Saturday, September 29, 2018

Inside Out

For almost nine grueling hours on Thursday a culture of power, privilege and entitlement was on full display in an attempt to negate a story of personal trauma and vulnerability. It left many of us exhausted, spent and deeply concerned and disappointed that our community life in America has come to this.

Overlooked in all the analysis and commentary is one simple fact and resource: from beginning to end The Bible has much to say that may be helpful to navigating our way back to what we once called The Common Good. The Common Good used to call us to be as concerned, if not more so, for those who are most vulnerable in our communities and our country than for our own self-interest.

On the road to Jerusalem where he faces a violent execution at the hands of those who wield power, privilege and entitlement on behalf of the Roman Empire inside the ancient walls of its client state Israel – the center of both Israelite ritual worship and governance – Jesus has now twice told his closest followers that once they get there he “is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” In the meantime, on the way to his crucifixion he demonstrates the central importance of healing, caring for and serving the most vulnerable he encounters along the way. The way of living as God would have us live with each other in God’s creation.

His disciples, often portrayed as a stand-in for all of us, simply do not get it. In Mark 9: 38-50, a somewhat enigmatic little passage, John says to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” One can almost feel Jesus heave a deep sigh as he says that, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” This is a mild chastisement for his band of followers who evidently think that the power, privilege to cast out demons is exclusively reserved for Jesus and themselves. We are your privileged insiders, John is saying, so we will put a stop to it! To which Jesus replies, in a series of typically mystical and hyperbolic middle eastern quips, “This is not about insiders and outsiders. There are no boundaries to serving the most vulnerable and the common good.  Let him be.” That is, rejoice and accept that there is good work that goes on outside of our little circle of friends.

Jesus warns, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea,” the word for stumbling block is skandalon, from which we get the word “scandal.” It literally means to place an obstacle in someone’s way that causes them to fall. Yet, Jesus often extends this to mean not meeting someone’s immediate needs. It is a scandal to suggest stopping someone who is also doing our work of healing.

I have long been convinced that when the Jesus in the gospels speaks of “little ones,” and “children,” these phrases are stand-ins for the “am ha aretz” of the Old Testament, roughly translated “the poorest of the poor,” and for the repeated commands to attend to the needs of “widows, orphans and resident aliens.”

In the case of the person casting out demons in his name which is a scandal to John, Jesus retorts that not to cast out those demons is the real scandal. To attempt to put a stop to someone doing God’s work of repairing and healing a broken world just because that person is not an “insider” or one of us is the real scandal. This is not about consolidating power, privilege and entitlement, John, it is about extending the Rule of God’s will to any and all who are in need; who are vulnerable; who are routinely ignored by those in charge.

Then comes the difficult words of self-mutilation: “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; …And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; …And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.” These are hard words as we used to say in seminary. I believe the sense is that those who use their power, privilege and entitlement as a stumbling block for those more vulnerable do more damage to themselves than to the others. The one causing the scandal emerges more damaged than the ones affected by it. Though not to be taken in the most literal sense, his words do hint at removing people from power, privilege and entitlement for the overall health of the whole community, or The Common Good. That is, self-sacrifice on behalf of others is what strengthens and maintains the integrity and health of the community.

There will always need to be a surrendering of power, privilege and entitlement to adequately attend to the needs of “the little ones” and thereby heal and repair the brokenness of the community and The Common Good.

