Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Scream

1 Kings 17:8-24
 8 Then the word of the LORD came to him, saying,
 9 "Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you."
 10 So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, "Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink."
 11 As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, "Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand."
 12 But she said, "As the LORD your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die."
 13 Elijah said to her, "Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son.
 14 For thus says the LORD the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the LORD sends rain on the earth."
 15 She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days.
 16 The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the LORD that he spoke by Elijah.
 17 After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill; his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him.
 18 She then said to Elijah, "What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!"
 19 But he said to her, "Give me your son." He took him from her bosom, carried him up into the upper chamber where he was lodging, and laid him on his own bed.
 20 He cried out to the LORD, "O LORD my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?"
 21 Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried out to the LORD, "O LORD my God, let this child's life come into him again."
 22 The LORD listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived.
 23 Elijah took the child, brought him down from the upper chamber into the house, and gave him to his mother; then Elijah said, "See, your son is alive."
 24 So the woman said to Elijah, "Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth."
 (1Ki 17:8-24 NRS)

Depletion.  Anxiety. Emotional exhaustion.  Spiritual hunger.  PTSD.  Loneliness.  Depression.  Brokenness.  Stressed and overworked.  Burnt out.  At one point or another in our lives, many of us have been there.  According to the National Institute of Mental Health, up to 28.8 percent of the US population will have suffered from one sort of anxiety disorder or another at some point during their lifetime.  Whether PTSD, OCD, depression, or other kinds of depletion or anxiety disorders, there’s a good chance that one in three folks here in worship today has experienced or will experience some form of extreme discomfort and disorder due to anxiety.  We and our families know what it is to live with such stresses and anxieties, the emotional discomfort, folks sometimes self-medicating with drugs or alcohol, the fights, the exhaustion, the trauma.  It is all very real stuff.  When you compound the emotional stress and discomfort with economic misfortune, the picture looks even worse.  Then, one finds oneself not only in extreme pain, but also trapped, lost, with seemingly no way out.  
This is the setting for the story of Elijah and the widow in 1 Kings 17.  Elijah is on a long journey here.  He starts out, prior to the verses we read, at a small Wadi, or creek, East of the Jordan river.  He is being sustained in a time of famine by drinking from the creek and having ravens bring him bread and meat in the morning and bread and meat again in the evening.  He’s on the verge of hunger.  And ravens, well, we all know what kinds of meat they’re into.  So the LORD is sustaining Elijah, but with road kill and morsels of bread that the ravens bring.  And then the Wadi dries up and the Lord tells Elijah to move on and travel to a widow at Zeraphath, whom the Lord tells Elijah he has commanded to feed him.  It is quite some distance, probably several days journey by foot.  And what does Elijah find when he gets there?  A poor widow who is out gathering some sticks so she can go home and make up a small cake from her last handful of meal and last little bit of oil—and then basically die.  This is the perfect picture of depletion, isn’t it?  If you’ve been there, you know how this feels.  You want to give; you want to serve, but there’s nothing left inside.  All of your emotional energy has been taken from you and you have no reserves.  You have only enough maybe for the rest of the day—and you don’t know how you’ll go on without any more.
But with all the confidence of a man fed by ravens, Elijah tells the widow to knead her dough and make her bread and bring it to him.  And, alas, a miracle occurs.  She is able to make not only a small cake for Elijah, but enough for her, and her son, enough that they can all eat for several days.  The jar of meal never empties and the jug of oil never empties, until, someday, rain will fall again on the earth.  
But then, again, as is so often true in our lives, tragedy strikes.  The widow’s son dies.  In biblical times, even more so than in ours, this is a double tragedy.  Not only does this woman not have a man to care for her, to stake her claim in court, to provide financially, something she would have struggled to do as a woman in ancient society, she also now has no son to fend for her. The emotional and spiritual loss she experiences is now doubled by her increased economic and social marginalization.  Her situation is hopeless--in spite of the ever-filling jars of meal and oil.   And she has this strange man, the prophet Elijah, whom she isn’t entirely sure about, either.  So she does what any of us would do.  She screams.  She takes her anger out on the closest person.  
"What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!" 
This is a scream of accusation.  As so many of us do, she is searching for answers to her pain, an explanation for her loss.  And the answer she comes up with is one that too many of us may share.  She feels like she must have done something wrong in her past and now God has sent this strange man of God to bring about the death of her son as punishment.  As a minister I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard words like these come out of the mouths of people who are undergoing extreme loss and pain. So many times I’ve heard the words, “what have I done that God has punished me?  What have I done that God has taken my child away from me?  What have we done that God has prevented us from having children?  What have I done that God has given me this disability, or placed me in this hardship or another?  We scream at God.  We scream at God’s prophets.  We scream at one another.  Hell, we may even howl at the moon!  But look at what happens in the story.  Elijah, he takes the child, and carries him up to his bedroom and places him on his own bed, and now Elijah himself screams at God.  “O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?”  Elijah too joins in the scream and, worse even, he makes it all about himself.  Maybe it is his fault as a man of God.  Maybe there is something flawed about him as a prophet.  Elijah may believe that is the case, that he has failed as a prophet and the God has it out for him.  What he can’t understand is why God would choose to take it out on the poor widow.  Why cause her additional unnecessary pain, if it is something he has done? Or maybe he is just so self-absorbed…
Pain.  Pain.  Loneliness and despair.  That is what it means to be human, at least partially, is it not?  But screaming at God, that’s OK. Even if we get it wrong, even if we ascribe to God punishment and judgment that God did not intend or enact, God is there for us to listen to.  There is nothing wrong with finding expression for our pain in such screams.    In the past year during our chapel worship services at Pfeiffer on Wednesday morning, we have been joined by a large group of mentally disabled folks from Monarch and GHA in Albemarle.  It has been a profound experience to worship with these folks week after week.  One of the most powerful parts of the service is when we do prayers for the people and the microphone ends up in the hands of one of the mentally disabled persons, a woman who cannot speak, at least not in the way that one would normally understand as articulate speech.  She gets the microphone and her prayer is basically inarticulate, heartfelt brokenness, wailing, really, just wailing and sobbing.  Her prayer is so deep and real.  What’s profound and powerful is that she is so willing to make herself vulnerable.  This woman who knows so little, at least on a cognitive level, is teaching me a great deal about prayer.  True deep prayer is trusting, in your heart, as inarticulate and broken as it may be, that God will listen.  I know God hears such prayers.
And God hears the prayers of Elijah and the widow as well.  Her son is miraculously revived.  You see, there is hope for us when we are depleted.  We simply need to cooperate, to work with God, and God will be with us.  God will provide us never-depleted jars of meal and jugs of oil.  God will heal us when we face times of loss and brokenness.  
One of the amazing things this text teaches us is about the participatory nature of God’s grace.   Even before she knows that the jar of meal will be replenished, the widow does knead that dough with water and oil and makes a cake.  In spite of her worries and concerns that there is nothing left, she physically uses her hands to engage in the practice of hospitality towards this strange man of God.   You see, sometimes, when it seems there is nothing left, that is the best thing to do, just to engage in the practices with which you are familiar.  I’m reminded of a story a pastor told me about an elderly couple in his church.  One morning, very early in the morning, the man woke up with terrible chest pains, and flush, sweaty, all the symptoms of a heart attack.  But before going to the hospital, the wife insisted that she make him a full breakfast of ham, eggs, toast, and coffee, like she did every morning.  She couldn’t conceive of her husband going to the hospital for a full day of procedures without first getting a solid breakfast.  Now, don’t worry, he made it there on time to receive proper treatment and survive.  The point of this story, of course, is not that it is OK to delay seeking treatment when you are having a heart attack---no, go immediately.  The point is that she had to engage at least in the physical practice of meal preparation in response to this crisis.  Sometimes that’s all we can do, right?  In times of stress and chaos, we attend to basic practices and needs.
Jean Vanier points out that one important practice of love is communication.  Vanier is the founder of L’Arche, an international movement that has established dozens of communities in which more abled people share a spiritual and everyday life with people who have severe mental and physical disabilities.     In many cases, such homes are places for children who, because of their disabilities, have been discarded by society or their families.  Communication for Vanier is at the heart of love.  He says, “Children who are quite disturbed need to have someone help them name where their disturbance is coming from.  When nothing is named, confusion grows and with it comes anguish.  To name something is to bring it out of chaos, out of confusion, and to render it understandable.”  Thinking about the disabled person who prays in our chapel service at Pfeiffer, her prayers may be inarticulate, but she is naming her pain, she is bringing it out of chaos.  In a very deep way, she is rendering it understandable.  One deep thing that Vanier shares is that the process of teaching and communication “involves movement, back and forth: the one who is healed and the one who is healing constantly change places.”  So when working with the disabled in his communities, Vanier claims that the communication goes back and forth.  Just as I the university professor have much to say about the Bible, when I listen to the inarticulate mourning of the deeply disabled girl in chapel, I learn something, something quite deep about my own vulnerabilities.  Another profound truth that Vanier shares is that such learning comes not only from the intellect, but also from the body, that we need to listen to our bodies, our own intuition, our own hearts.  This is what I think Elijah was doing when he lay upon the widow’s son three times.  He was connecting deeply with something physical, something profoundly vulnerable, a broken child.  He was learning much about love—and that learning yielded resuscitation and renewal.  For some of you who have been caregivers, helping for example your parents when they were most physically helpless, when they needed someone to bathe them or change their diapers… I suspect that is something deeply profound, where you encountered not only their vulnerabilities, but your own, moments when you may have learned what it means to be truly human.  This I think is what Elijah is doing.  Yes, we do face emotional exhaustion.  Depletion--yes, there may be times when we see that all is lost.  But we can participate in God’s grace through our own physicality, maybe by providing love through a physical act of touch to one who is most helpless, maybe by providing a meal for someone who is in great distress.  These are all practices in which we can not only share God’s grace to one who is broken, but through participation in them, experience God’s grace, when we ourselves are feeling most depleted.  Are you ready to make a meal today?  Do you know someone who is broken and needs a hug?  Be not only agents of God’s grace, let us experience God’s renewal by engaging in practices of hospitality and love.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

