Christianity is Weird: An Easter Sermon

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Explaining Christianity is an interesting exercise. I suggest starting out with the really reasonable details.

Well, you see, we follow this man named Jesus.

Okay, what’s so special about Jesus?

Jesus was a friend of the forgotten, a protector of the abused, an activist for those not given a voice. He engaged in nonviolent resistance against corruption in both government and religion.

Wow, yeah. He sounds like a great guy.

He was

I notice you say “was.” Because he died a long time ago, right, after a good long life.

This is where our story takes a turn, right?

Well, not exactly. Yes, he died—kinda—a long time ago, but his life was not long. And his death was…painful.

Oh. That’s too bad. Leprosy? Demon possession?

No, crucifixion. Public crucifixion. Actually, all of his male friends either turned on him or ran away, but it has a happy ending!

And here. Right here is where it starts to get a little, well, unusual. Here is where many people get stuck, or turn away, or feel downright confused. We believe that God became flesh, modeled for us how to live a life of service, compassion, justice, and love, went to the cross in an act of solidarity and sacrifice, and died. Then, after three days that aren’t really three days, he appears in a new body (kinda) proclaiming the good news that death is not the final word.

I say this as someone who believes it: our story is weird. We Christians will say boldly that we are not ashamed of it, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t and shouldn’t acknowledge that if we are going to proclaim it, we should be honest about the stumbling blocks. What are we celebrating today? For those of us who journeyed into the upper room and to the foot of the cross on Thursday and Friday, who waited in the tomb with Jesus on Saturday, what did we just do? Why do we gather this morning in song and prayer?

These questions go back to the time immediately following Jesus’ crucifixion and reports of resurrection. The Apostle Paul, who did not know the historical Jesus but claims a resurrection encounter on the Damascus Road, says that if Christ is not raised, our faith is in vain. He puts the whole of the Christian confession on the literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus. This was not the only opinion, however; at the same time, communities gathered around  Wisdom traditions, such as the one recorded in the Gospel of Thomas, that regard Jesus as a teacher, make no reference to crucifixion or resurrection, and claim that the Kingdom of God will arise from shifts in consciousness, much like what is found in Hinduism and Buddhism. Some, like the Docetists, argued that Jesus did not actually die on the cross, he just appeared to; this is the view recorded in the Quran.

Easter also comes at the time of Pesach (Passover), the Jewish celebration of God leading the Chosen People from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. The Exodus becomes the paradigm of Jewish spirituality: God is always offering us liberation from that which oppresses: addiction, greed, anger, self-hatred. The Exodus moves from death to life. Easter coincides with numerous fertility rites and traditions from Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Greco-Roman, and Persian cultures. Christ descends into the underworld, as do Ra and Odysseus and Osiris. The word Easter derives from the word Eostre, who was a pagan Anglo-Saxon Goddess, who also is found in Norse mythology as the goddess of spring. The mytho-poetic is written all over this time of our season cycle.

When we proclaim “He is raised, he is raised indeed,” we are making a faith statement. But not all of us make it in the same way, with the same understanding, with the same needs, with the same affirmations, with the same trepidations. The literal resurrection of Jesus Christ has been the single biggest stumbling block of my faith life. I scoffed at it as a child; I tried to intellectually understand it as an undergraduate; I tried to rip it apart as a graduate student. And then my brother died. Everything changed. I re-approached it. First as a myth. Then as a metaphor. Now as a parable, a koan, a mystical riddle meant to push us past the limits of reason and into a spiritual understanding of existence. Of what it means to be imago dei, made in the image of God. Of what is required to imitatio Christi, to imitate Christ.

I fear that much is lost when we insist on having arguments regarding the literalness of the resurrection and there is no room for dissent or interpretation. On one hand, we see that the resurrection is literally true each and every year. We have yet to experience a year in which spring does not come, in which fertility and fecundity do no return, in which the long, cold winter does not give way to the victory of saplings and bulbs pushing through the soil. Each year we see birth, ascendency, decay, and death. Resurrection is, at its heart, a declaration that death does not win and that life will out. On the other hand, resurrecting bodies sounds a lot like The Walking Dead.

For some of us, the resurrection of Christ is literal in the way described in Scripture. To others of us, the resurrection narrative points to a deeper, mystical reality in which we find meaning and purpose in life by thinking about the ways in which death is defeated over and over again. All without our doing. All without our control. We know that each one of us at some point will shuffle off these mortal coils, and then. Well, and then. That’s the rub, right? And then, what?