Finally, Jesus speaks of salt and fire: “For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” These are the most mysterious words in all of Mark’s gospel. Salt preserves, seasons and is used as a purifying agent. Fire purifies as well, and tempers and strengthens things like steel. The community needs both to survive. To endure the hardships and scandalons that lie ahead and sometimes seem to surround us on all sides. Brendan Byrne, in his commentary A Costly Freedom [The Liturgical Press, Collegville,MN: 2008] sums it up this way: “if you maintain that quality of life, with all the sacrifice it entails, you will, despite all, live in peace with one another; there will be no “scandalizing” of the little ones.” [p 156]

This text from Mark happens to be appointed to challenge us this week. This week in which we were able to witness the damage that is done when power, privilege and entitlement attempts to assert itself against the most vulnerable amongst us – which must include the one-in-three women in our society who have experienced sexual assault at least once in their lives. To include them amongst the “little ones” is not at all to demean or lessen their stature among us. Rather, it is to include them along with those for whom God and God’s community are to value the most, care for the most, which in Biblical terms means to love the most. The text declares that there is good that happens outside the community and scandal that lies within.

So-called organized religion too often has sheltered and participated in the culture of power, privilege and entitlement. It has often been the scandal. Yet, we are called to be those people who are willing to sacrifice our self-interest to support and care for all those for whom the God of the Bible has a particular and deep concern: the little ones, widows, orphans, resident aliens, and all those who have suffered from the myriad demons that surround us on all sides, especially within the corridors of power, privilege and entitlement. We are here for you. Today and forever.

Friday, September 28, 2018

There Were No Winners

Yesterday, September 27, 2018 – yet another “day that shall live in infamy.” Another Body Blow. They seem to come and go more and more frequently until the nation is left numb and seemingly permanently divided and dysfunctional.

A Body Blow to all who saw and listened to Dr Christine Blasey Ford speak truth to power as she recounted a sexual assault she endured at age 15; especially those who have suffered sexual assault themselves. A Body blow to all who saw and listened to Judge Brett Kavanaugh defend himself, his “name,” his family, and angrily accuse the Democratic members of Senate Judiciary Committee of a “vast left-wing conspiracy.” A Body Blow to the Body Politic when Senator Lyndsey Graham (R-SC) lashed out at his Democratic colleagues on the committee.

No one won. America lost. America lost all sense of dignity and proportion. On a downhill-slide for years now, the process of Advise and Consent for the US Senate to confirm presidential appointments to the Supreme Court has become the arena where every aspect of our country’s dysfunctional constitutional government is on grotesque display.

It was riveting. Like watching a train wreck in slow motion. For some of those millions who were watching and listening across the land it must have been a traumatic “event” like those suffered by both Dr Ford and Judge Kavanaugh and their families, all of whose lives have been disrupted and changed forever.

Accuser and the Accused both provided dramatic, passionate and heart-felt opening statements. Dr Ford was measured, calm, concise and to the point in both her statement and her answers. It was striking that not one Republican committee member other than Chairman Grassley (R-Iowa) spoke a word to Dr Ford. Rather they hid behind a hired-gun – a prosecutor of sex crimes from Arizona – who asked all “their” questions for them in true prosecutorial style. One has to wonder how a human being can listen to what Dr Ford detailed about the traumatic and humiliating assault she suffered when 15 and not say one word thanks, or “I’m sorry,” for her courage to come forward; not offer one word of comfort; only to sit there stone-faced, no affect whatsoever, as this articulate and accomplished woman re-lived her trauma in as much detail as she can retrieve from her hippocampus 36 years later before a committee in that tiny hearing-chamber, and before a national TV and Internet audience. All the while keeping her composure. Her answers to the hired counsel were always concise, precise and to the point.

The contrast was stark from the very beginning of Judge Kavanaugh’s opening statement and testimony. Out of the box he was angry. One might even say furious. Facial affect ranging from anger to sneering to near-tears whenever mentioning his parents or family. While merely inches away from achieving his life’s dream of a seat on the US Supreme Court, he repeatedly reminded us of all the hard work he has done to reach what would be the pinnacle of any attorney’s career, and how unfair it felt to him to have to defend what he described as an exemplary life from high school all the way to this very moment before a nation wanting to hear the truth. His answers to his questioners were rambling, unfocused, and a mix of sarcasm, anger and repetition of the same talking-points he had outlined in his opening statement. He thought nothing of interrupting US Senators while asking their questions, and even periodically turned their questions back at them as if it were they who were under scrutiny. They were. He would see to that. At times it appeared as if he could not answer a simple yes-or-no question. He would stare at his inquisitor with contempt in his eyes. One cannot question his belief that he did nothing wrong. One is forced to wonder, however, if his temperament is a fit for the highest court in the land? One thing was clear: the man really likes his beer! His performance was applauded on Twitter by the President of the United States immediately after the hearing was gaveled adjourned.

