Enough with “good white people”

First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

—MLK, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

I have written a good deal about the construct of whiteness (click here, here, here, and here) and how in and of itself, this pernicious ideology is oppressive. To be sure, its oppression is disproportionately felt by non-whites, which should always remain the primary reason why we seek to dismantle whiteness in all its guises. But it is also extremely damaging to so-called whites as well. This is not a new insight nor is it one original to me.

As a beloved community scholar rooted in the work of Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I wrestle with the bifurcated nature of whiteness. On one hand, I reject the foundational racial claims and cultural assumptions of whiteness. I do not identify with whiteness in terms of my own self-regard because whiteness holds nothing with which I resonate. On the other hand, I am a direct beneficiary of cultural whiteness and I have inherited both the perfidious history and the present horrific existence that is white supremacy culture.

For many years, I wanted to be a “good white person.” To me, this meant being involved with racial justice work, showing myself to be someone who was consistent in word and deed. While this isn’t bad on its face, I see now that I sometimes had the wrong motivations. I was still so entrenched in my own internalized whiteness, I sought praise from non-whites to assure myself that I wasn’t racist (which is problematic on so many levels). I have been blessed to walk with a wide variety of people on the racial justice journey, each of whom has offered wisdom and frankness that’ve shaped me.

The continued irony of my own existence is that in order for me to be able to morally and ethically reject whiteness, I have to work toward its complete destruction. I do not get to declare myself emancipated from whiteness until its primary victims no longer have to look over their shoulders. For me, there is no “good white person.” Please understand the context, though; this is not a call for people to engage in racial hatred. White is not a race. It is a lie. A good lie is still a lie.

The real “white man’s burden” is coming to terms with the horror that has been perpetrated in the name of a nonexistent race, and how the very institutions of our government are covered in the blood of untold millions because of specious racial theories. It is understanding that we cannot turn aside, cannot continue to put the onus on the oppressed, and cannot seek praise for being a “good example for our race.” At least, that’s where it is for me right now.

I don’t have to describe the uncertainty with which we are living right now; each day feels like we’re running a marathon on stilts in a hurricane. We are continually pummeled, falling, getting back up, and lurching on toward Bethlehem. The storm is no abating. It is not getting easier. And that can feel completely overwhelming.

Yet.

We stand at a critical point in history. It is clear that monumental change is happening. We don’t know which direction it will go, but we are not helpless. In order to root out these structures, to affect longitudinal change that will allow for an authentic national repentance and be based upon restorative justice, it takes individuals and communities across the country to be the driving force. It will take a whole lot of good people to finally erase whiteness.

 

Beloved community: Welcoming GA-LI and Sommer McGuire

bonhoeffer

Genuine spiritual authority is to be found only where the ministry of hearing, helping, bearing, and proclaiming is carried out. Every cult of personality that emphasized the distinguished qualities, virtues, and talents of another person, even though these be of an altogether spiritual nature, is worldly and has no place in the Christian community; indeed, it poisons the Christian community.
—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

This past week I have watched in horror as we sink deeper into totalitarianism. The balance of powers that is the bulwark of our democratic republic is nonexistent. There is no system by and for the people. The Executive issues orders without proper planning, oversight, communication, or legal standing; Congress, bought and paid for by insidious corporate interests, assaults fragile civil rights and protections while cynically crying, ala Braveheart, “freedom!!”; the SCOTUS issued brutal rulings against labor unions, the reproductive rights of women, and the rights of Muslims to travel to and from the United States. Chaos reigns as families frantically try to reconnect after the inept and cruel execution of Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy.

African-Americans continue to be humiliated, threatened, abused, and killed by mechanisms of the State. White people’s tears and fragility have a body count. Trans people keep dying at the hands of bigots carrying crosses. Sexual assault, even in this era of #metoo, remains rampant and victim-shaming is still the go-to defense. And I watch as millions of so-called Christians support what is happening, even having the audacity to proclaim it God’s will.

If that’s God, I want no part of it.

**

On April 7, 1933, the Nazi government announced the inclusion of the “Aryan Paragraph,” which began the systematic removal of Jewish persons from German cultural, economic, political, and social life. It also meant that any pastors of Jewish descent would lose their jobs. Rev. Dr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the leading theologians in the world, immediately began to speak out.

