.

God’s love for you is unconditional because God is unchanging.

Don’t think an ashen cross keeps the fires of hell at bay. Don’t think Lenten penance in any way persuades God’s pathos in your favor. Don’t think that by confessing your sin you’ve somehow compelled God to change his mind about you.

No. When God forgives our sins, he is not changing his mind about us. He is changing our minds about him. God does not change; God’s mind is never anything but loving because God just is Love.

Who the hell are you to think your mediocre, run of the mill sins could change God?

You’re not putting on ash tonight to change God’s love, you’re putting on ash to change your love. To stoke not God’s affection for you but your affection.

Because that, says St. Thomas Aquinas, for most of us, is what our sins are. They’re affections. They’re not evil. They’re things we choose because we think they’re good for us: our booze and pills and toys, our forgive-but-not-forget grudges, our heart is in the right place gossip.

Most of our sins- they’re not evil. They’re affections, flirtations, that if we’re not careful can become lovers when we’re, by baptism, betrothed to only One.

And so with sackcloth and ashes, we invite you, over the next 40 days, to kill your lovers.

Or if the sound of that makes you squeamish, we invite you to die to them.

Because Jesus said there’s no way to God except through him, and Jesus shows us there’s no way to God except through suffering and death. There is no other way to God.

Jesus didn’t die for us instead of us. That’s a lesson I learned about a year ago tonight when the doctor called and asked if I was sitting down.

Jesus didn’t suffer and die so that we don’t have to. Jesus died to make it possible for us to die (to our sins) and rise again. And that isn’t easy because there’s no way to avoid the cross.

Even boring, mediocre sinners like us. We have to crucify and die to our affections and our addictions, to our ideologies, and our ordinary resentments.

Like Jesus, we have to suffer and die not so God can love us but so that we can love God and one another like Jesus.

It’s exactly a year ago the GI doctor called me the night after my CT scan and asked if I was sitting down.

I missed Ash Wednesday last year.

The year before immediately after the Ash Wednesday Service I ran to Safeway to procure a few (non-meat) products for the first dinner of our Lenten fast.

I was standing in line in the small, Soviet-esque Safeway near my house, about 4 people back. I could hear the bagger and the teller whispering words like ‘what’s’ and ‘going on’ and ‘holiday’ and ‘apocalypse’ and ‘probably’ and ‘something’ and ‘in’ and ‘Revelation.’

They were staring at the black, greasy cross on my forehead.

When I got to the checkout, one of them asked me furtively:

‘So, uh, is it like a holiday or something? Or did you go to a funeral?’

Thinking that would certainly be a memorable (and probably psyche-destroying) funeral, where we grind up the dearly departed and wipe him on our collective craniums, I replied:

‘It’s Ash Wednesday.’

‘Oh, right!’

Long pause.

‘What’s Ash Wednesday?’

And I replied with exactly what I’d told the congregation 30 minutes earlier: ‘Ash Wednesday is the day we remember that life is a gift from God by remembering our mortality.’

Longer pause.

‘I don’t get it.’

I kind of just smiled and swiped my debit card not wanting to venture too much more into this conversation and not because there were a dozen people waiting behind me impatiently with their lunch meat, TP and Crystal Light.

I didn’t want to say much more because, in all honesty, I still hadn’t processed or recovered from the night’s service.

Less than hour before, I had traced an ugly black cross on a child in my son’s class and said: ‘Remember that you are from dust and to dust you shall return.’

Words that become jarring when spoken on to a 10 year old’s forehead.

And after her, several people back in line, I traced the same bruise-like cross on the forehead of someone whom I’ve grown to love over the past 8 years. Knowing that if I stay in this congregation for a while longer I’ll likely perform this person’s funeral, I said to this friend: ‘‘Remember that you are from dust and to dust you shall return.’

I fought back the sudden urge to cry.

And after that friend came another soon after, someone with whom I’ve shared many a laugh on mission teams in Guatemala. On him, I traced a brooding black cross and said: ‘Remember that you are from dust and to dust you shall return.’

There were others like that.

Like the parishioner whose battle with cancer I was privy to. When I marked him with the cross and said ‘Remember that you are from dust and to dust you shall return’ the words rung with a painful truth.

Or the parent worried that their child will one day make good on threats to return themselves to the dust prematurely.

And then there was a handful of complete and total strangers. People who came in off the street because they saw the service announced on the sign out front. To these strangers, I drew an executioner’s tool on their forehead and basically said: ‘Remember, eventually you’re going to die.’

More so than any other holy day in the church year, Ash Wednesday affects me.

On Ash Wednesday it’s as though every one gathered in the pews becomes a walking, talking, breathing (for now) illustration of the day’s meaning:

life is a fragile, tightrope experience, sometimes precious and sometimes terrifyingly awful and, good or bad, it will one day end.

In so many ways, we’re finite. We’re grass, says the Poet. Just a part of the world God made. Worse than grass, says the Ash Wednesday, we’re like dirt.

But were it not so, our lives would cease to be gifts.

I didn’t preach a sermon that Ash Wednesday. A year later, last winter, I learned how I hadn’t need to preach one.

I was, somewhere deep in my percolating marrow, already embodying the day’s message.

Tattoo You

Jason Micheli —  January 13, 2016 — 4 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

#3: Spend More Time with Friends

#7: Take My Job Less Seriously and

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Seriously?’ I asked him.

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

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

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

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

Attachment-1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘The three?’ he asked, ‘the Trinity?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘God doesn’t cause our pain and suffering.

God doesn’t shun us because of our shortcomings.

God makes them his own.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘Just about every Sunday’ I said.

Untitled101111I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

You can find the previous posts here.

III. The Son

15. Do Only Christians Sin?

Yes.

To describe oneself a sinner is not a lowest common denominator available to all irrespective of faith claims but it is an accomplishment made possible only through proclamation, baptism and discipleship.

Of course, this is not to argue that only Christians err, lie, commit violence or forsake the good for trivial goods. But sin, meaning as it does the rejection of God’s love and goodness as revealed perfectly in Jesus Christ, is a vocabulary term available only to those who speak Christian.

Sin is not synonymous with the general human condition nor is it empirically verifiable apart from revelation. One must learn to know oneself as a sinner, and to know oneself as a sinner first requires knowing oneself as a forgiven sinner.

Only those who’ve experienced the embrace of the Father who declares ‘…we had to celebrate for what was lost has been found…’ can know the distance of the far country whence they came.

Just as no one can know God apart from God’s self-revelation, we cannot know ourselves as standing apart from God apart from the revelation of God in Christ.

In the same manner that cross and incarnation are only intelligible in light of the resurrection, the brokenness of sin only becomes comprehensible in light of the reconciliation made possible by Easter, in which Christ makes all things new.

The assurance of pardon then necessarily precedes, spiritually if not liturgically, the confession of sin.

‘…Let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.’ – Luke 15.23-24

Untitled101111I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

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

You can find the previous posts here.

III. The Son

13. Do You Have to Believe in Original Sin to be a Christian?

Of course.

We can’t intelligibly consider ourselves Christian and not believe in original sin.

Of course, by calling it ‘original sin’ we do not refer to the origin of humanity- as though we believed Adam was a real, historical person or as though we failed to realize that mythology was the methodology of the first authors of scripture.

Instead by calling it original sin we name the sin in which we are all implicated, by which we are impaired from our very beginnings as creatures and from which we could not hope to be immune even were we raised by angels.

In other words, the term original sin characterizes the sinfulness we have by virtue of being persons in the world.

From the start.

Making sin not so much something we do but, firstly, something we are all in.

Original sin, then, points not to something chronological or biological but existenstial; that is, the human condition within which we come into being but also the precondition for our individual sinful acts and choices and they damage they incur.

As it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”

– Romans 3.10

14. Do We Believe in a Literal, Historical Date for Original Sin?

Absolutely.

Christians call it Good Friday.

For if ‘sin’ refers to our deprivation of the divine life through our rejection of God’s love and goodness then- obviously- the occasion sin on which original was committed was the crucifixion of Jesus.

Good Friday marks the occasion of original sin not in the sense that sin did not exist prior to the incarnation but in the sense that sin had no meaning before it.

The crucifixion of Jesus finally gave meaning to what we mean by the word ‘sin.’ The crucifixion of Christ is not just another of humanity revealing its inhumanity; the cruficixion is humanity making the most ultimate sort of rejection and, in doing so, rejecting itself.

“They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.”

