Where is God on Good Friday?

Crucifixion 1946 by Graham Sutherland OM 1903-1980

“Crucifixion” by Graham Sutherland
Art on board, c. 1947

“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

It hits the ear like a loss of faith. A moment of extreme doubt giving way to exasperation, to anger, perhaps. It hangs in the air, this outburst, heavy like smoke on a windless field. God, I thought we had a deal! My enemies are all around me. My persecutors have nailed me to a tree. I loved them. I prayed for them. WHERE ARE YOU?

Scholars have even given this saying from the cross a fancy name: the cry of dereliction.

Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani.

My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?

The cry of dereliction. Dereliction, a word that has two meanings. The first is a feeling of abandonment. We can imagine that is where Jesus is at; his Gethsemane moment has reappeared. He’s bereft. The second meaning, though, is part of what makes Good Friday so difficult. Dereliction also means to shirk one’s duty. In this situation, Jesus is not the one who is found wanting. Where is God on Good Friday?

Before continuing it is important to establish that the cry of dereliction is the opening lines of Psalm 22. It is a prayer of deliverance, a prayer uttered from the depths of pain with the confident assurance that God will act in the present or very near future because God faithfully has acted in the past. We have nothing except the hope produced by pain and memories.

In Mark’s Gospel, the first in the canon to report the crucifixion, Jesus only utters the first line of Psalm 22. It can be argued that Jesus starts the psalm aloud and then continues it in his head or cries out the first line with the expectation that others will understand that, despite his horrid circumstances, he has retained full faith in God. And that’s a perfectly logical, theologically sound interpretation.

But I’ll be honest, that doesn’t work for me. At least not this year. I don’t know why, but God and I just aren’t on the same page. There have been some trying ministry situations over the past few weeks and for whatever reasons my spiritual well seems to be have run dry. God and I are missing each other, leaving messages on the machine.

This is the first Holy Week in my life that I have not felt profoundly close to God.

The cry of dereliction reminds us that sometimes the memory of God is all we’ve got. Like a faded black and white photograph that we didn’t store very well, coffee stains and yellowing about to kill what time hasn’t already taken, a phantasmal memory that haunts us and taunts us, remaining just out of our mind’s grasp. God. It can be easy to feel forgotten.

Psalm 22 is asking us to begin praising God on the cross because God has shown up in the past and will show up again. And there are lots of pastors tonight preaching that sermon and I say, God bless. It is a good sermon. But I can’t preach it because I’m still in the cry of dereliction.

Good Friday challenges us to look at our expectations of God. When we feel distant, what do we remember? When we have an Easter hope, to what does it point? I think we have to talk about what we mean when we say God will show up again. Because it is easy to make false promises, to boast and be grandiose about what God will do on Easter, but the truth is our lived faith often is much more subtle and dirty. I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling Good Friday more this year than I am Easter Sunday.

So where is God on Good Friday?

Jesus does not pray the entire psalm aloud. He just prays the cry of dereliction, which seems to indicate that he’s not quite in the praising mood. Jesus is able to have his moment of doubt and pain, and it does not stop the power of resurrection. In Jesus’ experience of dereliction, God is already at work on the transformation that will occur Easter morning. The two are not mutually exclusive. The resurrection is in the offing. While Jesus suffers, feeling alone, God is preparing a place of glory.

This can sound kind of like empty promises if we regard God as a genie. The chaos and quandary of the cross are exactly this: they make no sense; the horror of God sending God’s son to die such a death defies logic, yet it perfectly exemplifies the eternal majesty of divine love. Nothing can kill it. And when we submit to it completely, we are granted everlasting life. perfect love remains even when we are overcome with alienating pain.

For me, this year, the cry of dereliction is especially potent: Jesus feels that human desperation, that disconnect, that panic, that summoning of faith that must happen when derelict. Sometimes all we have is the memory of a whisper, a memory of a whisper that our joy comes on Easter, that there will be confirmation again that God makes miracles, in the ways we least expect them, but right now all we have is the cry of dereliction. And that’s enough. Amen.

