Saturday, November 24, 2018

No Cross/No Crown

Christ The King Sunday

Scene 1: Christ The King. The very words when put this way have always struck me as odd. Every Sunday I sit in Rock Spring Parish, and looking across the sanctuary is a small window with a crown. And through the middle of the crown on an angle is a wooden cross – reminding one who gazes at this window of the Christ the King paradox: No cross/No crown. The window is hidden from the sight of the congregation as if it is there solely to remind the priest sitting in what looks all-too-much like a wooden throne never to forget the ground of humility that defines our “king” as one who does not demand we “strain our necks looking upward, or strive to climb the narrow ladder to heaven.” Rather, our God and king is bent low in love; to love each person, each creature, every rock, tree, pond, river and ocean. And that it is the preacher’s task to find ways to make such a God known, leading others to find ways to live out of such humble and indiscriminate love. [Ilia Delio, The Humility of God, St Anthony Messenger Press, 2005, p115]

Scene 2: Back in 1989 I used to drive around in the car listening over and over again to a cassette tape (remember those!) of Gordon Cosby talking about Jesus as “the slain lamb.” While a chaplain on the beaches of D-Day Gordon had had a vision of a new way of being “church.” I used to marvel at how Gordon’s Lynchburg, VA drawl could so easily draw out six distinct syllables from the words “slain lamb.” The sermon, from March 5, 1989 at the Church of the Saviour, was about Changing One’s Inner Power Base. I listened over and over and over again as Gordon spoke of a power greater than any political, economic or military power represented in this iconic image of “the slain lamb.” Today, when I finish my treading on the treadmill at Gold’s Gym, I spend the final five minutes walking backwards. It was a practice urged by someone writing in the Thursday Health Section of the Baltimore Sun and it makes sense. This means I stare at the wall immediately behind the treadmill where there are two scuff marks on the wall forming a cross. I repeat the Jesus Prayer as I tread backwards and gaze upon the Gold’s Gym cross, with a slight amendment: Jesus Christ/Lamb of God/Have mercy on me/A sinner. Gordon urges us to pray without ceasing with this image of the slain lamb as the source of real power, God power, true and just and faithful power unlike that anywhere else in this world, but  which will be the real power of the world to come. Lamb of God somehow embodies the true nature of Christ better than Son or King. No cross/No crown.

Scene 3: One day, when Harper and Kirk Alan were very young, we visited the Abby Church at Bath, England. As we wandered around the Abby Church I picked up a welcoming brochure. In part, this was what it said: Jesus was born in an obscure Middle Eastern town called Bethlehem, over 2000 years ago. During his first 30 years he shared the daily life and work of an ordinary home. For the next three years he went about teaching people about God and healing sick people by the shores of Lake Galilee. He called 12 ordinary men, and an untold number of women, to be his helpers. He had no money. He wrote no books. He commanded no army. He wielded no political power. During his life he never travelled more than 200 miles in any direction. He was executed by being nailed to a cross at the age of 33. Jesus taught us to trust in a loving and merciful Father and to pray to him in faith for all our needs. He taught that we are all infinitely precious, children of one heavenly Father, and that we should therefore treat one another with love, respect and forgiveness. He lived out what he taught by caring for those he met; by healing the sick - a sign of God's love at work; and by forgiving those who put him to death. Jesus' actions alone would not have led him to a criminal's death on the cross, but his teaching challenged the religious and moral beliefs of his day. People believed, and do to this day, that he can lead us to a full experience of God’s love and compassion. Above all, he pointed to his death as God's appointed means of bringing self-centered people back to God. No Cross/No Crown.

Scene 4: Every year it seems I go back to Wikipedia to remind myself how Christ the King Sunday came about. In 1925 Pope Pius XI felt the secularization of society was leading people away from God, away from Jesus, and designated a Sunday to bring us all back. It was to be the last Sunday in October, but then that became Reformation Sunday among some protestant denominations – as if the dividing up of the people of God into an infinite number of different churches with competing theologies is something to be celebrated! Yet, 1925 was a time not unlike our own in which Pius saw a number of authoritarian dictators asserting power over the churches and democratic institutions. He felt something was needed to bring us all back to Christ. Coming from a Church power base that had itself moved far from any vision of the slain lamb may have contributed to it becoming the failed strategy it seems to be. The Pope’s impulse, however, was good, and we would do well to consider his concerns for the broken and sinful world he tried to lead back to some vision of God’s dream for all people. No cross/No crown.

