a captive to the fictions

EASTER 2013 | Who? What? How? Why? These are the questions at the heart of any news story. And of course, the story of the day involves the impossible: the resurrection of a dead man.

 

The WHO, of course, is a rabbi from the backwater called Galilee, by the name of Jesus Bar Joseph. A Pharisee, probably. A radical, in the eyes of some. A reformer, certainly. But the Christian tradition makes bolder claims for him than this.

 

They say he was the Lady Wisdom, God’s self-expression, the artist through whom the world was fashioned. They say that she was the Living Torah, the life-giving words handed down to Moses—that she was both the giver and the Law itself—who taught Israel, and guided Jacob, who went with them into captivity, and led them back to safety in their own land. They said that this Wisdom could not abide to be separated from the world, and so she was born in a stable to a humble couple, who raised their boy to honor the Law and the Prophets.

 

They say that this boy grew into a teacher. They say that he was both fully human and fully God, an alien to neither heaven nor earth, but at home in both places. They say that in his body, he wedded heaven and earth, body and spirit, creation and Creator. In his self, in his being, in his life he united everything that was separated.

 

He taught this unity, and this teaching was so terrifying that he was killed. The creator became the crucified. The author of life had been led away to death. But the Christian tradition has one more unlikely assertion to make about this man up its sleeve: it contends that he did not stay dead. But the reason for the resurrection is often not made clear.

 

Which brings us to the WHAT. What happened in that event? There is a startling symmetry between the end of Jesus’ life and the beginning. Recall that when King Herod learned that a king was born in Bethlehem, he panicked, and he systematically rooted out any who might lay claim to his throne. Tradition says that he murdered every male child under the age of two—the slaughter of the innocents. For he could not suffer any challenge to his authority to stand.

 

And that’s what kings have always done, haven’t they? Eliminated all challengers to their authority?

 

For the whole of his ministry, Jesus taught about the Kingdom. It was a teaching that was usually misunderstood. Yet his message was simple. When the Psalmist wrote, “The earth is God’s, and all that is in it,” he captured the essence of it. The whole of the earth belongs to God, regardless of what human beings foolishly assert. God rules over every inch of it, heedless of human hubris. The creatures of the earth know this—only human beings fool themselves into thinking otherwise. When a sparrow flies across the border between Israel and Jordan, does the sparrow know it has just crossed the border? No, because the sparrow lives in the Kingdom.

 

Borders exists only in the human imagination. They are fictions that we construct to bolster the lie of our superiority to nature, the illusion of our authority over the earth, to contain or exclude and terrorize one another. Rome had sold the known world the lie of their rulership. They called their emperor a god, and set up his statue in their temples. They made the people of the world bend the knee by the force of the sword—and one by one the nations capitulated to the fiction of their rule.

 

The Jewish people believed this lie, too, and they were eager to throw it off in favor of another lie—the fiction of their own superiority, their own rule. All human rule is hubris. All human rule requires violence to enforce the fiction. The Roman empire pulled out the big guns in the face of Jesus’ defiance—the biggest guns they had. Their ultimate weapon was the fear of death—for it is this power that held the world terrorized in its thrall.

 

And when Jesus got up and walked away from the worst that Rome could do, he exposed the lie. The earth does not belong to Rome. It does not belong to Herod. It does not belong to the British Empire or the Soviet Union or the United States or any other pretender to that throne the world has ever known. The earth is God’s, and all that is in it. When Jesus rose again, it was because Empire did its worst, and empire did not win—because empire does not rule this world. God does.

 

Which brings us to the HOW. One of the most fascinating of all the martial arts is a relatively recent one called Aikido. It is less than a hundred years old, and it was founded utilizing the wisdom of many other, much older arts. Philosophically, however, it has a major difference from other schools. In Aikido, one’s opponents are never harmed. Instead, the opponents own force and violence are repeatedly and patiently rendered ineffective. Punches might be thrown, but the force of them is directed away without doing harm. Kicks threaten, but they are turned aside, neutralizing the energy of them. An Aikido practitioner wins a fight not by wounding or killing an opponent, but when the opponent is simply too tired or frustrated to continue.

 

It is the most elegant of the martial arts, because no matter how powerful the attacker, no damage is done. No matter how fatal the blows, they hurt no one. No matter how relentless the attack, the effort is futile.

 

In a way, the crucifixion and resurrection are God’s Aikido. Empire was a powerful attacker, the blow was fatal, the attack was relentless. And even though Jesus was sorely and powerfully wounded, he got up and walked away from the attack. And even though the Empire continued to attack Jesus’ followers for hundreds of years, it eventually gave up when it realized that THIS body simply couldn’t be killed. And no amount of effort, no threat of death, no illusion of power or grandeur could stop it or frighten it or overcome it.

 

Which leaves us with only one question: WHY? Why would God assert sovereignty in this way? Why would Jesus willingly walk to the cross? Why would God allow it?

 

Because just as Herod had to put to death all of those innocents, God had to eliminate any who might lay claim to the throne of this world. The resurrection reveals once and for all the lie of tyrannical power—especially the tyranny of the threat of death. For in the wake of Resurrection, Empire’s dire power is broken, and even death itself is defeated. Death itself is shown to be an illusion. Death itself is shown to be a lie.

 

But illusions die hard. We still live under the terror of empire. We still believe the lie. We still think that might makes right. We still cringe before the superior power of others. We still shrink at the thought of our own deaths—but this, too is an illusion.

 

Jesus has trampled them all under foot. They did their worst, and they did not defeat him. They pulled out all the stops, and he dusted himself off and kept coming. And he still keeps coming.

 

When we are invited to baptism, it’s not just a quaint little ritual. It’s an invitation to throw off the lies that keep us in bondage. It’s an invitation to a freedom that bows to no human power. It’s an invitation to life with no fear of death. It’s an invitation to live in the Kingdom, where God alone rules, to live in reality instead of illusion, to live an abundant life, because just surviving is not enough.

 

But is this a credible news story? It’s too impossible to be believed, it’s too much to ask of modern people. Very well, I’ll grant you that. I won’t ask you to believe it. I don’t believe it myself. It’s too incredible. But if reason is the rod by which all things are measured, then the human soul is expendable and pointless. There is more to the world than logic can contain. There is mystery, there is beauty, there is imagination—and none of these are even remotely reasonable.

 

So here’s a slightly different question: can you TRUST this story? Can you CHOOSE to rest in this version of events? Can you, by effort of will, TRUST that it is true?

 

To trust this story is to trust that humanity and divinity have truly come together. To trust this story is to trust that the human spirit will not be forever cowed before tyrants. To trust this story is to trust that illusions can be broken. To trust this story is to trust that we can be set free from bondage. To trust this story is to trust that death is not the end. To trust this story is to trust that there is more to life than what can be quantified and measured and explained.

 

And we ourselves have born witness to the truth of this, have we not? Have we not witnessed the power of God, of resurrection in our own lives? Has not Jesus shattered illusions that have held us in bondage? Have we not seen with our own eyes those who trust in Christ’s resurrection following him to their own deaths without fear?