Choosing the Wrong Son of Daddy: On Adults Threating Kids, Holy Week 2018

There were no childhoods in the ancient world. At least, not in the way we picture them in the post-Industrial Revolution West. Childhood was to be survived. If you look closely at ancient Western art—at least, art through the Medieval period—children often are depicted with the features and bodies of miniature adults (homunculi).

uglybabyandmother.jpgMadonna and Child from 1304

There’s a bit of a chicken and the egg debate regarding whether art imitates life or life imitates art. Some claim that early Christian artistic renderings of children as adults stem from the theological notion that Jesus Christ is unchanging. In other words, when Jesus was born he looked like a grown ass man. Like, the original Simon Birch. Therefore, when shown as a pup Jesus looks like an angry longshoreman with a Napoleon complex and bruises from his last comeuppance. The argument goes, Christian art—or, more properly, art from Christian cultures—portrayed all children in a like manner. This could very well be the case.

More likely, though, was the notion that children were adults waiting to happen. They were to be loved, for sure, but they were to be trained, molded, prepared, and prayed over.  In the main, if you made it to the age of ten, chances were good that you could live to adulthood, which, depending on the culture and your gender, began anywhere from the early- to late-teen years.

This ish is rough

I would not want to be a young person today. Not with Snapchat, YouTube, Twitter, and all the other platforms I’m too old and uphip to know about; but I have been working with Millennials for over a decade. And I’m not quite sure how this whole generation thing is breaking down, but I’m pretty certain Generation Z will soon be on their way into my classroom. I’ve been marching with them, listening to them, teaching them, learning from them, and just being a fellow human being with them.

Most of the young people I’ve heard from, either directly or on television, want help from adults. (Seriously, how weird is it fellow Xers that we’re the adults in the room? Last I checked, I was in line for Tool tickets and somebody was going on a beer run.) This past weekend, though, millions of youth grabbed microphones, held signs, peacefully protested, and made it clear that they are tuned in and they are not dropping out. It is absolutely inspirational and I am so grateful for their energy and excitement because, to be honest, I’ve kinda chubby and I’ve got a lot of health problems, so my days of marching are probably over.

I don’t agree with everything they are calling for, especially as it comes to proposals to amend privacy rights for those with mental illnesses. I might write more on this later, but I don’t want to criticize these activists right now. I want to lift them up, but I also want to be one of the voices crying out at the adults who are berating them, especially those focusing on Emma Gonzalez.*

To be clear, I am NOT comparing Emma Gonzalez to my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. But the irrational hatred that is being levied at this young woman seems akin to that visited upon Jesus. Reading the inhumane things adults write about Emma has caused my skin to crawl, they refer to her as an “it.” She’s too brown to be “American,” she wears a Cuban flag patch, so she’s a “commie,” she’s a “lesbian,” she’s a crisis actor, she’s ISIS, she’s apparently everything they fear is “taking over” America. They RAGE behind their keyboards, on their phones, liking one another’s posting, working each other up into a lather, until, almost invariably, someone will post an undisguised threat. She thinks she’s bulletproof. She’s gone fully automatic r****d.

It’s happening on local FB pages and Twitter feeds. And while I try to ignore it, I know that I cannot, so I click on the pages and profiles of the people doing it and, almost invariably, they claim to be Christians. Again and again. White, angry Christians.

Do you even Bible, bro? 

Most of us who go to church on Good Friday are already the churchgoing type. The Christmas and Easter types generally aren’t thinking, “Hey, I know! Let’s go to worship on Friday night to partake in the darkest service of the year!” But if you’re reading this, I am going to assume that you’re interested and, if nothing else, maybe you’ll have something to help you when you yell answers at the Jeopardy! box.

In the Gospel of Mark, it is reported that every year Pilate releases a criminal for Passover as a sign of good will. Never mind that there is no record of this tradition anywhere outside of the gospels (and we have lots of records from this time) and we know that Pilate had no love for the Jews. So, this most likely did not happen historically. That’s fine, the meaning is not in the literal meaning of the text.