Scene 5: On Tuesday morning I picked up a book in my office – Oscar Romero: The Violence of Love. Romero, of course, was the San Salvador Archbishop who on March 24, 1980 was silenced by an assassin’s bullet while celebrating Holy Communion with the poor people of that country in a small hospital chapel. The day before Romero delivered a sermon in which he called on Salvadoran soldiers, as Christians, to obey God's higher order and to stop carrying out the government's repression and violations of basic human rights. He was silenced, like Jesus was on the cross, for calling people to a new vision of the power of God’s Love, Compassion and Justice. Like Jesus, his voice has not been silenced. The book is a collection of quotations from his homilies the last four years of his life. His final words, spoken just minutes before a single bullet pierced his heart: “God’s reign is already present on earth in mystery. When the Lord comes, it will be brought to perfection. This is the hope that inspires Christians. We know that every effort to better society, especially when injustice and sin are so ingrained, is an effort that God blesses, that God wants, that God demands of us.” Romero embodied the very essence of the slain lamb. Romero knew well the words of John the Revelator who in the opening verses of his vision of the king of kings wrote, “Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom of priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.” [Revelation 1:4-8] No cross/No crown.

Scene 6: Ellen Davis, Old Testament Scholar, professor, preacher and friend, recalls the scene in John’s Revelation depicted in chapter 5:11-12: “Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice, ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!’” John writes to a community and a world in crisis. The book is not about predicting the end of the world; it is about what is happening here and now and what we are to do. It is a book about worship. Who will we worship? John repeatedly offers two choices: We can worship God in Christ, represented as the God of humility, the God who stoops down in love, the God who comes to us as one of us as the slain lamb. Or, we can choose the conventional route and worship the culture and the empire, represented by John as “the Beast.” It is a God, writes Davis, who calls us to “utter self-forgetfulness.” She gives us the example of Desmond Tutu “extending his arms to the white government officials and police [of South Africa] to ‘Come over to the winning side!’ as itself a vision of heaven, of utter self-forgetfulness, as one of the major ingredients of heaven’s joy.

She continues, “The saints in heaven are not thinking about themselves; they can’t think of anything but God. Heaven is the place where everyone is completely freed from fear and self-concern. John shows kings taking off their crowns and throwing them down at God’s feet, myriads of myriads falling down on their faces, laughing and singing and praising God…We might say the saints in heaven can afford to forget themselves and we cannot, living as we do in this world of competition, strife and terror. But those who have the most to teach us about what the Christian life must look like in a dangerous world – Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Archbishop Oscar Romero, Gordon Cosby – those teachers tell us the that exact opposite is true. Not only can we afford some measure of saintly self-forgetfulness; we cannot afford anything else. We cannot afford our personal and national habits of keeping ourselves front and center, and excluding so many from our circle of love and concern; the poor in our own country and around the world, those who differ from us in color and language and the name they use for God. Most of all, we cannot afford to think about ourselves, our own generation, to the exclusion of our grandchildren and their children. We cannot afford to insist on winning our own temporary ‘victories,’ securing present comfort on terms that guarantee incalculable suffering and loss for others [as well as for the Earth itself].On this the judgment of the gospel is clear: if we are ‘winning now’ on terms that keep others from experiencing the blessing of God, then we will not in the end find ourselves on the winning side.” [Ellen F Davis, Preaching The Luminous Word, Eerdmans, 2016, pp 315-316] No Cross/No Crown.