For the disciples and later for Paul, the “and then” has to do with a manner of living. I personally may not be overly thrilled by how so much of our faith tradition has come down to policing what other people believe rather than inspiring ourselves to continue Jesus’ work in the world, but the fact remains that once you affirm the resurrection as true—not necessarily factual, but true—your life changes. If death is not the final word, what then is the point of life? What is the purpose of our time here? Is it pure pleasure? No pleasure, no matter how delicious, can be sustained indefinitely. We build up tolerances. We require more and more, often to the detriment of other things. Pleasure so often leads to pain. Or is the purpose of life the acquisition of wealth and power? Despite the massive mausoleums and private pyramids, no potentate or monarch has managed to take anything with them. The purpose of life seems beyond our sense pleasures. It seems it cannot be purchased in cash or on credit.

For every Christian, the declaration that he has risen, he has risen indeed, says something about ourselves. It means that during Lent we have been walking the Jerusalem road, crosses upon our backs, dust in our eyes, confusion in our hearts, and that we sacrifice our sense of self, our individual notions that we are somehow separate from all of creation, and we have asked for death. For the death of our egos. We have asked God to kill that self that nods along on Sunday but forgets to live the Gospel on Monday. Easter is a proclamation that if we on Good Friday do the difficult work of dying to that which separates us, on Easter Sunday we will be reborn into an eternal community that animates us to work for justice, mercy, love, and compassion for all.

It’s weird, this Christian story. I think it is important to recognize that; it is easily ridiculed and lampooned, and frankly, we Christians kind of deserve some of that because we are sometimes rather simplistic in how we describe it. Too much telling people that if they believe the wrong things, they will go to hell after death. Not enough talking about following Jesus so that others no longer have to live a life of hell. We don’t talk about how the resurrection story is another way to say that hope springs eternal. When we proclaim he has risen, he has risen indeed—which, just to be clear, I believe—let us be proclaiming ourselves as a people who know that only light can drive out darkness, that only love can conquer hate, and that if we want to be filled with life, we should start the process of dying to our temporary, artificial selves so that we may embrace our identity as those with stardust in our bones and God in our souls. Amen.

 

Costly Grace in the Age of Trump: Hostile to the Gospel (It’s Hard Out Here for an Apostle)

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a good Lutheran. Before he traveled to Harlem in 1930, he ascribed rather heavily to Martin Luther’s “two kingdoms” worldview. There are the earthly and the spiritual realms, errors in the former can lead to banishment from the latter. Bonhoeffer also sided with Luther over Augustine as it pertains to the nature of grace: for Augustine, grace is the opportunity to realign one’s loves in the proper order, placing agapic love upon the zenith, and thereby line up with God. Luther, who was an Augustinian monk, regarded this as impossible. Human nature can never be justified to God through any action of our own. Therefore, grace is free, radical, all-sufficient, and not dependent upon any manner of works.

While at Union Theological Seminary, Bonhoeffer encountered two figures who would change his life: the pacifist Jean Lassere and the eminent theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Both men, in different ways, were socially active and engaged. They challenged Bonhoeffer’s Lutheran notion of two kingdoms, challenges that became increasingly relevant as Hitler’s Nazis signed a concordat with the Roman Catholic Church and installed a Reichsbischof in the German Evangelical Church. The meddling of the earthly kingdom into that of the spiritual kingdom was troubling, to be sure, but for Bonhoeffer, the concern was more complicated.

There are some basic ingredients to Christian theology that come in myriad flavors. One of the basic questions any theological system must address is this: Who is Jesus Christ? This is known as Christology. From Christology falls just about everything else. For example, theological anthropology and ontology. These can overlap. Essentially, what is the intrinsic nature of the human person (ontology), and what is the current condition of the person (theological anthropology)? That must be connected to how a person is saved (soteriology). For a vast majority of Christians, the answers concern grace and faith. Then we must ask, what are the means of grace or the signs of faith (sacramental theology)? What is the nature of the Church (ecclesiology)? The questions continue, and we’re still dealing with fairly basic stuff, in terms of a systematic theology. This talking about God stuff can get complicated.

To those outside, this may look silly. Heck, sometimes I think it is silly and I am a pastoral theologian. For me, it is silly when it becomes what Bonhoeffer calls cheap grace. When theology is undertaken for its own sake; when it is used to justify the Nazification of God’s community; when we engage in what Talmudic scholars sometimes refer to as pilpul, hairsplitting, theology is dangerous in its vapidness. While we argue about why we should not act, Bonhoeffer noted, we call upon a grace made available only because Jesus Christ did act. He took the cross upon his shoulders and invited the nails into his body so that the redemptive work of God could be done. Christ’s suffering on the cross not only led to a means of justification, a way that we can be set right with God, but also to a new ontology. A new being. How dare we call upon grace so easily when it was brought about so painfully?