 

If we don’t trust this, then hasn’t Empire actually won? Hasn’t the Empire of Rationality defeated everything in its wake, at all costs? And what a great cost it is, especially to the weak, especially to the imagination, especially to our souls.

 

But it need not be so. The angels asked the women, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” And they may well ask us the same. Why do we look for life in the weird and pointless places that we do? Why do we ourselves chase after power, and seek to hold its illusion over the heads of others? Why do we ourselves seek to rule over others, to usurp the throne of God? Why do we ourselves allow ourselves to be held captive to tyrants, to fictions, to rationality at all costs, to the terror of death? Why do we continue to swallow the lies?

 

The truth is the news event of the day: Every enemy of humankind has been defeated today. You need NEVER be afraid again. Not of anybody. Not of anything. And every power that might ever threaten or oppose us has been struck down.

 

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

 


the preferential option for the wicked

Prov 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Ps 125; Jam 2:1-10, 11-17; Mk 7:24-37

One of my favorite TV shows from the BBC is a medical drama called “Bramwell,” that concerns the first woman doctor in London in the late 1800s. Eleanor Bramwell is the Lady doctor in question, and she routinely endures the ridicule of her male colleagues. Unable to find work in a hospital, her father—also a doctor—offers to take her under his wing, allowing her to treat his rich female clientele. Eleanor is a headstrong and proud woman, and she refuses, but she also despairs. Finally, a friend of the family, Lady Peters, agrees to be her benefactor so that she can open a clinic in the heart of the London slums, which they nickname, “The Thrift.”

 

Trouble ensues, as you might expect, as the young Dr. Bramwell has trouble getting anyone to cooperate with her—or the poor public to trust her. She even comes into conflict with her benefactor, Lady Peters, who insists on acting as a doorkeeper to make sure that the clinic only accepts the “right sort” of patients. This, of course, enrages Dr. Bramwell, since the “wrong sort” of people include anyone that Lady Peters disapproves of. She turns away criminals, prostitutes, the dark of skin, and the vaguely suspicious. In each case, of course, Dr. Bramwell overrides her decision and treats the patient anyway—sometimes with disastrous results when Lady Peters turns out to have been right about someone.

 

But she is just as often wrong—and one of the show’s main themes is “exactly who are the right sort of people?” Are they the people who look like us? The people who act like us? The people who pray like us?

 

These are precisely the kinds of questions our readings are asking of us today as well. For the people James is writing to, they obviously think that the “right sort” of people are the rich, and they despise and ignore the poor. For the Psalmist and, often, Lady Peters, the “right sort” of people are the moral—the wicked need not apply. In our Gospel reading, we encounter one of the most disturbing episodes in the ministry of Jesus, where he seems to think that the “right sort” of people are either the people of “my race” or the people of “my religion,” depending on how you are looking at Judaism.

 

But it is precisely this sort of privilege that is being addressed in our readings. James confronts his readers with their classism. He tells them that they can’t be people of faith and show partiality. He tells them that they can’t push the poor person to the back and give the place of honor to a rich person—at least, not if they want to call themselves Christians.

 

And the Syreo-Phoenitian woman would have made Dr. Bramwell proud with her pluck, because she stands up for herself. Not only that, but she stands up to Jesus, and she calls him on his racial—or religious—prejudice. Not only that, but she’s right, and he realizes it, he acknowledges it. He doesn’t exactly apologize—remember that Jesus, being human, has his bad days, too—but he does, at least, do the right thing in the end.

 

A primary principle of Catholic social teaching is the “preferential option for the poor.” The phrase is useful, but unhelpfully obfuscatory. It got its start in a letter from the Jesuit Superior General to the Jesuits in Latin America in 1968. That wasn’t so long ago, and it’s kind of amazing how quickly the phrase rose to prominence in Catholic teaching. What it means is that given a choice between the poor and the rich, which is God going to favor? God is going to favor the poor, every time.

 

This is a deeply scriptural teaching. Just look at our reading from Proverbs. Solomon says, “Do not rob the poor because they are poor…for God will plead their cause, and will plunder the soul of those who plunder them.” That’s harsh. It’s also really, really clear.

 

But as our Gospel reading makes clear, it isn’t only the poor whom God favors above others—it’s those who are marginalized in other ways, as well. Just look at the ways the Syro-Phoenician woman was disadvantaged. First, she’s a woman in the Middle East—with no rights or power of her own. Second, she’s of a despised race. Third, she’s a heathen. Fourth, and possibly worst, her daughter is possessed by demons. And on the scale of social disadvantages, that may be rare, but it’s right up there.

 

The Psalmist presents us with a very simplistic theology. He asks God to bless those who are good, and to banish those who are wicked. But we know the world doesn’t work like that. The wicked often flourish, and the righteous often suffer. The book of Job was written precisely to counter this sort of theology. And, in fact, the other readings don’t seem much concerned with the moral state of the outcast. The Syro-Phoenician woman isn’t female, brown, heretical, or den-mother to a demon because she’s wicked—but the text doesn’t say that she’s a good person, either. She’s a clever debater and she’s got pluck—we’ll give her points for that, but we know nothing about her moral state.

 

There is no “preferential option” for the good, as much as we would like it to be so. In fact, God seems maddingly unconcerned with people’s “moral state.” As James points out, look if you’ve broken one commandment, you’ve broken them all, so get off your high horse before you get a nosebleed or fall and break something.

 

But if our readings are correct, we might make a case that God has a preferential option for the foreigner, the despised, or the outcast. Or try these on for size: how about the preferential option for the sick? Or the preferential option for the drunk or the addicted? Or the preferential option for the gay or lesbian? Or here’s one to blow your mind: how about the preferential option for the wicked, since the Psalmist seems to look down on them so much?

 

The testimony of scripture is clear: if there is anyone that you consider “less than” yourself, WATCH OUT. Because before the throne of judgment, God is going to decide in THEIR favor, not in yours.

 

It’s a grave warning. And I don’t think that I am immune. And I doubt that you are either. I think the question for us to discern is—who is it that we look down on? Speaking for myself, I have a very hard time with the arrogant. And quite frankly, I’m not so hot on the stupid, either. And do I secretly judge the homeless? I do, God help me. In fact, nearly every day I find myself judging my relative worth to almost everyone I meet. And paying attention to that has revealed that the truly arrogant and stupid one is, well, ME.

 

So who do you look down on? To whom are you superior? And the knee-jerk intellectual response “no one, dammit, we’re Americans” isn’t going to cut it, because it isn’t honest.

 

Look, I want to be a good person, but as James points out to us, being “good” isn’t enough. It may not even be that important to God. What IS important to God, though, and what God most requires of me is to be a KIND person. It’s it’s a LOT harder to be a kind person than it is to be a good person. And I’m not going to explain that. I think you know, in your heart of hearts, what I mean by that, even if you don’t agree.

 

As a young dog, Judy insisted on dominating any other dog who crossed her path. As nice a dog as she was, she always had to assert her dominance. When she encountered any other dog, she got along well with them, but she also positioned her head over the other dog’s shoulder—a classic canine dominant pose. Yet the other day, when our puppy Sally approached her, Judy relaxed enough to show Sally her belly, seemingly completely unconcerned.