– Ephesians 4.18

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nobody was ever crucified for anything to do with religion.

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

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

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

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

timothy-radcliffe

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

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

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

And the Kingdom is incompatible with coercion.

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

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

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

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

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

In raising Jesus from the dead, the Father responded…

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

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

Was Jesus Sinful?

Jason Micheli —  January 6, 2015 — Leave a comment

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

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

You can find the previous posts here.

III. The Son

5. Was Jesus Sinful?

Yes.

The humanity assumed by the Word was sinful; otherwise, what would be the salvific point of the incarnation if the humanity assumed by the Word was already perfect?

While perhaps the incarnate Word did not commit sin against God or others (would he have been fully human had he done so?), the humanity which the Word assumed suffered the effects of sin.

That is, the incarnate Word was tempted as sinful humanity is tempted. The incarnate Word feared death as humanity, because of sin, fears death. The incarnate Word experienced the conflicts provoked by poverty and political oppression, which are themselves brought about by humanity’s sinfulness.

In this way, then, it’s insufficient for Christians to profess that the Word took flesh.

The Word not only takes on humanity, the Word contends with (sinful) humanity in order to perfect it over the course of his incarnate life.

“God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself…” 

– 2 Corinthians 5.19

6. Did Jesus Commit Sin?

The theologians say no.

The Canaanite woman would probably say yes

Traditionally, Christian theology precludes such a thought, for theories of the atonement rely upon the conviction that Jesus did not commit sin.

He is without sin, living the authentically human (i.e., sinless) life that humanity in Adam’s wake cannot live for itself. It’s his perfection, in which we all have a share by virtue of the incarnation, that saves us. It’s his blamelessness before God that allows him to suffer sin’s penalty in our guilty stead.

So no- the theological systems assert- Jesus could not have committed sin.

Unfortunately the gospel texts often seem disinterested in buttressing doctrine and answering questions they felt no need to ask.

What scripture presents instead is a picture of Jesus that resists the neat, a priori categories established for him by theologians.

For example, Jesus humiliates a Canaanite woman by calling her a ‘dog,’ a 1st century derogatory term for Israel’s oldest and original enemy. Perhaps it doesn’t qualify as a sin but it definitely marrs our assumptions about Jesus being without blemish.

By refusing to condemn the woman caught in adultery, Jesus ignores the clear Yahweh-given commands in Deuteronomy, Leviticus, Exodus and Numbers.

In pursuing his Kingdom mission and constituting a new family as an alternative to his biological one, Jesus, as Mary’s eldest son, forsakes his Torah-mandated responsibility to care for his widowed mother, which violates the 5th commandment.

The Pharisees are correct about Jesus: by presuming to forgive the sins of others, he sinfully claims the role reserved for God alone.

Their indictment against Jesus is true if spuriously motivated: by claiming to be the Son of Man, Jesus commits the ultimate sin- blasphemy. He breaks the first commandment, making of himself an idol above and before the one, true Lord.

While theological systems have no room for a Jesus who committed sin, the scripture texts portray him as doing just that until it lands him on a cross.

Of course, if he is who he claims to be- the Son of Man- then our theological systems, in their need to emphasize his unblemished, atoning humanity, obscure the gospels’ primary claim: that Jesus is Lord.

And if he’s Lord then it’s not clear how the Law-giver can be said to be a Law-breaker. A sinner.

However, if he’s Lord- if God is like Jesus, exactly- then neither is it clear how we can say God demands the suffering and death of a sinless human creature.

“For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.” 

– 1 Peter 1.19

In Discipline and Punish, the philosopher Michel Foucault reflects on Bentham’s image of the panopticon as the ideal prison. Prisoners constantly under the gaze of a lone guard in a central tower, Foucault argued, is an image of pure- and ultimately degrading-power and, for that reason, worse than torture.
For Sunday’s sermon I tried to apply Foucault’s argument to the 3rd servant’s confession ‘I know you’re a harsh Master’ in Matthew 25. I did so by way of Bette Midler.
You can listen to the sermon here below, in the sidebar to the right or in iTunes here. I broke the mic Sunday so you’re going to have to turn it up!
 
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     I didn’t always know Him. Thought I did.

And before that, for a long time, I didn’t know him at all.

God, that is.

 

I mean, I wasn’t always a disciple, a ‘servant of the Lord.’  I didn’t even attend a regular worship service- ever- until about the same time I was attending Driver’s Ed. My excitement for the latter was in inverse proportion to the former.

I didn’t make God the Master of my life until around the same time I was teaching life-saving at the neighborhood pool.

In other words, I didn’t grow up in a religious home. We didn’t intone His name at suppertime. We didn’t invoke His fickle nature when we stubbed our toes or languished in the Brew-Thru line or came up nada on the Pick 6.

For a long time, I didn’t know Him.

Before I was a teenager, I graced the doorway of the Master’s house only once, for my Aunt Lisa’s nuptials to a guy whose name I was convinced must be a joke: ‘Chet.’

I was a part of the Master’s ‘Dearly Beloved’ that day, but more so than the grim, gothic sanctuary or the ancient smells and bells or the priest’s alien incantations, what I best recall from that ceremony was the unfortunate Val Kilmer/‘Iceman’ haircut my mother imprudently allowed me to bring to the wedding.

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I didn’t always know Him; I didn’t grow up in a religious family.

We never thought to begrudge the talent or treasure He had given us because He wasn’t really a part of our lives. Nor was Jesus (as in: Jesus H. Christ!!!) even a word in our vocabulary.

We were neither a spiritual nor religious family.

I never flannel-graphed the Good Shepherd in Sunday School. I never fell asleep during gassy, finger-wagging sermons. No one ever taught me to sing ‘Jesus loves me this I know, for that unread book tells me so.’

In fact, I only knew who Jesus was because my Italian Grandmother, who had a pasta-maker’s forearms and a steel-worker’s mustache- it’s true, I look just like her- she had what must’ve been a 5×6 foot Harvey Keitel-kind-of-crucifix with blood and nails and a ‘You did this to me, bastard’ look on his face.

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The crucifix loomed over the head of the pine guest room bed where I slept whenever my mom worked the night shift at the hospital.

I remember-

When I first saw that crucifix, I asked my grandma ‘who did that to him?’ And she replied without ambiguity: ‘I did.’

(‘What in the _________. You did? That’s crazy!’) I thought to myself.

And looking for solace, I asked her: ‘Well, he’s dead now, right?’ But she calmly replied: ‘No. No, he’s alive.’

And again I thought to myself: ‘Wait, you did that to him and he’s still alive? That does NOT sound good.’

So, needless to say, on those sleepover nights at her house I’d cover the crucifix as best I could with a pillowcase. Elementary-me thought something that looked like a ghost on the wall was less terrifying than this guy named Jesus that my paisano  grandma had apparently failed to whack.

But that freaky, torture-device, 5×6 foot roadkill Jesus above the headboard of my bed was as close to meeting the Master as I ever got. We weren’t a religious family. We didn’t pray or worship. If we had a Bible it stayed in mint condition.

I was never exposed- introduced- to Him, the idea of Him; that is, not until 1990.

I was in Jr High, still playing with GI Joe after school but newly in the throes of ‘the puberty’ as it was called in gym class.

1990- it was the year Nelson Mandela was released from Robbin Island, the year Saddam was roused from Kuwait.

1990- it was the year the Simpsons first aired on TV, the year Driving Miss Daisy fooled everyone and somehow won Best Picture and the year Milli Vanilli did NOT sing ‘Girl, You Know It’s True.’

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But what is true, no doubt, 1990 that was the year someone first told me about Him.

God, the Lord, the Father…the Master. 1990 was the year someone got through to me, the year someone got me thinking long and hard and always about Him.

1990- the year John McEnroe’s god-complex got him banned from the Australian Open was the same year I became God-obsessed. All because of the revelation I received from one ginger prophetess:

From a distance I just cannot comprehend

what all this fighting is for.

From a distance there is harmony,

and it echoes through the land.

And it’s the hope of hopes, it’s the love of loves,

it’s the heart of every man.

It’s the hope of hopes, it’s the love of loves.

This is the song of every man.

And God is watching us, God is watching us,

God is watching us from a distance.

Oh, God is watching us, God is watching.

God is watching us from a distance.

1990- that year, like a chanteuse evangelist, Bette Midler’s hit song ‘From a Distance’ lodged in my brain where it haunted me in a way that her overacting in Beaches never could.

