When God Asks for Difficult: A Pastor Pottymouth Production

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, “The Prophet Isaiah”

If you do not like cursing, do NOT read this entry. Pastor Pottymouth is on duty. I will delete any comments about language use.

Isaiah 6:1-13

The Book of Isaiah is some crazy shit.

We start with the reality that there are no fewer than three distinct sections of the text we call Isaiah and that within each of these sections we can detect editing that attempts to provide a little theological coherence for what is otherwise a collection of writings documenting centuries’ worth of experiences. It’s God’s hodgepodge.

To be sure, there was a historical Isaiah of Jerusalem, who began his ministry in the 730s BCE. There are specific references to historical kings—Uzziah, Hezekiah, Ahaz—that places us within a specific time period, but the biblical chronology sometimes conflicts with nonbiblical records, which, of course, were themselves written with heroes in mind, even when the historical events themselves showed otherwise. All of this to say, we are dealing with history but a history that has many versions, sometimes within the very same text. We should not get lost looking for facts in a field of truth.

We know that Isaiah was attached to the Temple in Jerusalem. Up north, in the kingdom that broke away from Judah after the death of Solomon—owed to a forced labor practice that highlighted the failures of a royal theology that didn’t serve anyone except those at the top—they had their own traditions, sacred places, theology, and sense of community. Owed to their geographical position, they faced an ongoing threat of Assyria, the superpower of the moment and a testimony to the capacity for human brutality. The north, sometimes referred to as Ephraim, was forging an alliance with Syria, who wished to develop a coalition to stop the Assyrian menace. They were asking Judah, the south, to join.

Enter Isaiah 6. Now, I used to pay good quality money for substances that would make me see trippy shit. God has the primo hallucinogenics. The Temple, which itself is an axis mundi, a place where the divine and human meet, suddenly becomes a portal to the heavenly court. Seraphim, which, according to Robert Alter in his definitive, beautifully-written The Hebrew Bible: Translation and Commentary, are possibly made of fire (but then why do they need the tongs?) or (start screaming now) are FLYING SNAKES. These six-winged beasts hover around God, singing “holy, holy, holy.” Isaiah can see the hem of God’s garment.

Shit is wild, yo.

But it is the content of the transaction between Isaiah and God that continues to beckon, challenge, befuddle, and inspire those who wrestle with the Word. Isaiah speaks:

And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

The winged, flying snakes of fire with motherfucking feet go into action.

Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”

The theology here is potent. Isaiah, like Abraham and Moses before him, felt unworthy of God’s anointing. Most clergy I know wrestles with both the arrogance and humility that comes with claiming to work for God. Do I really believe that God has chosen me? How COULD God choose me, fucked up as I am? Here, God forgoes the usual methods of affecting ritual cleanliness; it is performed in the Temple, yes, but there are no priests or ritual sacrifices. God directly purifies Isaiah. The Law is circumvented.

I believe that Christians should be very careful in passing judgment on Jewish Temple practices because doing so can quickly descend into antisemitic tropes (whether consciously or not). In my reading, the critique transcends the specific Temple example used by God: Isaiah’s experience represents what should happen in God’s house: human beings knowing that no sin or defect of character is powerful enough to keep us from God.

To use an overused expression: God does not call the qualified, God qualifies the called.

But that call can be a bitch. God asks the heavenly council whom he should send to represent them. Isaiah responds with words uttered by Abraham, Isaac, Moses, Samuel, and Saul before him: “Here am I, Lord” Then he adds: “Send me.” God drops the hammer.

And he said, “Go and say to this people:
‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.’
1Make the mind of this people dull,
    and stop their ears,
    and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
    and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
    and turn and be healed.”

Remember that history we discussed above? How the north, Ephraim, was aligning with Syria to ward off and defeat Assyria, the great superpower? That’s key to understand what is going on here. God is charging Isaiah with a fool’s errand, at least when measured by typical metrics. Isaiah is to go to the people with a simple message: trust in God, not in Syria. Do not make alliances with people who are hostile to our God and our values.

This is another area in which Evangelical fundamentalism has so fucked up the common understandings of prophets and politics, it seems that the only way to interpret this passage is that God promotes a xenophobic, nationalist theocracy. Such is not the case.

Being a person of faith in any serious way means knowing what God requires of you and who you are in God. If you claim to follow a God who calls for you to be a person of compassion, generosity, understanding, justice, and love—as almost every spiritual and religious tradition does, in wonderfully varying ways—yet you are selfish, greedy, oppressive, and murderous while living and supporting societies and cultures that are equally rapacious, don’t expect human beings to be your salvation. If you know God calls you to be different than the world, but you choose to chase earthly things, can you really be surprised that things go to shit?

