Sin-talk (Or Tautologically, Hamartiology)

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Who is this who even forgives sins?

Sin is a sticky wicket. On one hand, we can hardly deny its existence. We might disagree on what constitutes sin, but on a fundamental level we who follow the Abrahamic God must confess the reality of sin. Genesis reports that sin begins with knowledge of good and evil. Have you ever really thought about that before? I imagine you have, I mean this more as an invitation than an inquisition: think about the fact that our foundational myth maintains that in knowing the difference between good and evil we encounter sin. It is not a simple choice of good or evil; it is not a cut-and-dried division of evil bad, and good, well, good. Good intentions can still lead to evil acts. Evil can have attenuating good. The reason forgiveness is so messy is because sin is slippery.

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Sin is in the nuances. Sin is missing the mark, in terms of etymology. Both the Hebrew and the Greek words have the same meaning. A term that comes from archery. To miss the mark. How, though, do we measure this miss? Inches can translate to miles, depending on your metric. A centimeter on the highway is not the same a centimeter on a map. Sin is in the nuances.

We began our talk by weighing hands, and we have not yet considered the other one. Sin-talk can leave scars. Sin-talk too often is spoken in abusive language. Sin-talk plants seeds of self-hatred that blossom into shame. Augustine blathered on in sin-talk. He looked at an infant suckling at a breast and saw a bag of skin filled with sin. John Calvin felt Augustine was too forgiving, and summarized the essence of humanity with two unforgettable words: total depravity. Jonathan Edwards agreed when he described humanity as being held by a gossamer thread over the pits of hell in his infamous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Perhaps you, like me, know people who use the word “escape” to describe their relationship with the Church. An escape from abuse. An escape from homes in which sin was screamed about but words of grace were barely whispered. When sin becomes an obsession, when the purpose of sin-talk is to spin purchase-less tires in the mud so that they will splatter it over all in its path, when SIN is rendered in capital letters but love is shunned like a four-letter word, we miss the mark. We sin in our sin-talk when it is not a dialogue with love.

Sin is not uniquely an Abrahamic concept; the Hindu notion of karma and the Buddhist concept of dukkha are similar. Both sin and karma are seen as impacting life in this world and the next; both sin and dukkha, which translates best to unsatisfactoriness, hold that humans cause harm because we act with certainty when we should act with trepidation. We mistake the part for the whole. We privilege the ego, the self, the individual. Most religions, on some level, provide practitioners methods to recognize the pain they have effected; to discern the causes of this pain; to offer restitution and seek forgiveness from those harmed; and to commit to methods that will prevent a repeating of the same behaviors, thoughts, words, or deeds. Sin-talk that is aimed at transformation and progress is good talk. But far too often, rare is the good talk of sin.

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Jesus knew how to talk about sin. He wasn’t shy about bringing it up, but always for a purpose. Yes, sometimes he was harsh; for those drunk on religious certainty, Jesus promised a hangover. For those being haughty in their heads—“If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner”—for them, Jesus might pull out the somewhat passive-aggressive, but always effective story-told-to-one-person-but-clearly-aimed-at-others technique. Simon, I have something to say to you. Jesus brought up sin, but always with the objective of unsticking those who were mired in the mud; no spinning tires, no indiscriminate splattering here. Jesus may have spoken of sin loudly from time to time, but he always bellowed the good news of grace and forgiveness. Who is this who even forgives sins?

In my upcoming book on the Gospel of Mark, I make the argument that early Christian storytellers used unnamed women as paradigms of proper discipleship. We see it in the Syrophoenician woman who tells Jesus about the dogs who get scraps from the table; in the hemorrhaging woman who is healed because she dare break the taboo of touching a man not her husband while she was in her menses; and in the woman with the alabaster jar. We return to the triple tradition—remember that? the material shared by Mark, Matthew, and Luke—but once again Luke’s emphases and additions are telling. Only Luke has this story that Jesus relates about the relationship between forgiveness and gratitude. It’s a wonderful story; it makes sense to both ear and heart. Great debts require great forgiveness. Great forgiveness results in great joy. There is little subtlety to Jesus’ approach; we know both about and to whom Jesus is speaking.

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But scripture is about more than the events in the story world. Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees and about the woman, but he’s also speaking to us about us. About our sin. If you’re like me, you’re thinking of that worst sin. Details aren’t important. We should be careful not to brag on our sin. Still, chances are you have it; most of us do: that thing we did. Or said. Or didn’t do or didn’t say. That way we missed the mark by so much the arrow plunged right into someone’s heart. Jesus beckons us to receive the forgiveness that relieves burdens, that lessens yokes, that changes lives. The forgiveness that cancels debts. “Your sins are forgiven,” Jesus says to the woman. “Because you believed, you are saved from your sins. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.” He says to her.

He says to us.

