Sunday, September 29, 2013

Louisiana Pastor Killed During Sermon

Luke 16: 19-31
“He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

Woke up this morning to find on AOL:  Louisiana pastor killed during sermon.  It happened Friday evening while preaching during a revival. A man came into the church, shot Pastor Ronald J. Harris, Sr, and then fled – the shooter later turning himself in. In the comments that followed, a dangerous place to look to be sure, were reactions ranging from “there must be more to this story,” to “no doubt the NRA will argue that had more people in the congregation (good people) had guns this could have been prevented.”

For me this of course brings up memories of that day in May 2012 when my two closest working colleagues at Saint Peter’s, Ellicott City, Maryland, were shot and killed in the church office. And later that year the shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. People think of, or at least used to think of, churches, synagogues, temples, as safe places – refuge from the storms of life, sanctuary, a place set apart from the violence that surrounds them on all sides. Now such sanctuaries seem to be nothing more than a part of the greater terror landscape that accompanies a society seemingly obsessed with guns, violence, violent “games,” etc. In a couple of weeks I will be filling-in for a colleague at a nearby church for Sunday services. Should I fear for my life?

Was it something the pastor did or said, some people were asking online? Does and answer to that really change the framing of the problem? I find myself thinking back on the Hebrew prophets, not always a popular bunch, who like Socrates were constantly challenging the status quo. They put Jeremiah in the bottom of a well to silence him, to leave him to die, for challenging the status quo. What status quo was he challenging: the right to self-defense. Jeremiah advocated a non-violent solution to the pending invasion of the Babylonians. The town-folk appealed to the king that it would be heresy not to defend themselves. The tradition honors Jeremiah. It’s all in Jeremiah chapter 38.

Back in the 1990’s there was a surge of violent behavior in churches across the land – a backlash against clergy of all denominations, of all kinds of churches. It was thought to be a reaction to a downturn in the economy – people were being downsized or pink-slipped across the board. People felt helpless to act against their employers, the government, banks, or whatever institutions they felt were responsible for the downturn in their personal life. Churches, it was felt, were safe places to act out anger, fear and aggression – after all “the church” has to forgive me, right? Ironic isn’t it? The church once a sanctuary from violence now viewed as a safe place to act out violence one cannot act out anywhere else without reprisal. The church, among other venues, becomes the one safe place you can be assured of killing one or more innocent people to assuage your anger.

Jesus tells the story of a rich man and  a poor man named Lazarus – no relation to the brother of Mary and Martha of Bethany. The gist of the story is that people have become disconnected from the Word of God – disconnected from the ethical demands of being a faithful person – demands such as to love and care for one’s neighbor. The rich man learns that for ignoring the ethical demands of the Ten Commandments life after life is not going to go so well. Accepting this, he pleads for someone from the dead to return to warn his sons, family and friends so they will not make the same mistakes he has. The story concludes: “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

Admission: I grew up and card-carrying member of the National Rifle Association, and spent many Saturday afternoons at the local police firing range earning my medals up through Sharpshooter Bar VII. I cannot in good conscience be a member today. There are no more fundamental commands in Holy Scripture than the Sixth Commandment against killing or murder; and the command of Jesus to love your neighbor, and even to love your enemies. Despite the millennia-long existence of Just War Theory in Christian theology, that has always applied to government regulated armies or militias, not individuals. Further, the origins of Just War Theories of self-defense and proportionate response were conceived when people were fighting from chariots and horses with hand-held variations on a club or at best a spear or a bow and arrow. Even the NRA has its origins in responsible use of rifles – it is not the NHA, National Handgun Association, after all.

I admit I have never been much of an advocate for the kind of WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) jingoism that has seized much of what passes for Christianity these days. Nevertheless, this morning as I pray for Pastor Ronald J. Harris, Sr, and his alleged assailant, Woodrow Karey,  and the witnesses in the congregation who I now know for a fact will never be able to forget the nightmare that unfolded before their eyes, WWJD might not be a bad place to start. His story about the richman and Lazarus is at one dimension a venting of his frustration as he tries to challenge the status quo of a society seemingly gone off the rails. Just as Jeremiah was venting frustration as his people were facing exile at the hands of Babylon. No one was willing to engage in any sort of meaningful listening to warnings they were issuing.

Walter Brueggemann has always been fond of asking the key questions in our time. One of which might be:  How much gun violence does a society have to endure before it admits it is already in exile? Jesus is no doubt correct on this one: we have been told and told and told again what life is meant to look like. Even if someone were to return from the dead to warn us today, would we even bother to listen? Or, are we so distracted with protecting our so-called “rights” that we would not even hear a word he or she might say to us?

Saturday, September 7, 2013

God Helps Those Who Help Themselves?