His concern as both a pastor and a follower of Christ is that his ministerial work could not be limited to just “members” of the church; the threat posed by Nazism was toward the body of all occupied Europe. Bonhoeffer deemed this not just a military threat, but an existential one as well. Nazism is, at its core, an attempt to divide people, to alienate individuals from all except State machinations. Bonhoeffer understood this and believed he knew the answer: “Where a people prays, there is the church, and where the church is, there is never loneliness.”[1]

The second challenge Nazism presented was that Bonhoeffer regarded the physical Church as being analogous to the physical presence of Christ in the world; Hitler was setting himself up as not only the head of state but also the head of the Church, through what was known as the “Führer Principle.” This established Hitler’s word as the ultimate authority, no matter how capricious, illegal, or unchristian; when coupled with the racial conformity laws, the foundations of Nazism seemed incompatible with a faith in Christ, at least according to Bonhoeffer.

Not all agreed. The Roman Catholic Church signed the Reichskonkordat, which protected the rights of Catholics but required bishops to take an oath of loyalty to the Reich and for all Church officials to refrain from work within any political party other than the NSDAP.[2] From Bonhoeffer’s own Lutheran tradition, Ludwig Müeller was appointed Reichsbishof of the German Evangelical Church; Bonhoeffer knew that unless there was resistance to the Nazification of the Church, Christ’s presence in the world would be killed without a chance for resurrection.

So he acted, even to the end of his life.

**

I struggle mightily with the fact that I am part of a religious tradition that has visited unspeakable horrors upon other people. I feel anger arise when I see others of my supposed race, my gender identity, my faith confession, engage in racist, misogynistic, Islamaphobic, transphobic, homophobic acts and on the daily act like they have no GD sense. The country I live in is and has always been racist. There is no gender or racial equity; there appears to be no arc toward justice, not an arc that doesn’t include the continued deaths and unfathomable suffering of so many others who do not look like me or claim the same faith tradition as do I.

I am fighting inside myself not to give way to hatred and despair. I refuse to rest upon my privilege and simply to turn a blind eye. But I confess that I am tired. It seems like a nonstop torrent of terrible, don’t it? Each day comes with it a new nightmare to be situated in the dreamscape from which none of us can awake.

But then I think about people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and I know that though we may be weary, we must always speak and act as the gospel commands.

**

I remain a devout believer in Jesus Christ. I follow in the Jesus way and I have religious privilege as a pastor. Tomorrow, at First Presbyterian Church of Yellow Springs, the congregation and I will be welcoming three very special guests: Alicia Lowrance Pagan and Ray Two Crows Wallen, who perform as GA-LI, and Sommer McGuire. They will share songs and stories about migrants and justice-seeking; we will go to Creator together to hear, to help, to bear, and to proclaim. We will garner our spiritual energy to feel the power that comes when we more fully understand how we are connected to one another.

I will deliver no sermon. The liturgy, the work of the people, will be our offering.

All people of good will are welcome. Service begins at 10:30. Come as you are: wonderfully made and radically loved.

 

[1] Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 69.

[2] Full text for the oath can be found here: http://www.concordatwatch.eu/kb–1211.834

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Threshold moments: On moving onward

 

As a kid, I fell in love almost every day. My emotions were so overwhelming, the only way I could negotiate existence was to let the feelings pour from me toward others. This made me an intense little dude. I’ve gotten better at controlling the emotions, but I’m an intense bigger dude. I discovered early that music is instrumental (see what I did there?) in helping me feel understood, in providing me an outlet for my myriad emotions. Boyz II Men’s debut album Colleyhighharmony holds a very special place in my heart. I wore out two copies of the tape inside of a year. My brother, who listened to Black Flag and Fugazi, wanted to kill me.

This past weekend, I informed the congregation of my intention to step down as the pastor. The date is still TBD, but it will be sooner rather than later. Sunday’s service was incredibly emotional; the predominant feeling, though, is love. It is mixed with no small degree of lament but ’tis love all the same.

There are times in our lives in which we find ourselves between identities, between worlds, between the past and a future yet to settle into the present. The liminal phase. Like a child undergoing a rite of passage to enter the community of adults. Behind them an identity they can no longer claim; in front of them, an identity they have not yet earned. Liminal. From the Latin lamen, meaning threshold.