 

 

 

 

 

Let us pray…

 

The rich and the poor

and the good and the wicked

and the gay and the straight

and the citizen and the foreigner

and the sick and the well

and the addicted and the sober

all have this in common.

The Holy One is the maker of them all.

Blessed be the Holy One.

And blessed be all those whom we presume to be beneath us.

For the Holy One will please their cause,

And vindicate them

And will plunder the soul of those who plunder them.

God, help us. Amen.


stumping evil

LENT 3 | STUMPING EVIL | Ex 02:1-17; 1 Cor 1:18-25; Jn 2:13-22

 

In C.S. Lewis’ epistolary novel The Screwtape Letters, the main character—and the supposed author of the majority of the text—is a demon, specifically, a “senior temptor” by the name of Screwtape, writing letters to his “nephew,” a lesser demon by the name of Wormwood.

 

In the course of their correspondence, Screwtape lets Wormwood in on a little secret, one that actually gets Screwtape into a good bit of trouble. The secret is that demons are profoundly flummoxed by God’s motivation. They believe that “the whole concept of ‘love’ is a cover story for something more selfish and nefarious.”[i]

 

The demons are always wondering what God is really up to, and, in fact, we are told that there is an entire research department in Hell whose job it is to figure this out. Getting a job in this department is the infernal equivalent of being demoted to the mail room. As Screwtape himself writes, “[God] cannot love: nobody can: it doesn’t make sense” (101).

 

Lewis seemed to be saying, in a subversive, underhanded way, “God’s ways are not our ways,” and indeed, our ways are usually bound up with an overarching concern for the self. Even our altruism is self-interested. Our cultural watchword seems to be, “what’s in it for me?” The idea that a person might do something out of simple uncomplicated love is completely counterintuitive. Screwtape cannot comprehend it. I think there are a lot of people in our society who have a similar difficulty.

 

Today’s readings are full of just this sort of confounding wisdom. How is it that Law can bring freedom? The ten commandments given to Moses in our first reading are not given to meet God’s needs, but ours. It seems like a contradiction—why should we bind ourselves to this very limiting set of behaviors? Why should we curtail our life and liberty? Because by doing so, a far greater number of people are granted life and liberty. But why should I limit my rights just so that others—weaker, less deserving people, naturally—can have rights? Again, to evil, this kind of self-giving simply makes no sense. The “What’s in it for me?” factor just doesn’t measure up.

 

And how about Jesus driving out the money-changers? Now, granted, this is not Jesus’ finest moment. Theologians have always tried to justify such bad behavior by appealing to “righteous indignation,” which seems like a bit of a cop-out to me. I think his response is a terribly human one. He, quite frankly, loses his temper.

 

Was he right to do so? Probably not. The goings-on in the temple had to be well-known at the time, it couldn’t have been a surprise. Was it a sinful act? Well, you know, if I hated alcohol and went into a bar with a baseball bat and busted the place up, I’d probably be brought up on charges, and would be right to feel a little shame about the incident. So, no, I don’t think Jesus is in the clear in this one.

 

But here’s what I DO think was right about it: his anger was completely motivated on behalf of others. He saw poor people being exploited, and he went ballistic, completely disregarding the likely consequences to his own life and liberty. And this was not a negligible danger, either. While John places this incident near the beginning of his gospel, the other evangelists place it at the end—and, in fact, imply that it is this very action of Jesus’ that gets him killed.

 

There was no “what’s in it for me,” in Jesus’ actions, here. Abominable as they were, they were entirely motivated out of concern for others, completely disregarding concern for himself. Jesus’ recklessness makes no logical sense. But then again, this is why evil cannot comprehend good—love is not logical.

 

This is precisely what Paul is speaking about in his letter to the Corinthians when he writes, “the message of the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Surely God is powerful—more powerful than any other being in the universe. Why should he consent to being over-powered? Surely God is the very source of life—why would he consent to being killed? Surely God could have come up with a better way to oppose the tyranny of the Empire—why would he submit to it? It was simply too costly to be handed over to torture and death—what was in it for him?

 

And the fact is, there was nothing in it for him, not really. God, if any being is, is self-sufficient. Jesus’ act was one of defiance, of solidarity with the oppressed, motivated entirely out of love for others, with no thought to his own welfare, or indeed, his very life. And that, my friends, is love. And it is not logical. And to many people in the world, it is incomprehensible.

 

Yet it is also the very definition of God. Martin Luther defined God as “self-giving love.” Luther says that when we are first converted, when we are “baby Christians,” we are still motivated by self-serving love, as most people are. But as we walk with Christ, as we learn from him, as we are united to him by faith, a change happens within us. Over the course of a lifetime, the work of Holy Spirit in us is a gradual conversion from self-serving love to self-giving love.

 

When we first become followers of Jesus, we are still asking “what’s in it for us?” Maybe we sign on for the community, or the music, or because doing service makes us feel good about ourselves, or maybe we just want to be sure we have our ticket to heaven. We may even have a grab bag of such reasons, but they are still self-motivated reasons.

 

But the action of the Holy Spirit is both subtle and relentless, because as we grow in Christ, God is transforming us INTO Christ. That IS the work of God in us. And as we grow INTO Christ, God’s will for us is that our self-serving love be transformed into self-giving love, that we gradually leave behind the “what’s in it for me” motivations, and begin to direct our actions more and more out of concern for others, and only for others.

 

From the perspective of finance, or security, or social standing, such a transformation makes absolutely no sense at all. The cross is the symbol of such self-giving love, because on it, Jesus gave everything, the cost to himself was total, and his personal gain from it was…nothing. It is, as Paul says, “a stumbling block” and “foolishness,” but for those who have the eyes to see it, it is the “power and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”

 

To follow Jesus is to walk toward the Cross. The journey we willingly take as Christians is one from the self-serving love our culture understands and approves to a place ruled by self-giving love, which Jesus called the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom is illogical. The Kingdom is foolishness. The Kingdom asks us for everything, and offers nothing in return.

 

And yet, that’s not true. The Kingdom offers love. Not love we earn, not love we buy, not love we have to angle for. Not love that in any way serves our self-interest or anyone else’s. The world, by which I mean our culture, by which I mean The System, cannot comprehend actual love. I think sometimes that even we, who intend to give our lives for love, do not comprehend love. But I know we want it. We desire it with all of our being. Not to possess it, but to be possessed by it. To be wanted and embraced and cherished by a power so far beyond us that it does not need us, whose very attention, whose gifts, and indeed whose sacrifices on our behalf are not motivated by any need of its own, but only by a DESIRE to save, to EMBRACE, indeed, to LOVE.

 

Let us not seek to understand love, but to be possessed by it, so utterly possessed that our motivations, our way of life, even our very identities are transformed. Church isn’t a safe place. God isn’t calling us to morality, or civic duty, or to fellowship for its own sake. God is calling us to the cross, and it is MADNESS to respond.

 

By the way, I’m going to the cross, so if you want to walk together, we can keep each other company. Let us pray…

 

We don’t pretend to understand you, God,

But then, we know that no one else does either.

