Good but not safe

There is a dinner table scene in the lowbrow 2006 Will Ferrell comedy “Talladega Nights,” in which NASCAR star Ricky Bobby’s family pauses before a meal of Domino’s pizza and Taco Bell to say grace.  Ricky begins not in customary Episcopal Church fashion, but rather with the words, “Dear Lord Baby Jesus…”

The prayer meanders, until Ricky says again, “Dear tiny baby Jesus, with your golden fleece diapers and your tiny balled up baby fists,” at which point his NASCAR trophy wife, Carly, interrupts and complains, “You know, Sweetie, Jesus did grow up.  You don’t always have to call him baby.  It’s a bit odd and off-putting to pray to a baby.”

Ricky, indignant, responds, “Look, I like the baby version the best, you hear me?” and he continues, “Dear eight-pound, six-ounce newborn infant Jesus…so cuddly, but still omnipotent.  Thank you for all your power and your grace, dear baby God.  Amen.”

Ricky Bobby dinner scene

It’s a hilarious scene, especially for folks from the South.  (At my first parish in Memphis, I actually had among my flock a former Talladega, Alabama homecoming queen!)  But, as is often the case in comedy, part of its humor is the extent to which it parodies truth that hits close to home.  Like Ricky Bobby, we prefer the infant Jesus.  We may not invoke images of golden fleece diapers, but we do wait all year for the nativity pageant.  We cherish gauzy images of a cherubic babe in swaddling clothes, nuzzled in Mary’s arms, with Joseph hovering protectively nearby.  They remind us sentimentally of our own gathered families, or of the idealized family we always hope for.  The baby Jesus is warm, and peaceful, and calming.  We want Jesus to have power but also to be a sweet comfort—to be, as Ricky Bobby says, “cuddly but still omnipotent.”

But Carly the NASCAR wife is right.  Jesus did grow up.  And when we hear the words of the adult Jesus, they sometimes seem to upend the doe-eyed, Precious Moments manger scene.  Never more so than today: “Jesus said, ‘Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division!  From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

Notwithstanding the myriad jokes about that last relationship, this is a terribly frightening “red letter” passage.  From the mouth of Jesus, we receive words commissioning fire, division, and the deepest family discord.  This Jesus is all grown up, and he doesn’t seem to be bringing particularly good news.  What do we make of these words?

There is a militant brand of Christianity that uses this passage and the few that resemble it to craft a warlike image of Jesus.  Jesus becomes a kind of tribal chieftain, standing sentry in front of his followers to protect them from invaders, and encouraging his followers to brandish weapons to do violence in his name.  This is the Jesus of the Crusades, of the centuries-long European religious wars, of the more recent Troubles in Northern Ireland.  This Jesus is no less alive and well today.

Jesus with gun

“This Jesus is a paper tiger, propped up only when today’s passage is willfully wrenched from its context.”

But this Jesus is not Jesus.  This Jesus is a paper tiger propped up only when today’s passage is willfully wrenched from its context.  You see, the most reliable way to interpret scripture is with scripture, and the notion of a Jesus who beats his chest and sounds the drums of war cannot be maintained with the trajectory of the Prophets or the Gospel.  After all, the very pinnacle of the Bible’s prophetic announcement is Isaiah’s vision of the mountain of God to which people of every nation will stream in peace, where God will “beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks,” where “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, and war shall be learned no more.”[i]

That is the vision Jesus comes to complete.  He confirms it in the Beatitudes (“Blessed are the peacemakers”[ii]) and when his very disciples seek to protect him from the mob through violence (“All who take the sword will perish by the sword”[iii]).  Jesus is the Prince of Peace[iv], and we must interpret today’s difficult passage from Luke in a manner that is consistent with the character of his Gospel.  So, what does it mean that Jesus brings fire and division, that family conflict is sown in his wake?

When Jesus speaks these words today, he does so only after twelve chapters in which he has consistently revealed what it means to follow him.  Jesus has shared parables, such as the Good Samaritan.  He has preached the Beatitudes.  He has embraced those whom society has discarded.  And yet, in ways that clearly frustrate Jesus, most of those around him, including his twelve disciples, don’t seem to get it.  They want to be associated with the guy who can exorcise demons and control the weather (that’s all quite exciting), and they love the Jesus who sometimes speaks soothing and comforting words, but they don’t seem to understand—in fact, they seem willfully to misunderstand—the deeper implications of Jesus’ message.  One man says, “I’ll follow you, but let me finish plowing my field first.”[v]  Another walks away when Jesus explains that discipleship requires financial sacrifice.[vi]  See, Jesus’ first century audience isn’t much different than us.  They want the warm and comforting Jesus, who has power but who exists mostly to ease their anxieties.  They want the Jesus who is cuddly and omnipotent.  They want the Jesus who is safe.