There is rarely a single, lone factor that pushes a person to a threshold. For me, considerations financial and professional certainly have factored in. I would be lying if I said otherwise. There are reasons I will not share publicly—and privately only with a very select few—but the main reason I will: I believe that the Spirit is moving me onward.

I sometimes hesitate to use language like this because many are rightly suspect when Christians talk about following the direction of God. Too often such statements are followed by actions aimed at controlling and condemning others. For me, discernment means months, if not years, of continued work on deconstructing the ego while listening for the still, small voice. It means confronting the overwhelming emotions that come with fear: fear of losing love, or leaving what is familiar, of not being able to control what comes next. It’s so hard to say goodbye to yesterday, indeed.

I am returning to my home denomination, the United Church of Christ, to serve as an intentional interim pastor. This means that I will not serve an individual congregation for longer than two years; my job will be to help them identify who they have been, where they are now, and what God is offering for the future. My job will be to eliminate my own job, in a way. It is a John the Baptizer position, clearing the one for the one who is to come.

I’m sad. But I’m also excited.

Damn those thresholds.

 

 

 

From Luther to Beauregard: My, how public theology has fallen

Image result for marburg colloquy

In October of 1529, the leading Protestant reformers Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, Martin Bucer, and Phillip Melanchthon met with several other theologians at Marburg Castle in Hesse, Germany, to see if they could put on paper a Protestant theology that would unite the disparate factions in Europe against the Roman Catholic Church. This colloquy is perhaps best remembered for the falling out of Luther and Zwingli over the issue of the real presence of Christ within the Eucharist, which ultimately led to two Protestant confessions: Lutheran and Calvinist. However, the resulting fifteen point document, known as the Marburg Articles, contains two points that have oddly become most relevant, nearly 500 years on, to all Protestant Christians, regardless of confession, in the United States.

Twelfth, that all secular authorities, laws, courts, and ordinances, wherever they may be, are of a correct and proper standing and not forbidden, as many papists and Anabaptists teach and hold. Rather, that a Christian, if he is called or born into the ruling class, can be saved through faith in Christ, just as in the class of father and mother, husband and wife, etc.

Thirteenth, that that which we call traditions in our human order in spiritual and ecclesiastical business, so long as they are not clearly contrary to God’s Word, may be followed or abandoned so that those with whom we deal can be shielded from all nature of unnecessary annoyance and the weak and common peace can be aided through love.

**

Five years later, in 1534, the Act of Supremacy made England’s King Henry VIII the head of the Anglican Church. After his death in 1553, Queen Mary I, a Catholic better-known as “Bloody Mary,” engaged in the violent oppression of the very church for which she was the head. Mary’s brief reign was followed by the Elizabethan age, which saw the undeniable assent of the Anglican Church. During these years, though, the religious wars became such an issue, not only for the United Kingdom but for Christian Europe as a whole, that Holy Roman Emperor Charles V signed the Peace of Augsburg in 1555. In it was set forth the provisio cuius regio, eius religio. “Whose realm, their religion.”

Unfortunately, that peace left out everyone except the Catholics and the Lutherans. It is a sad truth that the history of Christianity is largely one of exclusion, at least when it is the religion of the empire. Denominationalism rarely has focused on radical inclusion, in the grand sweep of Christian history.

**

St. Augustine’s classic text, City of God, evidences that Christians have long been thinking about the relationship between earthly kingdoms, such as that which opposed Jesus of Nazareth, and the kingdom of heaven promised upon the return of Christ. City of God, in many ways, is a Christian rewriting of Plato’s Republic. At issue in both is how one lives a life that is both sacred and profane. How does one define duty clearly if there are competing goods? For Plato, the choice is between allegiance to the city-state or to the Good? For Augustine, allegiance to the ruling power or to Jesus the Christ?

This past week, as the horrid immigration crisis has revealed the demonic and reprobate nature of the Trump Administration, we’ve been witness to the Attorney General of the United States, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, and the White House Press Secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, offering their weighty, considered theological opinions. The former offered a tortured reading of Romans 13, the latter, an exegetically-dubious, “I can say that it is very biblical to enforce the law. That is repeated throughout the Bible.” 

I bet Augustine and Luther are just shitting themselves.

**

The Marburg Articles excerpted above show the continuation of the grand conversation, from pagan Rome to Catholic Rome to Protestant Europe. How do we negotiate ourselves as public and private persons? How do we properly fulfill our obligations and maintain right allegiances? How do we serve God whilst being subject to human rule? 