The Pharisees are shocked by Jesus’ audacity, but I don’t think that is what Luke is wanting us to be shocked by; I don’t think this passage is ultimately about the Pharisees being judgmental or Jesus being ostentatious. I think it is about how knowing that you are forgiven impacts the way you live.

By all rights, this unnamed woman puts a target on her back the minute she takes it upon herself to touch a man who is not her husband. Add to that the reputation Jesus has as being one who is dedicated to God, and he might as well be a walking X for her. Forbidden. Her very existence is deemed a threat to God by the established authorities; she is the embodied bridge too far. They believe that God cannot reach her. Even if they were to confess Jesus the Messiah, never would it be assumed that Jesus’ holiness could overpower her sin. We can rest assured that all the Pharisees believe that Jesus leaves the building unclean. The fact that she has a reputation for being especially sinful makes this a potent cocktail. Stonings start in such ways. But straight to Jesus’ feet she goes, weeping tears of gratitude and using her hair when no towel is proffered. Of course, it is important that the person to whom she tends is Jesus, but in some ways it really doesn’t matter. She has no verbal guarantee that Jesus will respond positively; she has no assurance that she will not be targeted when he leaves; what she has is an internal knowledge—what the Greeks call gnosis—that she is more than sin. She is more than the ways she has missed the mark. She knows that she is a child of God; with this knowledge, she gives herself permission to love life. To express her gratitude. She does this before Jesus ever utters a word about forgiveness. What he proclaims is not a magic spell; he does not speak something into existence; he merely diagnosis a pre-existing condition. She is forgiven.

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Let us not mistake forgiveness for permission. Cheap grace, Bonhoeffer called it; that notion that forgiveness exists so that we can continue to create suffering as a result of our selfishness, to look away again and again because of our fear, to proclaim God’s forgiveness with our lips but to close our hearts to what it entails. Forgiveness is a pay-it-forward transaction. We don’t have permission to hurt others just because forgiveness is available. It is a reality that pushes our frame of reference outwards. When we understand that nothing we can do puts us inextricably outside of God’s love, we stop seeking ways to prove God wrong. We still sin, but not in the same ways. We still hurt others, but not without recognizing the harm; not without seeking reconciliation. We see being forgiven as the pre-existing condition, not sin. And this unnamed woman who tends to Christ’s body—the role that we in the Church are to play until God returns, that of tending to the Body of Christ—this woman shows us what living life knowing that you are forgiven looks like. And for that, let the people of the Church say Amen.

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Looking for a Job: God’s Nationalism

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I’ve written previously on deciding to move to the Narrative Lectionary, which has included a series on 2 Corinthians and Job. Job is always a tough one; it is a long book, with the most complicated poetry in the Tanakh; there are vast differences in hermeneutical positioning; and it has some unsettling details, such as God and Satan wagering and individual human life seeming not to matter (like how Job’s children are “replaced” at the end with new kids). Job is one of those texts that requires a big commitment from both pastor and congregation if a sermon series is going to work.

There are so many great books and articles about Job that even a half-assed literature review would take months to compile. So, I have given some links above that provide a good starting place for anyone wanting to make a serious go at Jobian theory; personally, I recommend Gustavo Gutierrez‘s seminal work On Job: God-talk and the Suffering of Innocents, which presents the biblical narrative as being the foundation of liberation theology. One of my best memories from early in graduate school–I think I was 24 or so–is of studying the text under the guidance of a Jesuit priest who was instrumental in my coming to Jesus Christ in the wake of my brother’s suicide. Job is a text that I have been wrestling with on and off for about fifteen years. And the recent world events have once again confirmed the contention that God is still speaking through the scriptures.

A little history is necessary, and you’ll forgive me for not providing links to every historical point I make; if anyone questions something or would like some citations, I can provide those in comments or IM. But in the main, being able to make claims about history is why I have accrued these degrees over the years, and seeing that this is a blog and not a dissertation, I’m going to forego the bibliography except to say that this is a great place to start.

If you look at the covenant between God and the people as mediated by Moses, the covenant is not with individuals. It is with a community; a community that will become a theocracy under the leadership of the kings: Saul, David, and Solomon. Scriptures are divided as to the wisdom of a monarchy. Of course, with the death of Solomon in 922 BCE we see a split in the kingdoms, with the Omri and Jehu Dynasties operating up north, and the Davidic line continuing down south. Rival fiefdoms impact subsequent theologies. Nationalism reigns. Then the North falls to the Assyrians around 721 BCE; the South hangs on until the Babylonians destroy the First Jerusalem Temple c.587/6 BCE, which begins the Diaspora, ending the period often known as Classical Judaism.

What faces the people during this time are fundamental questions: Who are we outside of the land, the Temple, and the Davidic line? Who are we when these are taken away? How do we know God? How do we know ourselves? Who are we? The answer that emerges is: We are a People of the Book.