We are flummoxed and humbled by your sacrifices for us

For all that you surrendered in order to seek us out and find us,

Us, whom you do not need; us, who do not really deserve such devotion

And yet, here you are, offering yourself to us willingly at this table

Week after week, year after year.

Help us to get a glimmer of what you are up to

Help us to become like you, to be transformed into you

To exchange our self-interest for self-giving

As our concerns transform into your concerns.

And when we choose the way of the cross,

Walk with us, Jesus, every step of the way.

For we ask this out of our need,

trusting in your goodness. Amen.


francis and the mouse king

FRANCIS AND THE MOUSE KING

 

It was just a shack in the woods. The roof was falling in, half of it already open to the winds of heaven. The mortar around the door frame was cracked and falling away in chips the size of fingers. The floor was made of dirt, and, due to the rain of the past several days, was mostly just mud.

 

“It’s a generous gift,” said Brother Mark with intentional dispassion. The other brothers shivered in the autumnal morning chill and looked at Francis, their eyes betraying almost desperate hope.

 

Francis scowled at Brother Mark. He scowled at the shack. Then he scowled at the brothers. “It is too generous for poor brothers,” he said at last, almost spitting the words to the ground.

 

“But Francis,” one of the newer brothers protested. “Winter is coming! It is a small place….”

 

Francis shot the brother a glare that made him bite his tongue. “Brother Bartholomew, I understand your fear of the cold. This is why we must trust God.”

 

“But Francis,” Brother Mark interjected, “is it not possible that this is a gift from God? Provided precisely to help us weather through the winter?”

 

Francis smiled briefly, but the furrow did not leave his brow. Instead, he circumambulated the shack, noting almost with approval it’s miserable state of disrepair. “The question that I keep asking, Brother,” Francis said slowly as he walked, “is this: Who does it serve? If we stay out here, we will be too far from the city to minister to the people there.” He stopped and faced the brothers, who were following him around the ruin. “How can you possibly expect me to agree to  a bunch of friars living in luxury out here in the woods, pleasing no one but themselves?”

 

At his use of the word, “luxury,” the brothers, each to a man, looked at the shack, and then back at Francis. “But—“ one of them began, but Francis held up his hand to stop him. “We will sleep here tonight, Brothers, but tomorrow we will return to San Damiano.”

 

“Ah, but Brother Francis,” Mark objected, “Brother Bernardo said he would meet us here in three days time.”

 

Francis grunted. “Then we shall live in luxury for three days. May God forgive us.” The brothers looked at each other in disbelief, but did not contradict him.

 

::     ::     ::

 

That night, Francis slept fitfully, as he often did. He was awakened by a sharp pain in his left eyelid. The moon, shining through the hole in the roof, was full and strong, and as he opened his eyes, he saw clearly a most amazing sight: a tiny mouse, the color of wet bark, stood upright on his cheek in a pose of brave defiance. On his head was a rough crown fashioned from a silver ring, and in his front paw was a sword that looked all the world like a darning needle.

 

“Strange beast!” the mouse exclaimed. It seemed to be addressing him, so Francis made an effort to remain still so as not to topple the tiny monarch. “State your business in my realm!”

 

“Um…I beg your pardon, Your Majesty,” Francis began, unsure what to say. “We were not aware that we were trespassing…but I beseech His Majesty to forgive our trespasses.”

 

The Mouse King cocked a tiny eyebrow at the friar, but did not lower the point of the sword from its dangerous position very near to Francis’ left eye. Francis struggled not to blink.

 

“Trespassers must be punished, nave!” the Mouse King pronounced. “And the punishment is death!”

 

“Ah, then I am comforted,” Francis tried to smile slowly so as not to upset the balance of the rodent sovereign when his cheeks moved. “I am always prepared to die. My concern tonight is whether I shall be nibbled.”

 

“Do you mock me, nave?” demanded the Mouse King. Francis looked about and noted that the Mouse King was not alone. He stretched his eyes to see as much as he could without moving his head. He saw that there was not one armed mouse confronting him, but scores of them, each with a fierce scowl of defiance upon his furry face.

 

Before Francis could answer, Brother Bartholomew tiptoed in from a visit to the bushes, and stepped on one of the armed mice, it’s sword piercing the bottom of his foot. “Mary’s teats!” he swore, grabbing his foot and hopping about on the other. The mice scattered from the hopping doom with squeaking shrieks of terror. In a moment, all the mice were safely hidden and Francis sat up, both relieved and concerned.

 

As Brother Bartholomew sat and rubbed at his foot, Francis crept on all fours to the door. His heart sank within him as he saw the lifeless body of the soldier mouse, crushed beneath the novice friar’s heavy foot. The darning needle near the little beast was smeared with blood that shone black in the moonlight. Francis made the sign of the cross over the mouse, and picked him up, carrying him to the rough table. Francis laid him out in state, his tiny blade arrayed upon his breast as befits a noble who has fallen in battle.

 

::     ::     ::

 

In the morning, Francis called the brothers together, and with due solemnity, led them through the rites of burial for the fallen mouse. The brothers did not object, but watched their leader with mounting concern as the ritual proceeded.

 

Brother Bartholomew, still limping from his injury, leaned over and whispered to Brother Mark, “He’s mad.”

 

Brother Mark smirked, and whispered back, “What? You didn’t know that before? We wouldn’t be here if he were right in his head.”

 

Brother Bartholomew’s brows furrowed as he pondered this. After the service, when Francis had buried the creature, and had read over him the service of committal, Brother Bartholomew sought him out.

 

“Brother Francis, I hope you are not angry with me—“

 

Francis looked at him with a gravity that made the new friar stop midsentence. “Brother Bartholomew, ‘angry’ is too weak a word for what I am feeling toward you right now. I am not angry at you, Brother. I am wroth with you.” And at that, Francis rose and stomped off into the woods to be alone.

 

“Oh, dear…” Bartholomew said, fingering the front of his habit nervously. “He hates me.”

 

“No, brother, “ said Brother Mark, who had been observing the exchange. “I told you, Francis is mad. His moods change like the weather. Be comforted, brother. The next time you see him, he will be kind to you, as if nothing had ever happened. You wait and see.” He patted the novice on the shoulder and called the brothers to prayer.

 

::     ::     ::

 

That evening, Francis only pretended to sleep. As he expected, visitors came again by moonlight. They came great in number, each of them small and fierce and bent on vengeance. This time, Francis opened his eye to behold a mouse herald perched on his cheek. The herald unrolled a scroll and read from it in a voice both bold and solemn, “His majesty King Cornflower, sovereign of the wooded grove, and monarch of…that stream, over there…we don’t have a name for it, really, other than ‘the stream’…anyway, His Majesty calls upon the Lord of the Trespassers and Murderers to parlay with him before we commence to battle.”

 

Francis spoke slowly, careful not to move too much for fear of toppling the mouse herald and making the situation even worse. “Tell His majesty that I have no intention of fighting him, nor do any of my brothers. But I will talk with him, and that right gladly.” The mouse herald rolled up his scroll and hopped down from the friar’s cheek, waddling on his hind legs back to where the Mouse King and his entourage watched from the relative safety of the ruined fireplace.