When the Morning Stars Sang Together

When the Morning Stars Sang Together

 Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind and said:
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Dress for action like a man;
I will question you, and you make it known to me.
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone,
when the morning stars sang together
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
Job 38:1-8
“Que bonitos ojos tienes.  Que bonitos ojos tienes” said the Nicaraguan woman while holding my hands and staring deep into my eyes.  There we stood, me staring into her dark brown eyes, she staring into mine, holding hands, and wondering at each other’s humanity.  “How beautiful are your eyes.”  What a strange and wonderful thing to hear from a stranger, a person I just met.  You see, I had travelled 3000 miles that summer between my second and third years in seminary to go work with people in Nicaragua who had lost their homes in mudslides due to hurricane Mitch.  Mitch had come in the fall of 1998 and totally devastated the countries of Nicaragua and Honduras.  In places of Nicaragua, Mitch had dumped as much as 50 inches of rain.  The resulting mudslides and flooding had a negative impact on 2 million people.  Whole villages and sections of towns were washed away in the mud.  On the flank of one of the volcanoes a lahar resulted that created a mudslide 5 miles wide and 10 miles long in places.  Everything was buried in feet of thick brown mud.  And so, on our first days there, as we were touring the devastation, destruction that was  evident still 10 months after the flooding, we met with one of the women who was making a difference.  This woman had lost her husband and two of her children in the mudslide.  She herself and another of her sons had only survived by climbing into a tree and hanging on for dear life.  Of course, she had lost everything.  But she was making a difference.  Through her Pentecostal church she received survival counseling. Later, she herself went through training to receive a certificate to counsel others with PTSD.  And so, here we stood, in the middle of a vast mudswept valley, 50 feet atop where her home and village had been, where the remains of her husband and children still lie, and holding my hand, staring into my eyes, her greeting to me was “que bonitos ojos tienes.” 
“How beautiful are your eyes.”  The story makes me sound vain, of course.  And of course I didn’t come here to preach about my eyes.  What amazed and shocked me was that I, a seminary student---really still a kid--who could barely understand or speak a lick of Spanish, would experience such a moment of profound wonder with this stranger, a stranger who knew the utter and absolute depths of loss, simply by staring into one another’s eyes.
Loss, brokenness, hurt, betrayal, injustice, feeling godforsaken, forlorn, alone, anxious, unable to cope…I could go on and on.  This is all part of the human condition.   It is also the background of our sermon text today. You see Job had lost everything, his wealth, status, property, children, everything.  Everything he held dear was taken from him.  What is more, the text tells us that God allowed Satan to take these things from Job.  God allowed evil to come into Job’s life, even though Job had not sought it.  Job was a good, God-fearing man.  The evil that befell him was not of his making.   Just as hurricanes and floods can be viewed as “acts of god” by insurance agents, so Job too has experience profound loss—and God has done nothing to stop it.   This is what scholars call the theodicy question:  “Why does a good and powerful God allow evil to happen in the world, especially to those who trust and obey that good and powerful God?”  There is no good answer to that question.    Life happens.  Life is hard.
 When I deal with people who have undergone extreme pain and loss, I don’t know how to answer this question.   I don’t want to be like Job’s friends who engage in discourse with Job over his lack of faith.  It is indeed a hard thing to tell a theologian to be quiet; but sometimes the best thing we can do is simply shut up, simply shut up and listen.  That’s wisdom I should take seriously more often.  Doctor, heal thyself, right? Right…
In spite of our experiences of tremendous grief and pain, human beings still have the unique and amazing capacity to wonder.  This is what our Old Testament text is about today.  Job, after being lectured by his so-called friends about why he should believe in a God who he feels has let him down, hears the word of the LORD speaking to him out of the whirlwind.  Yes, you heard me right, a talking tornado.  Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.  The first thing this talking tornado asks Job is “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?”  In other words, JHWH is saying to Job and his friends, “why are you talking about things you know nothing about?” 
This is a wonderful question for anyone who dares to speak about God.  When it comes to the divine, when it comes to the transcendent, it is wise counsel to be cautious in the claims we make.  So much of religious talk, God talk, and theological thought, is just human approximation of what we want or need the divine to be.  We theologians spend a lot of time saying who God is and what God would do, but spend far too little time simply being in awe and wonder at the power of the divine.  This is what the LORD is reminding Job of here.   There are clearly limits to human knowledge.  We can learn and know a great many things.  We can point our telescopes at the skies and study the farthest reaches of the universe.  We can measure light coming into our telescopes that was produced by stars millions of years ago.  We can break the atom.   We can send particles whizzing in circles around accelerators at near the speed of light and smash them together.  We can recreate conditions that were present mere microseconds after the formation of the universe.  But the big questions, the important questions, these we cannot answer. 
As the LORD asks Job, “where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?”  Do you know how I laid the foundation, the cornerstone of the universe.  Do you know how and why all this came together?  Do you know why your alive?  Do you understand the secrets of existence and the finality of death?  What follows in the next chapters are wisdom descriptions of the kinds of natural phenomena that the ancients awed.  There is a description of a behemoth, which seems to suggest something like a monster hippopotamus, and a sea-dragon-like Leviathan, not unlike a massive whale.  The text seems to suggest to us that there are a great many things in our universe that we don’t understand, that we can’t understand.            
Yes, so much of life is beyond our ability to predict, beyond our ability to understand.  Yet, we do have awareness.  One of the deepest and most significant wonders of our lives, I think, is our ability to be aware and self-aware.   This is what the text tells us as the whirlwind asks Job, “were you there when the morning stars sang together
And all the sons of God shouted for joy?”
This is what is truly amazing about the text: the wonder of human imagination.  No, it is true, neither Job, nor ourselves, nor anyone else was there when the morning stars of the universe sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy at God’s amazing craftwork at the creation of the universe.  What is wondrous is that the author of this text—and you and I—can imagine the stars singing in harmony to celebrate the wonder of creation.  Somehow, I think the human capacity to suffer is also linked to the human capacity to wonder and imagine things that are beyond our experience.  Sometimes our ability to wonder couples with our capacity to tell stories, and we can create fiction and film that is truly remarkable.  Poets have the capacity to capture moments and experiences in words.  Musicians often give voice to that which is truly beyond our ability to utter.  Artists use all sorts of visual media to give expression to those imagined experiences that are beyond our human capacity to express in everyday life.  Oftentimes, they offer sheer expressions of joy.  Other times, horror, fear, and anger take their place.