So we have to ask, was it false sense of nationalism that did in the people? Is there anything to suggest that a faulty understanding of community can pollute the individual life? 

Let’s resume the history. The Babylonians are defeated by Cyrus the Persian, who enacts a much more benign and enlightened formed of occupation. Cyrus allows for those in exile to return to their homeland; Cyrus gives them money to build another Temple, and promises religious freedom (pay your taxes; always pay your taxes); but Cyrus reasons that peace will more likely prevail if people are allowed to keep their languages, customs, religions, and traditions. The problem becomes, a lot of people living in exile did not want to return. They have intermarried; converted; have no memories or attachments to Hebrew culture. So those that do return are among the more religious and devout. And in return for his kindness, Cyrus is declared a messiah (anointed one) in Hebrew scripture.

Until this time, individuality didn’t really exist. Certainly not in the way that it exists today. God’s concern was with the survival of the community; and the theology that develops is one in which the community is punished corporately for individual sin. (See, for example, the defeat at Ai as a result of the sin of Achan.) We can see it as a cycle that runs from the Book of Joshua through II Kings. The people turn to other gods; Hashem raises up an enemy; the people cry out, and God takes pity upon them; God raises up a shofet (temporary, charismatic leader or judge) who establishes peace throughout their lifetime; the leader dies, and the cycle repeats.

The human person, therefore, is a microcosm of the macrocosm. How so? Well, what is wrong within our own lives can be explained with the same interpretative lens. Physical or mental disability? Sin. Poverty or poor social standing? Sin. Notice how in the Book of Job, all the comforters essential offer the same advice? “Repent!” And Job remains insistent that he has done no wrong, which we are listener/readers in the story know to be true. God kinda allows God’s self to be pulled into a grotesque wager that has odious consequences for Job and those around him. Job challenges the notion that he deserves punishment because he is without sin, and Job is right.

Generally, I think, it is our instinct to side with Job. We feel his righteous indignation. This God who wagers and seems almost as insecure as a current presidential nominee is not a God with whom I am comfortable being in relationship. Job’s question are our questions. Job’s defiance our defiance. But what if we are being led down the garden path?

Let’s take a step back and really look at what is going on. It is understandable why, but Job is pretty focused on himself. He keeps saying that he does not deserve what is happening to him because he is not a sinner. We can argue all day long about how this can be true, as every person but Jesus (for us Christians) is a sinner, but the narrative is clear: Job is pious in every way. He is God’s pride and joy. So we should take that for what it is meant to be: a statement regarding the relationship between calamity and sin. Maybe the point of the book is not Job’s innocent suffering, but rather it is about our continuing belief that sin and punishment are related. We see the effect, personal disaster or catastrophe, and we assume that it is deserved because of a sinful cause; if we see destruction in our own lives and maintain that we are sinless, we begin to point at others we believe to be deserving of punishment but are left unscathed. This is the foundation of the theodicy question: why do bad things happen to good people. Or, perhaps even more puzzling, why do good things happen to a hate-filled, orange umpaloompa who can’t rub two brain cells together?

Believe me, believe me. It’s puzzling.

What if the Book of Job is about tearing down bad theology? Maybe Job’s piety arises because he believes he is rewarded for it. And maybe the authors of the Job text are setting forth a corrective to theologies that do a great deal to separate people, to make us afraid of one another, that embolden our judgments and mute our compassion. Because if someone deserves what they are getting, are we really motivated to help them in times of need?

In chapter 14, Job cries out that even the cut down tree has a hope of rebirth and resurrection, but the human person does not. The best for which we can hope is Sheol and the soothing darkness of eternal death. A belief in an afterlife and/or bodily or spiritual resurrection has not yet taken root in Judaism at this point; the Book of Job is part of that. Job’s use of imagery is part of a long tradition in Hebrew writings to employ tree metaphors in connection with messianic figures. God will act for the survivial of the corporate body, for the community, for the covenant people. Job demands justice and hope for himself. He argues for the dignity of the individual. And he is criticizing, I think, the nationalism that had overtaken people’s compassion and sense of connectedness.

We will discuss the ending of Job next week, but for right now let us wrestle with this: maybe God promises to stay with communities because we are most fully human when we are in relationship with one another? But God will not support those communities that place their identity into nationalism. And perhaps God is asking us to pull down those structures and systems that keep people out of relationships? Systems that keep people from affirming one another where they are instead of trying to convince them that they deserve their pain. Perhaps when we ask God why there is not justice and equality, God asks us the same thing. Maybe God is saying, I gave you everything you need to understand what is important. What have my prophets said unto you? What outrages have I sublimated out of love for you? Why do you keep hurting each other? Why do you mistake the nation for the community?