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Bette Midler’s cover of ‘From a Distance’ from the album Some People’s Lives went all the way to #1 on the adult contemporary chart. It peaked at #2 on Billboard’s Top 100.

In 1991 it won a Grammy for Best Song of the year, which meant the song was everywhere, always as near as its subject was allegedly far. Omnipresent.

Everywhere, anywhere, I went in 1990 Bette Midler and Him were there, like the prodigal parable in reverse. What was found couldn’t be shaken.

Not just on my mom’s cassette tape in her maroon Honda Accord, but wandering around the mall as an awkward adolescent, sipping an orange julius and spying on the girls shopping in Claires and- for a brief moment- thinking life looked not too bad…I heard Bette Midler pipe on the PA: ‘…God is watching us…God is watching us…’

At the Friday night skate party at the roller rink, as I took my first ever stab at talking to an actual human-style girl, I heard Bette’s voice cut through the humid darkness: ‘…God is watching us…’

Pushing the cart behind my mom at the grocery store, I even heard a muzak version of it, no words. But it didn’t need any words because by that point in 1990 I’d heard ‘From a Distance’ so many times I’d started making up my own words to it:

‘God is watching you.

God is watching you.

God is watching you, Jason- from a distance.’

Despite its commercial success- or maybe because of it- ‘From a Distance’ met with much critical derision.

VH1 ranked it #37 on its 50 Most Awesomely Bad Songs of All Time list. A critic at Rolling Stone reviewed that, even from an eternal distance, Bette Midler’s drum machine FX would sound too loud, while still another critic speculated that if God does exist then surely God hates cliches and forced rhyme schemes.

So as popular as it was on the charts, a lot of critics and aficionados hated Bette Midler’s epic, monster ballad cover of ‘From a Distance.’

Middle school- me hated it too.

Not because of the drum machine FX. Not because I was still in my Phil Collins stage and liking Bette Midler would’ve felt like a betrayal. No, the song terrified me.

Or rather, the assertion in the song terrified me: that every moment, all the time, no matter what I say or do (or 100x worse: think!), no matter where I go- that every move I make, God- like that lover in Sting’s superior song, will be watching you. Me.

Which means that with God my heart is always an open book, all desires are known, no secret is hid.

No. Secret. Is. Hid.

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I don’t know what becoming a teenager was like for you, but this was NOT good news to me.

I mean-

The same year Bette Midler’s ‘From a Distance’ was topping the charts and dominating the play lists of low impact aerobic studios everywhere, I was conscripted into selling chocolate bars as a fundraiser for my school.

I was gunning to hawk enough chocolate to earn the Rickey Henderson rookie card, but it turns out I’m not much of a salesman. The prize I did earn initially struck me as a little lackluster, a Sports Illustrated subscription. I like sports and all, but I didn’t think it was anything to get excited about.

That is, not until that fateful February day when I discovered, like Charlie’s golden ticket, that that Sports Illustrated subscription had hidden inside the fine print the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition.

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One winter day there they were.

Elle McPherson, Rachel Hunter, Kathy Ireland (I had to look up their names because I don’t remember them) waiting in my mailbox, with my name on them, hours before my mom would come home.

In that revelatory moment, turning each diaphanous page, what middle school-me should’ve heard ringing in his pubescent head was Handel’s ‘Hallelujah’ chorus or maybe the Pointer Sisters’ ‘I’m So Excited.’

But no.

Thanks to Bette Midler, all I could think, hear, was that little voice inside my head. In her voice actually: ‘God is watching you…God is watching you, Jason.’

1990 bled into 1991and, after enduring 3 semesters of shame and abuse, I finally stood up to a bully named Frog, getting off at his bus stop and pummeling him like a 7th grade Joe Pesci, I didn’t hear the cheers erupt from the steamed-up bus windows. I didn’t hear ‘Eye of the Tiger’ start to play as the soundtrack of my life kicked-on.

No, I heard her.

Sing about Him. The Master. Watching me.

And it was the same when I knowingly ripped off my friend Jim in a baseball card trade that would make Fannie and Freddie proud, giving him my Chris Sabo (!?) for his Roger Clemens rookie card.

And when a woman in the neighborhood paid me and a friend to pull down a rival politician’s campaign signs in the cover of darkness- even in the darkness I was convinced that we were being watched. Thanks to Bette Midler.

And when I refused to accept the apology of a girl in my class, Kathy, for intentionally embarrassing me in class Bette’s chorus came on in my head and in anger I grumbled to her: ‘You should be apologizing to God, Kathy. He’s watching you.’

Which…made her cry.

That song was still everywhere in 1991 when I watched my grandmother disappear behind an Alzheimer’s fog and then what I took issue with was His Distance. His watchful but ineffectual Distance.

In 1990 Bette Midler became the first person to implant the idea of Him in my head- the Source and Sustainer of all that Is, the Master of all our lives- and for that you might think I’d consider her the wind beneath my wings.

But no.

Because behind the saccharine, synthesized pop idioms and pre-K poetics, her song haunted me.

From a distance…God is watching us. Me. Big Brother is watching me. Like Dr. TJ Eckleberg, the Master’s eyes are always on me. Watching.

Checking to see if I’m nice or naughty.

Like a guard in a prison tower.

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‘From a Distance’ was originally penned in 1985 by Julie Gold, a songwriter who was working as a secretary for HBO at the time.

When Nanci Griffith covered the song and made it a moderate hit in 1987, Julie Gold told a reporter that her song was about how the way things are is not the way things appear, that God is watching us.

‘But,’ she added, ‘listeners can find whatever meaning they want in the song.’

Well, I can tell you and Ms Julie Gold exactly what meaning I took away from it.

You’ve got no place to hide, no place to hide the parts of you you should hide.

He is always watching us.

Which means He must always be evaluating us. Judging us.

Marking our mistakes in His ledger like an absentee landlord.

Checking to see what we’ve done with what we’ve got every moment.

Like He’s in the tower in the center of a prison, and- if He’s always watching us- that’s where we belong, right?

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When Nanci Griffith first received a demo of Julie Gold’s song in the mail in 1986, the singer told the songwriter she thought the idea of God always watching us was beautiful.

My takeaway in 1990?

That if He’s always watching us, then He must be a hard, harsh Master.

It didn’t take long after I first heard Bette Midler’s cover of ‘From a Distance’ on B103.7 (the Best Mix of Today, Yesterday and Tomorrow) for that song to change me.

Here’s the thing, here’s everything-

Who you think God is, shapes who you are.

Who you think you are.

If you think God is a hard, harsh Master, you’ll be hard on and harsh to others.

If you believe God is angry watching us, you’ll get angrier towards others.

If you think He’s always watching, always judging us, you’ll be quick to judge.

If you think He’s constantly gazing upon the sins we can’t hide, you’ll surely start to point out the logs in others’ eyes.

If you believe He’s stingy with grace and mercy after looking at a lot like us, then you be ungenerous with the same.

If you think God is like a guard in the tower at the center of a prison, then you will internalize that gaze, seeing yourself every bit as worthless as you imagine you’re seen.

You’ll want to hide from Him. You will hide your true self from others.

You’ll want to bury every good thing about you down deep because you won’t trust that it’s good.

If you think God is a hard, harsh Master- always watching, always judging- you’ll soon resent Him, begrudging how He harvests where He does not bother to grow, gathers where He hasn’t bothered to lift a finger and sow and how He’s never given you your fair share in life.

If you think God is a hard, harsh Master- never near but always spying- then eventually (take it from Middle-school me: it doesn’t take long) you’ll hate God.

And (take it from Middle School-me) hating yourself will soon follow.

Who you think God is, shapes who you are.

Conversely, or consequently:

You can’t ever really become who you truly are, until you see who the Master really, truly is.

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I didn’t always know Him.

In 1990 Bette Midler introduced me to Him, got me thinking about Him. And, for a while, I thought that meant I knew Him.

But I didn’t.

And truly that’s the scary thing: you can think you know Him, serve Him even, and never actually know Him.

That way is Darkness. Teeth-grinding darkness.

For me, by the time I finally got to know Him, really know Him, was years later. By then, Bette Midler was doing guest slots on Seinfeld and re-packaging covers of ‘From a Distance’ for Christmas albums.

I didn’t come to really know Him until much later.

I won’t go into all that now. Not every parable should on a happy note.

Suffice it to say:

The story involves a church. Bread and wine. And brilliant teenager with a sexy physique.

And a guy named Dennis in a robe repeating S. Paul’s #1 hit: ‘While we were yet sinners, God died for us.’