And then, there are times, when we simply can be with another human being and share in the intimacy of awareness and silence.  Were you there when the morning stars sang together?  Have you shared those special, intimate moments of silence when you were caught up in your own awareness and the awareness of the other?  Have you captured moments of divinity in your own life?  Perhaps those of you who have been present with others in times of great grief and loss know what it means to experience the sheer humanity of simply being present with another suffering being.  Perhaps you’ve experienced it as a friend consoling another, or in the abject joy of cuddling on a cool morning with another to watch the rising of the sun.  I think in those moments, when we share our utter and absolute brokenness with one another, when we share in utter and absolute vulnerability and stare in one another’s eyes, at those moments we may be in the present of something truly beyond our ability to comprehend.  When we see the divinity in each other’s eyes, perhaps we too can utter the words, “Que bonitos ojos tienes.”

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Religious Freedom and the Bible

Image result for christian flag over american flag
Over the 4th of July Holiday Some Churches
in North Carolina Flew the Christian Flag Above the American Flag

The recent Supreme Court ruling in favor of marriage equality has renewed discussions of religious liberty, and the relationship between belief, conscience, and government in the lives of many Christian believers. David Gushee, a significant Christian Ethicist (and my former youth minister), claims that the ruling is tantamount to a "mutual conscience-shocking" event.  As we look across the divide caused by decades of culture wars, we are finding we cannot agree on the most basic issues of morality. Gushee coins the term "fruitless loop" to describe the never ceasing rounds of argumentation and recrimination that result. He predicts divisions in families, friendships, and communities. I suspect he is right. He also calls for more dialogue as the only reasonable way forward. I also agree.

To that end, I'd like to share a little of my own reflection on the discussion of moral conscience and religious liberty that has been in the news lately. I understand that some conservatives have been calling out for acts of civil disobedience against the marriage equality ruling. I'm not entirely sure what such acts would look like. The N.C. legislature recently passed a law allowing magistrates to refuse to perform marriages for same sex couples. In Indiana recently, a more expansive "religious liberty" law allows shopkeepers, service providers, and others to discriminate against same-sex couples who are seeking their services. Religious liberty apparently is being interpreted by evangelical conservatives as the right to discriminate against those with whom you disagree, or whose family choices you find problematic. This is a dangerous trend.

As the "Bible Guy," I have to admit that the Bible says very little about religious liberty. Religious liberty is a product of rationalism and the enlightenment. It was shaped and embraced by religious separatists who fled to the American continent to escape the intolerance and oppression they had experienced in Europe. Moderate Baptists have done a wonderful job of maintaining this unique and special history exemplified in the lives of George Truett, Thomas Helwys, Roger Williams, and John Leland. To be sure, for these men, religious liberty meant the freedom to read and interpret the Bible on an individual basis (something contemporary Christian fundamentalists are zealous to supplant). It also meant the freedom to baptize and be baptized (this was a big one for state churches in which infant baptism was practiced), the freedom to organize and govern churches, and  to speak freely about one's faith. I daresay, though, that the freedom to deny services or discriminate was quite far from these early champions' thoughts about religious liberty.

This brings us to the famous passage often trotted out in discussions of religious liberty, Romans 13:1-7. [Now, let me make a disclaimer that I am not a Paul scholar, so my reflections here are largely untutored. Nor am I engaging the rigor of an academic scholar in my reflections here. So please take these words as surface considerations from a biblical scholar who is interested more in opening a discussion. There are scholars who have spent a lifetime studying Paul and I am not one of them; nor do I imagine my views represent them here.]

So, let me share a few thoughts about the passage and how it may or may not relate to the current debate. Romans 13:1-7 tells "all people to be subject to governing authorities" (13:1). Frankly, as much as I'd like to beat my conservative colleagues over the head with this and tell them to obey the Supreme Court ruling, I shall refrain. Such raw, direct, literal application of Scripture to societal issues is the very thing I am teaching my students to avoid. So I shall avoid it myself, except to say to my fundamentalist friends that if they are going to embrace a literal reading of Scripture, they surely ought to reflect hard on what this text is telling them. There's little room for their brand (or any brand) of religious liberty within this biblical text, a text that was written in a world in which one god or another was represented by governing authorities, and in which theocracy was the practiced norm.

If my fundamentalist colleagues are suddenly going to embrace the enlightenment ideas of religious liberty, they will surely need to reexamine how they interpret Scripture.  I would point out that they are now no longer engaging in an inerrant literal reading of the Bible. My hope is that they might indeed embrace reason, experience, and tradition to think through their ethical and theological viewpoints. At least then we might have a chance of engaging in critical dialogue!

But to return to Romans 13:1-7, I also think there are myriad issues with this text. While I'd have to line up the evidence more clearly, I suspect there may be some evidence to view it as an interpolation by a later author. The vocabulary of "submission" mirrors strongly the language of the household codes in the deuteropaulines. The third person imperative in 13:1 breaks the flow of the second person imperative found in 12:21 and 13:8. There is also a digression in topic from that of love (12:9-21; 13:8-10) to  the obedience of governing authorities (13:1-7). If 13:1-7 were excised from the text,, Paul's discussion of love in 12:9-12:21 flows seamlessly to 13:8-10.  Paul also seems to strongly contradict himself.  In 13:7 he tells the Romans to pay everything to whom it is owed (including taxes, revenue, honor, and respect); yet in the very next verse, he tells the Romans that they should owe nothing to anyone except love. So, I think there's a good case to be made that verses 13:1-8 were inserted by a later hand.

Still, if we don't view the text as an interpolation, there's good reason to contextualize these statements of Paul with his other writings. It is clear from Paul's statements elsewhere that he expects the parousia, the coming of Christ, to occur during his lifetime. In fact much of his ethical teaching for congregational life in 1 Thess 4 and 1 Cor 7 is deeply immersed in a perspective of immanent apocalyptic eschatology. Indeed, many twentieth century scholars came to view Paul's teachings on the Christian life as an "interim ethics." Since Paul expected Christ to return at any moment, he never expected anyone beyond his immediate influence to even receive his advice, much less follow it. In this sense, Paul was like many of us who blog, without any expectation that anyone beyond our immediate circles will read our stuff.