We are living at a time in which a politician is promising that he is the only one who can save us. He wants to build walls both literal and metaphorical. He promises that he is our voice. Our redeemer. When Job says, “I know my redeemer lives” we must ask ourselves, what does this mean? If God is our redeemer, how is God operating in our lives? What has God given to use individually that we can contribute to the larger community? What are the fruits of the Spirit that allow us to comprehend the ways in which persons are deemed “others.”

We Christians should be very wary when a person promises to be imbued with the unique ability to save us. Because we kinda already have that covered pretty well. Like, full coverage with zero deductible covered. What comes with that assurance, though, is the responsibility to speak truth to power, to set ourselves against signs and symbols that deny persons their full humanity and dignity. And we should understand that God calls us to be in relationships. We cannot be concerned with ourselves more than we are with others; we are intimately connected. All as part of God’s plan.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

 

Street Gospel in C-Sharp Minor

I saw him first out of the corner of my eye as I walked from the church to Speedway for my morning gallon of caffeine. Early 20s, solid build. Astride a lowrider bicycle, one hand was upon the handlebars and the other clutched something against his leg. A bag was slung snugly against his back as he rode aimlessly in between and around the pumps. Clear blue skies and a not-too-warm sun shone down through morning cool air. My first thought was, That’s kinda dangerous. I wonder if I should say something? 

Initially, I meant it in reference to riding amidst gas pumps with distracted people driving and playing Pokemon simultaneously. I just worried he would get hit or someone would start yelling at him (likely a tourist in my mind, but one never knows). But then I realized that I was wanting to say something for another reason. Black kid riding a bike can be a justification for a stop. A questioning. A shooting. And if you had told me a five years ago that I would think this, I would have responded: Outside Y.S. Sure. But not here. Never here. Then Paul was killed. Violent behavior in the YSPD has occurred very recently as well. Of course, there are wonderful officers on the force and I personally speak to the Chief rather frequently, in both support and a taking to task, all to try to make sure that officers and villagers know one another; but that sadly doesn’t matter. Paul was known in the village. The two people recently subjected to excessive (and despite the internal investigation conclusions many believe unjustifiable) force were locals. As Roland Deschain of The Dark Tower says, the world has moved on. This is not the same village it once was, at least in terms of policing. The thought of potential violence was heavy on my mind as I walked into the station to get my ridiculously large cup of Diet Pepsi. I resolved myself to not say anything to him because I didn’t want him to feel unwelcome, and I also didn’t want to appear to be a White person trying to tell an adult Black man what to do. He’s grown, I thought. And knows much better than I what it takes to live while Black. 

I exited and started back to the church. And then I heard him.                                           “Would you like to hear a word?”                                                                                                                 I wheeled around. “A word on what?”                                                                                                       “The only word that matters,” he said. I realized for the first time that he was holding a Bible in the hand not controlling the bike. He opened to a page in Revelation as I sidled up to him and smiled. He read. I closed my eyes. Normally, I am almost repulsed by Revelation, at least the way it is presented and used. I’ll be honest that I like my apocalypses from Daniel and my eschatology from Isaiah. But the selected passage was lovely. About humility. About seeking glory not from riches of the coin but rather wealths of the spirit. A wealth of justice. A wealth of compassion. A wealth of comfort, residing in the bosom of Christ. He finished and I smiled.

“Amen,” I said. I did not move as we smiled at each other.                                                                  “May I tell you something, brother?” I asked. He nodded.                                                                   “I’m pastor of that church right there,” I said, pointing at the stately stone structure of First Presbyterian. His eyes widened. “No way!” he exclaimed. I held out my arms, showing him my many religious tattoos. “Jesus Christ is the foundation of everything I do, everything I am, everything I am called to be.” I could tell that he was starting to think this was a reproach or a haughty rebuke. I caught his eye. “Thank you. Thank you for sharing a word of Scripture with me. You have ministered to me at a moment when I needed it.” I remained silent about my earlier fears and thoughts. I simply existed in the moment. I asked his name, which he told me. And there in the Speedway lot, we held hands and prayed.

He told me that he felt the tug of the Holy Spirit, prompting him to speak. I affirmed that his presence had been a great blessing to me. We laughed and praised God and parted ways. I fell into church work: finishing the bulletin, taking a meeting, completing a paper for the doctoral program, putting together details for the Gospel Fest. When the office manager left I hadn’t looked at the clock in hours. The rumbling in my stomach made it known that food needed to happen or not even a gallon of Diet Pepsi was going to keep me upright. I was about to walk into Tom’s when I saw the young man across the street attempting to proselytize a local (and international) celebrity we all know and love. I’ll call this celebrity Big Homie. For those of us who grew up here, seeing Big Homie is not a big deal but for others it is, so we locals try to be really protective of him. Big Homie was with some locals I know well so I sauntered over and began chatting with the director of the African American Culture Works, which sponsors the Gospel Festival held at First Presbyterian. “Hey, Rev.” Big Homie shot at me. It seemed I had alighted upon a solid theological discussion; the young man had voiced frustration that people were not wanting to listen to the Word.