Which of course is like an old school rap for saying that worse than any of our sins- worse than any of your sins- is thinking God a hard, harsh Master who doesn’t forgive them.

 

Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” 

While We Were Yet Dogs

Jason Micheli —  October 16, 2014 — 1 Comment

LifeTogetherI continued our community-themed series this past weekend with a sermon on Matthew 15, the passage where Jesus calls a Canaanite woman a b@#$%.

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

 

How are you doing? How was your week?

I’ll tell you- my week was insane, crazy busy, exhausting. Sound familiar?

For example, just the other evening I spent a couple of hours at Mt Vernon Rehab sitting and praying with a family as their loved breathed her last few hours. It’s not like a ‘real’ job but still, that kind of thing, it’s emotionally draining, you know.

And then the next morning, after I sat in the Kiss-and-Ride line for about 53 minutes to drop my boys off for school, I went by the hospital to visit a few church folks. After that I stopped by the office here where our handful of regular pan-handlers gave me their latest sob story before hitting me up for a handout.

The day just got better and brighter from there though because then I had a district clergy meeting I had to attend where for 2 hours of eternity the powers-that-be harped on everything we were doing wrong, everything we were missing and how the future of a denomination in decline rested solely on our shoulders. So it was a fun meeting but, hey, at least it was long.

That afternoon I tried to respond to the like 500 unread emails in my inbox and I spent about an hour helping Dennis log in to his computer.

And after listening to him tell that 1 joke he likes to tell, I tried to carve out a little time to research this week’s scripture text and after that I schlepped everyone over the Waynewood to coach Gabriel’s baseball team.

All the parents on the team know I’m a pastor so they’re all as cloying and emotionally needy as church people so it was anything but relaxing.

So that evening I stopped at Starbucks, hoping for just a little quiet time to myself- a chance to recharge spiritually and gather my thoughts. I hid at a little table in the back where the homeless riffraff normally nap.

But, because I’m an idiot, I was still wearing my clergy collar, which is basically like wearing a sandwich board sign that says ‘Open for Business.’

Sure enough I hadn’t been sitting there for a minute- 60 seconds- when this woman comes up to me and sits down across from me.

Sits down. Doesn’t ask just sits down. Sure, she looked anxious and desperate and poor, but talk about pushy and rude. She didn’t even ask.

And then she says to me: ‘Father (I get that a lot with the collar) I’d like to unload a burden on you.’ That’s what she said: ‘I’d like to unload a burden on you.’ Which is just a passive aggressive way of saying ‘I’d like to make my burden your burden instead.’

Like I said, I was tired and feeling frayed and just needing not to be needed so I was little brusque with her.

     I said to her:

‘Look, not now. I’ve got a ton of people on my To Do List and they’re all more important than a b!@#$ like you.’

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No, of course I didn’t say that to her. Don’t be ridiculous. I know you think I’m like the Slim Shady of pastors, but I’d never say something like that to a stranger. And neither would you. I mean, we only talk that way to the people we love. Not in a million years would I talk that way to a stranger in need.

 

So how come Jesus does?

 

     “It’s not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to dogs.”

     Jesus says.

If that didn’t make your sphincter tighten up a few notches when you heard it read, then you didn’t really hear it. You didn’t really hear any of it. Even my 3rd grader refers to this as ‘the mean Jesus story.’

Read it again. Jesus doesn’t just call her a dirty word. At first he ignores her completely, like she’s worse than a dog, like she’s not even there.  And then, after the disciples try to get rid of her, Jesus basically says there’s nothing I can do for SOMEONE LIKE YOU. I don’t have any spare miracles for SOMEONE LIKE YOU.

For SOMEONE LIKE YOU I’m all tapped out. And when she doesn’t go away, Jesus calls her a dog.

The bread (of life) is meant for the children (of God). For the righteous. For believers. For the right kind of people like me.  It’s not meant for DOGS LIKE YOU.

Jesus, the incarnate love of God, says to her.

And you can be sure that in Greek to her ears ‘dog’ sounded exactly like ‘witch’ with a capital B.

Just like in 1 Samuel 17.43 when Goliath taunts David with that word.

Just like in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus preaches that you ‘never give holy things to dogs nor pearls to swine.’

     Now, like a pig, Jesus refuses to give anything holy to this woman and then calls her a dog.

 

Don’t you just love passages like this!

I do.

It’s because of passages like this one that you know the Jesus story is true. It has to be true. It’s too messed up not to be true. Think about it- if the Gospels were just made up fictions, then this passage today would never have made it into the Bible. Just imagine how that conversation would’ve gone. Just imagine the pitch among the writers:

     Hey, I’ve got this new idea for the story- whole new angle. 

     I was thinking we do a change of scenery, put the hero in Gentile territory, have him rub elbows with the undesirable type. 

    And then we have this woman come to him looking for his help. Just like the woman with the hemorrhage in the first part of the script. But I was thinking…what if we go the other way with it? You remember how we had that first woman grab at the hem of his garment for her miracle? 

     And how he looks around for who touched him so he can reward her faith- because that’s how compassionate he is. So this time I thought we could change it up. Have him ignore the woman completely. Pretend like she’s not even there. 

     But get this: we don’t stop there. I was thinking that after she refuses to go away- because she’s just so wretched and pathetic and everything- we can have him call her a b@!$%. 

     Yeah, a b@#$%. Isn’t that a grabber? Keep the audience guessing. He’s unpredictable. Is he going to respond with the love and mercy tack, or will he turn a cold shoulder and throw down an f-bomb?

You see- that would never happen!

     You know the Gospel is true because if it were just made up, this story- along with the cross- would’ve been left on the cutting room floor.

It never would’ve made it in the Bible. There’s no better explanation: Jesus really treated this woman like she wasn’t even there, not worth his time, and then called her a dog. So if he really did do it, then why? Why did he do it? How do we explain Jesus acting in a way that doesn’t sound like Jesus?

 

It’s true that Jesus is truly, fully God, but it’s also true, as the creed says, that Jesus was fully, truly, 100% human.

So maybe that’s the explanation.

Maybe this Canaanite woman caught Jesus with his compassion down.  He’s human. It happens to all of us.

And it’s understandable given the week he’s had. Just before this, he was rejected by his family and his hometown friends in Nazareth. That’s rough. And right after that John the Baptist gets murdered. And everywhere he’s gone lately crowds chase him more interested in miracles than messiahs.

So maybe this Canaanite woman catches Jesus in a bad mood, with a little compassion fatigue. Sue him. He’s human.

Except the way Jesus draws a line between us and them, the way he dismisses her desperation and then drops a dirty word on her- it sounds human alright. All too human.  As in, it sounds like something someone who is less than fully human would do.

So how do we explain it?

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You could say- as some have- that Jesus isn’t really being the mean, insensitive, offensive, manstrating jerk wad he seems to be here in this passage.

No, you could say, this is Jesus testing her.  He’s testing her to see how long she’ll kneel at his feet, to see how long she’ll call him ‘Lord,’ to see how long she’ll beg and plead for his mercy.

He’s just testing her faith. You could say (and many have). But if that’s the case, then Jesus doesn’t just call her a dog. He treats her like one too and he’s even more of jerk than he seemed initially.  WWJD? Humiliate her in order to test her? Somehow I don’t think so.

 

Of course, if you worked for the National Football League, then you could just blame it on her. Blame the victim.

You could suggest that she deserves the treatment Jesus gives her, that she has it coming to her for the rude and offensive way she first treats Jesus. After all, she comes to him- alone- a Gentile woman to a Jewish rabbi, violating his holiness codes and asking him to do the same for her.

Just expecting him to take on sin. For her.

So she gets what she has coming to her for bursting in on his closed doors; alone, approaching a man who’s not her husband, breaching the ethnic and religious and gender barriers between them and then rudely expecting him to do the same.

If he’s rude to her, then you could argue that she deserves it for treating him so offensively first.  And it’s true that her approaching him violates social convention. It’s true: she not only asks for healing, she asks him to transgress the religious law that defines him. All true.

But that doesn’t explain why NOW of all times Jesus acts so out of character. It doesn’t explain why NOW and not before he’s suddenly sensitive about breaking the Jewish law for mercy’s sake.

So, no, I don’t buy it.

 

     Jesus ignores her.

     Tells her there’s nothing I can do for SOMEONE LIKE YOU.

     And then he calls her a dog.