“You don’t get it!” Jesus finally cries out, to them and to us.  “What I’m asking you to do, what you must do if you are to follow me, is be willing to set aside your old life.  The only criterion by which you can decide whether you can continue in your old path, in your old commitments, in your old relationships, is if they, too, are in service to the Gospel.  In first place, you have to love as I’ve taught you, and serve as I’ve taught you, and give as I’ve taught you.  It will hard.  It will require you to swallow your pride and often your words, to let go of your anger and frustration, and, sometimes, your social safety.  It may require you to let go of some of your very family who will not live for love, and it will require you to claim as family a lot of people you may not like.  And, it’s not a seasonal gig, by the way, like the nativity pageant.  It’s everyday.  Living for the Gospel will be so different from the life you’ve been living that it will feel a lot like dying and being reborn into a new life.[vii]    Because that’s the only way for grace to take seed and grow in this world.”

Jesus knew the implications of living the Gospel.  Already in his story, his own family, including Mary, have come and tried to make him stop, to give up this different way of living for the cozier and more staid life back home in Nazareth.  He told them no.[viii]  As painful as it must have been, when his family told him to give up living as the agent of grace, Jesus chose the Gospel over his family, and he asks no less willingness from those of us who would live for grace.

Can we do that?  I will try, at least, to say it for myself, and as I do, I invite you to say it for yourself internally, and pay attention to how it feels.  Here goes: Before I am an American, before I am a Thompson, before I am a man, I am a follower of Jesus.  I will give all of these other things up, if I must, in order to live for the things for which Jesus lived, in order to love all the ones Jesus loved.

Can I do it?  Can we?  Can anyone?  I hope so.

Aslan-Not-Safe-But-Good

In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the child Susan desires more than anything to approach the lion Aslan, who is the figure of Jesus.  Susan stands next to her host, Mr. Beaver, when she asks, “Is he…quite safe?  I feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver, “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”

The Jesus we are called to follow is not a cuddly child in a manger.  And lest we forget, even when he was, the baby Jesus was quickly in flight for his life due to the division caused by his mere birth.  The Jesus we are called to serve is not safe.  His claim on us is total.  He refuses to be boxed away like the Christmas crèche and ushered out only on special occasions.  He refuses to offer easy comfort when the comfort we seek is at odds with God’s grace.   This Jesus is good, but he’s not safe, and if we choose to follow him, the life we’re currently living may be in danger.  Because if we choose to follow this Jesus, it means risking and renegotiating all of our prior relationships, our prior identities.  It means, as we walk through the world, as we enter our homes, as we live our lives, we live first for love and for grace.  Then, we will feel our anxieties truly ease.  Then we will know peace and calm in our souls, when we are first his disciples.  May we always be.

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[i] Isaiah 2:4

[ii] Matthew 5:9

[iii] Matthew 26:52

[iv] Isaiah 9:6

[v] Luke 9:62

[vi] Luke 12:13-21

[vii] Luke 9:23-26

[viii] Luke 8:19-21

Greed

This past May I traveled to Israel, for my first ever trip to the Holy Land.  Our first four days were spent in the north, in Galilee, and that sojourn included a visit to New Testament Bethsaida, just north of the Sea of Galilee.  It is in Bethsaida that Jesus called several of his disciples.  Bethsaida is one of those fishing villages in which Jesus spent considerable time.  But Bethsaida was not always a small hamlet.  A thousand years prior to Jesus’ life, in the time of David, it was the capital of the kingdom of Geshur.  It was to Geshur that the young David traveled to find a wife.  It was to Geshur that David’s son Absalom fled after he’d murdered his brother Amnon.

Bethsaida is now the site of a major archaeological dig, and the findings there are amazing.  With my colleagues, I walked along the stone pavers of a road upon which Jesus himself trod.  Most striking of all is the main gate to the ancient Davidic-era city, when Bethsaida was Geshur’s capital city and a walled fortress of a place rather than a fishing village.  The gate is actually a fortress all its own, encompassing a series of granaries protected by enormous walls that are six meters thick, by far the strongest, most monumental walls of the ancient world.  The walls are so thick as to be conspicuous, in fact.  Talking about the ancient inhabitants of Bethsaida, Archaeologist Kate Raphael says, “The feeling you get is that [the city’s inhabitants] are either terrified of something on the outside or they are protecting something really valuable on the inside.”[i]

Bethsaida walls

The Bethsaida walls

I thought of the Bethsaida ruins again this week when I re-read for the thousandth time the “Parable of the Rich Fool,” as it is known, in Luke’s Gospel: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly.  And the man thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then the rich man said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my silos and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.  And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.  But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’”

This is a parable about greed.  Indeed, the precipitating warning for the parable has Jesus saying, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed.”  But in what, exactly, does greed consist?  In our era, greed is often identified with our capitalist economic system.  In the 1980s, after all, the character Gordon Gekko famously declared in the Hollywood film “Wall Street” that “Greed is good.” Gordon Gekko was a caricatured image of a rapacious and unscrupulous Wall Street raider, but as so often happens, over time the caricature was assumed to be capitalism’s real life definitive norm, and capitalism itself was equated with greed.  That’s unfortunate for many reasons, but most especially because the caricature contributes to attacks on a paper tiger that doesn’t conform to reality.  Is capitalism just greed in the aggregate?  Is it merely a vehicle for vampires seeking prey?  No.  According to a study reported in The Economist magazine, in the last decade world poverty was reduced by more than fifty percent, and the drivers of this reduction, revealed by the specific places on the globe where poverty decreased, were open capitalistic markets.[ii]  Now, I’m obviously trained as a theologian and a priest, not an economist.  I have personal, amateur opinions on appropriate market regulation, important consumer protections, and the like, but that’s for coffee hour conversation, not the pulpit.  From a theological point of view, I’ll simply say that, overall, an economic system that lifts, in a decade, half of the world’s impoverished people from misery and closer to sustainable living is a virtue we should cherish and hone, and it can’t be what Jesus is decrying in his parable.