Reformation Europe was a powderkeg frequently ignited. Theological concerns were not just matters for colloquies. Heresy trials resulted in the deaths of remarkable, sincere people. Massive armies were at the command of religious zealots of varying theologies; all the while, the mass of humanity led lives of quiet desperation (with apologies to Thoreau).

The Articles aimed, in some real way, to set forth a few practical answers. I write as a pastoral theologian; for me, the only theology that matters is that which helps us get through the vicissitudes of life. I try to hold myself to the ethical principles that are a direct outgrowth of my code of morality. And my moral code, more than anything else, is rooted in the God of justice, compassion, mercy, grace, and love. So while I may not agree with some of the principles of the Articles, I deeply appreciate that they were focused on guiding people in how to follow God in the world.

So what do the articles excerpted above mean?

**

Article Twelve: that all secular authorities, laws, courts, and ordinances, wherever they may be, are of a correct and proper standing and not forbidden, as many papists and Anabaptists teach and hold. Is it a sin to utilize the courts or governmental structures in a system you find to be fundamentally corrupted or contrary to your understanding of God? This article says, “no.” We live in a society and in order to function, we have to engage with those who are different (again, keeping in mind that there were only two actors at first, Catholics and Lutherans).

Rather, that a Christian, if he is called or born into the ruling class, can be saved through faith in Christ, just as in the class of father and mother, husband and wife, etc. 

This is really interesting. There are several things at play here.

  1. Salvation is not a matter of class. Christ is the great equalizer. All who have faith will be met with the same grace, unearned but freely given.
  2. The other stations mentioned, that of mother and father, are telling. “Be fruitful and multiply” is a command Christians have taken just as seriously as our Jewish siblings. So, parenthood was seen as a Christian duty that, in its fulfilling, would keep a person close to God. Therefore, a person in the ruling class can remain close to God while participating in government.
  3. We must consider the ramifications of the first two points. If we are all equal before God, how are we to understand when we are born or brought into the ruling class? If this path is a valid one in order to remain in right relationship with Christ, is this because we can actualize what we believe God calls us to do within government? Or is the idea here that we can participate in a flawed or even corrupted government and not fear for our salvation as long as we retain faith in Christ?

To be sure, there are detailed, historical answers about which my colleagues in church history are much more qualified to write. For our purposes, it will suffice to point at the shiny object and say “look, Christians have been wrestling with these questions for millennia and, gasp, there are millions of pages written about them!” I’m looking at you, Beauregard. 

Article the Thirteenth, that that which we call traditions in our human order in spiritual and ecclesiastical business, so long as they are not clearly contrary to God’s Word, may be followed or abandoned so that those with whom we deal can be shielded from all nature of unnecessary annoyance and the weak and common peace can be aided through love.

This would have been an interesting argument to offer in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission case. The writers of Marburg were saying: “We’ve really got to let some stuff go. Yes, traditions are important and we should keep those that are essential to our faith practice. But we live in a society and we’ve got to pick our battles. Is this really so important that the common peace should be interrupted, or aid to the weak should be compromised?

For Protestants, Martin Luther’s doctrine of two kingdoms—in a 1528 sermon he also refers to it as two kinds of righteousness—is perhaps the most well-known example we can use to situate the theological dumbfuckery that is Evangelical Christianity in the United States.

Luther wrote of two different kingdoms: the temporal one of this world, and the spiritual one of God’s. Our temporal world exists because of sin, because of the fall of Adam. This realm is constantly bombarded by evil, thronged as it is by the devil and ensnared in sin, sticky like a spider web spun on a sap-laden tree. The only safeguards against this are the “offices” and “stations” (rulers, teachers, pastors, parents) that accompany temporal existence.