 

A contemporary take on this text is to say that this is an instance of Jesus maturing, coming to an awareness that maybe his mission was to the whole world, Jew and Gentile alike.

That without this fortuitous run-in with a persistent Canaanite woman Jesus might have kept on believing he was a circumscribed Messiah only. That she helps Jesus enlarge his vision and his heart.

I guess, maybe. But that doesn’t really get around the insult here.

Jews didn’t even keep dogs as pets- that’s how harsh this is. Dogs were unclean, scavenging in the streets, eating trash, and sleeping in filth. And in Jesus’ day, ‘dog’ was a racist, derogatory term for Canaanites, unwashed unbelievers who just happened to be Israel’s original and oldest enemy. Even if she helped him change his mind that doesn’t explain away his mouth.

What’s a word like that doing in Jesus’ mouth?

     How do we explain Jesus acting in a way that doesn’t sound like Jesus at all but sounds a lot more like us instead?

 

 

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Of course, that’s it.

This is Jesus acting just like us.

To understand this passage, to understand Jesus acting the way he does, you have to go back to the scene right before it where Jesus has a throw down with the scribes and the Pharisees who’ve just arrived from Jerusalem to check him out.

Rather than attacking Jesus directly, they go after the company Jesus keeps. They take one look at the losers Jesus has assembled around him- low class fishermen, bottom feeding tax collectors and worse- and they ask Jesus the loaded question:

Why would a rabbi’s disciples ignore scripture? Why would they eat with unclean hands (and unclean people)?

Their pointing out how Jesus’ disciples were the wrong kind of people was but a way of pointing out how they were the right kind of people. Good people. Law-abiding people. Convention-respecting, morality-keeping,  Bible-believing people.

And Jesus responds with a scripture smack-down of his own, saying that it’s not obeying the rules that makes you holy.

It’s not believing the bible that makes you holy.

It’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles you, Jesus says.

It’s what comes out of the mouth. And whether or not what comes out of your mouth is the truth about what’s in your heart.

That’s what makes you holy, Jesus says. Pretty straightforward, right?

Except the disciples don’t get it. They think Jesus is just telling a parable, turning the tables on the Pharisees to show how they’ve got it all backwards; it’s Jesus’ disciples who are the right kind of people and the Pharisees who are the wrong kind.

The disciples don’t get that Jesus’ whole point is that putting people into ‘kinds of people’ in order to justify ourselves is exactly the problem.

The scene starts with the scribes asserting their superiority and the scene ends with the disciples assuming their superiority.

 

Turn the page. What does Jesus do next? To drive his point home?

He takes the disciples on a field trip across the tracks. Into Canaanite territory, a place populated by people so unclean the disciples are guaranteed to feel holier than thou. And there this woman approaches them, asking for mercy.

She’s a Canaanite. She’s an enemy.

She’s unclean. She’s an unbeliever.

She’s all kinds the wrong kind of person.

But on her mouth, coming out of her mouth, is this confession: ‘Son of David.’

Which is another title for ‘Messiah.’

Which according to Jesus should tell you a bit about what’s in her heart.

But the disciples don’t even notice. The’ve already forgotten about what Jesus said about the mouth and the heart.

So what does Jesus do?

     He acts out what’s in their hearts. He ignores her because that’s what’s in their hearts. He tells her there’s nothing I can do for SOMEONE LIKE YOU because that’s what’s in their hearts.  And because that’s what’s in their hearts, he calls her a dog.

     What comes out of his mouth is what’s in their hearts:

I’m better than you. I’m superior to you. I’m holier than you.

mt15_27

 

Speaking of hearts-

That word on Jesus’ mouth is so distractingly shocking to us, we almost miss that she doesn’t even push back on it.

She owns it. And then she doubles down on her request for mercy:

     ‘Yeah, Jesus, I am a dog. I am a witch with a capital B. I am worthless. I am a loser. I am undeserving. I am a sinner. I am the wrong kind of person in all kinds of ways, but- hey- have mercy on me…’ 

     Is how it reads in the New Revised Jason Version.

She embodies what Jesus says in Luke’s more white-bread Gospel, when Jesus says:

‘Who is justified before God? The religious person who prays thank you, God, I am not like that sinner, or the person prays Lord Jesus Christ, Son of David, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ 

     You see-

That’s what Jesus points out by play-acting, what he wants the disciples to see, what he wants us to see when he praises her ‘great faith.’

She doesn’t put up any pretense. She doesn’t try to justify herself over and against any one else. She doesn’t pretend that her heart’s so pure or her life is so put together that she doesn’t even need Jesus all that much.

No, she says: ‘Yeah, I am about the worst thing you could call me. Have mercy on me.’

After the scribes and the Pharisees have not gotten it and thought that it’s their fidelity to scripture that justifies them. And after the disciples have not gotten it and just flipped the categories and thought that it’s their association with Jesus that makes them superior. And after Jesus so plainly says that what makes us holy is whether or not what comes out of our mouth is the truth about what’s in our heart.

     She tells the truth about her pock-marked heart and she boldly owns up to her need.

     And Jesus calls that ‘great faith.’

 

‘I’m about the worst thing any one could call me, but Jesus Christ, Son of David, mercy on me.’

If that’s great faith, then what it means to be a community of faith is to be a place for sinners.

mt15_27

So the good news is-

     If you’re not fine but feel like everyone else is

If you’re selfish or petty or stingy

If you yell at your kids too much

Or cheat on your spouse

Or disappoint your parents

If you lie to your friends or stare at a loser in the mirror

If you gossip about your neighbors

Or think the worst about people you barely know

If you drink too much, care too little, fail at your job

If you think any one who votes for the other party is an idiot

If you’re a racist or an agist or a homophobe

If you’re a barely tamed cynic who thinks you’re smarter than everyone else just about all the time

If your beliefs are so shaky you’re not even sure you belong here

If you think the insides of your heart would make others throw up in their mouths

If you think you’re worthless, the wrong kind of person in all kinds of ways, that you warrant the worst thing someone might say about you…

Then the good news is: this is the place for you. Because Jesus Christ came to save sinners.

     While we were yet dogs, Jesus came to take our pock-marked hearts and fill them with his own righteousness.

To make us holy.

But he can’t do that until what’s on our mouths confesses what’s actually in our hearts.

‘I’m about the worst thing any one could call me, but Jesus Christ, Son of David, mercy on me.’

If this is what great faith looks like, then the good news is that to be a community of faith means that this is not a place where we put up pretenses, hide behind piety, pretend that we’re pure of heart, use our beliefs to justify ourselves over and against someone else.

If this is what great faith looks like, then the good news is that to be a community of faith means this is not a place to act self-righteous or judgmental or superior or intolerant or in any way at all that suggests we think we’re the right kind of people.

Of course the bad news is-

That’s about the last thing people think of when they hear the word ‘church.’

rainbow-cross_aprilMy nook of United Methodism recently resolved not to resolve (yet) a proposal to change our denomination’s official language on homosexuality, opting to curate a ‘conversation’ instead.

Like a virtual, online Sisyphus, here’s another modest attempt to push the burden forward:

Those who oppose gay marriage in the Church- or even gay membership in the Church- most often do so by citing homosexuality as a sin. Indeed the ‘S word’ predominates much of the discussion on sex.

Homosexuality violates the Levitical codes and while Jesus never speaks of homosexuality neither does he single the subject out for one of his ‘you’ve heard it said’ segues.

While much is made of how scripture views homosexuals as sinners, little commented upon is how marriage’s purpose in the Church- it’s vocation (i.e. it’s calling)- is the healing of our sin.  Our sanctification.

Under this view marriage, same sex couples would appear to be prime candidates for the very covenant denied them by the Church- and for the very reason they’re so denied.

Sanctification is a theological term that describes one’s growth in grace; it is the process of growing ever more holy in the love of God.

Sanctification is a theological term that describes one’s growth in grace; it is the process of growing ever more holy in the love of God.

It’s living with the Other and learning to them nonetheless that we learn to love as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Married love conveys and communicates to one another and to others something of the grace of God thereby growing us in grace.

The Orthodox Christian tradition, following St. Gregory of Nyssa’s understanding and reading deeply in the Song of Songs, has understood marriage and sexual intimacy to be a means of sanctification, an entering into Trinitarian love.

Marriage allows for Christians’ sanctification for it creates the space and time for eros (intense but self-centered love) to become agape (charitable, other-directed love. In this fashion, married love teaches Christians how to love as God loves.

Marriage is medicine by which the Spirit heals our sin-sick selves.