At the end of the day there were victims strewn all over the field of battle – and it was a battle. The two witnesses had to have gone home exhausted, spent, and no better off than when they first sat down at the witness table. Every senator on the committee must have been exhausted, spent and questioning deep within themselves how it has possibly come to all this. Trauma survivors across the country must have felt exhausted, spent and at once buoyed by the doctor’s courage and wondering if there had been any forward progress on how this kind of abuse and assault will be treated in the future.

 As it all began to unfold, I was running errands. I had read Dr Ford’s statement the night before on Yet, nothing could have prepared me for hearing those words from her directly. I sat in the car listening on the radio, rivetted to every word. Grace under pressure. Pure grace. As I got out to go into Whole Foods, I saw the man in the car next to mine also listening to her every word. That was a hopeful sign. Men listening to this woman whose life was traumatically altered forever one afternoon in Montgomery County, MD. The day the earth stood still. I watched more of her testimony both in the car and at home. During a recess I made it to the gym in time to see Judge Kavanaugh’s entire opening statement and first few answers to questions while on the treadmill for as long as I have ever trod on the mill. Then during the next recess, I made it home for the rest of the hearing. All the post-game analysis was predictable on any network. Take your pick. Like everyone else, I was left exhausted, spent and disappointed that it has come to this. All my past traumas were themselves laid bare, deep within the lock-box of my hippocampus. No doubt Lady Justice shed a collective tear for us all. There were no winners.  

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Who Do We Say That We Are?

I can still see the test question as I sat in Professor John Koenig’s New Testament final exam: The Gospel of Mark: Masterpiece or a Mess? Choose one and defend your choice with the text. To this day I stand by my choice: Masterpiece. Hands down. Despite the peculiarities of the endless use of “kai” – Greek for“and” – and the peculiar narrative device some call “The Messianic Secret” – the fact that everyone and every demon knows exactly who Jesus is except for the seemingly hapless disciples are always depicted as scratching their heads. Like the time after he fed the 5,000 with three loaves, and then the 4,000 with seven loaves, and then they all get in a boat to go “to the other side,” and the text suddenly reads, “Now the disciples had forgotten to bring any bread.” Says Jesus, “Do you still not understand?”

I had noticed, even back then, without being told, that the unknown author of Mark has a unique “sandwich” technique to his narrative. Like the time Jesus is off to heal the daughter of a very important man in the community, which narrative is “interrupted” by the woman who fights through the crowd as he is going to the man’s house. She has been dealing with a flow of blood that would not stop for 12 years (the number of disciples, the number of tribes of Israel, the age, we learn later, of the dying girl). She reaches just to touch the hem of his garment when it happens: Jesus feels the power going out of him, she feels as if she has been struck by lightening and is healed. They exchange glances and perhaps a few words. Then it is on to the very important man’s house to restore life to the girl who has been presumed to be dead.

For years, for decades, those arbiters of what we hear read in church had bracketed out the story of the woman with the flow of blood to make the narrative about the very important man and his daughter smoother, more continuous. As if to say, “What sloppy narrative technique by Mark to insert this story of a poor, unclean woman!” into this story about this very important man and his daughter. Revisions to the Sunday Lectionary have now restored her story to its rightful place  because in the narrative sandwich, hers is THE STORY. Mark makes it the central story. She is a woman of great hope and faith against all odds. She does not ask for much. In fact, she asks for nothing but simply touches the hem of his garment. Her story is the central story of this part of Mark’s narrative. I think of all our prayers and demands when we pray to Jesus and I try to remember her story, asking nothing for herself. She is like that other woman for whom just the crumbs under the table are enough. When we pray, how much is enough?