God Helps Those Who Help Others
 [On Sunday, August 25, former governor Robert L. Ehrlich (R) concluded his opinion piece reminding the reader that he was always taught, "God helps those who help themselves". Below is my response to the Baltimore Sun, which was printed with the bracketed sections left out for reasons of space, etc.]

                With all due respect to the former governor’s parents (“HUD latest vehicle for White House power grab,” Robert L. Ehrlich, Sunday, August 25), there is no evidence in the Judeo-Christian Bible that “God helps those who help themselves.” Yes, this is a longstanding bromide of American folklore built on similar concepts such as we all need to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. And although it tops polls as the most widely known “Bible verse,” it appears nowhere in the Bible. In fact, it appears to fly in the face of the Bible’s central message of Grace, which Good News Jesus came to reassert in the first century of the modern era.
The God of Judaism and Christianity provides a much different worldview from the Garden onward: God values those who love God and love others, and God routinely sends messengers and prophets to chastise us when we focus solely on helping ourselves. As early as Leviticus chapter 19 we are urged to love our neighbor as ourselves.
 [The Hebrew word for “love” means something more like doing something helpful for one’s neighbor. You need not even “like” your neighbor, but there is an imperative to help those neighbors who are in need. Indeed, when asked to define “neighbor” Jesus told a story about a Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37). The Samaritans were social and religious enemies, outcasts, folks who lived on “the other side of the tracks,” quite possibly in substandard housing! A man is beaten by robbers on the road and left to die. Two respectable men walk by, see that this is a Samaritan, and someone who as a result of the beating is “unclean,” and they walk by, leaving him to help himself. The most unlikely of characters, a Samaritan, comes by, helps the man, takes him to an Inn, pays for food and lodging, and promises to pay all expenses  associated with his healthcare. “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” asks Jesus.
Or listen to Amos, one of the Hebrew Prophets of the Axial Age, those years from around 800-200 BCE that the philosopher Karl Jaspers asserts, “"the spiritual foundations of humanity were laid simultaneously and independently in China, India, Persia, Judea, and Greece. And these are the foundations upon which humanity still subsists today." In Amos 2:6-8 the prophet decries the sins of society :
They buy and sell upstanding people.
    People for them are only things—ways of making money.
They’d sell a poor man for a pair of shoes.
    They’d sell their own grandmother!
They grind the penniless into the dirt,
    shove the luckless into the ditch.
Everyone and his brother sleeps with the ‘sacred whore’—
    a sacrilege against my Holy Name.
Stuff they’ve extorted from the poor
    is piled up at the shrine of their god,
While they sit around drinking wine
    they’ve conned from their victims.]
No sense among the Hebrew prophets of telling people that God only helps those who help themselves. Quite the contrary, those who help themselves at the expense of those of lesser means are the ones judged as sinful. Not unlike when King David has not  only helped himself Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, but arranged for her husband to be killed on the field of battle, the prophet Nathan cleverly gets David to judge himself, proclaiming, “You are the man!” (2 Samuel 12)
It is universally understood that the arrival of Jesus in the midst of a Roman Civilization characterized by helping themselves to the goods, people and resources of every possible nation they could conquer was God’s proclamation that life had spun out of control and that the myriad ways in which we are called to assist and help (i.e. “love”) our neighbors, all neighbors clean or unclean, neighbors nearby and far away, had been replaced by an emphasis on ownership of personal property. In all four gospels, Jesus spends most of his time helping others. Never does he tell them to help themselves.
 [“God helps those who help themselves” is great advice for a narcissistic, consumer driven culture such as ours has become. But do not be fooled: this does not represent in the least God’s message as handed down through the Bible. God’s message of grace and love of neighbor rests on an ethic of personal sacrifice for the the good of others, and that when we address the good of others we are securing the common good – something that used to be a bedrock American value long before helping ourselves replaced it.]
The Reverend Kirk A Kubicek
Chaplain, Saint Timothy’s School for Girls, Stevenson, MD           