“You can’t go up to them and use it like an assault weapon,” Big Homie said. “You don’t know their path. You’ve got to show them with how you live.” He got up. “I don’t smoke crack,” he said, walking quickly to the edge of the flower shop and then back toward us like a man on the hustle. “So if somebody comes by whispering offers of crack, I’m not going listen. In fact, I might be hostile. You see, you don’t know if people are interested in your product.” Big Homie had made his way back to the flower show; he leaned up against the edge of the building. “But if you post up and wait, the people who need you are going to come.” I nodded and smiled.

Big Homie is a deep Muslim, yo’.

He kinda nodded at me and I picked up the conversation; we talked about the parable of the sower, and how our responsibility is to sow the seed. “We cannot be responsible for the quality of the soil or where the seed lands. What we have to do is be as gracious and abundant as possible in spreading the seed, confident that in God roots will be developed in fertile soil. Your passion of the ministry is awesome; I love that you are out here sweating and trying to share with people your joy. Christ has changed your life and you want to share that. But know that, as Big Homie said, your call is to people who want to receive what you have to offer. Please come worship with us, brother.” We hugged and I took the picture you see above.

Street Gospel in C-sharp minor.

 

 

 

Augustus*/Pilate 2016: The Preferred Ticket of Megachurch Pastors

Listen to this:

If you are anything like me, you are having this reaction:

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So Pastor Robert Jeffress, who once said that trans* friendly businesses were more of a threat than Daesh (no shit), has come out in favor of Donald Trump because he is a strongman. Okay. That’s a stupid thing to want–you’ve got a doctorate, Bob; read a book on the rise of fascism in 20th century Europe–but it is not totally unreasonable. We’ve seen that on all the continents. And while I think it is a ridiculous political desire, I have to admit that it is one that has shaped politics in the past. Generally for the worse, but people do pull the lever for a strongman. Fine

But the asinine contention that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount would not make sense for governance (which is in itself not necessarily a wrongly stated position) because Jesus didn’t claim that it was a governing philosophy shows the danger and limitation of biblical literalism. To wit, Rev. Dr. Strongmanwanter believes that Christians should be against homosexuality because it is in the Bible. Yet Jesus says exactly zero things about homosexuality. But, you might object, there are prohibitions elsewhere. Yes, there are; kinda. But Jeffress argues that the Bible does not say anything about government.

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Yeah, no. Evidence? The Torah. Kiiiiiiinda filled with laws about how the covenant community should be formed and governed. Now, there are a lot of caveats. And Christian fundamentalists most often don’t get that the covenant code is not for us; Jewish fundamentalists often forget that the laws are applicable only in a Jerusalem that contains the Temple. Despite the nuances that most certainly are not being discussed in any real form here, it is safe to say that the Bible is absolutely concerned about how a society is governed.

Reasonable people will hopefully agree that Jesus was Jewish and was interested in helping to reform and rejuvenate the religion. (Marcus Borg’s Jesus, A New Vision, is a great starting point for people wanting to understand this perspective.) He wasn’t a law-maker, but he was a law-interpreter. In the Jewish tradition this is know as midrash. Notice how Jesus often says, “You have heard it said, but say to you…” and then goes on to say something that emphasizes the Spirit of the law over the letter of the law? That’s midrash. It’s kinda a big deal.

See, we Christian pastors need to read more than the Bible because we are charged with midrash. It is what we do with our sermons. We need to read books about the Bible. About history. Archaeology. Sociology. Linguistics. Literature. And the good pastor knows this; he has an impressive education from schools that I might not have chosen to attend, as I am not a Southern Baptist, but that are accredited by reputable services and that is no joke. Seminaries lose accreditation if they do not follow strict guidelines; schools like Liberty University don’t get accreditation or try to create their own agencies to circumvent the standards. All of this to say that Jeffress knows better. He knows that Jesus’ words directly relate to the power dynamics that exist between people and the religious hierarchy; the people and the Romans; the Jewish hierarchy and the Romans; and how they pertain to the people’s relationships between themselves. I find it most probable that Jeffress has read or is familiar with Walter Wink’s work on the roles power plays in Jesus’ vision of the faith. In a nutshell, Jesus is anti-strongman. Jesus’ entire ministry is about the kin-dom of God, which he imagines (according to John Dominic Crossan) as God sitting on the throne of Caesar.

Jesus was inherently political is the Greek sense of the word; politics is that which relates to the people. In many ways, our weekly liturgy (which means “work of the people”) is a form of politics, because it concerns our relationship with God (and one another). For Jeffress to argue that the Bible supports a “strongman” is ludicrous. If God likes a strongman, why does David win? If God likes a strongman, why did Jesus come as a carpenter and submit himself to the cross?