Now, in chapter eight (8:27-38), dead center in a gospel that begins with the answer to the question, “Who do you say that I am?” And a gospel that ends with women fleeing an empty tomb telling no one what they saw out of fear and trembling. That is the macro sandwich if you will. For those of us who may be lucky enough to be utterly unlike the disciples and have been paying attention to Mark’s narrative arc, when you get to the end of Mark’s story, and the women are too frightened to say anything – or at the very least Mark gives us nothing but an empty tomb – I believe we are meant to have the question at the center of Mark’s story ringing in our ears: Who do you say that I am? Mark leaves it for us to answer for ourselves.

The brilliant thing of it is, that Mark’s answer is the very first sentence in the whole story: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ/Messiah, the son of God.” This is not the way whodunits are meant to work. Who besides Law and Order Criminal Intent tells you whodunit at the beginning. Yet, there is a power in how Mark leaves it at the end. The listener, the reader, is left like Peter and the disciples in chapter eight to answer for his or herself the question that stands at the very center of the Mark-Sandwich: Who do you say that I am? You have heard all the evidence. You have heard what the demons and the Scribes and the Pharisees and Pilate and all the others have had to say. Now it is up to you. Who do you say that I am? Which question in the end is really, “Who am I? Who are we?” Socrates would have been very proud of Mark’s narrative genius! Know thyself, indeed!

We do well to note how tricky answering this fundamental question really is when we see Peter answer correctly, “You are the Christ – the Anointed, the Messiah.” Jesus orders the disciples to tell no one Odd, isn’t it? Until we realize that as Jesus outlines what being the Christ really means: he will undergo great suffering, be rejected by the scribes, the chief priests and the elders, and killed, and then rise again on the third day. Then Peter objects.

This is not what Peter expected at all. People were looking for a king or warrior messiah to rid Israel of the Roman Military Occupation. Or, at least a judge who would banish the enemies forever. Not a suffering messiah who gets crucified on a Roman cross. Just when Peter and we think we know who Jesus is, Jesus glances at us and Peter and declares, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are putting your mind on human things and not on divine things.” Then to double down on this he says to all who are within hearing distance, “If you want to become one of my followers, deny yourself, pick up your cross, and follow me!”

Get behind me, Satan! We misunderstand if we think it applies only to Peter. Peter is a stand-in for all of us who claim to be followers of Jesus – those who walk in his way. He looks at all of us and is saying, do not object, do not stand in my way – get behind me and follow in my way. Which is to say, to join him in his radical mission of tikkun olam. To rescue, heal and repair the world will mean to challenge and even overthrow many human views and values that hold us captive to Satan and to the demonic in this world. Besides, had we read the first verse of the entire gospel, we would know that Jesus does not need our protection from all that he says is going to happen, and does – it is we who need him and his protection.

A great misunderstanding in all of this, and the Church has encouraged such thinking, is that we think we need to pick up His cross. Whereas he says you are to pick up “your cross.” Much damage has been done when the Church urges us to share in his sufferings when in fact all four gospels declare that he comes to share in ours. He is with us in our sufferings. This is the good news. Which is why the question, “Who do you say that I am?” is so important for us each to ponder, because our answer to his question tells us everything we need to know about ourselves.

I am forever grateful to a young girl named Eleanor for helping me to grasp that my cross, the cross we are asked to pick up and embrace, is the cross that is traced on our forehead in Holy Baptism sealing us and marking us as Christ’s own forever. Eleanor, who was a young girl when baptized, would ask me several times, “Can you still see the cross on myforehead?” Finally, it struck me, like a 2x4 right between the eyes: that is the question for all of us. Can the people we meet still see the cross on our foreheads that says we will love our neighbor as ourselves, and seek justice and peace for all people, while respecting the dignity of every human being? Will we get behind Jesus and join in his radical challenge and overthrow of human views and values that hold us captive to the demonic in this world so that we can get on with the work he calls us to do: to repair and heal a broken and sinful world? Who do we say that we are?