Apart from this caveat, one ought also to view 13:1-7 in light of, for example, 1 Thess 4:1-12, where Paul instructs the Thessalonians to live simply, work with their hands, and avoid becoming economically (and otherwise) dependent upon on others. Read in this light, the instructions in 13:1-8 would seem to lead to a kind of political quietism. If one does good and pays one's taxes, according to Paul, there is no need to fear governing authorities. They have bigger fish to fry. They don't need to go after handful of believers in the Jewish ghettos of Rome. If Prisca and Aquilla (16:3) are recent returnees to Rome, they likely would not want to see another police action similar to that as the recent one under the emperor Claudius. They apparently had been banned, along with many other Jews, because the Romans had grown weary of religious infighting about the identity of the Jewish Messiah. Perhaps Paul's advice is meant to guard against such experiences with advice that leads to a kind of quietism. Such quietism, I might point out, has a rich history in this country among Quakers, Amish, Mennonites, and Brethren, especially with regard to church-state issues and pacifism. Hauerwas' combination of the thought of the Mennonite biblical scholar, John Howard Yoder, with the revisionist virtue ethics of Alisdair MacIntyre, is one example where a mainline Christian ethicist has embraced a contemporary moral narrative of neo-quietism. Practicing such neo-quietism might bring a healthy dose of sanity for those on the Christian right. I suspect many of us would heartily greet their retreat from attempts to assault our common democratic values with their own brand of rabid theocratic ideology.

But if our colleagues on the right nonetheless intend to engage in acts of civil disobedience against what they see as an unjust government, let them take note of two ideas in which Paul's moral thought are grounded. First, Paul, along with the prophets, did indeed believe that God's justice would prevail in the end. This means that any actions one might undertake must line up with God's justice, and most particularly, do no harm.  Actions that harm same-sex families, whether by attempting to deny them their legal rights, or engaging in discrimination in the workplace, or in denying equal goods and services, do not square with God's justice. Such actions cannot be the fruits of conscientious objection, because such acts are unjust and de facto unconscionable.

Furthermore, such actions do not square with the rule of love that Paul describes in the passages
surrounding 13:1-7. Whether 13:1-7 is an interpolation by a later author or not, it is still deeply embedded in a passage about love, patient suffering, harmony, association with the broken and lowly, living peaceably, disavowing vengeance, etc. As Paul sums it up, "Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law."

In the past I have engaged in civil disobedience against a nation that has embraced militarism and indeed taught others how to partake in intolerable acts of evil and violence towards innocent people. However, in doing so, I tried to keep in mind Gandhi's thoughts on Ahimsa, which Martin Luther King, Jr. loosely translated as love. Apparently in Sanskrit, Ahimsa meant something like "no injury" or "no striking." Both Gandhi and King embraced it as a leading principle and purifying practice in acts of nonviolent resistance.  If my conservative sisters and brothers are seeking principles for their use of civil disobedience, they must keep in mind that love must be their guide. If their civil disobedience causes harm to their neighbor, they ought to examine their spiritual practice and reflect on whether their motives are driven by purity and God's love, or by fear, anger, and lack of knowledge. If Gandhi and King are too difficult to embrace, maybe they can simply keep in mind John Wesley's three spiritual laws: do all the good you can; do no harm; and stay in love with God.


Monday, June 29, 2015

Marriage Equality and the Bible

Gay Marriage White House Lit 
This past week has been a tremendous one in American history. We saw the Supreme Court uphold the Affordable Care Act. We witnessed perhaps the finest display of presidential oratory, certainly of my lifetime, in Obama's eulogy for Clementa Pinckney. We also saw the Supreme Court uphold marriage equality, providing the right for gays and lesbians to marry all across the land.  We have also seen calls for the removal of that hideous symbol of hatred, the confederate battle flag, from monuments and depictions all across the South. Sadly too we have seen a racist backlash, with nonsensical rallies by hate groups, the burning of at least six African American churches, as well as many right wing evangelicals coming out of the woodwork to challenge the Supreme Court's findings on marriage equality.

It is this latter issue that I'd like to engage here. Some of you are familiar with my stance on homosexuality and the Bible from my blog on the now defunct Amendment One that passed in North Carolina. Others may also be familiar with my post for ONScripture on the legacy of Dr. King for our divided culture.  I don't want to repeat myself here on these issues. But I do want to reflect on marriage and what the Bible may have to say on it.

Marriage equality of course is not described anywhere in the Bible. Indeed, the marriages described in the Bible are anything but equal. I teach through these texts year in and year out. I am hard pressed to think of a single case in either Old or New Testament in which there is an egalitarian marriage between male and female. So I'm not sure that the Bible presents us with an egalitarian ideal to emulate, when it comes to marriage. Now, one could argue that the rhetoric of the household codes in the deuteropaulines (see how many assumptions I make when I refer to these passages in Col, Eph, 1 Tim, Titus?) tones down the patriarchal understandings of the Greco-Roman world. I doubt, though, that would be of much comfort to twenty-first century women who are taking the lead in their marriages.

To be honest, I'm not sure what most conservative evangelicals are talking about when they speak of the "biblical view on marriage," as if it were some kind of ideal. When I look at the Bible what I see are stories of human frailty and brokenness. Let's talk briefly about one of the texts many conservative theologians take out of context when they claim that the ideal is marriage between a man and a woman.  It comes from the Yahwistic creation account, the story of Adam and Eve, in Gen 2:24.  "Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh" (NRSV).  As I teach my undergraduates in Old Testament, this is one of the many etiologies that can be found in the Yahwist's stories, particularly in the early chapters of Genesis. An etiology is an explanation about a current reality that is grounded in a narrative retrospectively. As I tell my students, the Yahwist is a master story teller and folklorist. Good folklorists color their stories in such a way that the stories explain a contemporary reality. It is as if  the Yahwist is telling a bedtime story to a child that has asked a question. For example, to the child's question, "how did the animals get their names," the Yahwist tells the story of how Yahweh shaped every animal of the field and bird of the air and gave Adam the chance to name them (Gen 2:18-20). Why did God do this?  Because Adam was lonely and God was seeking to make him a companion. It is a sweet story. Before God took a rib out of Adam to make him a wife, he tried to console Adam's loneliness with parakeets, sheep, and puppy dogs. As etiology and folklore, the story is lovely and charming. But is this the kind of story upon which folks really want to base their ideal for a lifelong commitment?

Some evangelicals are concerned about protecting the sanctity of marriage, or guarding marriage as a biblical institution. I fail to see how marriage equality threatens anything but the most patriarchal, and hierarchical forms of marriage. I'm also not convinced that the marriages presented in the Bible present us with something all that sacred.

How about Father Abraham? OK, he more or less raped his wife's slave-girl, Hagar.  I don't know what else to call it.  Sarai gave Hagar to him to sleep with (Gen 16:2). Hagar was a slave-girl! Given her position in the household and the likely fact that she was a young teen, consent was clearly out of the question. I don't see any marriage ideal here.

Well, what about Jacob?  He married Rachel and Leah; and, uh, they were sisters (Gen 29:15-30)! On top of that, he slept with their slave-girls, Bilhah (Gen 30:4) Zilpah (Gen 30:9), as well. If we are charitable, we might say that the house of Israel was the product of a very messy mixed marriage. Read from contemporary eyes, though, the house of Israel was the product of a horrendous conflict between two sisters who were fighting over a man whom today we probably would prosecute as a bigamist and rapist (could Bilhah and Zilpah have said no?).

