Monday, April 22, 2019

Real Resurrection is Essential to Christian Faith

The story might have ended there, except that three days after he had died and been buried, he came back to his disciples, resurrected—fully and physically alive.
(The Story of Jesus, in Brief, The Episcopal Church Website)

Wood burning in the sanctuary of St. James, Manitowoc, Wisconsin

Every year around Holy Week and Easter some clergy person gets published questioning the Church’s historic teaching on the resurrection. This year it was Serene Jones, Dean of Union Seminary in New York. In an interview with the New York Times, Jones is quoted as saying, “What if tomorrow someone found the body of Jesus still in the tomb? Would that then mean that Christianity was a lie? No, faith is stronger than that.”

My basic response is three-fold:

1. That just goes to show that we are really talking about something other than Christian faiththen. Of course, if someone found the body of Jesus still in the tomb it would not affect the faith of a Hindu, Muslim, or Buddhist either.

2. What are the underlying certainties and beliefs to which this person subscribes that make resurrection untenable or unnecessary? It might be a naive attachment to naturalism. But it is often something more theological. An example of this can be found in Marcus Borg. In a footnote in The Meaning of Jesus, Borg admitted there were three theological reasons why he rejects the historical factuality of the empty tomb none of which has anything to do with “objective”  history:

There are also theological reasons why I do not like an emphasis upon the historical factuality of the empty tomb. (1) It can have a distorting effect on the meaning of Easter faith: Easter faith easily becomes believing in the factuality of past events, rather than living within a present relationship, and the truth of Christianity becomes grounded in the “happenedness” of this past event rather than in the continuing experience of the risen Christ. (2) In conservative Christian apologetics, the factuality of the empty tomb is often used to prove the truth of Christianity and even its superiority to all other religious traditions. But I do not believe that the truth of Christianity can be proved in this fashion, and I do not believe that God is known primarily or only in our tradition. The claim conflicts with what I know of other religions, and it is difficult to reconcile with Christian notion of grace. (3) Finally, this emphasis virtually requires an interventionist notion of God, which I do not accept." 
(p. 268)

I appreciate his honesty. It's more than one often gets from those who claim their scholarship is free from dogmatic constraints. But, I don't see how his preconceived assumptions, as assumptions, are any different from those who say, The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it. If one starts by assuming that God cant intervene in time and space and that any claims to the uniqueness and primacy of Jesus Christ are ruled out on principle, one will reject the idea of resurrection to conform with those prior theological constraints. As theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg wrote,

The assertion that Jesus is risen from the dead remains a matter of dispute in a special degree because it cuts so deeply into fundamental questions of understanding reality."
(The Apostle's Creed in Light of Today's Questions, p. 114)

Or, as Lesslie Newbigin wrote,

The simple truth is that resurrection cannot be accommodated to any way of understanding the world except one in which it is the starting point."


The problem of making sense of the gospel is that it calls for a change of mind which is as radical as is the action of God in becoming man and dying on a cross.
(Proper Confidence)

The resurrection of Jesus summons us to enter into a particular way of seeing and being in the world. In short, it requires conversion. And it won't do to try to redefine resurrection to mean something conformable to other dogmatic convictions in order to avoid that conversion. It won’t do to reduce it to a metaphor for the enduring power of love or whatever. To talk about Jesus’ post-Easter existence as something other than his being “resurrected—fully and physically alive,” empty tomb and all, is to talk about something other than resurrection and is in itself quite empty. As Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams insists:

In short I want to claim that that the story of the empty tomb is not in fact incidental or secondary to the exposition of what the resurrection means theologically . . . But, it will be asked, does this mean that I think belief in the empty tomb as an historical fact to be essential to belief in the resurrection? Actually, yes.
(On Christian Theology, p. 194)

I suggest that the witness of the Church to the resurrection as something that happened to Jesus –fully and physically – has never been tied to biblical literalism and neither should it be beholden to the criteria of modernist skeptical criticism. If it happened, there is nothing more true or grounded by which to measure its reality. One can only live into and bear witness to that reality. It is the fundamental assumption of Christian faith which grounds and anticipates the fundamental Christian hope.