This is a tough concept and I can understand why some people think it is malarkey. But please bear with me. I think a major problem throughout the history of religion is that it has been and is used to control, manipulate, subjugate, and enslave people while those in power prosper and play pious. What God is saying to Isaiah is: tell the people the harsh truth that if they really did what I tell them to do, none of this bad shit would be happening. But they won’t want to hear it. Your success will be measured in how few people listen to you. But don’t shy away from the message that God cares about how we treat one another. God’s call to Isaiah was to preach how compassion, mercy, justice, and love will save us, not plans for war made with people who kill us given the opportunity.

To be fair, things get a bit more fucked up.

Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said:
“Until cities lie waste
    without inhabitant,
and houses without people,
    and the land is utterly desolate;
until the Lord sends everyone far away,
    and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.
 Even if a tenth part remain in it,
    it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak
    whose stump remains standing
    when it is felled.”[c
The holy seed is its stump.

Let’s start with how beautifully human Isaiah’s question is: How long will I be grinding, God? How long is this gig? God does not use a clock to answer but rather lets Isaiah know of the logical consequences of what happens when the people do not heed the words of the prophet. Cities will fall, houses without families will emptily stand, and those who survive will be sent far away. And of those, more will be burnt until only a remnant will remain. The holy seed. *

Isaiah was to deliver this message to a people who did not want to hear it. He came without the cultural credentials, but he was certain in his charge. We can have conversations about whether Isaiah’s vision should be understood literally, metaphorically, or a combination of the two; we can have conversations about the content of Isaiah’s message, but it seems overwhelmingly obvious to me that Isaiah, like the social justice prophets before him, understood Israel and Judah’s corporate sin to be evident in the conditions of oppressed and marginalized peoples throughout the land. Isaiah is not screaming at women trying to access affordable gynecological care. He is not attacking LGBTQ people or immigrants. That’s not prophecy. That’s being a fundamentalist asshole.

The only theology that matters to me is a theology that meets us on the streets, that helps us traverse a violent, oppressive world without giving in to desires for vengeance and destruction. I believe deeply that if we were to concentrate on the things God does require—not a judgment of others but the cultivation of a community that affirms the blessedness of all—we would live in a better world.

Sadly, too many people feel this is the real crazy shit.

______________________________________________________________________

*My Hebrew Bible scholar friends will forgive me for not going as deep into the history and context as we might otherwise but I try to write things accessible to interested readers. However, it is important to note that the material generally associated with the historical Isaiah of Jerusalem, Isaiah 1-39, was also edited, perhaps by what is known as Deutero-Isaiah, or Second Isaiah, found in chapters 40-55. So there are questions as to whether the historical Isaiah was specific about the Diaspora, the scattering, that happened when the Babylonians defeated the Assyrians and all other comers, laying waste Jerusalem and razing the First Jewish Temple in 587/6 BCE. The prophet Jeremiah, who I will write about in next week’s blog, is an important source regarding this time and the people who did return under Cyrus the Persian in the first decade of the sixth century BCE.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Sermon—Hearing “Me, too” in the Bible

bathsheba1.jpgFor those of us who spend time on social media, we might have noticed the frequent appearance of two words, “Me, too.” Across age, race, religion, sexual orientation, and cultural background, women throughout the country have been making public their experiences of sexual harassment and violence. To add potency to this organic effort, dozens of women have spoken out publicly about their violations at the hands of one extremely powerful Hollywood producer, Harvey Weinstein.

I’m here today to shine a light on another voice, another woman, one who was abused by King David, an extremely powerful figure in our history: Bathsheba.

Like so many other examples of abusers throughout time and history, we have to make our way through the minefield of, “But he’s a really good guy.” No doubt. David was and is an important figure without whom, at least according to the biblical witness we have, Judaism would not have survived and then thrived.

First, he is God’s anointed. Today’s passage shows us Samuel, the Moses for a new age, still mourning the fact that God has withdrawn his favor and is selecting a new king who will rise to rival Saul. Samuel is led to the house of Jesse, who has eight sons. Together, Samuel, Jesse, and seven of the sons engage in a ritual sacrifice and purification. God gives specific instructions not to use human standards when speculating about who will be anointed. One by one, the older and physically impressive sons are set aside. Finally, God tells Samuel to have Jesse send for the youngest child who is tending sheep, our David. He is anointed, and thus begins the David cycle of stories.