I don't believe these stories help us to come up with an ethical ideal for marriage.  For the narrative imagination, actually, I find such biblical stories somewhat of a threat to the ideal of the sanctity of marriage. What I find praiseworthy for the narrative imagination is the kind of love that is shared between two people of the same sex who--in spite all the hardship, oppression, and prejudice they have faced--still want to make a lifelong covenant with one another!  Thank God this is now legal in this nation.

To the social conservatives who oppose it and those who are rejoicing over the Supreme Court ruling, I would offer the same word of caution. Theologically, I believe that the biblical narrative, time and again, portrays human beings as broken, deceitful, sometimes violent, covenant-making/covenant-breaking creatures. Apart from God's love and God's grace, we human beings are incapable of maintaining lifelong covenants; not with God, who has chosen to be in covenant with us, nor with the partners with whom we have chosen to be in covenant. I would caution conservative theologians to think very carefully about what they mean when they praise the sanctity of marriage.  Maintaining a lifelong covenant is a gargantuan task and there are bound to be times when we as humans fail our spouses in one way or another. If theologians are to take the Bible seriously, they ought far more to preach the messiness of marriage and the reality that there will be times when people we love and trust (whether they be spouses, parents, children, siblings, or close friends) will fail us and our expectations of one another. The biblical message is not the sanctity of marriage, but the brokenness of human beings. Only through God's grace can we even begin to attempt fidelity and approach sanctity.

To those who are rejoicing over the recent ruling, I say, I rejoice with you. Same sex couples should not be denied equal status and protection under the law. We should all rejoice that human rights are being expanded in our society; although there is still much to be done. Still, I would caution that marriage is no panacea. It certainly confers legal and economic protection for same-sex families. And for this, one should rejoice. This change of status, however, does not magically make a person any less broken.  It does not automatically heal one from past wounds or unresolved anxieties. As a believer, I think what I have said above holds true for married couples, regardless of whether they are of the same or differing gender. We are all frail and broken creatures. Only with God's grace can we attempt to maintain covenant fidelity to one another. My prayer is that those churches that have not already recognized marriage equality might follow this ruling. Instead of blocking it, the church should be a source for God's grace and comfort. Regardless of whom we love, the church should be in the business of blessing and enriching our covenants with grace and community, not condemning them with fear and lack of knowledge.    


Saturday, June 20, 2015

Slaying Giants

Slaying Giants

The Goliath of Racism in Light of the Shootings in Charleston, S.C.

I Samuel 17:31-49 (NRSV)

31 When the words that David spoke were heard, they repeated them before Saul; and he sent for him. 32 David said to Saul, "Let no one's heart fail because of him; your servant will go and fight with this Philistine." 33 Saul said to David, "You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are just a boy, and he has been a warrior from his youth." 34 But David said to Saul, "Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, 35 I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it. 36 Your servant has killed both lions and bears; and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, since he has defied the armies of the living God." 37 David said, "The LORD, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine." So Saul said to David, "Go, and may the LORD be with you!" 38 Saul clothed David with his armor; he put a bronze helmet on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail. 39 David strapped Saul's sword over the armor, and he tried in vain to walk, for he was not used to them. Then David said to Saul, "I cannot walk with these; for I am not used to them." So David removed them. 40 Then he took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the wadi, and put them in his shepherd's bag, in the pouch; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near to the Philistine. 41 The Philistine came on and drew near to David, with his shield-bearer in front of him. 42 When the Philistine looked and saw David, he disdained him, for he was only a youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance. 43 The Philistine said to David, "Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?" And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. 44 The Philistine said to David, "Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the field." 45 But David said to the Philistine, "You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. 46 This very day the LORD will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head; and I will give the dead bodies of the Philistine army this very day to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth, so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, 47 and that all this assembly may know that the LORD does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the LORD's and he will give you into our hand." 48 When the Philistine drew nearer to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine.
 49 David put his hand in his bag, took out a stone, slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead; the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell face down on the ground.

Here we are again. With the events of this week in Charleston, S.C. our nation once again has been thrown into the downward spiral of anxiety, hate, and loss after a senseless, violent tragedy that has claimed the lives of innocents and saints  I wasn’t planning on preaching about this topic this weekend, especially since I am a guest in your house of worship and this a particularly difficult and charged topic; but preaching the Word requires us to be timely and prophetic. I know this event has been on all of hearts and minds this week. So if you’ll allow me, I thought I would venture into these difficult and sobering issues in the company of our Old Testament Scripture.

The story of David and Goliath is one that many of us have known since our childhood. I can remember as a little boy hearing this story in church and going back home and finding a forked stick and putting a rubber band on it to make my own slingshot to play David and Goliath. But that memory is vague; and who knows whether maybe some well-meaning children’s church worker got the bright idea to make slingshots with the children as a craft for that Sunday. I’m sure my parents would have been glad that their little boy came home with a weapon and five smooth small stones with which to torment the family dog.  It’s a good thing I was never that good at crafts! But David and Goliath is a romantic story, when told to children. We tend to focus on David as the sweet little shepherd boy whom neither King Saul nor Goliath take all that seriously; the little boy who kills the giant with his slingshot.

From a scholarly point of view, this story may accent the Royal Ideology of the Davidic Kingdom. Viewed from this perspective, the story of David and Goliath is a wonderful piece of propaganda that represents David’s great cunning and resourcefulness as a warrior, as well as his close reliance upon God and the institution of Israel’s religion. The contrast between King Saul, the fearful warrior, and David, the unknown young shepherd boy, is particularly powerful here. As an adult reflecting on it today, I find it astonishing that we have made this into a children’s story. It is a particularly violent text. Not only does David proclaim to Goliath that he is going to cut his head off, after he slays him with the stone, he goes on to defile the giant’s body by cutting his head off. Not only that, he takes the head with him as a trophy to Jerusalem, and with Goliath’s head in his hand, he goes to Abner, the commander of Israel’s army, and King Saul, simply to display his military prowess. At least from the perspective of violence and horror, there is little to redeem this text; and yet we still view it as a children’s story.

I do believe, though, that this text still can speak to us today, particularly during a time of distress such as the one we’re facing after the massacre at Charleston this past week. To do so, we’ll need to read the story as a kind of parable of our own contemporary moral and spiritual dilemmas, embracing what is called a tropological reading of Scripture, a way of reading the echoes back to the ancient church, yet is still commonly practiced in the Black Church tradition. In this sense, Goliath represents for us any giant that we might struggle to slay in our lives. Those giants can be different things for each of us.

As a white worshiping community in the South in the US, even in the 21st century, the events of this week demonstrate very clearly that racism is a giant in our culture and in our own lives. Racism is a Goliath who is threatening to destroy and defeat us, and is acting on his threats to kill our very own brothers and sisters in Christian community. We know that the scourge of racism and the horrors of violence (particularly the gun violence) must be defeated. We know this just as surely as King Saul and the Israelites knew that Goliath must be defeated, if they were to live in peace. Yet, we are riddled and disabled by fear. Saul and the Israelites could not imagine how they were going to defeat this giant.  In the ancient ways of war, Goliath seemed undefeatable. He is portrayed as huge and tall, even by modern standards. He was also armored like a tank, with all the most advanced weaponry. Compared the Isrealites, the ancient Philistines were well known for their technical prowess, especially their metalworking. So a giant 10 feet tall, wearing somewhere around 150 pounds of armor, and able to throw a 25 pound spear, that would have been something to fear!