Married couples do not stay the same people they were on their wedding day. The binding covenant of Christian marriage provides the context-the confines- in which Christians can grow in holiness by growing in the love of someone other than themselves. In this way, Christian marriage makes visible to others the Holy Spirit’s active, invisible work in our midst.

If Christian marriage is also understood as a means of grace and sanctification, then to deny that source of grace to same sex couples is to withhold the medicine for sin under the auspices of sin.

Thus, to deny that source of grace to same sex couples might be understood to frustrate the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives.

And if you know your bibles, then you know that grieving the Spirit- not what ones does under the sheets- is the only unforgivable offense.

RogersAs Dr. Eugene Rogers my very first theology teacher at UVA writes:

The question of same-sex marriage therefore comes to the church not as an issue of extended rights and privileges, but as a pastoral occasion to proclaim the significance of the gospel for all who marry, because marriage embodies and carries forward the marriage of God and God’s people. 

To deny committed couples marriage deprives them not of a privilege but of a medicine.

It deprives them not of a social means of satisfaction but of a saving manner of healing.

Those couples who approach the church for marriage–and those whose priests prompt them to marry—are drawn there by the marriage of Christ and the church, which alone makes it possible for human relationships to become occasions of grace.

Couples who delay or are denied marriage are like those who previously waited for deathbed baptism; they unaccountably put off the grace by which their lives might be healed. 

There is no question of whether the marriage of Christ and the church is available to sinners, but only how it is so. 

Because the love of God for God’s people is real, and the declaration “this is my body given for you” is true, the church needs as many witnesses as the Holy Spirit and its mission may draft. Same- and opposite-sex couples who want to marry in the church bear witness to the love of God for God’s people and to the power of that love to atone, reconcile, and heal. Not that they can do those things by their human power alone, but the Spirit can attest their witness to the atonement and healing of Christ. 

Defiance_Logo_Tv_ShowMy friend Morgan Guyton points out: ‘when Paul uses the term haeretikos in Titus 3:10 that gets translated into our term “heretic,” the problem with the person he’s describing is not the incorrectness of his views, but his divisiveness.

Ironically, the greatest heretic-hunters are usually themselves the greatest heretics if we are using the word the way that the apostle Paul used it.’

The same point Morgan makes from Paul can be made by way of St Thomas Aquinas.

St Thomas AquinasAs I’ve been hammering here on the blog lately, Aquinas’ central thesis in his Summa Theologica is that the God who reveals himself in the Burning Bush (‘I Am He Who Is’) is not a god among the gods of the world. God is not an object within the material universe. God is not a kind (Thomas uses the word ‘genus’) of being alongside other beings like you or me.

God is the Source of Being. It’s because of God that anything from quarks to quacking ducks is at all. It’s because of God that there are somethings instead Nothing.

Everything that is is because of God, and that includes everything that happens, all our thoughts and deeds and decisions exist because of God.

A song relies upon the singer to keep it in being; likewise, God is the cause of all things in every moment.

As Hebert McCabe elaborates on Thomas:

“It is quite a thought that if you choose to break the law of God by cruelty or indifference to suffering, it is the Lord who is keeping you in existence while you are doing this, from second to second.

To think you are defying the Lord is the ultimate absurdity and contradiction, for you only exist, you only are because of God.

This self-delusion, the delusion that you can stand over against God, that you are not a creature- this is what sin is.”

It’s worth repeating in case you skipped past the quote: to think you can defy God, who is at every moment the cause of your being at all, is the definition of sin. images

It’s to deny a creature-hood which entails God’s constant sustaining. It’s to imagine we’re something more than creatures- to imagine we’re gods, free and independent of God except when we call upon the great cosmic butler.

And when see ourselves as already more than creatures, we forget the meaning of salvation: that God aims to take us beyond our creature-hood in the Son and through the Spirit into the life of the Trinity.

If imagining that we can defy God is the most basic and thus the most absurd of all sins, then ironically…

it’s those of us who obsessively point out other people’s sins- those people we perceive to be defying God- who are the worst sinners of all.

We look at people and refuse to see them for what they are: creatures held in being by God at every moment- every moment- of their lives.

In other words, Thomas simply points out what we learn from the Elder Brother’s refusal to join the Father’s Feast (Luke 15).

Sin = Refusal of Grace.

image001In preaching on the satan this past weekend, I relied upon the ancient Christian doctrine of God’s immutability; that is, God doesn’t change, has never changed, will never change.

To hit the point hard, I quoted the late Dominican theologian, Herbert McCabe:

‘In a fairly literal sense, God doesn’t give a damn about your sin. It’s we who give the damns.’ 

God, by definition of the word ‘God,’ does not change.

That’s been the consensus belief of most of Christianity since the time of Christ and continues to be so in most of the Church catholic.

To unpack the idea of immutability, I thought it would be helpful to go back to the sources; namely to the most famous of the Dominicans: St Thomas Aquinas and his tome, the Summa Theologica, wherein Thomas reasons his way through the question. St Thomas Aquinas

It comes early in the Summa for Thomas believed almost everything we say about God relies upon that God not to be a being bound in time, a being that changes.

So in question 9 of the Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas asks whether or not God is immutable; that is, does God change?

For Aquinas God’s immutability is logically connected with God’s eternity, a topic he tackles in the proceeding question.

Before Aquinas can establish that God is eternal, however, he must demonstrate that God is immutable for only if God is pure actuality- there is no potentiality in God- can God be considered eternal.

Aquinas begins as he does throughout the Summa by acknowledging the possible objections to his topic.

Aquinas recalls that scripture appears to talk in terms of God changing in some way. God is said to have emotions for Israel, for example. However, there are also contrary passages such as Malachi 3:6

“I am God, and I do not change.” 

Where Aquinas sees this as an essential description of God’s nature, he suggests we see the passages that speak of changing as metaphor.

Indeed, the implication of God’s immutability are a logical consequence of what Aquinas has already proved in Q’s 1-8:

God is pure actuality- all things are present and actual in God at all times.

God is the cause of all things and holds all things existence at every moment of existence.

God is not caused by any other being but is Being itself.

Anything that undergoes change is, by definition, moving from potentiality to actuality, for ‘change’ implies that is present now in something was previously missing or absent.

But no-thing can be missing or absent from God- in fact, God creates from no-thing.

Therefore:

God cannot undergo change.

As usual, Aquinas is not afraid of counter arguments. Rather than stopping with the logic above, he tackles another two contrary positions. Unknown

An object, Aquinas says, undergoing change only changes in respect of certain properties; but in order to retain its identity it must remain the same with respect to other properties. Therefore such the object must be a composite. However, we know that whatever we mean by the word ‘God’ it’s that God is not a composite in any way whatsoever, therefore God cannot undergo change.

Finally to change is to acquire something new; but God has the fullness of perfection already and therefore cannot acquire anything new.

Therefore:

God cannot change.

Aquinas then moves on to wonder whether God is the only thing that is unchangeable, which he affirms. All members of creation are changeable in the sense that their continued existence depends upon God keeping them in existence. If God were to withdraw his support from a thing, that thing would go out of existence immediately. Therefore all created things can change in the sense of coming into and going out of existence and owing every moment of their existence upon God.

Incidentally, you can see here already how Aquinas allows us to dismiss most debates about ‘creationism vs evolution’ as stupid and a giant adventure in missing the point.

For to call God ‘Creator’ is not to say he ‘began’ something; it’s to say he holds all things in existence at all times.

In Summa

God is pure actuality and therefore He cannot change in any way; God is the fullness of perfection, so there is no way in which God could change. Loving us, for instance, does not change God, make God more loving, because God is LOVE.

Love is not an attribute of God but is full and always complete already in God.

I know how easy it is to hear this completely wrong.

You might argue, as many have and do, that if God were immutable then God must be static and impersonal; that God could not be the God that we love.

But to do this, Aquinas says, is to violate the very first commandment; it’s to make God in our image or at least insist upon a god in our image.

God must be like us so that we can love Him.

Such an approach fails to see that God’s immutability follows on from God’s perfection and is intimately connected with God being in eternity.

God’s perfection means every possibility, realized or not, is already present within God.

God doesn’t change because God literally and logically cannot love you any more than God already does love you.

ar from being static, He provides the very being of all that is dynamic in the created world. Far from being impersonal, by holding all things in existence at every moment of their existence, God is closer to each person than they are to themselves.

image001This weekend both in a blog post and in my sermon I emphasized the ancient doctrine of God’s immutability:

Immutability = God doesn’t change.