LEHMAN/GEKKO

Gordon Gekko

 

What then, is greed all about, from Jesus’ point of view?  The key is in the event that immediately precedes the parable.  A man approaches Jesus and says, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”

Any priest or family lawyer knows immediately the background of this request, because it is our lot often to be in the middle of just such disputes.  What has happened prior to this request is so common as to be tragically mundane.  There are siblings.  There are family possessions—things—and the desire for those things has taken precedence over the relationship between the siblings.  The man who approaches Jesus wants his inheritance more than he wants a relationship with his brother.  I suspect the other brother feels the same.  Both are willing to sacrifice the latter for the former.  They crave the tangible; the finite; the things they can have, hold, and possess; the material wealth that they can pretend imputes intrinsic worth to them.  They crave this more than they value continuing community with those they have loved.  And that is greed, whether in an economic system or a person, whether in a society or an individual.  Greed is the desire for anything so intense that it comes to believe its object is of greater value than human relationships.

Greed need not only be directed toward material things.  Greed can be the desire for physical or emotional protection.  It can be the craving for acclaim or esteem.  It can be the gnawing need for attention or pity.  The objects of greed are infinitely varied, but in every instance, greed is defined when the desire for its object takes precedence over relationships, when desire concludes that community with others is disposable, so long as greed obtains its object.   Relationships are always sacrificed on the altar of greed.

How does God respond to human greed in all its forms?  “Fools!” God says in Jesus’ parable, without pulling punches.  No object in this world, tangible or intangible, has that kind of value.  The things we desire in this world are, like the world itself, ephemeral.  They do not feed the soul.  They don’t, when hoarded and held like fetishes, give life either to the bearer or the world.  And, those silos, those walls we build to hold the emotional and physical objects of our greed make us hard, cold, suspicious, and mean. They do not protect us. Ultimately, as Jesus says unequivocally today, our greed, our silos, our walls sacrifice even our relationship to God.

silos

You see, greed is an addiction, make no mistake, and as with any other addiction, its craving grows with time.  Ultimately, the objects of our greed grow to become, as St. Paul says in Colossians today, idols.  And the very emotional, psychological, and physical silos we build with the pretense of protecting those idols instead simply separate us from our brothers, our sisters, our friends, and our God.  The end game of our greed is that we eventually stand emotionally, psychologically, existentially, physically alone.

In today’s epistle reading, St. Paul responds to a community in which the danger of greed—of relationship-sacrificing desire—is very present.  But Paul is an apostle of hope, and he doesn’t merely diagnose the problem.  He also prescribes the treatment.  To the Colossians, Paul exhorts, “Put greed to death,” and he adds that we must also let go those by-products of our greed, those things that flow from our cravings and are the actual weapons that kill our relationships: anger, malice, slander, abusive language.  In a word, Paul says we must change.

But how do we do that?  If our epistle reading went just a few verses further, we’d see.  Listen to what Paul says there: “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another…Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.”

Bear with one another, and clothe yourselves with love.  That prescription requires no object at all, nothing into which greed can latch its teeth.  It requires only the very thing all our greed denies, the primacy of relationships of love with those round about us.  It requires the effort and vulnerability and risk to put intimacy in first place, to embrace the humanity of stranger and friend, to recognize the present love of God that binds us all together, and, in light of all these things, to pause and be thankful.

At the Bethsaida ruins, north of the Sea of Galilee, those enormous granary walls are not the only conspicuous things discovered.  There is also “evidence of fiery destruction, arrow heads, spear points and sling shots that bear silent witness to [a] fierce battle that took place when the city gates were breached and put to the torch.”[iii]  Those massive walls, all six meters thick, did not, in the end, protect those within.  They did not preserve their objects.  They ultimately failed.  Those walls, it turned out, weren’t permanent, nor was the grain they held.  The things of this world never are.

We can wait for our silos, our walls, to fall down around us, leaving us alone in their ruins.  Or we can tear them down ourselves, with God’s grace, letting go of the objects of our greed (we all have them) in favor of human relationships of risk and vulnerability, giving up our various idols in favor of love for God and for one another.  We can exhaust ourselves building walls, or we can clothe ourselves with love, bearing with one another—both here and out there—in kindness and compassion.  When we do the latter, craving will cease.  The peace of Christ will reside in our hearts, and we will be truly thankful.