I don’t like to question other people’s faith, but Jeffress’s words make me think he would have made a great campaign manager for the Romans.

aaaaa

*The author is aware that Tiberias was emperor during Jesus’ ministry and execution. But Tiberius/Pilate doesn’t have the same zing 😉
 

It’s Not About the Samaritan

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We always focus on the Samaritan. Whenever I preach Luke 10:25-37, I trot out the history of the Samaritans. How some scholars maintain they came to be as the result of the Assyrian destruction of the North c.722 BCE. How they assumed the identity of being the “true” chosen people. How they were vilified and reviled by the Jews of Jesus’ time. How women were thought to be born with perpetual menstruation. How the men oftentimes were not allowed to enter town centers during the day. And then I’ll make some comparison as to who would be a Samaritan today: Osama Bin Laden. Saddam Hussein. ISIS.

And that stuff’s important to know. But until last night, when I suddenly switched the texts for the week to those in the Revised Common Lectionary, I never realized that the parable isn’t about the Samaritan at all. Not really.

Most often, we focus on the violence done to the person lying in the ditch. And we should. Those are the wounds that need tending, the life that needs protecting, the victim who needs attention. Nothing can be done to take back the blows delivered to his body; we can dry the blood and set the bones, but the memories of the act remain.

To decrease the chances something like this happens again, we need to look at the forces that push the robbers into lives of brigandry. We have failed them. Our schools. Our communities. Our churches. Sure, some people choose crime but a vast majority are forced there. Desperation is as desperation does.

We need to look at the violence done to the persons who walked by. The priest who perhaps feels afraid of violating strictures on coming into contact with blood. The Levite who has internalized codes and ideas about purity that keeps him out of relationship. What are the lies they have believed, the indifference they have developed in their minds and hearts, the ways they have somehow dehumanized another person? How is that born? How is that nurtured? How is that developed? We need to look at the institutions and forces that create such a perverse and inhuman life philosophy. Because we know that human nature is to help. Just watch a child respond to human suffering. A child will try to assist, will cry out with empathy.

Remember, God creates us and declares us very good. That is our ontological condition.

The Parable of the Good Samaritan is not just a story about how we should act, it is a damning indictment of the forces and beliefs that actively keep us from doing the right thing. That keep us complicit in acts of violence, acts of malicious indifference, acts of apathy. The parable is about our own racism, our own prejudices, our own systems that value too many things other than human life. Other than human dignity, security, and happiness.

The parable is about what keeps us from being good.

To be sure, the title of this piece is provocative. The Samaritan is important. I believe the Samaritan presents us with three crucial points for pondering. One, beware of your assumptions. The priest and the Levite are expected to do the right thing, and they do not. I argue because of systems not put in place by them, but ones that they accept even though they violate the will of God that we care for one another. The Samaritan does do the right thing, and we must ask: is this because the Samaritan is a better person? Perhaps. Or perhaps the Samaritan shows us that we can learn lessons from unexpected people. Perhaps the Samaritan shows us that our assumptions about others keep us from seeing the way God is working through them; our prejudices and assumptions prevent us from seeing them as fully human.

Two, the Samaritan shows us the model of someone who does not accept rules and regulations that result in people suffering. The Samaritans largely followed the same Torah as their contemporary Jews (and please note that Samaritans still exist to this day). They were beholden to the same commandments of hospitality and the same laws of ritual cleanliness. This Samaritan put aside those strictures in favor of tending to a life barely holding on.

Three, the Samaritan demonstrates the failures of society to have structures that are life-affirming.What the Samaritan does for the beating victim is wonderful. It is an inspiration for each of us individually. But we also know that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper. All of us. Each and every one. So why are there systems and strictures that keep people in lives of crime, in religious systems that alienate, and social systems that do not provide adequate healthcare for everyone simply by virtue of being human? Why do we have a society in which one must risk financial ruin or need to rely on the kindness of strangers–who cannot be expected to help everyone–and continue to make excuses for why it is not different?

The bodies in the ditches are stacking up, and the voices are crying out. Are we simply walking by? Are we regurgitating lies or nonsensical reasons and defenses of indefensible behavior? Do we really think that being pulled over for a taillight should even happen anymore? That playing with a toy gun is a capital crime? Do we start spouting criminal histories that have no bearing on the brutal circumstances of innocent deaths? Do we expect our police officers to follow procedures and practices that leave them afraid and uncertain? Do we defend the system over human life? Human worth? Human dignity?

The parable is not about the fucking Samaritan. It’s about what we’ve gotta do to get woke. God does not care about our doctrine and our dogma. God cares that we do the right thing. Start tearing down everything that keeps that from happening, and begin with yourself.