For Bonhoeffer, one’s new being is not realized by simply saying that one believes in Christ, accepts salvation, and awaits the heavenly reward. That is cheap grace. That is grace that is all about us as individuals, a grace that allows us to be sanctimonious about the sins of commission undertaken by others and self-righteous about our own sins of omission. We condemn what others do and blithely ignore what we don’t do that Jesus requires us to do. Cheap grace says that we do not have to follow Christ into a world that is hostile to the Gospel. And I’m not talking the bullshit “war on Christianity” hostility fabricated by those who fear losing privilege White and male and Christian; no, I am talking about a world that is hostile to the Beatitudes as a bill of rights; a world that bleaches Jesus’ skin, puts a rifle in one hand and a drug test in the other, and preaches about how no one ever gave him a damn thing when he was hustling in Nazareth. Cheap grace assures us of our easy salvation and preaches the assured damnation of those who say otherwise.

Costly grace requires that we get woke. And I know that not everyone likes this term or concept, so I hesitate to use it because the conversation might derail, but it is the best one for our topic. Costly grace means that we call upon God to transform us. We submit. We follow the example of Jesus, not in abstract ways but rather in concrete ones: we serve others, we pay attention to the needs of those around us, we understand that in a world hostile to the Gospel suffering is to be expected. Christ suffered, and through service to others we not only realize our own true nature, our ontology, we see the image of Christ in the eyes of our neighbor. Others manifest Christ for us as we do for them, and together, in community, we are the means through which Christ is made evident in the world.

What Trump is doing with his agenda stands against everything Jesus Christ said and did. I am not offering any words about those who support the man in the White House. Not now. When I do my words are used to sideline the discussion. You’re a pastor and you shouldn’t be writing about stuff like this, I hear on the reg. You are dividing people; keep your spiritual realm out of the earthly realm, they say. To do that means to call upon cheap grace, and I can’t do that. To do that means that I don’t think it is important to follow Jesus in the world. It means having a religion that is based upon really nice ideas but holds that any actions that impinge upon capitalism or government are unseemly. It means saying blessed are the poor, but not our poor. The poor of Jesus’ time. Blessed are the peacemakers, but not those antiwar, snowflakes who burn the flag and decry perpetual bombing of the Middle East under the guise of national security and a nebulous war on terrorism. Cheap grace is believing it is Christian to refer to human beings as “illegals” and regard “refuge” as a synonym for terrorist.

Costly grace means being committed to the concept of community, no matter the challenges. Costly grace means Beloved Community.

I hear Howard Thurman and Dietrich Bonhoeffer calling me from the pages of books, and their voices sound an awful lot like Jesus.

I have the feeling this is going to be costly. Thanks be to God.

Why I Can’t Criticize Dave Chappelle

CW: Mentioning of hate crimes, transition surgery, transphobia.

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I know Dave Chappelle, but I don’t know Dave Chappelle. We live in the same town. He is three years older than me, but I moved here the year before he left to go live with his mother in D.C. I knew his father, a most wonderful man, and one of his siblings. The latter and I were in a play together, Member of the Wedding, which was how I first met Dave. He was just gearing up to start his run at comedy. I was enamored from jump street. And while we would run into each other numerous times over the years, I have always been better friends with our mutual friends, if that makes sense. He knows who I am, but I have exactly zero relevance to his life. I just want to make that clear. I’m not trying to claim some intimacy with him, or to act like my opinion should matter to him at all. I really like Dave, and I love the fact that he can live here and be a husband and a father.  We both play roles in the village and try to be positive citizens. Over the years I have helped run interference between Dave and tourists, especially after he first moved back and everyone was wondering why he went to Africa. I love the fact that he came back here. And I know why he came back.

Yellow Springs comes with responsibilities. If this place shapes you and grabs you, and you continue to claim it as part of your identity, even if you no longer have a residence here, it means that you need to carry our values. Imperfect values, to be sure. But ones that are a better starting point than perhaps any other place in the United States. At least for me. In a country where a great number of my generation did not learn about the Civil Rights movement in school beyond reading the “I Have a Dream” speech, I was educated by people who participated in the movement. I lived in a place where Coretta Scott studied (but wasn’t allowed to do her teaching co-op in the very school system in which I was learning). Dr. King gave a significant speech here in 1965. I knew that Yellow Springs from decades before the current movement has been a rare haven for GLBT families. I grew up with dear friends who had two dads or two moms. Women have had more of a voice here than in surrounding areas (but misogyny knows no zip code). My father worked at a college that was lampooned on Saturday Night Live for believing in sexual autonomy and agency so much, a group of female students–some queer, some non-White, all powerful–pushed forward a sexual consent policy that nearly 30 years later is being recognized as the template for institutions to take seriously sexual violence. (I am also not saying that sexual violence does not occur on Antioch College campus, either.) All of this to say: before I was a Christian, I was from Yellow Springs. This place prepared me for the dirty business of following Jesus.