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[i] http://www.haaretz.com/jewish/archaeology/1.732284

[ii] http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21578665-nearly-1-billion-people-have-been-taken-out-extreme-poverty-20-years-world-should-aim

[iii] http://www.haaretz.com/jewish/archaeology/1.732284

Skimming the headlines

“Scientists say giant asteroid could hit the earth next week, causing mass devastation.”[i]  That headline screamed across the online news feed on July 9th, Saturday a week ago.  The opening sentences of the story were these: “Scientists have discovered a massive asteroid that is on course to hit the Earth next week and are scrambling to find a way to divert the object.  The asteroid has been named 2016-FI and measures approximately 1 km across. If it strikes a populated area, it could wipe out entire cities and potentially devastate an entire continent.”

asteroid-hits-earth-2

As you might imagine, the story went viral.  If we’re faced with interstellar cataclysm, I suppose one should want the news to spread exponentially.  I wonder if Home Depot saw a spike in sales of bomb shelter supplies…  And yet, here we are.  The week of danger has passed with no asteroid, no Armageddon.

You see, the article turned out to be one-part news and another part social experiment.  The news it shared had, it turns out, nothing to do with meteors.  After those panicked opening sentences, the article revealed its actual content, a research study by Columbia University which found that sixty percent of links shared on social media are never actually read by those who share them.  Consider that.  An almost supermajority of the online information in which so many of us traffic is passed along to others without being vetted, and often without even being read beyond the headline at all.   As confirmation of the trend, the very article announcing it, with an inflammatory title and three supporting opening sentences about a cataclysmic asteroid, itself went viral.

The study’s lead author says, “People are more willing to share an article than read it. This is typical of modern information consumption. People form an opinion based on a summary, or a summary of summaries, without making the effort to go deeper.”

We ingest headlines without considering content.  We absorb provocative statements, but we do not test their veracity.  We allow our opinions and, indeed, our beliefs to be influenced by superlatives, but we rarely analyze nuance.

click bait

The study and the article focused on online media, but the same phenomenon surely extends from the virtual into the everyday.  We now, more than ever, live in a surface-skimming world, which is characterized by fast movement, speedy conclusions, and self-satisfying echo chambers in which we too often seek only that data—from media, from our leaders, from our circles of friends, indeed, from our church—which reinforces the things, theories and conclusions we already want to be true.

This brings us to today’s Gospel passage, about Martha and Mary.[ii]  Most often this anecdote from Luke is interpreted as a case of competing virtues.  Martha works for Jesus, while Mary communes with Jesus.  Both are important, just as volunteering at the Beacon, for instance, and attending worship are both important.  “How can we best attend to both?” a litany of books about Mary and Martha on Amazon.com asks.  That’s a fair question and one worth asking, but it is also a question that considers this passage out of context, and as such, it’s not the question the passage itself implies to the reader.  This passage is not, I would suggest, a comparison of Martha’s labor versus Mary’s intimacy, so set that aside for the next few minutes.  What, then, is it about?

In context, Jesus’ visit to Martha and Mary immediately follows Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan.  That parable flows directly into this story; there’s not a single verse in between them.  The Parable of the Good Samaritan, as we were reminded last week, is Jesus’ radical, grace-filled redefinition of our neighbors and our responsibilities to and for others as disciples of Jesus.  Its implications are profound for everything we do in the world, for our understanding of our responsibilities, and for our conception of the ways we both receive and extend love and grace to those around us.  The Parable of the Good Samaritan can’t be glossed over quickly, with the easy assumption that we understand its depths.  It demands that we pause and take stock, that we read it again and again, even that we anguish over whether or not we want to believe and follow Jesus’ words.

 

But in the very next verse—the very next verse—Martha pulls Jesus into her house, sits him down like an ornament, and moves on into the next room.  She doesn’t pause at all.  She doesn’t ask questions of Jesus.  She doesn’t wonder about the nuances of his teaching.  She doesn’t take stock of her own life and consider the transformation that may be required of her, of her values and her commitments in the world.  Martha only reads the headline, so to speak.  To quote the Columbia University study with which I began, she makes no “effort to go deeper.”  Perhaps Martha believes she has Jesus figured out.  Perhaps she assumes uncritically that whatever Jesus has to say will agree with, rather than challenge, the life she already lives.  Surely, Martha becomes impatient with those who actually want to hear Jesus, to consider and understand him, to vet the whole article before living it and sharing it.

Martha_and_Mary_He_Qi

No so, Mary.  Mary is entranced and likely even perplexed by the words of Jesus.  She can’t go about her routine as usual, because the words of Jesus—not merely the headlines (so easily misconstrued) but the heart of the Gospel message—have stopped her in her tracks.  Luke doesn’t tell us that Mary wants to give Jesus a warm hug, but that she wants to sit at his feet and listen.  Mary wants to understand the challenge that Jesus presents to her worldview.  She wants to wrestle with what the Gospel means for the way she acts, interacts, speaks, believes, decides, cries, sings; not just as she sits there in the comfort of her living room, but in every moment hereafter.  Ultimately, Mary will share what she hears, and it will go viral like nothing our internet has ever seen, but what she shares won’t be a sound bite; or a willfully misinterpreted verse, wrenched from context; or a cozy platitude; or a half-baked theology that serves to undergird the way of life she already enjoys.  Mary, who has taken the time to listen, who has made the effort to go deep and allow the words of Jesus to absorb into the marrow of her soul, will share the Gospel, the love of God-in-Christ that redefines everything.