It is here where nuance too often is lost. Luther maintains that God is in control of both realms, but humans access them differently. For the temporal world, there is the Law. For the spiritual, there is the Gospel. Dr. Anders Nygren writes in the Journal of Lutheran Ethics 

Luther insists that it is of primary importance not to confuse the two kingdoms. Each must be true to its Divine mission. Through the Gospel God rules His spiritual kingdom, forgives sins, justifies and sanctifies. But He does not thereby supersede or abolish the earthly kingdom: in its domain it is to rule with power and the sword. Any attempt to rule the world with the Gospel is a double error, carrying a double penalty. Firstly, the Gospel is destroyed, and becomes a new Law to take the place of the old – man makes Christ another Moses, as Luther puts it. And in addition the world suffers: to quote Luther, “What would be the result of an attempt to rule the world by the Gospel and the abolition of earthly law and force? It would be loosing savage beasts from their chains. The wicked, under cover of the Christian name would make unjust use of their Gospel freedom.” And again. “To try to rule a country, or the world, by the Gospel would be like putting wolves, lions, eagles ,and sheep all together in the fold and saying to them, ‘Now graze, and live a godly and peaceful life together. The door is open, and there is pasture enough, and no watchdog you need fear.’ The sheep would keep the peace, sure enough, but they would not live long.” https://www.elca.org/JLE/Articles/931 

Luther sees the Law (understood here first as the Ketuvim, and then Lutheran teaching) as a structure through which God can work and the people can best be prepared to receive the Gospel. It is a mistake to regard the two realms as separate, for both are under the domain of God. However, adherence to God’s law is, next to grace, the best way to navigate our way through the present morass.

When Luther writes about the abandoning of traditions, whether they be ecclesial or civil, for the sake of the common peace, he is always thinking about the nature of sin and the impact it has on people. For Luther, the stakes humans face are incredibly high; he described terrifying visions of hell that would make Jonathan Edwards sleep with a nightlight. But he also had a practical side. What are these arguments about traditions doing to advance God’s love, to bring about peace, and to help the afflicted? Are you objecting to something that does not go against God’s law? If so, let that shit go. 

Or something like that.

**

The present administration, in a word, is lawless. It comes as no surprise to me that the public theology from within and around the president’s dirty nest is malformed and mutant. The notion that any earthly law that is in place is de facto the desire of God is ridiculous on its face. If Evangelicals and Republicans (six of one, right?) really believed that, they never would have said a cross word about President Obama. Beauregard and his ilk have a peculiar theology: the Law only applies to those whom they hate and want to oppress, grace is available only to those who look like them, and the purpose of life post-baptism is to judge others in such harsh terms one wonders how God, on judgment day, could stoop any lower and still be called God.

I agree that Church and State should be separated. But as a follower of Jesus, I have moral codes that I think should be ethical ones as well. You don’t need Jesus in order to arrive at these ethical principles. People of myriad faith and philosophical traditions and non-traditions have arrived upon them independently of Christianity. As a Christian, though, God does not allow me to simply absolve myself of responsibility to speak out and act against that which violates the Gospel.

The only being I submit to completely is God. And it is not the God talked about by the likes of a Huckabee.

Ananias’ Courage: Acts 9, Letter from a Birmingham Jail, and the PC(USA) A Corp

mlk behind bars.jpg

The conversion of Saul is oft-told in Christian circles. His is the most well-known tale: Saul’s dedicated work in rooting out Jesus followers from the ranks of Jews; the appearance of the Risen Christ who asks Saul why he persecutes the Lord; his transformation from the Saul of oppression to the Paul of liberation. The story has given we Christians a penchant for the dramatic conversion tale.

Today, though, let us focus on another figure in the Acts 9 narrative. Ananias is introduced to us as a devout man living in Damascus. Later scholars will argue whether he is to be regarded as an apostle or a prophet. His call is similar to that of Abraham, Moses, and Isaiah: God appears, calling out his name, to which Ananias responds: “Here I am, Lord.” God gives him a mission, to go via the Straight Road to find Saul of Tarsus, who was physically blind but had experienced a vision of Ananias coming to lay hands upon him.

Like most prophetic calls, this one is rife with uncertainty. Ananias knows about Saul’s reputation. He has been instrumental in the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Saul is not the type of person a Jewish Jesus-believer wants to encounter. He’s a zealot with authority. Regardless, God is explicit. “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel. I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”

Ananias overcomes his fear. He walks into the house of Judas where Saul has been for three days, reeling from his experience and blinded by the light. Ananias lays hands, which some argue was the third Christian sacrament, after baptism and the Eucharist.  The scales fall from Saul’s eyes and he goes out to be baptized by Ananias.