I recently watched the first installment of Dave’s Netflix shows. A lot has been written by voices more important than mine. But I work very closely with the trans community here; it is hard for me not to become emotional when I talk about how sacred those relationships are to me. This feeling is mirrored by only two others: the relationships I have been able to have with men and women of color, and the relationships I have been able to form with Muslims. In each, I have had to unpack my privilege, to listen and receive anger that I had no right to ask be held back, to examine my own complicity in structural oppression. But it is both much more than that and less grandiose. It is the opportunity, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggested, to affirm someone else not as Kant defined, not as a “not-I,” but as a You. A person who exists independent of me, who should be seen in as much totality as possible, affirmed as being created imago dei. Those experiences and identities: trans, Black, Muslim–they matter. They matter as do my own identifiers. The rub is, only together will we see ourselves and discover God.

Dave’s words about trans persons hurt me because I knew the hurt that they were causing others. It hurt because I pastor a church that has dedicated part of its ministry to declaring and creating safe space for trans persons. It hurt because I know on the weekends when we are a tourist trap, some trans persons who will walk downtown in the middle of the week stay away. I received messages asking if I was going to talk to him, or if I was going to write anything. I posted an article on my Facebook page (written by an African American male) and a conversation ensued that went along the lines that I thought it would.

So, here goes: I’m a White, Christian dude. Doesn’t matter how I wear my hair, the tats I get, the academic work I do: the fact is I am a White dude. I get it; that used to piss me off, but see above and the relationships I have developed. The fact that I can’t fully understand an experience because I have not lived it no longers sounds like a criticism to me. It is a fact. No one is saying I am a bad person, at least no one worth listening to. But at the end of the day, Dave is a Black man and a Muslim. Within both of those cultures, there is deep transphobia. And Dave is at the more enlightened end of the spectrum in that regard. I may have wished that Dave would’ve taken the jokes in different directions, but you know what? That does not matter at all. I’m not a world-famous celebrity; I have not walked away from millions of dollars to follow my path; I do not have the right or the standing to assume license and tell one of the greatest comedians in American history how to write a bit. I don’t have the right to tell a Black, Muslim man that he is insufficiently progressive on this issue. It would just be wrong on so many levels.

I’m not trying to sound egotistical, but I’m writing this because a number of people have asked me to say something to Dave or to write about the situation. I’ve really struggled with this, but in the end I have decided on what you’re reading here. Transphobia is deadly. Trans women are particularly vulnerable;  trans women of color are even more exposed to attacks upon their bodies and persons. Perceiving them to be men in dresses is damaging and devastating, and I strongly disagree with perpetuating that image except to expose and destroy it as a pernicious lie. But I am not Black. I am not Muslim. I operate in different contexts and have a different perspective. Dave and I might live in the same town, but we don’t exist in the same worlds. I can’t criticize him, but I will continue to try to live my life as a close ally to the trans community.

I understand that for some, I am a traitor. I am not drawing a clear line in the sand and saying that certain words or ideas, when expressed by anyone, are unacceptable and will be decried loudly. I get that position. I can only say that there are others in the community who are doing that; I am not one of them because I have taken vows to be a person of service. I have friends who are genuinely uncomfortable with the idea of trans persons, but they are confronting it and trying to work through their emotions. It is easy to say that it should be easy, but for some, it is not. They are dealing with family expectations, ethnic and culture influences, religious decrees, and an overall popular culture that lampoons sex and gender non-compliance. Taken in isolation, even one of these would be enough with which to wrestle. Taken together, we have a battle royale. I think it is important that those persons who are in the fight feel like they have someone to whom they can speak, and that is where I come in. At least, that’s what I am telling myself. As I said, this has been a tough situation for me to read and to discern how I should act or not act.

The conversation is important. If nothing else, I can take a side on that; it is vital that we really talk through the emotions and reactions. In that way, Dave shows once again his power and influence as a cultural figure. For me, though, I just can’t call him out. I can’t criticize him. I will criticize the position, and I will actively fight against the damage that arises from some of the attitudes expressed in his bit. Reducing transitioning to genital manipulation perpetuates the notion that being trans means defying nature. I have held a person who shook visibly as she described just one of the beatings she sustained, men screaming about her “missing” genitalia amidst raining blows. But I was once further back on my own journey to conscientiousness, and I know that there are still areas of my own life fraught with phobia. Glass houses and all that.

I never want to use being a White dude as an excuse, but I also want to recognize the situations in which being a White dude means I should shut up. I get the deep irony that in order to express that I am shutting up, I am writing a not short blog. Let us all chuckle at that, and then try, as Bonhoeffer said, to see one another so that we may better see ourselves. And, for those of us so inclined, to see God. And with that, I’ll shut up now.