And remember: Jesus broke himself so we would stop breaking each other.

 

Looking for a Job: A Sermon Series

jobc10

Week One: Jules Winnfield, Dick York, and Buddha Walk into a Bar

William James, in his seminal work The Varieties of Religious Experience, argues that all of religion has as its basis a need to understand death. We humans have tried to control death, forestall death, inflict death, commodify death. We have imagined it as an end, a birth, a portal, an illusion, a mystery, a rite. We organize space and time in relationship to it, as it pertains to others, to ourselves, to our species, to all of creation. It is the constant that drives us all, in some fashion, to do the things we do, to believe the contents of our faiths: that there can be a victory over that which alters everything in its path.

The ancient Jews had a much different relationship to death than did most other religions of which we know much; Hinduism and Buddhism are contingent upon the cessation of samsara, the seemingly endless cycle of birth, life, death, decay; Hinduism offers moksha or release from samsara through the realization that Atman, the true self, is part of Brahman, the source of all things: God. The Atman therefore reunited with God, samsara ceases. Buddhism rejects the notion of atman for annatta, no soul or no-self. Moksha (release) occurs when one sheds the false ego, traverses the dharma river, and encounters nirvana. One then escapes the power of death. To be sure, these overly-simplified descriptions forgo nuance in the pursuit of expediency, but the overall point holds: both systems seek to overcome death in some way.

The Jews were different. They were much more focused on how to live here. Now. How to craft and form a society that was governed by laws, by proscribed roles and duties willed by a God who protected them, disciplined them, loved them, and was furiously disappointed with them. For the Hebrew people, faith was a tool toward living a life in which one would be healthy, blessed with a family, have land handed down from previous generations, and would know a trade or skill that helped define one’s personal and public identity. From Classical Judaism, generally defined as the period before the First Temple period (c. 922-586 BCE) to approximately mid-way into the Second Temple period (c.527 BCE-70 CE), the only concept of an after life was connected to Sheol, a nebulous underworld similar to that protected by Hades (which eventually becomes the name of the place, in no small part because the Septuagint–the LXX, or Greek Translation of the Hebrew Bible–renders the Hebrew sheol as Hades). Sheol is used often in the Psalms; see, for example, Psalm 88, the only psalm in the psalter to not contain a doxology; the narrator begins in the Pit and ends in the Pit. In sheol. In despair. Death just wasn’t a major preoccupation for the Hebrews.

So our Christian notions of heaven and hell have more to do with Zoroastrianism, Gnosticism, Greek polytheism, Dante, and Milton than they do with Judaism. But that doesn’t mean we should not examine more closely Jewish ideas relating to death. However, attitudes toward life and death begin to shift after the split between Judah and Israel (c. 922 BCE) and the writing of the Book of Daniel (c. third century BCE), which features notions of a coming judgment based upon the actions taken in this world. And I believe, in many ways, we can see the beginning of that conversation unfold in the Book of Job.

Next week I will provide an overview of Job’s structure, various scholarly theories regarding its compilation and purpose, and we will examine the theologies embedded in the narrative. But for now, it is important to point out that the Book of Job seems to be a response to a theology that had been central to the survival of the faith amidst continued, violent repression: the Theology of Retribution. One can see examples of this throughout what scholars call the Deuteronomistic History, in which the people turn to other gods; Hashem delivers the people into the hands of an enemy; the people repent and cry out; God sends a shofet (judge) or a prophet; all is well until the judge dies, and the people slide back into apostasy. This corporate understanding of how God works translated to individual lives and cultural mores. People who were stricken with illnesses or skin conditions were regarded as sinful, as deserving of their condition. While to some extent the wealthy believed they were rewarded because of their own virtue, much more prevalent was the belief that one was rewarded because of the virtues of one’s ancestors. Filial piety is a major concern of the Scriptures, even if expected adherence to primogeniture is often challenged (think of how many times the younger brother is favored in the Bible). Sin and status are intimately connected.

And Job challenges this relationship. Consider Job, God brags. The pinnacle of my beautiful creation, no ? God tauntingly offers to Satan. Of course he is! the Adversary retorts. You’ve given him everything. Take it away, and see what happens! So we’re left with a question. A quandary. Is Job rewarded because he is religious? Or is Job religious because he is rewarded? Now we turn the questioning upon ourselves. What are our expectations of God? What is the purpose of our investment? Wealth? Health? Love? What does God offer? What does God expect?

The Book of Job is an indictment on the expectation for justice. The sense that one is deserving of anything. And reading Job now, with what is going on in this country, we must ask: can a system that was never designed to protect and serve non-whites and women ever be sufficiently reformed to provide equal justice? We do we mean when we say the word justice? I know from experience that my friends of color often answer that question with a much different perspective than do I. So do we believe in a uniform, unchanging justice? Do justice and compassion have a relationship? If so, how? What impacts that relationship? Is it the same for everyone? The questions seem endless.