What’s more amazing is that the sight and words of Goliath caused the leaders of Israel to quake in  terror. This is the kind of terror that seizes you, the keeps you from moving, or acting, or doing anything. No one believes they have the wherewithal to take on Goliath. They are seized and disabled with fear. We’ve all been in situations like this, haven’t we? We may be facing a workplace bully or an addiction problem that seems so huge it is insurmountable. Some of us have been so beaten down and had our self-esteem battered, that we are disabled with fear, self-loathing, and self-doubt that prevents us from even seeing the opportunities ahead of us. When we think about Goliath this way, I think we can also draw a parallel to our own contemporary situation and racism. Racism is a particularly powerful enemy, in that it is something that is both at large in our culture and history, but also insidiously at work within each one of us, oftentimes without our even being aware of it.

What makes racism so powerful, is that it tends to instill, especially among the privileged group in society. a doubling of “otherness.” Not only do we in the majority culture project “otherness” upon the minority culture, it also instill within some of us a sense of moral superiority as we tend to project upon “others,” who act or speak openly on their fears and prejudices, as the “racists.” And we see such project going on in the media today. If we are charitable, this young shooter down in Charleston becomes an “isolated individual,” or is portrayed as a “troubled youth,” or someone who is wrestling with “mental illness.” If we are judgmental, this young man becomes a “redneck hick,” a “racist monster,” or a “vile terrorist.” Either way, we are projecting upon this young man a sense of “otherness.” He is the terrorist.  He is the redneck racist. He is a troubled young man.  We place all the blame on him and take no responsibility at all upon ourselves. And so Goliath continues to play with our minds and our hearts, to trick us into a sense of moral complacency and defeat. We come to believe that racism and violence are giants that just too large for us to confront or defeat.

Maybe we even become defensive. Saul’s approach to the problem of Goliath was a defensive one.   Even after David volunteered to take on Goliath, Saul tried to outfit David with the latest and greatest in Israelite armaments. We have this humorous picture of the young boy David struggling even to walk when wearing Saul’s armor. And yes friends, in my facebook feed these past few days, I’ve seen folks on the defensive. White friends of mine have posted that the battle flag flying over the monument at the South Carolina state capital is just a memorial, is not really a flag that historically represented the Confederacy and, blah, blah, blah—and then you see the fights and nasty comments in the facebook feed, and you begin to feel sad and sorry for everyone (both for and against) in your wider community.

Racism, like Goliath, pushes everyone towards the defensive. I wonder how many of our African American brothers and sisters came to church this morning with at least a slight tinge of fear and defensiveness this morning. I wonder how many of those of us in the white community may have wanted to shout out to the world this past week, “Dylan Roof isn’t me; he doesn’t represent me; he has nothing to do with me. We are different. Our community is loving and peaceable. Our church doesn’t preach hate.”  Or worse, we become part of the silent majority, not unlike the many German Christians whom Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously called out for remaining silent, as they saw Jews, Gypsies, Adventists, Socialists, and even activist Christians rounded up by the Nazis for extermination.

With all of these reactions and defenses, we are just throwing ourselves deeper into the clutches of racism. We are like Saul and the Israelites, disabled and broken, unable to confront our giant enemy before us. So David represents for us hope, a hope that we can participate in slaying the giants before us. He starts by acknowledging Goliath as a serious enemy to be defeated.

With racism, this is crucially important. As a member of the white community in the South, I must start by recognizing that all the forces at work in my culture and in our history have made me, whether I was complicit in it or not, into a racist! We must start by recognizing our enemy, as the enemy within.  Racism is like any demonic power or principality that is busily trying to capture and enslave us and our society.  It is part of what liberation theologians call structural sin.   It is bigger than any of us and to combat it, we must recognize that we are in its grasp  Just as the alcoholic cannot truly begin recovery until he or she recognizes that alcohol has power over him/her, we too must recognize that we too are caught up in the clutches of racism, consumerism, materialism, and militarism, and the like that dominate our contemporary American empire.

We cannot begin to embark upon the road to recovery until we recognize the power of the enemy within us and claim the reality that we too are racist. This is the frightening reality of sin that has caught hold of us. It is hard, but we cannot recognize our redemption until we take seriously that we have become beholden to the clutches of sin and death. But I must struggle to recognize that I am not much different than this baby-faced young boy. In many ways, Dylan Roof is me. We cannot begin to be changed by God’s grace, until we recognize the power that hateful messages, the experiences of bullying, and low self-esteem have upon our own broken psyches.

The good news is that we do not need to rely on our own defenses to save ourselves.  As David says to Goliath in the text, “The Lord will deliver you into my hand…that all may know that the LORD does not save by sword and spear, for the battle is the LORD’s and he will give you into our hand.” You see, David rejects Saul’s armor. David rejects the standard weapons and defenses of war. David recognizes that God can work through him and his five small stones to defeat Goliath. You see, read allegorically, David’s defeat of Goliath is not unlike Christ’s defeat of Satan and Satan’s empire upon the cross. The forces of death and evil have been defeated through Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. We can live again, in the freedom of what Dr. King called the “Beloved Community” because of Christ’s self-sacrificial death on the cross.

Yes, racism is indeed a giant in our culture, a giant that takes a hold of us in our fear and perplexity, and turns us against one another in acts of defeat, and violence, and hatred. But Christ has overcome this giant, and all of Satan’s forces, through the self-sacrificial death on the cross, and he has been resurrected in the Glory of the divine light. Brother and sisters, I say to you today, even when we are in the darkest clutches of any of Satan’s power or principalities, whether it be racism, addictions, struggles with illness, or pain, betrayal, or low self-esteem, the crucified Christ is with us. We are not alone! We are empowered, with Christ, with our brothers and sisters in the African American community, to take on selfless acts of love and self-sacrifice to overcome the bounds of racism and prejudice, and defeat that great old mortal enemy.  It may, it must, start within.  It may, it must, start with the recognition that we too have been joined with the forces of sin as enemies of Christ. But through Christ, through the cross and resurrection, our story ends with Love.  Our story ends in the Beloved Community, where there is no “other.” May we find ways to recognize the enemy within and undertake selfless, self-sacrificial acts of courage and justice, standing up to hate in all its forms, whether within or without, and join in vigil and memory of the countless martyrs who have died for racial reconciliation and transformation in our world today.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Friendship and Fear: Seeking God in a Season of Anxiety

“The friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him, and he makes his covenant known to them.” Psalm 25:14 (NRSV)

Interview with Bishop Angaelos
Huffpo article

Bishop Angaelos is a friend of God.  This past week, perhaps coincidentally at the beginning of the Lenten season, a gruesome video circulated on the internet from a terrorist group that calls itself the “Islamic State.”  I have not watched the video and refuse to.  Apparently it shows the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians on a beach in Libya.  The Copts are an ancient Egyptian Christian community that can date its roots back to the earliest history of Christianity.  They have generally not involved themselves with the conflicts in the middle East, were not involved in the medieval crusades, but have been a persistent and quiet Christian presence in a troubled part of the world.  Until recent years, Coptics were known in the US mostly among biblical scholars and church historians, because of the ancient manuscripts and other antiquities they have treasured for centuries in their monasteries and libraries.  Only in recent years have Copts come to the forefront of our media attention, as they have seen some of their churches burnt, beatings, and other persecutions.  But the beheading of these 21 Coptic Christians, because of its brutality, has shocked the world and garnered reaction.  Pope Francis has called these 21 Copts “martyrs.”   Obama sent a declaration of war on ISIS to the congress on Feb. 11. and followed up with remarks about the threat that groups like ISIS pose this past Thursday.  The reactions to the release of this video range the gamut from fear, the desire for military retribution, to outright ignorance and acts of Islamaphobia.