St. Paul knows that Gospel.  He shares it, too, and never more profoundly as in today’s Letter to the Colossians.  If ever we wonder whether Jesus is merely a headline, to be slapped up and then quickly forgotten, listen to Paul:

“For in Christ all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together…Christ is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven.”[iii]

Jesus can’t be skimmed.  He can’t be touted as a headline in defense of some argument, or support of some theology, or in reinforcement of a life already chosen.  Jesus is the whole thing, and we either take the whole of his Gospel of crazy, radical, life-altering love in all of its implications, or none of it.  God knows, our world needs it.  Like Mary, we must be entranced and perplexed and challenged to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen, so that we can be changed and then share those words that are to “have first place in everything,” through which Jesus “reconciles to himself all things,” and by which we encounter grace and find our lives in God.

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[i] http://yackler.ca/blog/2016/07/09/scientists-say-giant-asteroid-hit-earth-next-week-causing-mass-devastation/

[ii] Luke 10:38-42

[iii] Colossians 1:16-20.

The Commonweal and the Jericho Road

I returned home last night from two weeks in Costa Rica.  The first week I was part of Christ Church Cathedral’s mission team of sixteen teenagers and eleven adults.  We worked at an Episcopal church and school in the village of Estrada on the Caribbean side of the country.  There, Afro-Caribbean and Latino Costa Ricans worked alongside our mission team, who represented at least three ethnic groups from the United States.  I was struck, scarcely six days ago, by what a gift it was that such disparate people, separated by language, culture, and skin color, could work, eat, and laugh alongside one another for the sake of the Good News of God’s grace for all people.

The second week in Costa Rica consisted of much-needed family vacation, and my wife, son, daughter, and I surely enjoyed our time together.  But virtually each evening we came back from our daytime excursions to news of tragedy at home.  The events that came across the news feed were the mirror image of what I’d experienced as such blessing in Estrada just days before: On Tuesday in Baton Rouge, Alton Sterling was shot and killed point blank by police while pinned to the ground.  On Wednesday outside St. Paul, Minnesota, Philando Castille was killed by a police officer after being stopped for a minor traffic infraction. On Thursday night in Dallas, five police officers–Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Lorne Ahrens, and Michael Smith–were killed while faithfully carrying out their sworn duty to protect and serve the public, in this instance protecting people who were protesting police abuses elsewhere, which is a difficult assignment in the very best of circumstances.

In each instance, my wife and I shared news of the goings-on at home with our kids, while at the same time attempting to preserve the atmosphere of our vacation.  I finally exhausted my ability to do the latter on Thursday night, as I stared at the ceiling at midnight praying with sighs too deep for words and wondering about the United States’ societal split personality. On the one hand, we are the icon of Thomas Jefferson’s self-evident truths that “all men are created equal…endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” including “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” We are the land that continues to inspire Emma Lazarus’ tired, poor, huddled masses, yearning to be free.  On the other hand, we are a nation in which law-abiding black men are robbed of their life and liberty at traffic stops, and in which good police officers are paid far too little and are respected even less.

The conclusion to which I came, lying in the darkness, is that we have lost the moral compass of our most important national virtue, that of the commonweal.  It is a word rarely used anymore.  In fact, spellcheck attempts to revise it to “commonwealth.”  But the two words have different meanings.  The commonweal refers to the shared well-being of the people, to the self-giving of one citizen for the good of other citizens in need.  Valuing the commonweal provides the social glue that makes a people strong.  It is what grants one the courage to set aside bias and prejudice and imagine oneself in his fellow citizen’s shoes.  It is what saw the United States through the Second World War.  It is what made odd helpmates of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Lyndon Johnson.

Signs that we no longer value the commonweal are everywhere.  In the initial draft of this blog post, I wrote several wearying paragraphs describing that loss in our political system, our social media, our lack of identification with anyone different than ourselves.  The more I wrote, the more I realized that those paragraphs were distressingly unnecessary.  In a perverse revision of Jefferson’s language, the lack of value we place in the commonweal has become “self-evident.”

Jericho Road

Overlooking St. George’s Monastery on the old Jericho Road

This Sunday’s Gospel lesson is Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37.  Jesus sets his parable on the old Jericho Road through the Judean wilderness.  I never fully understood the parable until this past May when I visited the Holy Land and spent an afternoon perched on a sun-scoured desert hilltop overlooking the old Jericho Road.  I became aware then of just how dangerous traveling the road would have been in the ancient world.  Water sources are non-existent.  Rock slides are a constant possibility.  Twists and turns are ubiquitous.  The opportunity for bandits to prey upon an unwitting traveler are everywhere.  The only way for anyone–regardless of race, creed, or social standing–to make it safely from Jericho to Jerusalem was was for each to look out for all, for everyone to cherish the commonweal.  In Jesus’ parable, a traveler on the road is, indeed, set upon by bandits. He is bloodied and left in the ditch.  A number of fellow travelers see the injured man there, but those with social standing, power, and the means to make a difference for good ignore him.  In so doing, they ignore the commonweal.  When they see the molested traveler in the ditch along the roadside, they pretend his plight does not affect them, and they walk the other way.