Far from being a deficiency in God, I’m increasingly convinced that retrieving the ancient conception of God is vitally necessary in a post-Christian culture. Too often the god I hear young people reject is a god but not the God of Genesis 1, John 1, Colossians 1 or even Thomas Aquinas.

St Thomas AquinasSpeaking of Aquinas, my comments this weekend channeled the theologian Herbert McCabe who himself spent his lifetime channeling the ‘dumb ox.’

About God’s immutability, McCabe writes:

“It is very odd that people should think that when we do good God will reward us and when we do evil he will punish us. I mean it is very odd that Christians should think this; that God deals out to us what we deserve. … I don’t believe in God if that’s what he is, and it is very odd that any Christian should, since there is so much in the gospels to tell us differently. You could say that the main theme of the preaching of Jesus is that God isn’t like that at all.

Look at the parable of the prodigal son. The younger son takes his inheritance and squanders it in a far country. Eventually he finds himself impoverished and hungry. In despair he acknowledges how his sin has altered his relationship to his father: “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.”

But what precisely has changed?

Has the father ceased to love his son?

Has he become the angry patriarch the son now fears him to be?

On the contrary, the father has been waiting for his son to return, and upon seeing him in the distance, he jubilantly rushes to greet and welcome him home.

No, what has changed is the son. Because of his sin, the prodigal is no longer capable of seeing the father as he really is.”

McCabe continues: images

“Sin is something that changes God into a projection of our guilt, so that we don’t see the real God at all; all we see is some kind of judge. God (the whole meaning and purpose and point of our existence) has become a condemnation of us. God has been turned into Satan, the accuser of man, the paymaster, the one who weighs our deeds and condemns us.

The father does not need to be persuaded to forgive and welcome his son. He does not need to change his mind. He loves his son. That is his truth. All the son needs to do is to see his sin for what it is. He recognizes himself as a sinner, and at that moment he ceases to be one. His contrition is forgiveness. All the rest is celebration and feasting: “This is all the real God ever does, because God, the real God, is just helplessly and hopelessly in love with us. He is unconditionally in love with us.”

God doesn’t change his mind about us, McCabe declares;

“God changes our mind about him—again and again and again.”

That, in sum, is the point of everything McCabe ever wrote.

Next, McCabe hides the dense, nuanced theology of Aquinas behind his simple, spare prose:

“God is not a being within the universe; he is not a part of the world. He is the infinite mystery who utterly transcends the world he has made. The world makes no literal difference to God. This is what we mean when we say that God created the world ex nihilo, out of nothing. He did not have to create the universe, and if he had chosen not to, his glory and being would not have been diminished one iota.

God plus the world is not greater than God alone. The world does not add anything to God; it does not change or affect God. Ultimately it does not make a difference to God. God is God, in infinite glory, majesty, and love.”

Crucial to the ancient Christians’ view of God’s immutability is Genesis 1 where we are told that God created the universe from no-thing. In stark contrast to the pagan worldview, scripture conceives of God as totally transcendent of contingent creation.

This distinction between Creator and the creature, therefore, qualifies all our speech about God. We must use language if we are to proclaim the gospel, yet, as Thomas Aquinas noted, the metaphorical nature of these stories must be affirmed, if the Christian distinction between Creator and creature is to be respected.

UnknownOne such problem of language is forgiveness.

Christians talk about the forgiveness of God;

but what exactly do we mean when we say God forgives us?

McCabe elaborates:

“God, of course, is not injured or insulted or threatened by our sin. So, when we speak of him forgiving, we are using the word “forgiving” in a rather stretched way, a rather far-fetched way. We speak of God forgiving not because he is really offended but agrees to overlook the insult. What God is doing is like forgiveness not because of anything that happens in God, but because of what happens in us, because of the re- creative and redemptive side of forgiveness.

All the insult and injury we do in sinning is to ourselves alone, not to God.

We speak of God forgiving us because he comes to us to save us from ourselves, to restore us after we have injured ourselves, to redeem and re-create us.

God’s forgiveness just means the change he brings about in the sinner, the sorrow and repentance he gives to the sinner. God’s forgiveness does not mean that God changes from being vengeful to being forgiving, God’s forgiveness does not mean any change whatever in God. It just means the change in the sinner that God’s unwavering and eternal love brings about. … Our repentance is God’s forgiveness of us.”

Now, I know the pushback that will come at this point. The language of scripture IS filled with conflicting images of God—the image of the wrathful God who hates our sin, who requires propitiation; the image of the God who endures our sins, who is jealous, who is righteously angry at injustice.

While it’s true scripture speaks this way, it is also necessary, says McCabe, for us to think clearly:

“The initiative is always with God. When God forgives our sin, he is not changing his mind about us; he is changing our mind about him. He does not change; his mind is never anything but loving; he is love. The forgiveness of God is God’s creative and re-creative love making the desert bloom again, bringing us back from dry sterility to the rich luxuriant life bursting out all over the place. When God changes your mind in this way, when he pours out on you his Spirit of new life, it is exhilarating, but it is also fairly painful. There is a trauma of rebirth as perhaps there is of birth. The exhilaration and the pain that belong to being reborn is what we call contrition, and this is the forgiveness of sin. Contrition is not anxious guilt about sin; it is the continual recognition in hope that the Spirit has come to me as healing my sin.

So it is not literally true that because we are sorry God decides to forgive us. That is a perfectly good story, but it is only a story. The literal truth is that we are sorry because God forgives us. Our sorrow for sin just is the forgiveness of God working within us. Contrition and forgiveness are just two names for the same thing, they are the gift of the Holy Spirit; the re-creative transforming act of God in us. God does not forgive us because of anything he finds in us; he forgives us out of his sheer delight, his exuberant joy in making the desert bloom.”

God is not a god.

Nor is God the Jekyll and Hyde of so much Calvinism, the god so many people rightly reject, fear or secretly loathe.

God is not a god we need to appease. God is not a god we need to persuade in order for him to forgive.

God is not a god who puts conditions on his mercy and care.

God is the God who comes to us in love, only in love, relentlessly and passionately in love.

 

Holy Week is nearing and again preachers and pew-sitters will be pondering the great Paschal mystery.

One thing on which the historic creeds of the Church keep silent is the Cross. The creeds name Jesus’ mother, single out Pontius Pilate for blame and cite forgiveness as one of the effects of Easter.

The creeds do not ever attempt to say exactly what happens on the Cross, what transpires between Christ and God or between God and us. The creeds do not supply or single out a ‘why’ to the Cross.

Much like the New Testament itself, the Church has spoken of the atonement (how Christ makes us at-one with God) in a variety of metaphors.

Today, however, contemporary Western Christianity has tended to privilege one understanding of the atonement to the exclusion of all the others: Jesus suffered the wrath of God meant for you.

There are other, better I think, ways of speaking and thinking about the Cross.

So in shameless self-promotion-

I encourage all of you who will be preaching or reflecting on the Cross these next weeks to download my eBook: Preaching a Better Atonement. 

DESIGN copy

In it, I try to unpack the various ways the Church has understood the work of Christ on the Cross and for each perspective I offer a few sermonic illustrations.

One fellow pastor in Virginia had this review, which is the most romantic thing anyone has ever said to me:

“Better than anything Adam Hamilton or max lucado puts out.”

A review on Amazon scores it thus:

“It’s like a snarky, Italian Jon Stewart writing theology.

Fantastic introduction to atonement theories – i.e. what does the cross mean?

Incredible accessible, funny, poignant, but also theologically sound…

Perfect balance between serious theological study and lay understanding.”

Click here to buy it and I will send the proceeds on to the Guatemala Toilet Project.

 

Jesus-Christ-With-Shopping-Bags-by-BanksyFor our fall commitment campaign this year, we’re doing a sermon series around Adam Hamilton’s book Enough: Discovering Joy through Simplicity and Generosity.

In his warmth, winsomeness and measured inoffensiveness, Rev. Hamilton is like the alternate universe version of yours truly.

We all serve a purpose, right? I suppose if I was a pastor in Kansas where Christians are inclined to conceal and carry in the sanctuary, then I’d tone it down too.

In most Methodist churches the mere uttering of the syllables that come together to form the word ‘money’ gets people’s panties in a bunch to an extent no partisan disputes over sex and politics can. Like it or not (usually not unless you’re unembarrassed by your giving) ‘giving’ calls us to the mat of whether we really believe all we have belongs to God.