Tomorrow, April 16, we mark the fifty-fifth anniversary of the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote to prominent white clergy who had publicly called upon King and by association the Civil Rights movement, to slow down. King secured a pen and began writing a 7,000-word epistle that is perhaps the most important in our country’s history. King was prophetic with his words. He an Ananias writing to a Church filled with Sauls. He knew the dangers but was secure in his own sense of call. The push for justice cannot be contingent upon the comfort level of the oppressor.

Within the denomination I serve, the Presbyterian Church (USA), there are currently heated discussions concerning our national restructuring. I do not pretend to understand the minutiae, but I do understand that the Advocacy Committee on Racial Ethnic Concerns (ACREC), the Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns, the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACWP), and Presbyterian Women all feel discounted in the ongoing process. They are only being brought in after key decisions have been made, without their input. They are Ananias, trying to get through to Saul.

In the Church, we far too often like to think of ourselves as Paul, boldly going where God sends us, determined to preach the Gospel. But the Church is Saul to many in the Body of Christ. The Church is the white pastors who called upon King to slow down, telling him that he was an outsider upsetting the apple cart. One of the central messages of today’s passage is that sometimes we can be dangerous yet God sends people to us to help the scales fall away.

I’m a Stated Supply Pastor for a small congregation. I am not involved in the national conversations, but that does not mean that I can’t be Saul. As much as I try to reject racism in all its forms, that doesn’t mean I can’t be one of the white pastors telling King to shut up and know his place.

It really is a pivotal time for Mainline Protestant denominations. I imagine that is said every generation, but it is especially true right now. My colleague Rev. Keri Allen is an important, prophetic voice right now. She is pushing for us all, regardless of our relationship with power, to think theologically. This is great advice for any Christian, but it is especially vital when examining institutional structures that are like a legion of Sauls occupying a village of Ananiases.

May the scales fall from our eyes without the deaths of any more Stephens.

Clothed in Christ and Running Nude: My Holy Week with Hatred

day after easter.jpgResurrection consciousness is a process, not a moment. Mary’s Easter morning proclamations uttered in Aramaic were, in the coming days, whispered in Greek and Coptic, Semitic dialects and Latin. Resurrection consciousness requires both the seed finding purchase in good soil and the reaping of the harvest fruits: we must cultivate Christ in our intentions, express Christ in our speech, and manifest Christ in our actions. Resurrection consciousness is what emerges when we decrease so that God may increase (John 3:30).

However, the cultural Evangelical Christianity that has won out—a Christianity that seems to serve Mammon rather than God—puts all the Easter eggs in one theological basket: “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching has been in vain and your faith has been in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14b). Proponents of this view ignore Paul’s belief that the Parousia, the Second Coming, was going to happen in his lifetime (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17); it should be noted that this same text indicates that no one has ascended to heaven yet: everyone who is buried is still awaiting their bodily resurrection. Evangelicals ignore these contradictions but furiously insist that complete and total assent to the literal, bodily resurrection of Christ is necessary.

Why do I bring this up? Because for the first time in my practicing Christian life, I went through Holy Week feeling pretty disconnected from God. I was also called into some very challenging ministry situations and preached three sermons. It was a shitty time for God and me not to be clicking on all cylinders. Now that we’re past Resurrection Sunday, here’s why I’m disillusioned:

How did Holy Week gain national attention this week, other than the actions of the Pope? A Fox News commentator used Christianity as a shield to deflect criticism, and the occupier of the Oval Office cynically delivered one of the most uncomfortable Easter and Passover addresses I have ever watched, unloaded a tweetstorm, and then barked out ignorant lies before going in to worship.

Yet, the one they call forty-five sees his approval numbers grow, supported largely by white, Evangelical voters. The seminary I attend has a number of self-identified white Evangelicals; for them, this is primarily a theological identifier. Evangelical theology largely is rooted in having a born-again experience, attesting to the inerrancy of the Bible, believing that Jesus is the only way to God, preparing for a coming judgment, and spreading the message. To be sure, there are more nuances but in the main, these are the core beliefs. (I don’t know a single theologically-serious Evangelical who supports the current Administration, by the way.)

Attenuating the theology, though, is all manner of political and cultural flotsam awash in hypocritical and demagogical jetsom. It is what allows someone to claim that God has anointed as divine leader a man who is incapable of summarizing the Easter story  I watched this week as white, self-proclaimed Christians made threats against survivors of school shootings, who ridiculed and victim-blamed as more names were added to the growing number of people of color who are shot and killed by police. Metaphorically, I looked around and saw people who look like me and claim the same God as me and they were screaming for Barabbas and supporting Herod. I was overcome with hatred.