 

By this time, many of the brothers had also awakened and were watching the proceedings with looks both surprised and amused. One of them started to rise, but Francis sat up and motioned for them to keep still. Moving slowly and deliberately, Francis poured a cup of wine from a flagon, and, fishing for a moment in a travel bag, took from it a copper thimble.

 

The friar moved cautiously to the middle of the room and sat cross-legged, waiting and, it seemed, praying. Warily, the Mouse King and his entourage processed towards him. As they came near, the tiny sovereign signaled for his ministers to stand back. There were squeaks of protest, but the King was resolute, and they came no further. Alone, King Cornflower met the friar. For a moment, neither of them spoke.

 

“I am so sorry about your noble mouse, my Lord,” Francis began. “My brother did not see him. He meant no malice. He is large and bumblesome and incautious.”

 

“I am not bumblesome!” Brother Bartholomew objected, but Brother Mark shushed him. “I’m not bumblesome!” Brother Mark shushed him again.

 

“We gave him a burial as befits a noble beast, my Lord,” Francis continued. “We commended his soul to God, and we performed the appointed service with the sorrow that I truly feel and the dignity that he deserved.”

 

“I know nothing of that,” the Mouse King waved away Francis’ apology. “I only know that his family demands blood, his clan demands blood, and our race demands blood. You must know that I intend to avenge him.”

 

Francis nodded, but said nothing. Instead he dipped the thimble into the cup of wine, filling it and handing it to the rodent sovereign. Cornflower received the thimble and sniffed at it suspiciously. Francis drank from the cup, then, and seeing this, the Mouse King dipped his tiny snout into the thimble and slurped at the wine cautiously. After a moment, he lifted his head, his snout stained purple and dripping, and, not to be deterred, said, “I will have blood.” He indicated his host of warriors, about two score strong, each of them armed and angry. “They demand it.”

 

Francis sipped at his wine and regarded the Mouse King with sorrow. Finally, he spoke so softly that both the friars and the mice had to hold their breaths and lean in to hear. “Brother Mouse—your Majesty—as long as we both insist on being strong, we shall most certainly be enemies. But if we can be weak together, perhaps we might be friends.”

 

The Mouse King regarded him with a new wariness. “You speak like one who is mad.”

 

Francis smiled. “You are not the first to tell me so, your Highness.”

 

“Weakness is not a thing to be sought, Murderer. It is favored by none in the forest. It is a thing to be scorned and a thing to be fought.”

 

“I beg to differ, your Majesty. Weakness is a gift, given by God, and infinitely useful to man and beast alike.”

 

“You talk in riddles, Trespasser.”

 

“Then let me speak plain. We could spend all night threatening one another, insisting on our rights, and boasting of our might, until finally we must do our best to destroy one another. Or, we could share this wine, and as we do, I could tell you about what frightens me, what worries me, the cares that fill my days, and you could tell me about your cares, your worries, your fears. Instead of boasting of our strengths, we could share our weaknesses.”

 

“And what would that accomplish?”

 

“I am not sure, your Majesty, but my hope is that it will not end in the deaths of many noble mice, nor in the punctured ankles of my bumblesome brothers.”

 

The Mouse King looked skeptical, so Francis simply began. He told the Mouse King about the friar’s fear for winter, their lack of faith in God’s providence, his own frustration about this. He told him about the gift of the shack, the burden it had become on his conscience, the alienation it was causing between himself and his brothers. He talked about his sorrow and his fear and his deepest concern.

 

Moved by the friar’s frank speech, the Mouse King thanked him, and began to enumerate his own worries—the hardness of winter, and a shortage of food set aside for it. He spoke of the cats that roamed the forest hungry for rodents of tender years, and the madness of mice in large numbers who are afraid. He spoke of the heaviness of the crown, and Francis nodded, understanding the thankless burden of leadership all too well.

 

When they had finished speaking, Francis filled the Mouse King’s thimble again. “Brother Mouse—your Majesty—it seems that we are more alike than we knew.” To his relief the Mouse King nodded his agreement, and reached for the thimble without hesitation.

 

When morning broke, the tiny sovereign drew himself up and announced, “We shall treat again tomorrow,” and withdrew with his entourage into the depths of the shack.

 

 

::     ::     ::

 

After the friars had prayed and eaten, they spent the day in labor. Under Francis’ guidance, some repaired the roof, some mixed mortar for the door and the brickwork. A couple gathered acorns and nuts and seeds until they had a mountain of them. They then spread them out in the afternoon sun to dry.

 

Francis himself went into the forest, calling to his sisters the cats, engaging in long and detailed conversations about boundaries and behaviors, extracting from them contracts and covenants quite contrary to their natures, but such were Francis’ powers of persuasion that he procured assurances from each and every one to stay clear of the wooded grove and its stream.

 

When the Mouse King and his entourage arrived that evening, he approached Francis alone and without hesitation, his fellows watching from the walls. The brothers, too, huddled together in silence, waiting to hear what would be said. His Majesty accepted the thimble graciously, and immediately dipped his snout into the musty wine. After slurping deeply, the Mouse King raised his face to Francis and showed his teeth. It might have been a smile.

 

“I have spoken to my people,” he announced. “They are still angry, but they admit the loss of our warrior was probably an accident.”

 

Francis nodded and grinned—a bit thinly—his relief. “Your majesty,” Francis began, “This makes me glad. I have thought all day about your troubles and have prayed for you. I have also secured promises from the forest cats to stay clear of this grove, and with your permission I am ready to assign brothers to stay here in order to enforce it.”

 

The friars looked at one another in astonishment, feeling hopeful and relieved. “Furthermore, we come tonight with gifts.” He opened a bag of dried nuts and seeds, and held the opening near the tiny monarch so that he could sniff at it. The Mouse King’s voice was thick with emotion as he said, “This will be more than enough to feed us until spring.”

 

Distress and sadness washed over the Mouse King’s face, and Francis asked him, “What’s wrong, my Lord?”

 

“I fear we have misjudged you, and I beg your pardon.”

 

“You have it, Brother Mouse.”

 

“I am also distressed, because we have no gift for you.”

 

“Ah, your Majesty, but that is not quite true,” Francis said. “For when we arrived at this place, I upset my brothers by saying we could not stay here. And we could not stay here because we could not be of service to anyone we know so far out in the woods. But now, we have found friends here, and here we now have someone to serve. So, if you will welcome us as friends and guests in this stately cottage—which we understand to be your property and your home—we will be content to stay.”

 

And that is what they did.


easter: the end of empire

EASTER 2011

Acts 10:34-43 | Ps 118:1-2, 14-24 | Col 3:1-4 | Jn 20:1-18

There was, in the ancient world, a man who was proclaimed Divine. He was called God, and the Son of God. It was said of him that he was “God from God.” People called him the Savior, the Redeemer of the world. They called him Lord.

If you had been travelling at this time, you could go from one end of the empire to the other, and if ever you spoke these words, people would know precisely who you were talking about. If you hear someone speaking about “salvation” or “grace” or “peace” or “justice” or “gospel” or “atonement” you, too, would know exactly who they were talking about.