As a nation, we have lately walked the Jericho Road.  We’ve become lost on its meandering course; we’ve discovered ourselves bereft of nourishment on the journey; we’ve encountered dangers; and we’ve seen the culmination of our collective decision to devalue and, indeed, ignore the commonweal.

This week, we–all of us–are the man in ditch, bloodied, confused, and disoriented.  We don’t know how to pick ourselves up and continue on the way.

But at other times we, collectively, have also been those who have walked by on the other side, pretending that the plight of the one in the ditch has nothing to do with us.

The question is, are we also the Good Samaritan?  Of all the characters on the Jericho Road, can we play that part?  Can we be the ones who will defy the pattern, who will stop and engage the one or ones in need without question, without condition, without expectation of return, and redefine our national conversation?

More than ever before in my life–including after September 11, 2001–I believe that our collective soul depends upon our answers to these questions.  Today, tomorrow, and in the days, months, and years to come, we must remember and cherish anew the commonweal.  Or, in Jesus’ words, we must remember that we are neighbors.

 

 

Of Orlando and the Virtue of Embrace

Early yesterday morning, a twenty-nine-year-old man, full of hatred and armed to the teeth, walked into the Pulse night club in Orlando, Florida, and proceeded to murder fifty people and wound scores more.  It is the most devastating mass shooting in American history.  It specifically targeted the LGBT community.

In April of 1999, when two young men entered Columbine High School and began their massacre, I was twenty-five years old.  I was young enough to remember vividly the experience of being in high school: in the library working on some project, in the cafeteria with friends.  The familiarity of those spaces and my ability to imagine myself as a student at Columbine High School rendered that shooting intimately personal for me.  It was a long time before I was able to think of Columbine without being overcome by emotion.

My life-long friends Elizabeth Bridges and Audra Hamilton, one gay and the other not, have both written with eloquence and passion in the past several hours about the way in which gay bars and night clubs are, for the LGBT community, places of sanctuary.  In a Facebook post, Audra, who is not gay, speaks poignantly of the way in which she has always felt comfortable with friends in gay night clubs.  She muses why this is so, and offers this: “I suspect it was…because the people who were there had fought so hard to create a place of acceptance for themselves…and I was a beneficiary of that space and that love. I felt free to be myself, because they did. And they welcomed me.”

Orlando shooting

The complex role of gay bars and night clubs in LGBT culture is news to me; I had been unaware.  Though I minister to many gay and lesbian Christians, and though I am blessed to have gay and lesbian members in my family, I am unfamiliar with much of gay culture.  And so, unlike Columbine, which resonated with familiar images and thus hit me viscerally, I am only just beginning to grasp the wound to the soul of the LGBT community caused by yesterday’s massacre in Orlando, which may be more devastating even than the death toll.

This is, I believe, part of our collective challenge. We in the United States have striven to become a tolerant society.  But mere tolerance doesn’t breed familiarity, and without familiarity there is little chance for understanding.  Tolerance is a passive virtue.  It says, in essence, “I can abide your presence in proximity to me, but I do not want to know you.”

I have plumbed the depths of the Gospels, and nowhere do I find Jesus exhibiting tolerance.  Rather, Jesus embraces.  Embrace is an active virtue, the preeminent Gospel virtue.  Again and again, Jesus embraces the one who is outcast, who exists on the margins, who is maligned.  Through his embrace, which comes in the forms both of physical contact and words of acceptance, Jesus declares that, in God, there are no outcasts, there are no margins, and woe be it to anyone who maligns any one of God’s blessed and beloved children.

Jesus healing blind man

With God’s help, Christ Church Cathedral, where I have the privilege to serve as dean, strives to be a Christian community of embrace.  The Cathedral is, by definition, a sanctuary, and into its precincts are welcomed any and all who seek to know the God who is love.  Indeed, just a day before the terror attack in Orlando, the Justice & Peace Council of Christ Church hosted its fourth annual “Coming Out in Church” forum, an event which creates a safe space for LGBT Christians to express their faith and for the Church to embrace them in the fullness of, and not despite, their sexual orientation.  I was honored to be on the panel for this year’s forum.

Coming Out in Church, 2016

Coming Out in Church Panel

Who needs the embrace of Christ’s whole church this morning?  Surely, the Orlando community writ large, who are reeling from yesterday’s disaster and will be for a long time.  Surely, the LGBT community, who have been made to feel, as I felt after Columbine all those years ago, acutely vulnerable.  And surely the mainstream Muslim community in this country, who must contend now not only with age-old mistrust between Christians and Muslims (and vice versa), but also with the radicalized element within Islam whose very goal is to pit the rest of us against all our Muslim neighbors, the overwhelming majority of whom desire God’s peace just as I do.