The year that Jesus is arrested, there’s this guy named Barabbas. That’s a pretty nifty moniker, especially if you know Aramaic. Bar means “son of,” abba means “daddy.” It is often translated as “father,” but most linguists say abba is meant to be a term of endearment used by little children for their daddies.

But do you see it yet? Do you?

The crowd is given the choice of one Son of the Father, Jesus, who will be murdered and in-so-doing, release the crowd (and humanity) from sin and death. Or, they may choose another son of the father, who is accused of murder but is freed from rightful punishment by the bloodthirsty crowd. So blind has their hatred made them, so certain are they that Jesus cannot be from God, that he cannot speak the truth about the death and destruction wrought by the people, that he cannot bear witness to the changes that must come, that they are willing to overlook murder just to see the one they hate bleed and suffer. He can’t be a real agent of God. He has no right to say the things he does. Who the hell does he think he is?!?!?! We’ve got to shut his fucking mouth for him, don’t we?! 

The Church has a clear-cut choice to make this Holy Week. Do we have our eyes fixed on Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace? Do we allow the Advocate to animate us, to propel us to stand with the oppressed and the victimized? When children who don’t want to be shot going to school are debased and dehumanized by scores of people claiming to follow Christ, something is wrong. And it’s not the people being criticized. It’s we in the Church who just shake our heads and say, “well, I’m not that kind of Christian.”

This Easter, let’s resurrect our sense of purpose and mission. Not to convert people, but to serve people. Not to build the Church, but to restore the Church to something resembling the principles of Jesus Christ. Because, to be honest, I’m in the need of some resurrection right now, surrounded as I am by people clamoring for Barabbas to be saved.

*I’m not going to post any screen captures. I’ll leave it at this and move on.

Roadtripping with Bipolar

ubcutsTomorrow I leave for Winston–Salem, NC for the final mid–semester intensive before I defend my dissertation in August, God willing and if the creek don’t rise. For the first time, we are gathering with other cohorts for a church conference co-sponsored by United Theological Seminary and Union Baptist Church, pastored by Bishop Dr. Sir Walter Mack, who is a longtime mentor at the seminary. In theory, I really want to go.

But there’s also reality. I’m on two new medications, something about which I wrote two days ago, which brings me up to a grand total of ten. Two meds have to be taken with food, one has to be taken an hour before food, seven have the side effect of dizziness, four can cause edema, five can cause drowsiness, and I’m a bit uncertain how these two new ones are going to interact with everything else as it has only been a few days since I started taking them.

I also have problems with large crowds, which sucks because I grew up following Bob Dylan. I’ve seen him live thirty-two times, and it isn’t more because I had to stop a decade ago. I have a pretty kick-ass live show list, but those days are gone. Add to my growing agoraphobia, severe tinnitus, hyperacusis, declining hearing, and tactile issues, events with lots of noise and people are an energy-draining nightmare for me, especially if Miriam is not with me to be an assuring and reassuring buffer.

I used to really like road trips by myself. I’m an introvert who likes complete control over the radio. Of course, we all have the same prep: do we bring food, or eat on the road? Since starting a keto diet, I am decidedly a “bring food” person. Today I finally have to face the wreck that is my car. I still have stuff in there from Julius Caesar, and by “stuff” I mean LaCroix cans and unwashed costume pieces. I am much less anxious driving in a clean car.

Since becoming sick, road trips are exhausting endeavors filled with contingency plans. What if I get too dizzy or fatigued and can’t make the drive in one day? I’ve already scouted hotels along the way and will get up early to make the opening worship. What if I have a bipolar episode, need help, but am unable to communicate? Miriam can track my phone and we’ll check in every hour until I get there. If I don’t respond within half an hour, she’ll know my location and can call for help.