3. I guess my faith is not “stronger than that”. The truth is I often find it hard to believe in God. Much god-talk strikes me as little more than sentimental fancy. Talk of god in a baby’s smile or the beauty of nature doesn’t quite cut it. Generic talk of “the Holy” or “the Sacred”? I don’t know what that means.

Even talk of God as love, by itself, seems to me to too easily slip into sentimentality. All such talk falls flat in the face of the horror story that is much of human history and the extravagant brutality that exists in with and under the extravagant beauty of creation.

The only way I can believe in any God is if it is the God who in Jesus Christ poured out his love on the hard wood of the cross. And then blew the doors of death off their hinges in the very real, very historical resurrection of the one who took all death and sin and suffering into the grave.

The promise of Easter is not merely that “love is stronger than life or death”. It is the promise of new creation in which all the very real, historical physical and spiritual suffering and death we endure and inflict are overcome and will in the end be healed.

That still might not always be easy to believe. But, it is the only thing I know of that, if indeed true, is solid enough and beautiful enough to bet my life on. Which, in the end, is what believing is about. 

And that is what enables me to hang onto the belief and hope that love is in fact stronger than life and death.

See also:

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Some thoughts about cathedrals

Some have been asking why people are inspired to give to the rebuilding of Notre Dame, but not to help the poor and suffering. To give to the former and not the latter would be a mistake. In fact it would be fundamentally absurd given what the cathedral actually represents.

But, I suspect that in fact many of the people inspired by the grand vision of reality represented by Notre Dame are the same people already inspired by that same vision to give and act on behalf of the poor, the hungry, the distressed, and the oppressed. It is not either or. The same vision inspires both.

Some thoughts about cathedrals, particularly Gothic cathedrals like Notre Dame.

These cathedrals are great hymns of praise composed of wood and stone and glass. They were designed and built by people inspired by a vision of reality in which life is about much more than at first meets the eye  a vision of reality, soaring like a cathedral ceiling, committed to the conviction that, if one has eyes to see, the world is shot through with grandeur and overflowing with meaning and purpose. According to this vision, if one has eyes to see, all of creation, and every human being in particular, shines with all the color of heaven like light shining through stained glass.

The vision of reality that inspired the building of Gothic cathedrals has also inspired saints and others to see the last, the least, the lost, and the lonely lit with the color of heaven. That vision has inspired
people like Mother Teresa, Albert Schweitzer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr., William Wilberforce, Oscar Romero, and people like them to serve and advocate for the poor, the sick, the distressed and the oppressed. that same vision has inspired some of the grandest art, music, prose, and poetry known to humanity. That same vision has inspired the founding of hospitals, schools and aid agencies. That same vision continues to inspires food banks, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, political advocacy, and countless acts of kindness, hospitality, and generosity. etc.

Many of us are still inspired by this vision of reality. It is a vision rooted in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ that we celebrate with particular attention this week.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Loving vs. Infatuation with Jesus

I had a friend in college I'll call “Bob”. Bob was drop dead cute. He had big brown puppy dog eyes and girls just swooned around him. I hated that!

Bob was never without a girlfriend. His problem was he could never keep a girlfriend for more than a couple of months. Bob would fall "in love" with a girl and he would be absolutely sure that this was the woman for him. Everything about her was perfect. She was pretty. She was bright.
She had all the qualities that he was looking for – for a couple months.

After a couple of months, about the time something was expected of him, things started to change. Bob started to realize that he was dealing with was actually another person. She was not just a projection of all his fantasies but actually had her own perspective and her own opinions. She had her own way of doing things. She had her own expectations. She had expectations of him. At that point, Bob would break up with her, disillusioned. Before long, he would fall in love with another girl and the whole sequence would start over again.