Scene 7: After doing a deep-dive on Christ the King, and immediately after reading Ellen’s sermon, I was propelled down into the basement to find a cross. In 1983 it was given to me by the Reverend David Ward, the priest who sponsored me and sent me to seminary, at my ordination to the Diaconate. David had had to retire due to cancer. In between chemotherapy sessions he would walk the beaches and collect driftwood. He had made this cross himself of the driftwood he had collected and brought it to me at my ordination despite the great difficulty it was to be there at all. After the tragedy at St. Peter’s, Ellicott City, I had wrapped it in bubble-wrap and stored it until such time I might have a place to display it. Now, after reflecting on Christ the King I needed to see it again. I unwrapped it to find it had completely fallen apart, held together as it was by silicone caulking adhesive. Never you mind. I spent a day trying to figure out the puzzle of the cross before me. Eventually I realized I needed to take apart the few pieces still held together and start all over. David, who is now among the utterly self-forgetting saints in heaven, was there to guide me. I finally found a place for each piece of driftwood in a new incarnation of David’s final gift to me, he who had made it possible for me to do what I have been doing these past 35 years. It’s not the same. But that’s just it. Nothing ever is. Except for God’s vision, what Verna Dozier calls God’s Dream - God’s humility, love and compassion for a repaired and healed world. It was hard work re-creating and resurrecting David’s cross. That seems to be the core of Christ the King – there is still hard work to do.

But, No cross/No crown.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Hope Dies Last

In his book of the same name, Studs Terkel quotes Jessie de la Cruz, a retired farmworker reflecting on the days before Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, “La esperanza muere ultima.” Hope dies last. “You can’t lose hope. If you lose hope you lose everything.”

Then there is the news: Devastating forest fires resulting in lives lost and an entire city burned to the ground; long draughts in some places, endless rain and flooding in others; volcanic eruptions; mass shootings almost every other day; Red Tide; sea levels rising and ocean temperatures rising; massive piles of trash in the ocean; wars and rumors and threats of war; refugees and migrants seeking safety and a better life; bitter divisions among people; a growing gap separating rich from poor; the rise of hate speech; racial discrimination and anti-Semitism… the list could go on. And people ask me nearly every day, “Are these all signs of the End of Times, the End of the World?”

As if a life of interpreting The Bible and other sacred texts is predictive in the way that some scientific hypotheses seek to be predictive. Texts like those of the Hebrew Prophets are misconstrued as predicting the future, whereas the poetry of the prophets, like much poetry, comments and critiques current events warning of the consequences of continued bad behavior tempered with the hope that it is not too late to change our destructive ways. It’s the same with the Biblical genre of apocalyptic literature – the likes of which we find in chapter 13 of Mark’s gospel, the Book of Daniel and in spades in the Book of Revelation.

Apocalyptic is addressed to those experiencing difficult times economically, politically, morally. Apocalyptic literature in the Bible appears when the people find themselves in Exile or under foreign military occupation – when freedoms are abridged by authoritarian dictates; when family, community and ritual life is interrupted; when institutions that are meant to preserve community life are challenged or destroyed. In such times, and times of natural disaster, the stuff depicted in Apocalyptic imagery does not come out of some divine soothsayer’s crystal ball, but are descriptive of the day-to-day life of the community.

In Mark 13, the discussion of the impending, if not already completed, destruction of the Temple, the violence of war, the seductive voices of false prophets and false messiahs, and the persecution of whole classes of people were very real everyday concerns for those in Mark’s community.

Given the number of “End of the World” predictions throughout history to this very day suggests that few people have actually read what Jesus has to say about all of this. First, he issues a warning that there is not only danger from outside the community of faith, but there is also a threat from within by those “who speak in my name.” Jesus cautions not to be taken in by every pious voice of innovation, but rather listen carefully, use reason, and nurture a healthy sense of discernment. Secondly, he urges perseverance in hard times. Instead of becoming alarmist at every turn of event, take the long view and continue to walk in the Way of the Lord. As that book of Chinese Wisdom, the I Ching, often counsels: perseverance furthers! Most of all, in spite of everything we are to remain hopeful. As the Letter to the Hebrews puts it, “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.” And elsewhere, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” The author of this treatise on hope goes on to illustrate with examples, beginning with Abraham, of a people of hope who persevere in their respective journeys. Hope is not passivity. These were people who did not merely sit around and hope. All of those listed in chapter 11 were people who put hope into action, often activist action against the powers that sought to keep them captive, whether literally or to false ideologies.