Across social media, the question has been asked in the past twenty-four hours, by people across the social, ideological, and political spectra: “With whom do you stand?”

God willing, now as always, I stand with Jesus, because I believe Jesus is God Incarnate.  And in this instance, I have no doubt where Jesus stands.  Jesus stands in embrace of all of God’s children who are afraid, who are suffering, and who wonder what today will bring.  With Jesus supporting my faltering knees, I stand in embrace of my LGBT brothers and sisters.  I stand in embrace of all people of good will, and of any faith, who seek to know the God of love and also seek God’s peace.  Whatever today brings, we will face it together.

May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.  And the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be with you and those you love, this day and always.  Amen.

Mary Magdalene receives her due

In 2003, author Dan Brown published his sensationalistic novel The DaVinci Code, and three years later the book was followed by a movie of the same title starring Tom Hanks.  The DaVinci Code caused controversy by its supposition that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, who then bore him children.  Because of this storyline, interest in the person of Mary Magdalene spiked.

As a result, many people developed a renewed interest in the apocryphal gospel accounts of Mary, especially in the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Philip, discovered in the Egyptian desert in 1896 and 1945, respectively.  At one point, the Gospel of Philip mentions a kiss between Jesus and Mary, and some keyed onto that particular passage as real-life evidence of Dan Brown’s fictional thesis.

DaVinciCode

Alas, both the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Philip were written centuries after the events of Jesus’ and Mary’s lives (and at least a century after all four biblical Gospels.)  The Gospel of Philip is also a Gnostic text, and in Gnosticism the “kiss” serves as a metaphor for the transmission of sacred knowledge.  So, rather than Jesus experiencing a romantic interlude with Mary, the Gospel of Philip portrays Jesus passing along to Mary privileged and holy information about salvation and grace.

That actually tells us much more about the real Mary Magdalene and her relationship with Jesus than any fanciful storyline in a cloak-and-dagger novel can do.  There are many problems with the apocryphal gospels, and good reason they have never been considered scripture by the Christian world, but what they get right is Mary’s portrayal as a leader among Jesus’ most important and trusted intimates.  For example, the Gospel of Mary portrays Mary sitting the apostles down and teaching them—even Peter—the meaning of Jesus’ message.  It gives her pride of place among the Twelve.  This is almost certainly a fair depiction of Mary’s stature among Jesus’ inner circle.

Gospel_of_Mary

A fragment of the Gospel of Mary papyrus

After all, the four canonical Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—all portray Mary Magdalene as the first eyewitness to the Resurrection.  She is first to reach the tomb of Jesus on Easter morning, and she is the first to take the news of Jesus’ resurrection to the apostles, who, I might add, all still cower in hiding after the crucifixion.  As a result, Gregory the Great referred to Mary as the “first witness of Divine Mercy,” and Hippolytus of Rome called Mary the apostle to the apostles.

Giovanni_Bellini_Mary_Magdalene

Bellini’s Mary Magdalene

In Anglicanism, Mary Magdalene has often been studied and revered.  In the Roman Catholic tradition, last week Mary finally received recognition commensurate with her role in salvation history.  On June 10, Pope Francis declared that Mary Magdalene’s annual observance will henceforth be a full feast day on the Roman Catholic Church’s calendar, on equal par with the feast days of the twelve apostles.  Pope Francis titled his decree “Apostle of the Apostles,” to honor this singular woman who, first among all humanity, experienced the joy of the risen Lord.

It’s about time Mary Magdalene received her due.

Does religion have anything to say?

Biblical scholar Alan Culpepper says this about today’s Gospel reading: “The widow’s only son had died.  We do not know their names, his age, or the cause of his death.  In the end, none of that matters—only that she had already lost her husband and now she has lost her only child.  James says, ‘Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress.’  Had Jesus passed by that funeral procession on the other side when he had the power to stop it, none of his other works would have made much difference.  If religion has nothing to say to a grieving widow, it has nothing to say.”[i]

We know that religion can be used and misused for all sorts of ends, in all sorts of ways both laudable and perverse.  (We become acutely aware of this fact whenever we are in an election season.)  Religion can be a tool of those in power, a means by which to fleece people of their money, an opiate of the masses, or it can be a bastion of tradition and a vital connection to the past as well as a spur to important social change.  For good and ill, religion has been, is, and can be, all of these.  But if religion—specifically our religion, Christianity—has nothing to say to a grieving widow, then it has nothing legitimate to say at all.  By extension, if Christianity has nothing to say to those who are dying, those who are perched on the very ledge, those who are lonely and lost, then it has nothing to say.

There are versions of Christianity that I wish sometimes really did have nothing to say.  There are expressions of our faith that take Gospel stories of healing and interpret them in odious ways.  In many such stories, Jesus will remark that the faith of the healed person or the faith of those around him has accomplished the healing.  “Your faith has made you well,” Jesus will say.  And preachers have long extrapolated, therefore, that today’s razor’s-edge difference between cure and illness, or even life and death, is whether or not we have enough faith, whether or not we believe strongly enough.  The damage of such preaching runs deep.  As a singular example, the parents of children who have died—including some children denied medical care in favor of faith healing and prayer—must then suffer doubly, both for the loss of their child and also in the grotesque conclusion that had their belief in Jesus been just a little more potent their child might still be alive, death might have been avoided.