Bob was given to projecting his fantasies onto the girls with whom he was infatuated. But, those fantasies kept bumping up against the actual person. He was good at infatuation, but not so good at actual love.

I wonder if that isn’t how most of us engage Jesus much of the time. We are in love with the idea of Jesus. We are infatuated with Jesus. We want to welcome Jesus with shouts of

Hosanna. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.

But mostly we are just projecting our own expectations and wishes onto the idea of Jesus. When Jesus turns out to be something other than our preconceived notion of what he is or should be, we must either change or do something to avoid changing. Or was must try to change him. And, like those in this Passion we just heard, our Hosannas turn to, “Crucify him!”

[Let’s be clear here: In the passion narratives, when the gospels refer to "the Jews" the Jews are the representatives of all humanity are not peculiarly culpable.]

It’s not just that Jesus did not conform to the expectations his fellow Jews had for the Messiah. Jesus – and the God that Jesus reveals – messes with the usual categories of all of us for what God should be. And Jesus calls into question many things that each of us wants to assume about what is right and good and true about the way life should be lived.

It’s not just that the Jews expected a Warrior Messiah and got a non-violent, self-sacrificing Messiah instead. It’s that all of us prefer the Lion of Judah to the Lamb of God.

All of us want to enlist God in our battles – literally when we go to war, but also our political and other battles. We want to assume that God is on our side. What we want – what we are infatuated with – is a God we can exploit for our own comfort and to our own ends. We want a God we can use to prop up our own preconceived notions about what life is all about. We want a God we can exploit against those who threaten those notions. Indeed, we often want a God we can enlist to beat up our enemies – rhetorically at least, but often enough, literally.

But that is precisely where the God we know in Jesus frustrates our infatuation. A God who humbly empties himself is hard to exploit as a tool for our own purposes. Certainly it is hard to use such a God as a stick with which to whack the people we don’t like.

The God revealed in Jesus will frustrate all easy certainties about what God is like and what God wants. To believe in such a humble God turns our expectations of God upside down and demands of us a corresponding humility. It calls us to resist being too sure that God agrees with us or only likes the people we like. It means being prepared to let go of even our most cherished fantasies of what God is or should be. It will require that we not gloss over or ignore those things Jesus says and does that challenge our prejudices and assumptions about God and life. To move from infatuation with the idea of God to love of God in Jesus Christ requires a willingness to get to know the one we claim to love. If the God we claim to love is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Philippians 2 is a good place to start.

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
            did not regard equality with God
            as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
             taking the form of a slave,
            being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
            he humbled himself
            and became obedient to the point of death—
            even death on a cross.

It’s right about there that we find out if we truly love Jesus or are just infatuated with him, when we realize that following him means the cross,  when we realize it means denying ourselves for the sake of the other, when we realize it means emptying ourselves and walking the way of his suffering.

Jesus looks down from the cross at the very people who are taunting, threatening, and crucifying him. And he prays, “Father, forgive them.”

How will we demonstrate our love for such a God as we engage others? Will we love and forgive and welcome others in the name of Jesus? Or will we find excuses to avoid, ignore, or reject them? Will we be perfect in mercy as Jesus says his Father is, pouring out mercy on everyone? Or will we decide only some people really deserve mercy – those we like and those who look like us. Will we withhold mercy from others?

Our love of the God of Jesus will mean that we welcome him – all of him – with our hosannas. And that means welcoming all other people, beloved by this God, with hosannas. Do we love Jesus? Or are we just infatuated with the idea of Jesus? As we enter Holy Week, may we enter more deeply in love with Jesus as he really is and follow him in the shadow of the cross, singing our hosanna’s as we recommit to denying ourselves that we might love with his self-sacrificial love.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

A Fragrant Offering and Sacrifice

Mary Anoints Jesus Feet
Oluwaseyi Alade
A sermon for the 5th Sunday of Lent, Year C

My name is Josiah.
I am not particularly important.
But I have seen important and amazing things.
I have come to tell you a story
about an amazing dinner party I attended
years ago when I was young.
It was at the home of my friend, Lazarus. 