But Bishop Angaelos is a friend of God.  Now, in his interview with CNN, he said that he does not forgive the violent act that these members of ISIS engaged in, because that act is heinous. “But,” in his words, “we do forgive the killers from the depths of our hearts. Otherwise, we would become consumed by anger and hatred. It becomes a spiral of violence that has no place in this world.”  I hope you are as stunned by this proclamation as I am.  It seems really otherworldly.  Is this man crazy?  Is he somehow betraying of forsaking his brothers and sisters in Egypt who are facing certain persecution, while he jets around from his safe location in England and gives interviews to major media outlets?  Or is he a well meaning, but hopeless idealist with rose colored glasses, whom it is best for us to ignore?  Well, he may or may not be any or all of these things.  But what I want to suggest to you, reflecting on our Scripture reading today from Psalm 25, is that Bishop Angaelos is a true Friend of God.

In the opening and closing verses of Psalm 25, the Psalmist finds himself surrounded by his enemies. In verse 2, he cries to God that his enemies might not put him to shame, that his enemies might not experience exultation at his certain defeat.  In verses 16-20, the Psalmist is crying out that he feels isolated, surrounded by enemies, troubled, afflicted, distressed, with multiple enemies who have violent hatred towards him.  I suspect that this Psalm made its way into this part of the lectionary at the beginning of the Lenten season because of the ancient tradition that associates the Psalmist’s voice with Christ.  While the Psalm itself is attributed to David, who certainly knew what it was to have enemies, since the earliest history of the church Christian interpreters of the Psalms have heard them as expressions Christ’s voice.  It is as if Christ here is crying out from this Psalm, surrounded by enemies, experiencing affliction, anticipating violence and shame.  So at the beginning of the Lenten season we read this Psalm as an anticipation of Christ’s troubles, reminding us of our very human condition as we undertake our journey towards the cross on Good Friday.

But with the news this week, I can’t help but hear in the Psalmist’s terror, the experience of those 21 Coptic martyrs on that beach in Libya.  Just like the Psalmist, I imagined they cried out to God for intervention and to their killers for mercy.  In his interview with CNN, Bishop Angaelos, who also prayed for the captives’ release, was asked how he maintains his faith in God, after experiencing such a horrific outcome.  I have to confess that I struggle with his response.  On one hand, the Bishop reminds us that when one prays, “one should pray for the best outcome, not knowing what that outcome might be.”  I suppose there is wisdom in that, but how the deaths of these martyrs is the “best outcome” is still baffling to me.  He contends that their deaths “brought the imminent deaths of marginalized peoples, not just Christians, but Yaziddis and others in the Middle East, to the attention of the world.”  This is at once a deeply powerful and disturbing claim—and somehow uniquely Christian.

The cross, with which we adorn our homes, our churches, and even perhaps our bodies, is--a its most fundamental—an expression of terror.  It was used as an instrument of terror by the Romans to subjugate and enforce Roman power over marginalized people throughout the Mediterranean basin.
It was a public instrument of terror, much like the video of these beheadings circulating the internet, much like the lynching, cross-burning, and KKK rallies that dominated our region here within living memory of many of us.  But the Christian idea, and it is one that is deeply profound, is that the cross makes us aware of the suffering of marginalized peoples everywhere—and motivates us to acts of loving kindness and forgiveness, seizing the cycle of violence, and sharing love and acts of forgiveness to all who, whether literally or figuratively, are surrounded by enemies, whether these be bullies in the workplace, perpetrators of sexual or emotional violence in our homes and relationships, our own addictions from which we cannot free ourselves, or those who about to lower machetes over our bowed heads.  You see, the experience of shame at the hands of our enemies is grounded in our human reality.  The witness of the cross and the martyrs reminds us that Christ is with us and all marginalized peoples in those moments.  In answering the question whether he doubted the God to whom he had prayed for the captives release states, “I also prayed that, when the moment came, they would have the peace and strength to be able to get through it.”  The testimony of the martyrs is, as the Bishop reminds, one of peace and strength—and I would add, courage.

You see Bishop Angaelos is a friend of God.  I suspect that this is true because he knows something about courage…and fear.  In our translation of Psalm 25:14, the NRSV translation committee rendered the Hebrew words SOD JHWH as “friendship of the LORD.”  The Hebrew word SOD is often used in contexts implying council, the intimate circle of friends you might surround yourself with, those who support you and tell you the truths you need to hear.  In some cases, this word can also be rendered as counsel, the advice one might receive from one or more dear friends.  Along these lines, one might therefore understand Psalm 25:14 to mean that the intimate counsel—the friendship—of  God is for those who fear God.  But how do we unpack this?  Indeed what kind of friendship is this?  And what does it mean to fear God?

Here I’m going to wrestle a bit because I’m at the limits of my understanding.  Aristotle claimed that true friendship was only possible between two equally high status men (yes he was a sexist, but that was also true of his society), who participated equally in friendship without need or expectation of reciprocity.  He contrasted this supposedly ideal kind of friendship with other kinds of friendship, such as friendships of utility or pleasure.  We all know about those kinds of friendships.  We have friends that we have fun with or whom we use (or who use us) for certain favors and support to get by.  Additionally, friendships of utility and pleasure are often practiced between those of unequal status or of differing need.   Such friendships are generally transactional in nature.  For example, a wealthy patron may purchase for a small poor church a new stained glass window or an organ, so that poorer members of the church can enjoy it.  In exchange that patron enjoys the honor and status that accrues from such an act of friendship.  In another example, you may take your friend out for coffee after she picks you up to do some shopping.  In such cases, Aristotle points out, true friendship is not so much at work in such cases. These are more transactions of utility or pleasure, in which reciprocity is not only expected, but required, if such a friendship is to continue.  Aristotle therefore claims that true friendship can only be practiced between two high status people of virtue, because neither of them truly needs the other, but is simply engaging in friendship for the sake of practicing one’s own virtue.  For his reason, Aristotle believed that friendship between humans and gods were impossible.  The gods have no use for us.  We have nothing to offer.  Such a friendship could only be one-directional, and would lean towards the exploitative.

But the Psalmist’s claim is different, “Friendship of the LORD is for those who fear him and he makes his Covenant known to them.”  This is not so much a claim that humans can befriend God, but that divine friendship can be experienced by us.  The Psalmist mentions God’s covenantal steadfast love multiple times.  The Psalmist also recognizes that he has failed to uphold the human end of the covenant on multiple occasions.  And this is true, too, isn’t it?  We humans are frail and broken creatures, fundamentally on our own unable to maintain the covenant promises to which we are bound.  All of us, in one way or another, recognize that we have fallen short of our covenant relations to one another, whether in our marriages, or towards our parents in their old age, or towards our children, our churches, friends and communities.  The Psalmist recognizes that God’s covenant faithfulness is steadfast and everlasting.  Where we fall short, and we all inevitably do, God remains steadfast in God’s friendship towards us.

Furthermore, God’s intimate counsel is reserved for those who fear God.  Fear is a difficult word for us.  But in sight of our human covenantal frailty, I think it is a normal reaction be fearful of a powerful deity who chooses to loves us, in spite of our utter inability to remain faithful and true, in spite of our utter inability to comprehend God’s power.  With as powerful and perplexingly loving a deity as this, human trepidation and fear is I think a suitable reaction, but it ought not disable us.