I hope this week is a positive experience, but truth be told I am just hoping to get through it and back home safely. I don’t have children, So I don’t have to negotiate those challenges. I can only imagine the stress and exhaustion. I write as a chronically ill person finishing a doctorate. As a result of my own experiences, I think I am now more sensitive and aware of what I don’t know about others. Sometimes, showing up is the greatest thing a person can give. The energy I will expend just to show up dressed and with a smile on my face is enough to warrant another eight hours of sleep.

At this point, I don’t know what my level of participation and engagement will be; I hope high. Regardless, as I continue to discern God’s presence in life’s challenges, I am increasingly aware of how important it is to be kind to someone who is late, or who arrives a bit disheveled, or who may fall asleep during an event. Too often we assume laziness, poor organizational skills, or incompetence. We so often err on the side of cruelty.

My thyroid and medications are conspiring to tip me over 300 lbs. I’m constantly cold. I hear multiple high-pitched tones all the timealong with two other manifestations of tinnitus, from moment-to-moment I ward off panic attacks, I’m frightened to speak on the phone. I need a ridiculously powerful sleeping pill to sleep, yet I am deeply exhausted most of my waking hours. This is on good days. I push through all of this because life is beautiful. My being there is a sign that I care, that I’m engaged, just like everyone else.

I also call off. I lose focus. It can take me days to make a phone call because my anxiety is so high. I can be so exhausted it is perhaps unpleasant to speak with me because I look sick and/or disinterested. I forget things, misremember details, and can become confused and overwhelmed in certain situations. For all the positives you get with me, there is a growing list of negatives. I’m discovering that’s how it is with chronic illness, the greatest of which, for me, is Bee-Dee.

There are people who go through so much more than what I describe. So. Much. More. But that’s kind of the point. Our culture is cruel. We don’t have to be.

Your Own, Personal Pilate: A Pastor Pottymouth Production

 

Screenshot 2018-03-17 12.13.29Pontious Pilate, by all extrabiblical accounts, was a sociopathic asshole.  That documents produced by nascent Christianity, with the Roman sandal on its neck, paint Pilate as a reluctant pawn in a larger cosmic game is not surprising. From the earliest credal proclamations, Jesus died under Pontious Pilate but not because of him. It makes sense in a way: why poke an already enraged bear? By the time the Gospel of Mark was penned in 70 CE, the Second Jerusalem Temple was razed, never to rise again.

But let us dissuade ourselves from the romantic notion of Christians dying en mass at the hands of the Romans for the greater glory of God. A vast majority of the martyrdom stories from the second century are akin to novellas, stories that fit nicely within a culture that values dying for a cause. The risks were real, to be sure, but there was a choice to be made. You could stand up to the Empire, as did Jesus, or you could accommodate it. An overwhelming number of Christians did the latter. Many of us, myself included, make the same sort of choices.

Like the East Coast crowd and Snoop Dogg at the 1995 Source Awards, Pilate had no love for the Jews. His first day on the job he showed up flying the Roman standards, a direct violation of the previous agreement struck between Rome and the Sanhedrin, the highest Jewish legal authority. The result? Perhaps the first ever non-violent sit it. Pilate caved, lowered the standards, but he never forgot. He raided the Temple treasury to build the aqueducts, something akin to the mayor of Washington D.C. raiding the offertory of the National Cathedral. Finally, Pilate terrorized and executed Samaritan pilgrims, an action that led to his being recalled to Rome for brutality.

Think about that. Recalled to Rome for brutality.

If scripture were made of tweets, Pilate’s would have looked something like the one sent out by the small, fat thumbs of Der Twittler last night after our racist, jelly-spined Attorney General Jeffrey Beauregard Sessions fired FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe. (Click here and here for facts and analyses.) McCabe himself issued a statement earlier today. pointing out that he and his family have been bullied and ridiculed by the chief executive for over a year.

The occupier of the Oval Office’s lawyer John Dowd is calling for Special Counsel Robert Mueller III’s investigation to cease. Again, this thoroughly corrupt Administration blurs the lines of any propriety, Dowd first claimed to be speaking for his boss but then claimed to speak only for himself, as if anyone would give a flying fuck what this troglodyte thinks were it not for his client. And across the Twitterverse and discussion threads throughout the interwebz, Russian bots and their American enablers are screaming that Pilate really tried to save Jesus. The corruption and abuse of power is breathtaking.