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Living and Active Word

The Living, a Active Word

 Hebrews 12:18-29
In our reading from Hebrews today, the Word of God is described as “living” and “active.” That is, the Word of God is not dead and static. Because we tend to associate the Word of God primarily with the texts of the Bible, we tend to lose sight of its living and dynamic character.
And we tend to forget that the Bible is largely a collection of past utterances that came from God to address critical situations as they arose in history.
And we sometimes forget that the Word of God is also wholly contingent on what is happening right now, whenever “right now” happens to be. Therefore, God’s Word to Abram is vastly different from God’s word to Jeremiah, or to the psalmist, or to Jesus, or to whomever left us the epistle called Hebrews.
So one thing we get from reading the Bible is that the God of Israel is capable of addressing many different situations as they arise in many vastly different historical periods and places: Time and space shape the Word of God.
One thing that should also be obvious is the simple fact that there is no book, not even our Bible, that can contain all of what God might say. That is, the Bible surely does not contain all that God has said or might say.  Nor is it God’s only way of speaking to us.
The Bible does not address many topics we consider to be of grave importance. For example, neither the word “abortion” nor “homosexual” can be found in the Bible. All efforts to find out what God might think about these and similar issues depend on one’s reading or one’s interpretation of texts we think might be able to inform us.
But in the end, we are left with our interpretation of the texts over against the interpretations of others, to which we attempt to apply our own calculus in fashioning some sort of trump argument.
Which brings us to having to admit that when one wishes to enter God’s world through the texts of the Bible, we all do so with whatever tools and preconceived notions we bring along from our own experiences.
There can be no reading of the text that is not interpretive. Or to put it positively, all readings of the texts are interpretive. Because of who we are and the gifts God has given us, there can be no neutral readings of any of the texts.
The Bible itself, in fact, spends a lot of time interpreting and re-interpreting its own material. And the Bible gives a lot of equal time to dramatically competing notions of what it means to be a people of God.
To begin with, then, one needs a firm grasp of all the Biblical landscape, with particular attention paid to a few core narratives: exodus, exile and Jesus’ life/death/resurrection.
It can be argued that all the Bible reflects on these core narratives – exodus, exile and Jesus – with emphasis upon the indisputable fact that nearly all the New Testament looks at Jesus through the dual lens of exodus and exile. It is no coincidence, for instance, that in our liturgy we describe Jesus as “our Passover.”
Without an intimate knowledge of what the Passover story is  – slavery, exodus, wilderness, land of promise – we end up having no idea what we mean when we call Jesus “our Passover.”
To put this another way, the entire Jesus saga engages the reader in a vast interpretation and re-casting and reinterpretation of both the exodus and exile narratives.
So in Hebrews today, a contrast is being made between how God was experienced at Mount Sinai during the wilderness sojourn of the exodus and how God is experienced in Jesus.
In its conclusion, our posture before God is to remain one of thanksgiving, eucharistia, reverence, fear and awe, because our God is “a consuming fire.” A fire that Jesus hopes to kindle across the whole earth!
The text in Hebrews depends on our knowledge of all that happened in the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy for it to make any sense at all to us today. Just as the word that comes to Jeremiah as a young boy eventually uses the exodus saga to announce a new exodus from the exile in Babylon.
While in exile and coming out of exile and re-settling Jerusalem, the biblical texts carry on an extended sort of debate about whether or not God’s Israel should bar the gates and become an exclusive community, or open the gates and become a blessing to all the nations of the earth as God had promised all the way back to our brother Abraham.
That is, should we become an exclusive or inclusive community? Should we remain particular in who we are? Or should we become more universal in our acceptance of others?
There are whole books of the Bible that argue the need to be exclusive and pure, and whole books that argue the need to be inclusive, tolerant and universal in the acceptance of others. There are whole books devoted to strict adherence to the purity codes of Leviticus, and whole books devoted to reaching beyond custom and law in an attitude of compassion and justice to accept all people of all backgrounds into the community of God’s people.
To see Jesus’ perspective, as we do today in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 13, step outside the limitations of tradition and beyond the customs of the Sabbath and the purity code. Jesus heals a woman, a woman who does not call out to him, but one whom he sees and calls to himself, a woman who, because she was a woman and because she was crippled, would not be allowed into the synagogue, let alone inside the gates of the city in all likelihood. This seems to suggest which side of the exclusive-inclusive debate Jesus lived on.
Surely it does not take too much interpretative skill on our parts to see that Jesus shatters the status quo to announce a new way of doing God’s business.
In Jesus we see that God’s Word is alive and active, not at all dead and static. Jesus is seen to be reinterpreting the Bible and the biblical tradition. Jesus, God’s Word, is alive and active.
We cannot even begin to know the significance of this story without intimate knowledge of the exodus saga, the Abraham saga, the prophetic literature calling us to care for those in need, the life and the customs of Israel in the first century. That Jesus would touch an unclean woman in public is remarkable, and causes division amongst the community of God’s people. Note how those who are angry do not address Jesus directly, but rather spew their indignation at the woman and the rest of the congregation. Some things never change!
We all want to know what the Bible says. But are we willing to put in the time necessary to become familiar with all its texts, its various histories and points of view? What it addresses and what it does not? All the personalities represented, and the possibilities and promises sometimes merely hinted at?
Are we willing to let the Bible, the Word of God, have its way with us rather than our trying to domesticate it to our own needs and desires?
Are we able to step back from a verse or a few words and see them in the larger context of an entire book, or the whole Bible?
Are we comfortable with a Word that is living and active?

— The Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek has served as rector and assistant in a broad variety of parishes over the past 28 years. He is currently chaplain and teaches at St. Timothy’s School for girls, the Diocese of Maryland girls’ boarding school, where he teaches World Religions and American History.