He was born in 31 BCE, and he ruled the whole of the known world. He was, in fact, the Lord of the World, and his name was Caesar Augustus. Horace, in his Odes, wrote, “Our children, made fewer by their parents’ sins…to whom shall Jupiter assign the task of atoning for our guilt?” Augustus, who was the incarnation of the god Mercury, who walked among us “in the guise of a man.”

In some ways, we know Jesus too well. We know him so well that we think that everything that happened to him was, well, kind of normal—even the miraculous stuff. It’s old hat to us. We’ve heard it all our lives. The fact is that we have to do some pretty heavy peddling to understand exactly why Jesus was such a big deal. We’re so fixated on him, that we know almost nothing about the world—the context—into which he was born. And it is this context that reveals why Jesus was such a sensation.

More than a sensation, Jesus was a scandal. He was, in fact, a scandal from beginning to end. He had a scandalous beginning—born nearly out of wedlock. Again, that’s no big deal to us today, but in the context of his time, that could get you stoned pretty quickly.

He had a scandalous ministry, being, for one thing, an unmarried rabbi—and one that hung out with sex workers, to boot. He didn’t collect the brightest of the bright from the Yishivas—the Talmudic schools—he encouraged illiterates and criminals and terrorists and traitors to follow him. Regardless of his image today, in his own context, Jesus hung out with the wrong crowd.

But putting aside his scandalous origin for a moment, putting aside his scandalous behavior for a moment, the single most scandalous thing about Jesus was what people were saying about him. They called him “the Lord,” “the Savior,” “the Son of God,” and that, as far as anyone in the Roman Empire was concerned, was treason. Because in that context, the only person to whom one could safely direct such titles was the living god man on the throne of the world—Caesar.

The Jews were in a tricky place. First off, they hated the Romans and their Caesar, partly because they weren’t too fond of gentiles in general, but they were especially resentful of goyim who presumed to rule them by the sword, and Rome’s sword was like nothing the world had ever seen before. They itched for the glory days of Judas Maccabbee, who, with his army of freedom fighters, took back the land of Israel from their gentile overlords by force, making it once again the Kingdom of God, if only for a short time.

So, yes, they hated Rome, and they hated the emperor, but they feared his power even more. They feared the force of his wrath, the power of his sword, the violence of his vengeance against any who dared oppose him. Their teeth ground when they called him “Lord,” but they called him “Lord” just the same. The Jerusalem hillsides were dotted with crucified evidence of this Lord’s justice, but they called him “just” all the same.

So when this nobody rabbi from the sticks ambles up with his band of merry idiots and sex workers, and—inexplicably—the common rabble hail him “King,” and “Lord,” and “Savior,” and pine aloud for the “Kingdom of God,” the Jewish leaders who are knocking themselves out trying to keep a lid on this powder keg of a country are understandably a little freaked out by it. Because if the Romans catch wind of it, it could mean curtains for EVERYBODY.

People love peace. We hate conflict. I hate conflict, you hate conflict, the ancient Jews hated conflict, especially when it was likely to bring certain death. Rome knew that. And that was why the Roman propaganda machine was selling the one thing that everyone, from the Atlantic to the Baltic wanted: peace.

It was the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome, a shining dream that understandably had great appeal. It is human nature, after all, to squabble. If we could just find one man, with a strong enough sword to beat all his rivals into submission, we could have that peace. And Caesar was that man.

It was, in fact, for the Romans, a religious enterprise. In an ancient document known as The Achievements of the Divine Augustus, a pattern emerges for how to achieve this peace: First, (1) Augustus rebuilds and restores the temples throughout the empire, restoring the piety of the people and ensuring the favor of the gods. Second, (2) in the name of the gods and with their aid he rides out and makes war on all those who will not bow before him. This results in (3) Victory, and the result of this victory is (4) peace.

This is the Roman Imperial theology, and it can be summed up by a single phrase made very popular here in the US during the cold war: peace through strength.

It was fear of Roman power that moved the Jewish religious authorities to have Jesus stopped before he could bring destruction upon their people. It was Roman strength that tore him from the protective hands of his friends and followers and tortured him and crucified him. It was Roman strength that nailed him to that cross and made him an object lesson to the world: this is what will happen to YOU if you oppose the Lord of the World.

And like all of those who challenge the Empire, like all those who threaten the Pax Romana, Jesus died, brutally and publically. He died and was buried. (Sit down. Silence.)

Did you think that was the end of the story? The Romans thought that was the end of the story. The Jewish religious authorities thought that was the end of the story. The disciples thought that was the end of the story.

But God had, it seemed, not scandalized the world enough. Jesus wasn’t done. Because God had a message that God had been trying for hundreds of years to drive home, and it still hadn’t made it in. We’ve been reading about it in our Old Testament readings this year: God’s favor is with the poor and the powerless. Mary seemed to get it—she proclaimed it in her Magnificat: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.” Jesus himself proclaimed it throughout his ministry, telling the meek and the poor in spirit that they were favored by God, and choosing those whom the world looked down upon as his friends and confidants.

And if the Romans wanted an object lesson on power, this one was a doozy. Because in crucifying this little rabbi, the full weight of Roman might came down upon Jesus, and perhaps for the first time in the history of the empire, MIGHT DID NOT WIN.

Fear motivated the Jewish authorities to betray one of their own in order to keep the fragile peace, and FEAR DID NOT WIN.

Violence, to which the entire world had turned in order to assert its will on its neighbors, did its worst to Jesus, rending his body into shreds and battering him into oblivion, and VIOLENCE DID NOT WIN.

This is the message of the crucifixion and resurrection, folks: everything that the powers of Empire, everything that the world at large values—power, strength, ruthlessness, money, privilege, influence—is nothing in the eyes of God. And in the end, these things will not win.

The resurrection is God’s stamp of approval on the one man who said “no” to the way of Empire. He had none of those things that make a person powerful or important. Jesus had no power, he was not strong, he was not ruthless, he had no money, he was not attractive, he had no political pull. He had nothing but the truth: “God will pull the powerful from their thrones and will lift up the lowly.”

It’s hard to get more lowly than Jesus, beaten, tortured, and very dead indeed. But true to his promise, as the very kind of object lesson that Rome could appreciate, God lifted him up. And in lifting him up, he lifts us up as well.

In the resurrection, we are set free from the way of life cherished by Empire. No longer does our success hinge on the being the strongest, the fiercest, the smartest, or the most highly regarded person in the room. LIFE IS NOT ABOUT POWER. We have been set free from that trap. That lie has now been exposed. That way is a dead-end, and we don’t have to fall for it.

LIFE IS NOT ABOUT POWER. Instead, life is about kindness, beauty, tenderness, caring, compassion, and courage. The powerful don’t win in the end—the meek do. Force does not win in the end—the peaceful do. The ruthless don’t win in the end, the merciful do.

St. Paul is making this exact point in his epistle. This is the “Christ crucified” that Paul knows and proclaims. The “wisdom of this age” is doomed to perish, because in the end, force does not win. Paul says that “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing”—to those blinded by the power of Empire, of force, of domination—“but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of those who call themselves wise’…God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”

This is the hope that we proclaim as Christians. To those who place their hope in the power of the sword, in power, in influence, in wealth, it seems like idiocy. But God’s idiocy is greater than any human wisdom, Paul says. The cross is a scandal, but the resurrection is a liberation. It is a vindication of the scandalous, it is freedom from the way of empire. It is a refutation of the powerful and the doctrine of power revered by the world.