Lent is not symbolic. Good Friday is not about wearing black. We have choices to make. If we are serious about following Jesus, we have to call out the forces that killed him. That continue to kill people today. That kills us spiritually if we excuse evil, or even worse, rally to its side and become agents of destruction. I hold no delusions about the sanctity of the office of the presidency. Andrew Jackson was a genocidal racist. Woodrow Wilson loved Birth of a Nation, the first film screened in the White House. Let’s stop this faux patriotism bullshit. The office is only as great as we make it, and we have let it sink into the sewer and that is how it should be regarded. But I also think it is ridiculous to argue that there is some basic decency in the country that always reveals itself. That has been patently false time and time again; it takes proactive, sustained efforts and a willingness to not tolerate evil presented as being “good at heart.”

There are those who say that faith and politics should not mix. And then there are those who have read the words of Jesus. What we are seeing right now is biblical. If Pilate had anything to do with the historical Jesus’ death—and there are reasons why he might not have—it is much more likely that he took great glee in watching this rebel, this arrogant man who dared take on the Empire suffer a public and brutal humiliation.

Anyone who tries to justify the horrid things this sociopathic man-child does is siding with the Empire, not with Jesus Christ.

Sick, Broke, and Exhausted: My “daily sob story”

Sick, Broke, and Exhausted: My “daily sob story”

I was recently told by someone whom I considered a good friend that I have a “daily sob story.” As we parted company, he said he won’t miss it and used a colorful term to paint me as one who cries hysterically at the smallest thing. I wish I could say that I was able to brush it aside as I do many other bombs that are lobbed at me with some regularity, but I haven’t. It hit my soft underbelly. Like many people living with chronic illness, diagnoses don’t stop with the “big one.” Systemic issues reveal themselves, sometimes through drug interactions, sometimes through the stabilization of primary symptoms that allow secondary ones to manifest more clearly. Sometimes a fresh hell is asymptomatic and is simply an unpleasant surprise.

Let me start out by saying that there are millions of people who have more complicated diagnoses, who do not have access to the same quality care, who do not have supportive family, friends, and colleagues, or the ability to advocate on their own behalf. Frankly, it is sad that we’ve turned illness into a competition in which we have to qualify or defend our own realities lest we seem like we’re complainers looking for attention. That was essentially the accusation levied at me, one made a few months ago that still hurts enough that I am writing about it now, less than twenty-four hours after a new diagnosis.

For those who may not know, here’s my deal. I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder three years ago. I had been self-medicating with alcohol for years, which I continued to drink through the first year of my diagnosis. The initial mood stabilizer I was on, Geodon, caused me to have a nervous breakdown and I contracted viral conjunctivitis, a rare side effect, which did not do much to improve my mental state. I had to resign from a job that helped me pay for insurance. During this time, I gained 20lbs. I then switched to Lithium, which has been great at stabilizing my mood, but in three years I have gained 50lbs. I’m on three other medications to help manage my bipolar depression and General Anxiety Disorder.

My exhaustion level for the past few years has been pretty much beyond description. I’ve battled insomnia most of my life; natural and over-the-counter remedies do not work for me, and because of my weight I snore like all three stooges. I had two sleep studies late last year (just in time for the charges to be applied to the 2017 deductible, charges we’ll be paying off through 2020) that revealed I stop breathing 133x/hour. Diagnosis: severe sleep apnea. The CPAP machine is amazing and I use it religiously, but my exhaustion still remains. I take a sleeping pill with a dosage that made the nurse at my doctor’s office say, “Wow.”

Since I was a child, I have had problems with my ears. I was told that I would most likely lose my hearing around the age of 60; granted, this was in the early 80s and we have amazing treatments and hearing aids now. With that said, I have severe tinnitus, hyperacuity, and I need to have tubes put in every year (my hearing is declining rapidly, but the tubes should restore about 25%). There’s other stuff: I have become hypertensive. I have edema problems. Psoriasis. I just received a new diagnosis (see below). I am currently on ten medications.