Saturday, September 8, 2018


John Prine tells the story that one Christmas after his divorce he and a friend took out his model trains and nailed the track to the dining room table – “Just because I could!” In such a spirit, as I was exiting Macy’s I passed by the Nike sector of the store and purchased myself a brand-new Nike tee with large Swoosh, 25% off – just because I could.

As the seventh chapter of Mark comes to a close, we find Jesus in foreign, Gentile territory looking to get some rest, but instead he ends up spending time alone in a house with a woman. Not just a woman, but a Gentile woman. And then heads off to the big Greek cities of the Decapolis, which are all temples to Greek gods like Dionysius, and whore houses, and who knows what, and they bring him another Gentile, a man this time, who is deaf and mute. At which point Jesus sticks his finger in the man’s ears, and then spits and touches the man’s tongue. Then he sighs, looks up to heaven, and says “Ephphatha!” Which, we are told, means “Be opened!” All this comes after his encounter with some religious authorities who had complained that he and his disciples were not washing their hands before meals.

And we need to remember the meal before the authorities lodge their complaint was for 5,000 people out of doors in Jewish territory, and after opening the man’s ears and tongue he has his disciples feed another 4,000 people in Gentile territory. These are big meals with a lot of bussing of “tables” to be done! Who has time to wash their hands. Besides, as Jesus points out with a word from the prophet Isaiah who had to deal with similarly churlish and adulterous religious authorities, is it more important to take care of the poor and the afflicted at the gate by sharing your bread with them? Or, to make them wait to be fed to make sure everyone’s hands have been washed?

Now he goes on to heal a Gentile woman’s daughter; spit and touch a Gentile man’s tongue; has the disciples feed 4,000 more gentiles. That is, he doubles down and continues to defile his hands - just because he could! AND, because what he was doing was the right thing to do. He believes the Proverbs, “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favour is better than silver or gold. The rich and the poor have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them all. Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity, and the rod of anger will fail. Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor. Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate; for the Lord pleads their cause and despoils of life those who despoil them.” [Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23] People are free to make of this what they will in the midst of the various and sundry controversies of the day.

Yet, I have been long haunted and intrigued by his encounter with this woman in Tyre. For all we know, he is hiding out because he is in foreign territory and has perhaps run across a lone Jewish household. He is getting away from all these crowds, and who can blame him? It is exhausting work and we have already learned that one single solitary healing can sap him of much power and energy.

The woman is persistent, and believes or even knows that Jesus can help. And she is not asking help for herself, but for her demon possessed daughter. She is obviously willing to risk breaking with all social custom to be alone with this foreign man in this foreign household to plead her daughter’s case. We might note, Jesus is outside Jewish territory and inside a house. Not just any Gentile territory, but the territory of the descendants of numerous oppressors of his people going back to the time of Elijah and King Ahab and his Baal worshipping wife Jezebel, as well as the Seleucids, of Antiochus IV whom the Maccabees had had to route from the land. The woman, is inside her territory, but outside the social norms and customs of both their peoples.

Jesus is immediately dismissive declaring, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” That is, I am here to take care of Israel First before caring for anyone else. It shocks some people to learn that Jesus, the Christ in whom we sing there is not East or West, would turn away foreigners and label “others” with nasty epithets. And “dog” was as nasty an epithet as there was in the time of Jesus. Why does he say this? Does he recall that after Ahab and Jezebel right here in Tyre had set up temples to idols and foreign gods, the result being that Jehu led a revolt in which Ahab was killed in battle, and Jehu had ordered a couple of eunuchs to throw Jezebel out a window; wherein horses trample her and the dogs consume her remains and lick up her blood? Might that somehow have stuck with him as he looks at this desperate woman of Tyre? Is she another Jezebel?