The Book of Job challenges us to confront a God who is so insecure that Satan is able to goad, cajole, one could even say manipulate, to such an extent that Job’s children are slaughtered as a test of faith. A God, who at the end of the story, blithely replaces Job’s family, not through resurrection, but through a new cast of characters. It’s like Dick Sargeant replacing Dick York all over again, and nobody’s supposed to notice? Come on, God!

Are we confronted with a text that shows we of the Abrahamic faiths worship a capricious and even vindictive God? Or might there be something else here? Something bubbling under the surface, beckoning us to investigate, to lay bare our assumptions, and to confront fundamental questions in new ways? With new eyes? Over the next five weekly installments, will be sit on the dung heap with Job and listen. And then, in the words of Jules Winnfield, we’ll say, “Well allow me to retort!”

Practicing Resurrection: Naked Night Fishing

Lunker 1997 by Peter Doig born 1959
Lunker 1997 Peter Doig born 1959 Presented by the artist and Charles Booth-Clibborn 1998 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/P11550

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish.That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

 

This week has been dark for me. Painful. Disconcerting. Maddening. As each day passed, with its attenuating missed experiences, I sank further into a dirty nest of blankets and sweat. It is an odd thing, this illness. I have no broken bone or plummeting T-cell count to which I can point and say, “Here. This is why I can’t. This is why I simply can’t.” Even the experts who provide my care admit, at some point it just takes faith that we’ll figure out how to deal with the chemicals that course through my brain. It seems almost everyone has an opinion: eat this, don’t eat that; do this, don’t do that; have you tried yoga? How can I do yoga when I’m night fishing nude and nothing is biting?

It is perhaps my greatest fear: to be followed by people and for us to catch nothing. To be sitting in the boat, completely exposed, with people looking at me and shaking their heads in disappointment. That demon visited this week; he unpacked, got himself comfortable, and refused to leave my side. In the darkness, when I cast out my line, nothing worth keeping bit. Self-doubt, fear, feelings of insecurity, dread, and self-loathing were abundant; they leapt into the boat and flopped around, fighting for the same air as I. As they slapped against my naked flesh, my demon sat in the boat with me, pointing to each species and saying, “This? This is what you will use to feed the people? This is what you offer to others in service to your God? This isn’t palatable. No wonder the congregation is shrinking.”

Sarah Silverman has a comedy special titled Jesus is Magic. Sadly, this notion often passes for theology. Despairing? Give it to Jesus? Angry? Look to Jesus. But what we often forget is that there are times in our lives in which we will be nude, fishing in the dark and catching nothing. And that’s where I was, my boat becoming a rotating cast of people I feared I was disappointing or letting down. Family. Friends. Congregants. Each had a turn. Some stayed longer than others. Some came back for repeat visits. For me, depression is not lonely. It is filled with visitors. And it matters not that I am, in reality, surrounded by wonderful, amazing, supportive people who love me; in my head, they are just being fooled. I know the truth. In the darkness, I see who I really am.

At least that is the best way for me to describe it. Depression is not rational; it cares not for degrees or loving words from others. Depression eats happiness and sows seeds of self-hatred. It shuts everything else out and demands my full attention.

This morning I think I heard Jesus whisper “Child.” The boat seems less filled with menacing creatures, and I do believe that is sunlight rising behind Jesus’ form. And I tell you, I want to jump out of this boat like Forrest Gump greeting Lieutenant Dan. The Greek text describes Peter as girding up his loins with his clothing, and jumping into the water instead of waiting for the vessel to dock. I get that. It is a sense that the darkness might be abating.

There are times when we stay on the boat with all the fish Jesus has helped us to gather, and there are times that we jump into the water, determined to get to Jesus first, even if it only lasts for a few precious minutes. The thing is, I don’t think God judges us one way or the other, really. When I’m strong, when I’m doing well, when the meds are doing their work and I’m doing mine, I’m on that boat. I’m gathering the fish together and telling the others on the boat to take a break and go see Jesus. I got it covered. I’ll finish the haul. I’ll mend any nets needing tending. Go. Be with God. I’m good.

I hope to be back there soon. As I said, the sun is coming up and I’m about to jump into the water and start swimming. I look forward to being with God, and to the breakfast I will share with others. A few months ago, the Session of the church I serve agreed to allow  Communion each Sunday after the service during the season of Easter. I’m anticipating that it will be the most delicious, filling, and empowering meal I will have had in a long time. People will be there. Not visitors. Not demons.Not creatures demanding to be named and acknowledged. God’s children. Together. And we will be fed. And we will see Jesus. Some will have taken the boat. Some will have swam. But we will be there together.