Here’s the deal: I know that there are a lot of people who deal with many of these conditions individually or in combination. Some may deal with them all. I don’t believe I am special and I’m not asking for pity. I just want to make that clear, although I doubt it will stop the jackasses from making jackass comments.

When someone has the courage to speak up and say, “I’ve got some shit wrong with me and I’m not doing so well today,” I think the decent thing to do is not to belittle that person for being sick. Granted, my primary illness is a mental one. I see a therapist every week and I spend a lot of time trying to work through my paranoia and defensiveness, but it is fucking devastating to be ridiculed for sharing one’s struggles.

Chances are, there is someone in your life who is sick, broke, and tired. The energy it takes me to call the insurance company to appeal a decision is legion, and I ain’t got many. From the moment I wake up, I am thinking about how to time my meds, my meals, my water intake, how to manage if certain symptoms arise, feeling guilt and shame that I am unable to do the things I promised I could do because, well, because I’m sick, broke, and tired.

This week I began two new meds. The first is a new mood stabilizer that is weight negative that we hope will be able to replace Lithium, but that transition will be slow. The second is for my new diagnosis, a hypoactive thyroid. This could be the root problem of the weight gain, exhaustion, joint pain. Anybody who is on multiple medications knows that it is a bit of a roulette. This comes at a particularly bad time, as next week I am driving down to Winston-Salem for the mid-semester intensive for my doctoral program. I am terrified that I will not be able to make the drive in one go—I once had to stop overnight in Columbus on a trip to Cleveland—or that I will have dizziness, fatigue, confusion, etc. while I am there. Yet, if I miss the event, I have to repeat the semester, which simply is not an option.

I write this in hopes that at least one person will stop and think before they say something nasty to a person who deals with chronic illness. Stress is a killer. Feeling guilt and shame for simply stating facts about your life is bullshit. If nothing else, if I can’t reach the jackasses doing their jackassery, perhaps I can reach others who want to ven but feel they can’t: own your truth, you’re not alone, and I’m here whenever you want to kvetch.

“I’m washed in the blood of the Lamb, so I’ll be the biggest jerk I can”: On the surprising depth of Paul’s theology of the cross (a sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:18-25)

huge-tiny-.gifThere are times when I hear about the religious beliefs of others and I shake my head, wondering how anyone could believe such claptrap. Take, for example, Scientology. Like, seriously. How could anyone believe the story of Xenu and thetans? Then I remind myself that the Christian story is absolutely outlandish. It defies logic to the point of absurdity. We forget this to our detriment, and today’s words from the Apostle help us to confront the fact that God purposefully has used the preposterous to reveal the nature of God’s power.

Let’s establish a few important things. Paul is writing in response to a letter the church in Corinth sent to him, a letter which is lost to history; Paul is writing to a mixed community, Jew and Gentile together, that is struggling to co–exist without reverting to division and confrontation. Most potently, Paul centers his theology in an impending end-time, an apocalyptic eschaton that will happen within a generation. Paul puts a lot of eggs in that basket. Of course, Jesus has not come back yet. On that count, Paul is way wrong.

But today’s passage shows that Paul’s theology of the cross is much deeper than simply believing that the blood of the lamb washes you clean, requiring nothing more of the individual until Christ comes back. Sadly, this is what often passes for Pauline theology. I describe it as, “I’m washed in the blood of the Lamb, so I’ll be the biggest jerk I can.” In fact, Paul seems to purposefully refrain from using some of his favorite eschatological sayings in these early verses; his focus in on what God has done, not what God will do. Paul’s message to the church in Corinth is: “Look, you’re reverting to these positions of division and making something profoundly simple unnecessarily complicated. I’m passing on to you the same thing that I learned, that Jesus was handed over to the authorities, tried, beaten, crucified, killed, and on the third day, raised. That’s all you need. Understand this and you will be unified. This is wisdom, everything else is foolishness.”