You see, Bishop Angaelos is a friend of God.  For it seems to me that God’s friendship is for those who are humbly aware of their own human limitations in comprehending God—yet seek God's will anyway.   God’s friendship is for those who do not rely upon their own cleverness or strength to make their way through the world, but recognize a source of strength, justice and truth deep within that is greater than themselves.  Friendship with God is for those who can master their fears and courageously engage God in dialogue, debate, and council—and be humble enough to listen when life presents them with the greatest of perplexities.  Friendship with God is for those who hear the voice of the martyrs calling out to them to become aware of the plight of marginalized in societal systems of violence, injustice, and exploitation—and are not afraid to call such systems out, in spite of great danger to themselves, their families, and their communities.  Friendship with God is for those who are humble enough to forgive their enemies at the bottom of their hearts, smack in the face of great human terror and even greater human evil.  The friendship of God is for those who rely upon God’s covenant fidelity in their lives, even when they feel the most broken and totally inadequate towards God and their fellow human beings.

In this Lenten season, are we ready to join Bishop Angaelos in his prayer for forgiveness, even when we feel surrounded by our enemies on every side?  Are we ready to reach out with forgiveness to those who have hurt us?  Are we ready to humbly recognize our own inadequacies and brokenness and reach out to those whom we’ve hurt and seek forgiveness?  Are we ready in our day to day lives to seek justice, practice peacemaking, and engage in transformative reconciliation?  Are we ready, too, to become friends of God?

Saturday, November 29, 2014

That the Mountains Might Quake

First Advent 2014

Is 64:1-8
1 O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
2 as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
3 When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
4 From ages past no one has heard,
no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
who works for those who wait for him.
5 You meet those who gladly do right,
those who remember you in your ways.
But you were angry, and we sinned;
because you hid yourself we transgressed.
6 We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
7 There is no one who calls on your name,
or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
8 Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
9 Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
and do not remember iniquity forever.
Now consider, we are all your people.

            Anger, fear, prejudice, greed, desire, violence, consumerism, terror, suicide bombings, war, luxury, sex, overeating, gluttony—these are some of the images you might have seen if you turned on the television over this holiday weekend.  The protests and riots in Ferguson have dominated television and facebook this holiday weekend.  I’m thankful that Jana and I have decided not to subscribe to cable or satellite TV, because then we truly wouldn’t be able to get away from it.  But even in our visits with friends and discussions with students this past week, we haven’t been able to escape the anger that is seething in our culture, anger between blacks and whites, anger directed at our Hispanic brothers and sisters, or anger at Obama or others who want to extend the hand of welcome to those who are living as strangers among us.  There’s anger that falls along party lines.  Reading some of the posts from my friends over facebook over the past few weeks, I’d think that every Republican was a capitalist Satan worshipper and every Democrat a communist baby killer.  What should be a peaceful celebration of thankfulness and family joy looks like it has turned into a consumeristic quagmire of conflict and anger.  And, watch out, Advent is upon us and Christmas is coming.             
            Yes, today is first advent, and our Scripture reading for the day from Isaiah 64 has a lot to teach us about anger, God’s sovereignty, and how we as human beings may expect God’s guidance in our turbulent lives.  As I was preparing for the sermon today, I was truly struck by how much anger is in this prophetic text.  However, this prophetic text, coming from the end of Isaiah, is strikingly different from many of the other prophetic oracles that one might find, especially from those in the opening third of the book.  First of all, rather than the typical prophetic oracle, in which the prophet speaks in the first person singular as the voice of God, pronouncing judgment and destruction upon Judah, these verses are in first person plural and the prophet is voicing the concerns of his community directly to God.  God is addressed as a “you,” “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence.”
Likewise the voice here is more like that of the Psalmist expressing communal lament, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.”  What perfect images for Thanksgiving: Israel’s deeds are like the dirty dish-cloth after the thanksgiving cleanup; all the people fade like leaves blown from the autumn trees.  Yet it is God’s anger that can make the mountains shake.  As the prophet continues, God is praised as the one who can make the nations tremble, whose anger can start forest fires, and boil away the lakes.  With this juxtaposition between human iniquity and God’s anger, the prophet has a lot to say to us in our present circumstance.
            Righteous anger, righteous indignation, punishment and retribution belong properly to God.  Many of us are uncomfortable with the image of an angry God.  We like to imagine God in Christ as a loving and forgiving God.  That’s fine and there’s a place for that message.  But when it comes to social injustice, human exploitation, enslavement and repression, a proper trust in God’s anger is not only well placed, it is part of the prophetic expectation to forsake idolatry and worship God alone.  As the prophet says, “From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.”  The prophets believed in a God who was actively involved in the affairs of human history, a God who brings about radical change and transformation, even when it is painful.  This is a God who calls out human idolatry and injustice, and brings about corrective action, even using Israel’s foes to bring punishment and retribution for the oppression of the poor, the fatherless, and the widows.  
            Does this mean that we can’t be angry?  No, psychologists tell us that, when properly engaged, anger is actually healthy and normal.  Anger is a proper emotional response when something is perceived as wrong or when some need is not being adequately met.    Anger can activate us and those around us to get primal needs met.  I am not a parent.  So it is amazing to me to see how calmly and sweetly many mothers come to the angry screams of their infants with warm milk, instantly calming the child.  In family, community, and friendship, the expression of anger can actually have a restorative role in redressing wrongs and meeting needs.  Learning to get in touch with our own anger and learning how to express it properly are important steps for folks who are engaging in nonviolent conflict resolution.
            But what the prophet is voicing is that our festering, seething anger can become a form of idolatry.   In such a case, our role is to repent from such idolatry and place such anger in Yahweh’s hands.   I suspect that there is a great deal of festering, seething anger in our society today.   I also suspect that there are malevolent forces at work that, perhaps even consciously, are using media and other methods of communication to keep that anger and fear alive like a festering sore.  Our limbic system has developed over the generations to help us react to extraordinary situations of fight of flight.  Yet it is these same impulse systems that make us into great consumers.  I find it a fascinating and rich irony to see that the protestors in the Michael Brown case have now turned to the malls to confront folks there on “Black Friday” with a “Brown Friday.”  That seething anger, stirred up by images on TV that steam over and over again, burning cars, angry shouting, marching and protesting, all of that seething anger ironically makes us into great consumers and help to drive our idolatrous economy.  The outburst and brawls over the Thanksgiving doorbusters have become commonplace. 
Flight or fight, even in our every day, makes us into cooperative consumers.  On Monday nights, after driving through rush hour traffic to get to my Charlotte class--now that’s fight or flight—how often do I find myself in the drive through at Chick-fil-a, ready to order my milkshake Monday meal?  When our lizard brains control us, malevolent forces can easily take advantage of us, set up idols for us to worship.  In such cases our racial identity, our adherence to a political party, even our identification with our favorite athletic team, cease to become healthy markers of diversity.  Instead, we become enslaved to them, sometimes unconsciously, with an impulse to dismiss, fear, or even hate those who are not like us.   This is not healthy.  Not only that, when these idols control us, we become susceptible to forces that diminish our self-worth and that of others, so that we become slaves to racism, consumerism, and unknowing ideologues for demonic powers whose sole purpose is to exploit, dominate, and destroy.
Seeing such forces at work, the prophet calls out, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence!”  Can this become our advent prayer?  This is the time of year when Christians remind themselves of Israel’s yearning for a coming king, a coming Messiah.  With all the pastoral images of a sweet infant Jesus born in a manger, perhaps we’ve lost sight of Israel’s yearning for a powerful king, one whose coming would shake the foundations of the mountains.  If we can also say this prayer, together with the prophet, perhaps—in spite of all the anger and turmoil, stress and fear—we might be able to return to a God who is our father and potter, in whose hands we are clay to be molded and transformed into new creations.  Perhaps when we recognize God’s power and come to rely upon God’s anger to intervene against our own injustices, we might also pray, together with the prophet,  “Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever.  Now consider, we are all your people!”
Let us pray,
“Lord, we are all your people…”