Second, God forms a covenant with David and the “line of Jesse” in 2 Samuel 7 in which there is an everlasting covenant between the God and this new royal house. This shapes a new theology and a new sense of community hierarchy. We’ll talk more about this next week.

Third, David did some incredible things. He moved the Hebrews away from the loose tribal confederacy. He put national identity over tribal identity by developing a small town run by the Jebusites called Jerusalem as a political and religious capital. The Sanhedrin, the highest court of Jewish law was tethered to Jerusalem. And the Ark of the Covenant, which had been captured by the Philistines, was brought to Jerusalem, where it remained until lost to history. The Hebrews became Israelites, a vital development in what we now understand as Judaism.

Finally, David secured peace that his son Solomon was able to enjoy and undertake a massive building campaign. He did this through warfare and strategic marriage, taking wives and concubines as the nascent empire grew into power. Women were currency, and David cashed in.

The best example of this comes with Bathsheba. According to biblical witness of 2 Samuel 11, David spies Bathsheba on her roof. Most English translations render this in rather benign terms: Bathsheba is bathing. But Bathsheba is engaged in bathing to become ritually clean after her menstrual cycle. With no mikvah in her house, she goes to the roof, strips nude, and is subsequently viewed by a voyeur who sends for her so that he may possess her.

Here is where disagreement most often gets heated. Was the sex consensual? The scripture simply reports that Bathsheba lay with David, and subsequently becomes pregnant. But we must ask ourselves, could she have declined? David knew that she was married; further, he knew she was married to one of his military leaders. Her objections on these fronts would not have been heeded. David knew what he was doing when he sent for her. Even in the case of genuine mutual attraction, there is not mutual parity. There is no equality in this situation. David sent for her so that he may lay with her. Bathsheba had very little choice.

Let us address the most common objection: cultural context. “Well, that’s just the way things were,” we hear. I argue that we should accept such claims from persons in history to the same degree that we accept it from ourselves. David was king. He could have led by example, at the very least, treating the women around him as more than chattel and incubators. Further, let us stop accepting the idea that men have the right to summon women at will and demand that they submit to sexual acts. If it’s problematic in Hollywood, it’s problematic in Jerusalem.

The biblical story, as many of us know, becomes even more horrific. Bathsheba is pregnant; when she tells David, he unfolds a winding scheme that results in launching a military attack designed simply to get Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, killed. God causes Bathsheba to have a miscarriage and requires her to marry David. God and Samuel spend a good deal of time showing for David his sins against God. David repents and shows true remorse…to God. Not to Bathsheba. There is no sign that he made any attempts to atone for his horrific actions. Sadly, powerful men seldom do.

Let us hear Bathsheba say, “me, too.” Let us not use her actions after the rape to somehow mollify ourselves, “Oh, she was fine. I mean, her son became KING; she was a manipulator who used royal power to secure the place of her son.” These details are not relevant to the trauma inflicted upon her by a man lionized in popular religious imaginations. Let us not say, “Well, it wasn’t rape-rape,” as though there are only a set number of incidents that deserve the acknowledgment of being bestial violations of human persons made in God’s image.

And God does not get off easy here, either. God causes a miscarriage. God’s law requires victims to wed their rapists. And I don’t have some slick interpretation or word study to do to change the bright light that shines on this part of our sacred tradition. This view of God is the perfect example of patriarchy and toxic masculinity. All that matters is the man. It is his redemption that matters. It is his sin against God, not against the ones he violated, that matter. God’s endless covenant is with a line containing sexual abusers.

This matters in the course of religious history. There are billions of women throughout history crying out “me, too.” There are women sitting in pews or reading this online with their own, “me, too” stories. I see the irony of a man speaking about women’s experiences with righteous indignation; it is most certainly not lost on me. But one response to the “me, too” men can have is, “I was him.” I was him who engaged in misogynistic thinking; I was him who enjoyed the patriarchy while comparing to Nazis feminists who sought to dismantle it. I was him who did not heed the first no. There are so many ways.

Sometimes all we can content ourselves with is playing the role of Israel, meant literally as “one who wrestles with God.” As for my own efforts, I am no longer erring on the side of interpreting David with, “Oh, that’s awful, but really he’s a great guy, so I bet he didn’t mean it.” Seldomly do we hold up sexual abuse without trying to explain it away, victim shame, make accusations about the timing of reports or the manner in which they were reported. Let us wrestle with God, constantly hearing the “me, toos” that surround. We must never stop wrestling.