I know that hatred solves nothing.  I know that it is a poison that harms only me. I know that I should not have approached the altar with hatred in my heart, that I should’ve prayed (I did) and fasted (medically, I can’t) and loved (I really tried). Believe me, I know all these things.

Resurrection consciousness is a process, not a moment. Paul writes in Galatians 3:27 that through our baptisms we are clothed in Christ. Well, this past week, I have been like the mystery man in Mark’s gospel who shows up at the arrest wearing only a loincloth, which is ripped off before he runs away nude (Mark 14:51-2). It has been hard for me to feel resurrection hope.

To be sure, I am not questioning my faith. I am just being honest that this year I was locked much more within Good Friday. I am questioning what it is I represent. Do I really believe that the Body of Christ is manifest in Church? Who is the Risen Christ the Church proclaims, and does he have any relationship with Jesus? Perhaps more than ever, I have felt the anguish and anger and hatred empire can produce.

Comfort comes, methinks, in the fact that resurrection happens without our assent; transformation occurs whether we notice or affirm; the feelings of hatred and anger I have are subsiding because I have not shamed them or guilted them, but rather have examined them, experienced them, and soon will discard them, as new emotions and experiences arise.

I slept with the window wide open last night, only to awake with snow covering the ground and trees. Now, the snow is melted, save the pockets of shade and secret corners, where flashes of white stand out against the deepening greens and bright purples. If we reduce resurrection to a single moment, there is so very much we miss.

An Easter Sermon: Running home scared is a perfectly good response to rumors of resurrection

 

empty tomb mafa
“Empty Tomb” by Anonymous, c. 1970s

Our first scripture reading this Easter morning comes from the Gospel of Mark, which contains the earliest intact account of Jesus’ resurrection. Interestingly, it reports a rumor from an unknown character rather than an actual resurrection appearance. We don’t see the Risen Christ, we just hear about him from someone we’ve never met and never encounter again.

 

As the story goes, Mary Magdalene, Salome, and Mary, mother of James set out for Jesus’ tomb at the first light after the Sabbath, fretting about the large stone they will have to move in order to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. They arrive, only to find the stone moved. In the tomb is a man dressed in a white robe.

Who is he? Could he be the mysterious man who appeared at Jesus’ arrest clad only in a loincloth, who was stripped nude and ran away? Could it be the author of Mark’s gospel? Scholars have speculated wildly, but in the end, we just don’t know.

Mystery man tells the women to not be afraid, which is both logical—fear seems a reasonable response on their part—and is reminiscent of Jesus’ own words spoken frequently. Do not be afraid. Mystery man then tells them a fantastical tale: Jesus, who was crucified, has been raised. His body is gone, evidence enough, it seems, at least for the time, that what the man says is true; he orders the women to tell the disciples, even Peter, who denied Jesus and ran, to get to Galilee, where Jesus will meet them.

The women flee the tomb, the account tells us, and say nothing, for they are afraid.

End of story.

Our second scripture reading contains a resurrection account written decades later; this one, from the Gospel of John, contains an actual appearance of the Risen Christ. It shares some details with the narrative from Mark, though. Both take place after the Sabbath has drawn to a close, although in John, morning has not yet broken. Both feature the stone having been rolled away. Both detail the absence of Jesus’ body. Both feature dumbfounded people trying to make sense of a bizarre situation.

In John, though, Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb alone. Upon seeing that the stone has been removed she runs to find Simon Peter and the enigmatic Beloved Disciple. Mary, at least it seems to me, assumes that Jesus’ body has been stolen and has been taken to an undisclosed location, which will prevent him from having an honorable, religious burial. This seems to cause Mary no small degree of distress, as she is the one tasked with preparing Jesus’ corpse, or, perhaps, given the early hour, Mary has secreted herself away before anyone else can undertake it themselves.

Seeing the stone rolled away is in itself too much for Mary to face alone. We can hardly blame her.

Freshly alerted, a race is afoot between Peter and the Beloved Disciple. The disciple whom Jesus loves arrives at the tomb first, we are told, but is stopped short by the sight of the linens, limply laying where Jesus once was; funeral clothes without a corpse can be unsettling.