Nevertheless, the woman takes it. She even owns this epithet and runs with it. Why? Maybe just because she could! “But kind sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs!” She knows well what it is like to raise children and the role of dogs in the household down to this very day! Jesus is moved. We might even say he has been opened – Ephphatha! Perhaps he realizes he has been acting like his accusers by considering this woman and her daughter defiled and unworthy of his attention let alone the powers of his Father that could heal her affliction – which is her afflicted heart that she has been unable to help her daughter on her own. He declares the daughter healed. And so is he. Thanks to this faithful mother, Jesus becomes Ephphatha.

I have often wondered just how this woman ended up inside the house anyway? And why? Later Mark tells us that there was a large group of women following Jesus and providing for his every need. They remain invisible through much of the story until we read in chapter 15:40 they are there at the cross looking on from a distance. And we are told they are diakoneow – we might say they are deaconing. This means, like all deacons in the history of the church to this day, they are charged with connecting need with resources to meet that need.

Might the woman have known to approach them? Might they have urged her to go into the house no matter what the results might be? Might they have sent her to Jesus because he, like the deaf and mute man and many many others he had already served, he, Jesus also needed to hear the word Ephphatha? Be Opened? We might well ask ourselves, who in this story was really in need of healing; of being opened? Who in our lives and in our time is in such desperate need of healing here and now? Who are those who despoil the cause of the poor and afflicted at the gate?

Maybe Jesus was just having a bad day. Or, maybe, just maybe he needed to be further opened to the full scope of extending his mission of healing and repairing the world to the whole world and everyone and everything therein. Like the women we are later told in 15:40 were always there decaoning day in and day out but don’t see, we don’t actually see or hear Jesus repent of how he initially treats this woman. But his actions, which surely further defile him in the eyes of the religious authorities, demonstrate that there are no boundaries for those who live in the way of the Lord who advocates for all who are poor, and afflicted, and waiting at the gate. One day may we all be opened – may we all become Ephphatha. Because we can. Amen

Saturday, September 1, 2018

What Are We To Do?

“The Irony of Evangelical Idolatry in the White House”
“Report: Over 300 Predator Priests, More Than 1000 Child Victims in Pennsylvania”

These are just two representative headlines this past week. The Pennsylvania Grand Jury report speaks for itself – hundreds of protected predator priests and potentially thousands of child victims not to mention teens and adults. That one hundred Evangelical leaders who had for at least 40 years had “preached dire sermons against a godless, sin-soaked culture focused on wealth, immorality, celebrity, sexual promiscuity and worldly power,” suddenly make peace with all of that – and more, as long as their political goals are met. Against such a backdrop we read in the first chapter of James, “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” [James 1:26-27]

Meanwhile, in the seventh chapter of Mark, shortly after Jesus has fed 5,000 hungry people and healed countless others we find a group of Pharisees concerned that people with Jesus do not appear to be washing their hands before meals. They point out to him that the elders had made this important. Jesus challenges that by saying in effect, Do the laws of God really need to be protected by rules from the elders? Then seizing the moment, he broadens his argument to challenge the very rules of Kosher – what can and cannot be eaten. “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” [Mark 7:15].  

Those who write Texts For Preaching conclude, “The whole notion of ritual purity or of holiness based on food laws is undermined in one precise statement. What matters is the heart, the seat of
the will, where decisions are made about one’s neighbors. The condition of the heart, whether debased or pure, is far more critical than the food one eats or whether one attends to washing hands.” [Texts For Preaching, Proper 17B] That is, what is at stake is the very structure of Biblical religion, how holiness and sin are defined, and how the word of God regulates the life of the people of God. Evidently handwashing doesn’t stack up against feeding and healing people.

Jesus’ final words to the Pharisees suggests that their compulsive devotion to hand-washing may blind them to worse things than dirty hands at meals: “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” For that reason he calls them hypocrites, play actors, who are all show and no action.