Love trumps power. Love trumps violence. Love trumps privilege. Love trumps cruelty. Crazy as it seems, it’s true. And this is why we follow Jesus. Because he told us the truth that scandalizes the world, turns all its structures upside down, and refutes all its alleged wisdom: In the end, love wins. No matter what you set against it. No matter how powerful, how rich, how influential you are. Love wins. The grave  claimed even Augustus Caesar. Only Jesus got up and walked away from it.

For the insights in this sermon, I am indebted to Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan’s THE FIRST PAUL (NY: HarperOne, 2009), especially chapter 4. 


fire your god!

THANKSGIVING 2010 | II MACABEES | When Krishna was a little blue boy watching cattle near his home at the foot of Mt. Govardhan, he was confused by the elaborate preparations being made for a sacrifice. He scampered off to his father, Nanda, and said, “Poppa, what is happening? What is all this fuss about in the village?”

His father took him on his knee and explained that the crops need rainfall in order to grow, and rain is a gift from the king of the gods, Indra—who is the god of thunder, lightning, and rain. So, every year, in order to keep on Indra’s good side, the villagers perform a massive puja—a sacrifice in Indra’s honor.

Krishna was not happy with this answer at all, and as he went around the village, he began to persuade the people, saying, “If you just do your work, good things—like rain—will follow. You don’t need to do any special sacrifices for minor deities.”

The people at first dismissed Krishna’s protests, but eventually, when he pointed out just how much food, livestock, and effort were being wasted in this effort, they began to see the sense in what he was saying. Eventually, they went to the Brahmins and said, “We’ve decided to call off the puja. You can go home.”

The Brahmins jaws dropped, and they looked around, incredulous. This was their livelihood, after all, and if they went home without performing the sacrifice, they went home empty-handed. Needless to say, they were NOT happy about the villagers’ decision.

But that was NOTHING compared to Indra’s outrage when he heard that the puja had been cancelled. After all, this is how he was fed, as well. He raged, he roared, he cast lightning bolts, and sent a wind of hurricanous force down upon the village.

The villagers recoiled in fear, as the rain and wind began to pummel their fragile huts. They looked at Krishna pleadingly.

Unconcerned, the little blue boy walked over to the base of Mt. Govardhan, and effortlessly lifted it up, spinning it like a basketball on the tip of his index finger. He walked the mountain over to the village, and used it as an umbrella to shield  the villagers and their homes from Indra’s wrath.

Eventually Indra’s anger was spent, and he realized the futility of his temper-tantrum. He also acknowledged Krishna’s divine superiority, and his own pride and arrogance. He apologized to Krishna and to the villagers, and slunk off back to his own heaven.

You gotta love Krishna stories! The tale of Mt. Govardhan is the story is told every year at the Hindu festival of Thanksgiving, known as Pongal. In it we see a tale that helps explain the Upanishadic shift taking place in Hinduism around two thousand years ago, when the worship of the Vedic nature deities was being superceded by the Omnipotent faces of Hinduism’s emerging monotheism—such as Shiva and Vishnu; in this case, through Vishnu’s incarnation as Krishna.

I know it sounds strange, how can you have a monotheism that sports several different gods? And that is part of the goofy glory that is Hinduism: there is only one God, but God can wear a million faces. And Shiva and Vishnu are two most highly revered.

Note what is happening in this story, though: the little blue boy, Krishna, is inciting his fellow villagers to an act of rebellion. He wants them to turn from the worship of a limited, minor nature deity so that due reverence can be given to the real Lord of heaven and earth—himself, of course, although there isn’t really a whiff of self-serving motivation in this story. Turning the villagers’ worship from a lesser god to the true God is for their own benefit.

Our reading from the Apocrypha today details a similar rebellion, this one more rooted in history but, interestingly, emerging at about the same time chronologically as our Krishna story. Our book for today is II Maccabees, and in it we find that Jews had been conquered, once again, but this time by the Seluicids—Macedonian Hellenists who had succeeded in swaying  popular opinion among the Jewish upper class in their direction, and had even bought off the priests at the temple in Jerusalem.

They had replaced the worship of the God of Jacob with Zeus and Hera, and the other nature deities of the Greek pantheon, and it seemed that the Jewish race was at real risk of being assimilated into Hellenism.

But not on Judas Maccabeus’ watch! He and his sons led a band of guerilla freedom fighters who, under cover of darkness, unseated the Hellenists, and retook the Temple. They cleansed it from the polluting effects of gentile worship—don’t take it personally, it’s a tribal thing—and began an eight-day period of prayer after which all ritual impurities would be rooted out.

The problem was they only had enough consecrated lamp oil for one day of this observance. But miraculously, that one pot of oil burned for the full eight days, properly reconsecrating the Temple from all those icky gentile impurities.

This is, of course, the story of Hanukkah, and the book of II Maccabees kicks off with a letter entreating the Jews to remember God’s miraculous deliverance of the Temple with an annual celebration of Thanksgiving.

Our American celebration of Thanksgiving has largely been secularized, sapped of much of its sacred character, even though its origins are tied to our own Congregational heritage. It makes me wonder if the spiritual anemia surrounding our own festival might not be related in some way to the conflict at the core of these two stories of Krishna and the Maccabees. I wonder if the gods we have come to rely on in our culture are worthy of thanks in the first place.

I don’t know about you, but in my travels as a minister I am frequently met with a great deal of hostility. Every religious wound that anyone has ever received, every negative projection finds me as its target when I am wearing my clerical collar out there in the world. There might have been a time when clerical attire elicited admiration and respect from the average person on the street, but nowadays the reaction is much more likely to be negative, sometimes fiercely so. It’s an odd feeling, to be seen not for who you are, but for what you represent, especially when that thing is so prevalently despised. Even Roman Catholic clergy rarely wear their collars out on the street anymore.

And when I have occasion to speak to people, which often happens, as people are often not shy about venting their frustration at organized religion, I routinely find that the god they don’t believe in is one that I don’t believe in, either. Not by a long shot. It makes me wonder if perhaps the god most people have been given simply needs to be handed his pink slip, as Krishna did to Indra, or as the Maccabbees did, more forcefully, to Zeus.

I think a lot of people have trouble mustering much of a feeling of gratitude at Thanksgiving. I don’t think this is because they don’t have good things in their lives, but more often because the deities that populate their personal pantheons simply aren’t worthy of Thanks. I mean, if you talk to the average person on the street about who God is, you are likely to be met with a deity who is too impotent, malevolent, or existence-challenged to be much use to anyone, let alone elicit warm and fuzzy feelings of gratitude.

Religion is not a simple matter for us here in the 21st century. It’s about as complicated as things can get. It’s a mixed bag, and there are lots of competing voices, many of whom are saying the most egregious and offensive things. It’s hard to sort through our conflicted feelings about God and get to a place of simple peace, simple trust, simple gratitude.