Or not.

As Stanley Hauerwas writes:

if you give Christians the choice to turn to their neighbor in the pew and tell them who they’re sleeping with or how much they make and give to their church…almost everyone will opt for Door #1.

Because I’m a contrarian by both nature and desire, I’m supplementing Hamilton’s book by rereading a little book by the postliberal theologian, William Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire

Cavanaugh is an Augustinian, which lends a corrective to something I think gets obscured in Enough. Adam Hamilton leverages the anxieties provoked by the Great Recession- and now the sequestration and shut down here in DC- to encourage his readers to desire greater simplicity in their lives.

That’s all well and good obviously, but as St Augustine would point out desire is the root problem.

Ask any sinner- one should be easy to find- and they will tell you that very often our desires are given to us.

They’re not freely chosen.

We do not form our wants and desires like my son composes his Christmas list for Santa. Our wants and desires are formed for us by external forces and powers.

Actually my son’s Christmas list is a good example, containing as it does several things he’s never before expressed a desire for (and I know as his father he won’t enjoy) until he recently saw them in a commercial.

Our economic system is premised on the belief that each should be ‘free’ to choose his or her own ends. I’m free, in other words, to choose simplicity and generosity or I’m free to choose a McMansion.

As Friedrich Hayek says, “the individual is ultimately the judge of his ends. There is no unitary order to our desires.” 

Free market economics, then, assume that choose particular actions and objects based on the wants and desires of which we’re in control.

Freedom so conceived is freedom in the negative; that is, freedom is the absence of coercion. Thus, the ‘free market’ is a market without any external controls or values imposed upon it.

Freedom, in such a context, is not directed to any End, or rather it’s directed to whatever End the individual decides.

For Christians, however, freedom isn’t defined negatively as something that exists in the absence of coercion.

Freedom isn’t freedom from something; freedom is freedom for something. Freedom is freedom for the Kingdom of God.

In other words, as telos-driven (Kingdom/God-driven) creatures we are free only when we are directed towards and participating in the Kingdom, only when we’re wrapped up in God’s will.

Freedom then, as Paul describes it, isn’t independence itself but dependence on God.

When we try to live our lives without acknowledging our dependence on God, our loves become disordered, directed towards some other end but God. As Paul saw it in his own pre-Jesus life, what we think of as freedom is actually slavery.

Augustine saw his pre-faith life in much the same way. In his Confessions, the memoir of his conversion, he says famously that ‘our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee (God).’

Question:

Why is it that the pursuit of, say, material happiness so often leads to sensations of emptiness and meaninglessness? Even nothingness?

Here’s why, according to Augustine.

Because creation is given as a gracious gift, the goodness of creation is only ‘good’ insofar as it participates and points back to God’s greater goodness. Wine is good, for example, because its a sign of the graciousness of what God has made.

However, when you’re no longer directed towards or participating in God’s End, the Kingdom, you effectively strip the material things in creation from God’s goodness. They no longer have the purpose for which God gave them. They no longer have any meaning- like a paintbrush without ever having a canvas.

They are, in the same sense in which we talked about evil, no thing. Think of the pervasive sin of consumerism.

As William Cavanaugh says:

“All such loves are disordered loves, loves looking for something worth loving that is not just arbitrarily chosen.

A person buys something- anything- trying to fill the hole that is the empty shrine (by which he means our having been created to desire the Kingdom).

And once the shopper purchases the thing, it turns into a nothing and he has to head back to the mall to continue the search.

With no objective End to guide the search, his search is literally endless.”

We tend to think of sin simply as an act we do to break one of God’s rules. We think of sin as a free act that violates God’s honor.

Sin is anything but a free act. Sin is a disordered love that upsets the God-given trajectory of our lives. Sin is a privation of goodness in our lives. It’s nothingness that intrudes onto the life God would have for us. In a very real way, the more we sin the less human we become, the less real.

Sin is not a free act or decision at all.

It’s slavery.

That’s why, ironically, ‘desiring’ simplicity and generosity not only isn’t enough but will ultimately prove futile.

Augustine would point out  that our desires themselves are what need rehabilitation. Or rather, the way to simplicity and generosity is by cultivating the right desires.

Simplicity is made possible not by purging away our stuff or simply desiring a simpler life. Simplicity is only made possible by throwing ourselves so deeply into the way of Jesus that we’re given all new desires.

 

zipper    Simul iustus et peccator fatue

Martin Luther, founding padre of the Protestant Reformation, insisted that God’s grace is a declaration announced to us.

From outside us.

     God’s grace is a promise to which we can only respond with trust.

     There is no discernible interior change in us.

     We essentially remain the same d*&^%$-bags we were before.

     Only now, we know in faith, when God regards us, he graciously chooses to see Jesus instead of the a#$-clowns most of us are most of the time.

Says Luther:

Even after we’ve responded to the promise of grace, we never cease to be sinners. The new life faith makes possible always remains, in Luther’s view, nascent. Sin remains our determinative attribute even after justification.

     This is Luther’s doctrine ‘Simul iustus et peccator.’ 

     It translates to ‘at once justified and a sinner.’

Or as the contemporary paraphrase edition puts it: ‘Being loved by God doesn’t stop us from being a Frodo D*&^%$- Baggins.’

     Case in point: Sunday morning.

Contemporary worship service.

Unlike most Sunday mornings when I roll out of bed straight into my car with last night’s toothpaste slobber still crusted on the side of my mouth and then conceal most of the evidence from having pressed snooze 33 times behind my Luther-like alb, this Sunday I actually put on a tie.

And a blazer.

And combed my hair.

After first having showered.

Truth be told, this humble man of the cloth thought he looked pretty damn good.

Definitely more Palmer Joss this Sunday than rugged Rev Maclean.

Palmer1276-3

That I thought I looked pretty damn good was reflected in my gosh-aren’t-I-hilarious banter during the announcements.

An ecclesial Ryan Gosling, to be sure, I stood in front of several hundred worshippers and welcomed them in the name of Christ.

In between opening praise songs, I seamlessly slipped onstage to offer an opening prayer, gelling the words of the songs with the upcoming message.

To chuckles, including my own, I gave the announcements for the day (if you see him, please tell Rev Perry the Gov’t Shutdown doesn’t apply to him and he should return to work…HAH!)

I then celebrated the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, pouring water over little Charlotte while a baker’s dozen of her cousins snapped pictures.

Later in the service I stood front and center up by the altar to lead the pastoral and the Lord’s Prayer.

And then we closed the service with ‘Forever Reign.’ A praise # from Hillsong United, the Walmart of contemporary Christian music.

Imagining my voice to sound as good as I looked, I sang:

You are good, You are good

When there’s nothing good in me

You are love, You are love

On display for all to see

     On display.

Damn.

Some synapse fired in me, triggering an almost primordial, survivalist self-awareness.

Holding the manilla worship bulletin in my left hand, I lowered my right hand down.

Slowly, as to be imperceptible to the band and singers standing 5 feet straight in front of me.

All the while still singing:

You are peace, You are peace

When my fear is crippling

My hand did a too-subtle-to-be-noticed reconnaissance.

Fly down.

Thinking myself cooler than 007, I’d instead been X,Y,Z during the entire service.

And while some worshippers in that moment had their eyes closed in enthused praise and worship, I closed mine, mentally weighing my options:

Do I suck it up and just zip it up right now?

What if the band sees me or the worshippers to my left or right?

What if it gets stuck and I look like I’m playing with myself while the band plays their last number?

What if Karli or one of the other singers sees me and snorts into the mic?

Should I just leave it, offer the benediction and hope no one sees?

Definitely the last, I decided, all the while singing:

The riches of Your love

Will always be enough

Nothing compares to Your embrace

Song ended, an ‘In the name of the Father, Son and Spirit’ served up, I sheepishly waited for everyone to ‘go forth in the name of the Lord.’

Coast clear.

I breathed a sigh of relief.

And then… a youth grinned at me knowingly (because of what I didn’t know).

 “Hey man, did you know your fly was down through, like, the entire service?”

    Simul iustus et peccator fatue

     ‘At once justified and an idiot’

     God’s grace always remains outside of us, apart from us, Luther says.

It’s a promise announced to us not an attribute original in us.

We are always at once graced by God and the same a#$-clown we were before.

When you think about it, it must be so.

Lest we ever forget that God’s grace is exactly what it is: an undeserved gift.

You are good, You are good

When there’s nothing good in me

You are love, You are love

On display for all to see