Eventually James doubles down on all of this by urging believers to no longer be hearers and preachers of the word, but Doers of the word of God and “to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Yet, we find ourselves as a nation separating children from their parents creating orphans – incarcerated orphans at that.

Reasonably, many reading headlines like those above, and watching a room full of Evangelical leaders honor someone who embodies nearly all Jesus and James warn us about question the very foundations of Christian and Judeo-Christian religion. Atheist bloggers are having a field day. Anti-Catholic bloggers don’t have to work very hard to make their points. Just read the report for yourselves – if you can stomach it! It’s no wonder Jesus and James question the outer rituals of religion. Many of us in the Church are equally angry, saddened and sickened by all of the above, not to mention centuries of pogroms, anti-Semitism, murderous Crusades, complicit genocide of indigenous cultures around the world, and need we go on? The unknown writer of James says we need to stop and listen – listen to the facts, listen to the critiques, listen to those who question the very existence of the Church and organized religion of all kinds. “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God's righteousness.” [James 1:19] Anger just allows us to feel better about ourselves. Listening may lead us to do a better job of being part of the Jesus Movement and God’s righteousness.

When we listen we may remember, we have been warned. Verna Dozier in her more relevant-than-ever book, The Dream of God, was first to warn us that the day Emperor Constantine re-made the Church into The Empire – The Holy Roman Empire – was what she calls the Third Fall; after the disobedience in the Garden, and the people of God demanding that the boy prophet Samuel petition God to give them a king. Once Constantine converted, the Church, which had for several centuries been a viable alternative to living under the brutalities of the Empire, became the Empire. And the Church’s evangelical zeal became a mechanism for expanding the Empire. Sincere attempts have been made throughout history to reform the Church, and in all fairness, there are many quarters of the Jesus Movement that are healthy and about the business of repairing and healing a broken world while striving for Justice and Peace among all people.

All Empires try to define you. Whereas nearly all religious movements throughout history seek to provide an alternative narrative and an alternative “way” to walk in this world and in this life. In the case of Biblical religion, Judeo-Christian religion, the emphasis tends to be on “holiness” which means being set apart or different from the ways of the Empire. The danger in such holiness, however, is to begin to see oneself or one’s “tribe” as “holier than thou.” This is why prophets like Micah remind us to “Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.” Evidently Micah’s voice has not been heard by all. This word from Micah is the word about which we are to become Doers – doers of justice, mercy and humility. 

What are we to make of Evangelical leaders suddenly bowing down at the altar of a sin-soaked culture focused on wealth, immorality, celebrity, sexual promiscuity and worldly power? Or, a report as bad as it is from Pennsylvania that surely is just the tip of the iceberg of clergy and church abuse? The only thing we can be sure of is that they and all others who remain focused on preserving the Church’s outer appearances rather than serving, repairing and healing the world must be busy washing their hands!

What are we to do? Strive to maintain some manner of authentic identity as those who walk in the way of the Jesus Movement as distinct from “The Church,” The Empire, and all others who flaunt, oppress and make a mockery of the life of faith. This means maintaining a sense of hope in a world that rarely shows evidence that such hope is justified. It means stopping and listening to the critiques as well as listening to the Word of God. It means not allowing the Roman Catholic Church, Evangelicals or any one Administration to define us and tell us who we are and how we are meant to behave. We are to be those people who Do Justice, Love Mercy and Walk Humbly – with or without God. We are to walk in the way of Jesus, not the Church. Millions of Christians throughout the centuries have made the world a better place.

Jesus’ response to the Pharisees seems in line with a saying of the same elders to whom they made their appeal: “It is not your responsibility to complete all the work (of healing the world), but you are not free to desist from it either.” (Ethics of the Mishna 2:16) We must not desist from the work of healing the world to which Jesus calls us.  And like Jesus and James we must challenge those who misrepresent what it means to be people of God.