John Oliver

John Oliver recently aired a segment on expressions of Christianity that fleece vulnerable people.

 

Hear me say that that’s not what Luke implies in any of these stories, and it’s certainly not what’s going on in the little village of Nain this morning.  Jesus surely has something to say to this grieving widow, but it is not that.  So, let’s look at the story more closely.

The dire circumstance of this passage is revealed its most poignant phrase.  Of the dead man and his mother, Luke says, “He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow.”  Understood through a first century lens, this means that this woman has lost everything.  Upon the death of husband, her present had been taken from her: her means of sustenance and protection gone.  Now, upon the death of her son, her future has been taken from her. Her social security into old age has evaporated.  And with the death of both, who were the carriers of the name she shares, she is, essentially, nameless.  The community won’t know what to do with her, how to treat her, where to send her, what to say to her.  She has become no one.  She is the least, the lonely, and the lost.

This is the moment Jesus arrives at Nain.  This is the moment, as Alan Culpepper says, that Jesus must act if the Gospel is to mean anything at all.  So what does Jesus do?  The easy answer is that he resuscitates the son, but if we get there too quickly we’ll miss the meaning of the story. Importantly, Luke tells us that, upon arrival, Jesus immediately “comes forward and touches the bier,” the platform on which the corpse lies.  He touches the bier.  Rather than skirting the edges of this funeral procession or even walking alongside the widow in her grief, Jesus moves directly into the center of this march of death and makes contact with death itself.

This is remarkable on two levels.  On the first level, this detail would have scandalized Luke’s original readers, because Jesus here defies both social convention and Jewish purity law.  He willfully and purposefully touches the corpse.  On the second level, and the reason Jesus does so, is to demonstrate more loudly than words can convey that he will not skirt around the edges of the widow’s grief.  He will not offer shallow platitudes or pity in response to her sorrow.  Jesus will walk into the very center of her loss.

Widow at Nain

Listen very carefully to this part.  Often this passage is read as a story about a dead man, but the main character, as we’ve seen, is the woman, who stands in for any and all those who have lost everything, who have plummeted to the depths in life, who have become no one.  Jesus will do for her what the world will not do.  Jesus will, with all eyes upon him, move directly to the very center and source of the widow’s loss, sorrow, and pain and embrace them.  Jesus will claim her loss, and her being, as his own.  Jesus grafts her identity to his, so that she is no longer no one.  She is one who belongs to Jesus.  Even before the son sits upright, she has received her life back again, and it is new life, because at its center are not things that die, but Christ—the gracious love of God—who does not die.  As Jesus touches the corpse, I suspect he looks at the mother, so that to both he says, “I say to you, rise!”  The son is resuscitated, but his mother is resurrected.

Do you see?  This is not a story about avoiding death.  It is not telling us that if we believe strongly enough or pray hard enough we will stave off death.  Death comes.  Loss comes.  Disaster comes.  Sometimes we lose absolutely everything we hold dear in this world.  This story tells us as much, and it tells us that, in the throes of such painful experiences Jesus does not walk the other way, and neither does Jesus skirt around the edges.  Jesus marches straight to the center of our pain and touches it with God’s grace.  As Alan Culpepper hopes, Jesus, indeed, has something to say. “Rise!” are his words to the widow, as well as to the son, and to us even today. “You belong to me, and on the other side of any death, I will give you life.”

This is a pivotal moment in Luke’s Gospel.  In the very next verses after today’s passage, the disciples of John the Baptist, who is in prison, travel three days to get to Jesus and ask, “Are you the one?”  They want to know, as the readers of Luke’s Gospel wanted to know, and as we want to know, who Jesus is.  They want to know if Jesus is a holy man, a prophet, and a teacher like John, or if, hope against hope, he might be something even more.  And Jesus will respond to them simply, by asking, “What do you see?”

That is the question for John’s disciples, and it is the question for us.  When we look at Jesus, what do we see?  We don’t see only a teacher of ethics.  We don’t see merely a holy example.  We don’t see just a prophet who preaches a better world.  We see all of these things, but not only these things.  We also and primarily see the one who refuses to skirt around the edges of our lives.  We see the one who will walk steadily into the depth of our loss and our loneliness and our fear—those things that threaten to strip us of our very sense of who we are and leave us as no one, whatever they may be—and raise us to new life on their other side.

Since 1563, the Heidelberg Catechism has asked, “What is our only comfort in life and death?”  And the catechism’s answer is, “That I am not my own, but belong both in life and death to Jesus Christ.”  Trusting that is what faith is.  Trusting that is what sees us through all the deaths in this life and at the end of this life, and into the new life that comes with the sure knowledge that we are Christ’s own.

[i] Culpepper, R. Alan.  The New Interpreter’s Bible, volume IX, pg. 159.