But this is what I hope for you this season. So if the god you’ve got is too small, too weak, too self-centered, too morally challenged, too pompous, too cruel, or simply too silly to inspire your worship, your trust, or your gratitude, maybe it’s time for a religious overhaul.

Maybe it’s time to send that off-the-rack god of yours packing and start interviewing for a new deity. One that is worthy of your service, who doesn’t insult your intelligence, who you wouldn’t be embarrassed to introduce to your friends. One who is tailor-made for who you are, who knows you intimately, and who speaks to both your needs and your strengths.

I’m not advocating a cafeteria kind of religion, I’m just advocating getting a God big enough to be worthy of the name. Big enough to take it when you dish it out, big enough not to be petty or territorial, big enough to rise above cultural and class paradigms, big enough to challenge you without infantilizing you, big enough to GROW.

My invitation for this year, then, is not simply to gratitude, but to discernment: will you serve Indra or Krishna? Zeus or Jehovah? A lesser god, or a greater? I’m not sure the god honored by most in our culture is strong enough to lift that mountain, or defeat those who seek to destroy our people. And why bother with religion if this is the case?

This Thanksgiving, as you gather together with your family, when you bow your head to pray, ask yourself, “Who am I praying to? And am I really grateful to this person?” Because a God worthy of your thanks is a great gift, and THAT’s something to be thankful for, even if it takes a while to get there.

Let us pray…

God of fear and tribalism

God of prejudice and hatred

God of jealousy and intolerance

God of tyranny and abuse

You’re fired.

Jesus, you spoke to us of another God

one worthy of our love and worship,

of our service and our thanks.

When can he start?


I’m a mess—and who isn’t?

JULY 4TH | ROMANS 8:26-32

As most of you know, I write books. Unfortunately, I do not write books that sell. However, every couple of weeks or so I get a fan letter from someone somewhere in the world that inexplicably came into possession of one of my obscure volumes. I remember Clare Hedin saying she had a moment of shock when she discovered I was THAT John Mabry, as she had bought one of my books years ago in England.

One of the most memorable of these experiences though, happened at ChI when a student came up to me after class and started raving about the book she had just read. She gushed about how fortunate she was to be in a class with someone of such “spiritual magnitude.” I had two reactions to this: my ego swelled substantially, and I almost chocked on my tea laughing. At that time I had just experienced a second divorce, was arguing with Fr. Richard over something ridiculous, and was barely making ends meet. In short, I knew very well I was not a person of “spiritual magnitude” at all–I was a certifiable mess. And as all of you who really know me can attest, I pretty much still am.

But this woman could not see that, because that’s what distance does. You don’t see the lines on someone’s face from half a mile away. You don’t see the flaws in someone’s character when you only know them through a book or a TV show. We get to project all of our romantic notions onto people and events when we are at a distance from them.

Take the American revolution, for example. It was not really a popular uprising. It was engineered by a few rich elite intellectuals, and had plenty of opposition among the working classes. The war was barely won at all, as the Revolutionary forces were plagued by defections and shortages.

The vote to declare independence from England actually took place on July 2, not July the 4th. On July 3rd, in fact, John Adams wrote a letter to his wife Abigail, saying, “The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it ill be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival.”

He was off by a couple of days, we forget that the vote was actually take on the 2nd. But that’s what distance does. It distorts our perception, and in this case, our memories.

In another letter, John Adams wrote to Benjamin Rush, “The history of our Revolution will be one continued lie from one end to the other. The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin’s electric rod smote the earth and out sprung General Washington. That Franklin electrised him with his rod, and thenceforth these two conducted all the policy negotiations, legislation, and war.”

Adams is employing hyperbole, here, but his point is quite correct. The American Revolution was not a neatly executed military endeavor fought by able-bodied proto-Americans united in their cause. It was a colossal blunder from start to finish succeeding only due to the superior ineptitude of the British forces.

Christianity is no different. At two thousand years remove we have this idea that Jesus appointed twelve apostles who went forth to different lands and established the world-wide catholic church. This is, of course, a fantasy generated in part by propaganda and in part, again, by the distortion of distance. The true early Christian church argued incessantly over who Jesus was and what his mission was all about. They did nothing but multiply and divide as they formed as many factions as we have denominations today, proportional to their size. And they were far more uncivil about it in their time. People were exiled on a regular basis during these squabbles, and in the middle ages they got seriously hurt and occasionally dead as a result. This history of Christianity is only beautiful and rosy in the romantic imaginary account you hear in Sunday School. In reality, it was a brutish, dangerous mess.

I was afraid you might be having too cheery a fourth of July, and took it upon myself to inject a little balance into our celebration. You’re welcome.

But seriously, it doesn’t matter what we’re looking at: whether it’s a person’s life, or a political revolution, or the history of a religion, or any other event in history, the story is the same: it only appears to be neat and orderly from a distance. It’s only morally tidy in retrospect. The reality is messy, conflicted, and complicated.

The Good News is that God is really, really good at taking a mess and making a blessing out of it. Take the Anglican Church, for instance. Born from Henry VIII desire to divorce his wife, and marred by its assent to his murder of several others, it did not start out as a paragon of virtue, but as, well, as a bit of a mess. In many ways, it still is. And yet, God has taken that mess by the hand and blessed the world with it. He’s done the same with America. And unless I’m reading this wrong, he wants to do the same with us here in the Grace Community. He wants to do the same with you.

I can’t count how many times I’ve heard people say that they don’t believe God can be a part of their lives until they get their act together. If that were the case, God would be waiting a very long time and would be very lonely. God doesn’t need you to have your act together. God just wants you, messiness included.

And the miracle isn’t just that God wants us in spite of or messiness, but that God can do profound and marvelous things through us, even though we’re messy.

God can’t do it alone, though. We have to cooperate. Which means that we have to have the courage to say yes, even if we don’t feel worthy or “together,” whatever that means.

We have to set aside our shame that says, “I’m not good enough to have a relationship with God,” and pay attention to the image of God that Jesus revealed to us, who embraces us no matter where we have wandered or what we have done.

We have to be OKAY ENOUGH with who and where we are, and have the faith to reach out and return God’s embrace, trusting that no matter how messy our lives might be, God will still love us, God wants to move in and live with us in spite of the mess, and that God wants to partner with us to help people and love people. Because those people, too, have messy lives, and they might be hung up on that. They need to hear the good news. They need to hear that “no matter who you are, no matter what you’ve done, no matter who you love, no matter what you believe,” no matter how messy your life is–you are loved, you are forgiven, and your life matters.

At a distance, it looks like other people have it all together, that they are successful, or holy. But they’re not. That is simply the illusion of distance. The truth is, they’re just like you and me. Messy. But too often we don’t see that we are also valuable beyond measure. Now THAT’S something to celebrate. Let us pray…

God, how can we express the depth of our love for us.

No matter where we run, you are there, ready to embrace,

ready to forgive, ready to take the mess we’ve made of things

and make something beautiful out of it.

Help us to trust you, to say “yes” to you,

to bring our whole selves to the table, mess and all,

crying out, “Here am I, Lord, send me.”

For we ask this in the name of the one who sought us out,

who dwelt with us in our squalor,

and who showed us your astounding love, even Jesus Christ. Amen.


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