Then there is the example of Hannah in 1 Samuel: 1-2, the barren and much derided second wife of Elkanah, After years of disappointment and bitter treatment by Elkanah’s other wife, Hannah, still a woman of great hope, took matters into her own hands. While worshiping at Shiloh, then home of the Ark of the Covenant, Hannah bypasses the sacrifices, bypasses the priest and his sons, and pleads her case to YHWH directly. Eli, the now doddering priest, sees her and thinks she is drunk. Just another hysterical woman he thinks. ‘But Hannah answers, “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.”’ The Lord hears her plea. She bears a son, names him Samuel, and he becomes the transitional figure between the time of the Judges of Israel to the monarchy of King David. About whom Hannah can be heard singing in chapter 2 as she gives voice to the hope that it is the Lord who “raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.” David, the forgotten, runt eighth child from the little town of Bethlehem who becomes the real king, who becomes the carrier of the hopes of all the weak, poor and marginal. Hannah demonstrates just what active hope can do. Hope is not passive, but perseveres to the end.

And isn’t it strange, that with such a long history of “End-of-the-world” predictions supposedly based on these texts of apocalyptic hope, that when Jesus is asked when the end time will come, he replies, “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.” [Mark 13:32-33] Jesus does not know! Jesus does not claim to know. All he knows is what we all know: there’s a lot of stuff going on here and now that is not right.

The thirteenth chapter of Mark ends with just two words: Keep awake. That is, keep hope alive and awake by doing the things that challenge the darkness of this world. By doing the things that helps those in need, for that is in the end what it means to love your neighbor. By speaking truth to power as Jesus himself does in Jerusalem face to face with the imperial power vested in Pilate.

I have long been fascinated with an old Anglo-Saxon poem about a Seafarer. His life is grim. His life is lonely. While others eat and drink and make merry in the mead halls on land, he is alone on the frozen and dangerous sea. He remarks, that “no man is ever wholly free/in his seafaring from worry/at what is the Lord’s will.” Yet, he does not despair. “The Joys of the Lord can kindle/more in me then dead/and fleeting life on land./I do not believe the riches/of this world will last forever….Let us ponder where our true/home is and how to reach it./Let us labor to gain entry/into the eternal,/to find the blessedness/of belonging to the Lord/joyfully on high./Thanks be to God who loved us,/the endless Father, the Prince of Glory/forever. Amen.”*

And what I say to you, says Jesus, I say to all: Keep awake. Make sure that Hope dies last!

* -translated by Mary Jo Salter, The Word Exchange, edited by Greg Delanty and Michael Matto

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Widows, Orphans and Resident Aliens

Widows, Orphans and Resident Aliens
Consider the plight of three widows: Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth [Ruth 3:1-4:17], and an unnamed widow placing an offering of two small coins into the Temple treasury in Jerusalem [Mark 12:38-44]. In his book, Reverberations of Faith [Westminster John Knox Press, 2002], Walter Brueggemann writes, “One strand of ethics in the Old Testament includes the concern of YHWH, and consequently the concern of Israel, for the weak and vulnerable. Among that class is the widow, most often grouped with orphan and alien [sojourners, immigrants, refugees] as among the most vulnerable in society…widows orphans and sojourners characteristically have no social entitlements of their own.” [p 230] This is an ethic that persists throughout the entire Bible, most especially witnessed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and the emerging church community in the New Testament as well.

In Mark 12:38-44 Jesus levels a stinging critique of religious authorities who draw attention to themselves which attention ought to be directed to the honor and glory of God. They do so, says Jesus, by wearing their religious garb in public, making long-winded public prayer, and at both worship and social functions contrive to have special seating so as to be seen – and specifically to be seen as more pious and holy than others; all others.

The final condemnation, however, is that in dressing up their importance and piety, these pretentious authorities win the trust of the most vulnerable, represented as widows, orphans and resident aliens, who in turn entrust their meager resources to them only to see these authorities plunder it to further dress up their own importance: “They devour widow’s houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation!”