I’ll admit, this is a theology one might rightfully fear. It appears, perhaps, to require that a person believes in something fantastical and absurd because, well, Jesus. Literally, “because Jesus.” And we Christians are largely responsible for such a shallow understanding of Paul.

Paul’s argument is sophisticated, a reality expressed more clearly through the original Greek than it is in English. It is important to establish two things right off the bat: one, Paul sees the world as transient and therefore no wisdom can come from it; and two, creation is fallen, and the world is in active rebellion against God. So, again, why do we expect wisdom from human endeavors? Any attempt to engage Paul’s theology has to accept these assumptions. Paul believed the end of the world would be an act of wisdom.

Eschatology is not at the center here, as I mentioned before because Paul is using harsh language to describe what God has done in the world through Jesus. Paul juxtaposes σοφία τοῦ θεοῦ (wisdom of God) with μωρία (moria), a word often translated as “foolishness.” However, μωρία is actually the root word for moronic. So, Paul is saying, “There’s the wisdom of God, and then there is the moronic claptrap given by the world.”

Paul then goes a step further. He says, “What passes for wisdom is moronic. The people whom the world elevates as wise are morons.” They believe that might makes right, that God is always on the side of the victor, that wealth and power are always signs of divine favor. When the moronic passes for wisdom, how then is God to be heard?

Remember that Paul is writing to a community of Jews and Gentiles, often called Greeks by Paul. “You Greeks love your wisdom,” he says. “And you Jews love your signs,” he adds, able to speak from experience about both as a Hellenized Pharisee. God, therefore, has flipped both of these conventions like Jesus rearranging tables in the Temple: God’s wisdom is that a peasant, itinerant Jewish preacher submits to the crushing power of religious and civic authorities, turning the cross, a sign of torture and imperial oppression, into the definitive symbol of God’s redeeming, liberating grace.

Think about that: foundational to our faith claim is that Jesus teaches us how to live the life we are designed to live by being rooted in the knowledge that God’s love, compassion, mercy, and justice prioritizes the least of these. As an eternal reminder of the seemingly absurd notion that God would side with the poor and the oppressed, we have the wisdom of the cross. It is in and of itself a scandal, something embarrassing, something that draws the ridicule and ire of the world, but it reminds us that God’s love is subversive. God’s love takes us to uncomfortable and difficult places, but our assurance is that God is with us. God is Emmanuel.

I get chills just thinking about the potency of this theology for our own time. However, that does not mean that Paul’s cross theology is not still problematic. Perhaps you, like me, are sometimes resistant to Paul because of how Paul has been used in damaging ways across the millennia. Yet, imagine how powerful and liberating this message must have been in the first century as the war drums between Rome and Jewish rebels became increasingly louder until they burst in 70 C.E. when the Temple was destroyed. Think of how immediate Paul’s theology of salvation makes God if you are poor if your whole life is spent being denigrated by others, called foolish, told you are unworthy of God? God’s wisdom, God’s redemption, begins by seeing that God defies categories.

Lent reminds us that God’s message has been consistent across time. If we want to know God, we must love others. We must reject false wisdom, push back against the moronic promises of a world that is at war with peace. What God has done through Christ is purposefully absurd on the face of it. Who would look for a God made manifest in a rebellious, heretical, provocative, and thoroughly debased Jewish preacher who ended his life nailed to a tree? The answer? Those who know that God is not to be found in the structures of power that oppress those whom God has prioritized. Our faith claim is ridiculous and worthy of ridicule if we believe that money brings happiness, violence brings peace, fear brings loyalty, and morons bring wisdom.

Lent faces us with big questions. What does the cross mean? What does it point us to? What does it reveal about God? And when we pick up our own, what are the contours of the cross? What is the wisdom we take upon our backs as we march toward our own metaphorical crucifixions? What will we die to in the world when we are resurrected in God’s wisdom? Who is the God we have discovered in the unlikeliest of places? Let us keep our eyes fixed on the City of David and continue to kick up the dust on the Jerusalem Road. Amen.