Upon arriving, Peter blows past the disciple whom Jesus loves, making it into the tomb itself before coming to a halt. He, too, sees the linens, but it is the cloth which had covered Jesus’ head now rolled up and set aside that commands his attention.

Doesn’t the relating of this detail seem so intimate, as though that little act is what stops Peter in his tracks?

The Beloved Disciple comes in and, the author tells us, believes. What he believes we’re not sure because we’re told specifically that they, both of them together, do not yet understand the fullness of the events, that Jesus’ resurrection is the fulfillment of scripture. What the Beloved Disciple believes we know not; what strikes Peter about the cloth neatly folded remains a mystery as well. But there they are, these details that changed lives.

Overcome, they run.

John’s narrative continues. Mary, alone at the tomb again, is crying. We can only imagine the depth of her trauma, having been, by all accounts, one of the few who witnessed the totality of the crucifixion and now discovers the empty tomb. Have bandits taken his body? Religious or Roman enemies?  We should take a moment to enter her sense of loss, her confusion: her rabbi is dead, and the avenue through which she can religiously and culturally mourn and honor him, preparing his body for burial, has suddenly been denied her.

The chaos of the last week, the heady entry into Jerusalem followed by the events in the Temple, the unexpected revelations in the Upper Room, the arrest, trials, crucifixion, death, and vigil must have left Mary raw. We can imagine that coming to the tomb she was expecting to have some moments of mooring, to be with Jesus’ body, to honor and love him. Imagine the trauma of having that, too, ripped away.

So, I think we can forgive Mary that she is so overcome with grief and distress that she does not even bat an eye when two angels appear and ask her what is wrong.

“They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him,” she says.

Suddenly, Jesus appears, but Mary does not recognize him, mistaking him for a gardener. We can speculate why this is the case: his resurrected form is different than his earthly one; Mary is an emotional, spiritual, and mental wreck and it takes her a few beats to catch up; she is so focused on locating the body she is not aware of her surroundings; perhaps Jesus as a gardener is meant to be a play on images, reminding us of Jesus’ parables of seeds and harvests. Regardless, when Jesus says her name and she turns around, Mary recognizes him and goes to hug him, which he does not allow because he has not yet ascended.

I’m gonna go ahead and punt that last detail until next Easter’s sermon.

The Gospel of John is clear about what happens next, though: Mary becomes the chief apostle, the one sent out to deliver the good news of the resurrection: she tells the disciples of what she has seen and heard. The post-Easter story begins with Mary. It’s sad that this has ever been a controversial observation.

But what I take from both of these narratives is that running home scared is a perfectly good response to rumors of resurrection.

The story of Jesus being raised from the dead defies logic, to such an extent that for some it is the ultimate stumbling block of faith, especially since it has been placed at the center of Christian confession, thanks largely to Paul. If Christ is not raised, he wrote, our faith is in vain.

It seems that the further we have gotten away from the historical resurrection, the more we Christians have required each other to believe it completely and entirely, proclaiming it as the alpha and omega of following Jesus. Yet, with today’s passages, in both the earliest and latest canonical resurrection stories, we see confusion, fear, and very human concerns preventing people from understanding immediately and fully.

To be sure, as a pastor and as a devout Christian, I proclaim with every fiber of my being, “He is risen, he is risen, indeed!” But as I preached on Good Friday, I believe that one of the central, beautiful truths of Christianity is that God, through the Incarnation, came to understand that we can still have faith while being confused and scared. There’s room for questions in the resurrection story.

Sometimes we’re Mary looking for Jesus’ body to bury, sometimes we’re Mary proclaiming that Christ has been raised. Sometimes we’re racing to the tomb to get there first, sometimes we’re high-tailing it home to hide away in fear.

The pain of Good Friday is still there on the original Easter morning. It lingers for others in the weeks and months ahead as they each puzzle out what this whole, “raised from the dead” thing means. For some of us, resurrection joy may come quickly and easily. Understanding and living an Easter faith may be foundational to who we are, and that it a true blessing.

For others, it may be an ongoing process. A cyclical journey in which we annually race to and fro, from cross to tomb, from despair to assurance. The great comfort is that our sacred Scriptures make room for us. He is risen, he is risen indeed, even if we are hiding under the bed uncertain of what to do. Amen.