Then Jesus sits down opposite the Temple treasury to watch. He watches a crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. Then along comes a poor widow who has only two small coins worth a penny and places them in the treasury. “Truly, I tell you, the poor widow has put in more than all those who contributing to the treasury. For all of them contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all that she had to live on.” Snap! The poor widow models more faith and trust than the religious professionals. This teaching never fails to bring me to my knees asking if and when I might fully embody the lessons therein.

The widow, she who is left with nothing but her faith in the Almighty and his community of care, is lifted up as a lesson for us all. She no longer has bus money so she must walk home. She no longer has lunch money so must depend upon God and God’s community of love to provide. We are not given her name. Nameless she retreats into the vast number of those like herself who largely remain invisible to both church and society – a society that more often than not will instruct her to look out for herself first, get a job and become self-sufficient. She disappears from the narrative. We never know what happens to her, even though we ought to.

We do, however, learn what happens to Ruth and Naomi, those two widows who have lost everything when their respective husbands suddenly died while sojourning in the land of Moab. You see, as is so often the case, there was a famine in the land of Israel, so Elimelech and his wife Naomi travel to the land of Moab seeking relief. They have two sons who marry Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. Elimelech dies, and eventually so do the two sons, leaving Naomi and her daughters-in-law with no protectors, no providers, and no legal status. Naomi instructs the girls to go home and find new husbands for themselves. As for herself, she is past the time of having children and will return home hoping to find a kinsman. Orpah goes home, but Ruth stays with Naomi and vows to care for her in what is perhaps one of the most powerful and beautiful speeches in all of scripture [Ruth 1:16-17]. They return to Israel. Note, they are both widows and resident aliens, that class of people for whom the God of Israel and Jesus has particular concern.

The notion of sojourner, resident alien, immigrant, or refugee, is embodied in the Hebrew word, ger. Ger denotes people who are displaced because of economic, political or military disruption. The seek a new life in a new place where they don’t belong, because they are no longer welcome or can no longer sustain themselves in the old place. [Ibid p 198] God’s people know this reality from their experience of slavery in Egypt and Exile in Babylon. And once Israel became a client state of the Roman Empire, Israel itself was no longer home. Like widows and orphans, the refugee and immigrant is vulnerable and without resources, thus God’s commands to care for them “as the native among you, and you shall love them as yourself. For you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” [Leviticus 19: 34]

Ruth seeks work harvesting grain to support her mother-in-law Naomi. She ends up working in a field of one of Elimelech’s kinsmen, Boaz. He fulfills the commandments to support the widows and resident aliens and instructs his field-hands to watch over Ruth. Naomi eventually instructs Ruth to “wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor” where Boaz will eat and drink and fall asleep. After he is asleep, she is to uncover his feet and lie down, “and he will tell you what to do.”  Boaz is a faithful Israelite and knows there is a closer kinsman to Elimelech, but after informing him it is settled that Ruth shall become the wife of Boaz, and he shall redeem the name of Elimelech and the two sons who died in Moab. Ruth and Boaz have a child and name him Obed.

Left at that, this would be a marvelous tale of the mysterious ways in which God arranges to provide for the world’s most vulnerable people: widows, orphans and resident aliens. God is at work in the lives of Naomi, Ruth and Boaz! They serve as models of faithful commitment to the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus. It is a story that declares that outsiders, immigrants, refugees and resident aliens, can become integral parts of the society of God’s people, and that inter-marriage is a good thing not to be feared despite the experiences of Exile and Egypt. The Book of Ruth confirms that the concerns of the Lord extend beyond the borders and the people of Israel to the people of every nation.

But the book ends with the greatest surprise of all: Obed becomes the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David, the future and model king of Israel! That is, when we extend welcome and care to those most vulnerable in our society, we can never know the contribution they may make to the future of our society, our community and our country. Ruth, a foreigner seeking asylum in Israel with her mother-in-law Naomi, becomes the great-grandmother of David, and therefore the great-great-great-great etc grandmother of Jesus, born of the house of David. This tale that is nearly 3,000 years old has much to teach us today as we struggle to understand our role in the lives of displaced and vulnerable people who come to us seeking a place to call home, a place to thrive, and a place to contribute to the future of our land and the future of the world itself!