You have probably heard of Lazarus.
A couple of weeks before, he had died of a fever.
Dead and buried.
Then, the Rabbi Jesus had come and restored him to life –
after he’d been four days dead!
Many of us had been listening to Jesus whenever we could
and had begun to hope that he might be the Messiah.
This pretty much sealed the deal for me.

Not long after, Lazarus invited me to a dinner party at his home.
Jesus was there along with his twelve disciples.
Lazarus’ sisters, Martha and Mary, were there.
And a handful of other close friends and Jesus followers.
After raising Lazarus, Jesus had been laying low
in a small town somewhere.
This was the first time he had come back to Bethany. 

As usual, the food was wonderful.
Martha was a fine cook and hostess.
She understood Jesus when he had said
he came not to be served,
            but to serve
She did the same. 

There was much laughter.
Someone asked Lazarus,
“What was the first thought that came into your mind
when you came back to life? 
“What’s that smell?” was his response.
We all laughed.
I was one of those who had helped to roll away the stone
from the mouth of his tomb.
I can attest to the stench of death it contained.

Amidst all the laughter, I began to notice something.
We were celebrating Lazarus’ coming back to life
and honoring the one who had done it.
But, more and more, it began to have the feel of a funeral dinner.
There was laughter.
There was joking.
There was remembering.
But there was a somber air to it all.
Especially among some of Jesus’ closest disciples.
A couple of them kept glancing at the door or out the windows
as if they suspected someone unwelcome
might crash the party at any moment.
Others looked somehow sad – sad or determined, or both –
even when they laughed.

Then I noticed the wistful look on Jesus' face.
He looked like someone who was enjoying a last dinner
with family and friends
before leaving on a long and treacherous journey.

Then, something most shocking happened.
Mary, who had been looking intently at Jesus the whole time,
went to where he was reclining and knelt at his feet.
From somewhere, she pulled out a large jar of expensive perfume –
pure nard!
She began slathering it on Jesus’ feet – a lot of it.
Everyone was stunned to silence.
From where I was, it looked like she was weeping.
The whole house was full of the beautiful fragrance of the stuff. 

Then, ever the impetuous one,
Mary uncovered and undid her hair.
Several in the room gasped.
You, living in a different time and place,
might not realize how scandalous this was.
A woman’s hair was considered quite erotic.
A woman kept her hair covered in public.
Only her husband would ever see it down.
The first undoing of her hair
was a significant part of their wedding night.
And Mary had such hair!
Dark and rich and luxurious.
Hair that could tempt the angels. 

There was another gasp as she began to wipe Jesus’ feet with that hair.
Out of the corner of my eye I noticed Martha shrugging her shoulders
and shaking her head with a bemused look on her face as if to say,
“There she goes again.” 

One of Jesus disciples, Judas, broke the silence
with a protest about the extravagant waste.
The money that purchased that perfume could have been given to the poor.
I learned later that some of the disciples
suspected that Judas’ motives were more selfish
and that he had been embezzling some of the funds
from the common purse. 

Whether he had been embezzling
or had been sincerely concerned for the poor,
I have come to think Judas was missing the point either way.
One way or another all of us were.
We all had our own idea of what Jesus should be about
and where he should go and what he should do.
For most of us, that meant Jesus should fit into our ready-made ideas
of what the Messiah should be.
Or that he should do what we would do if we were the Messiah.
We had our idols and were determined to have Jesus on our terms.
We were never quite ready to take him as he was
or follow him all the way. 

Except for Mary. 
Mary got it.
She knew there was need of only one thing.
And she taught us all a lesson that evening.
She poured out her love and devotion to Jesus
with all the extravagance of rich and costly perfume.
And without reservation.
She anointed his feet, signifying that she was prepared
to go wherever those feet went
and she would keep her focus on him to lead her.
She anointed his feet with perfume and wiped them with her hair.
And, now, her hair was soaked with the same fragrance as Jesus. 

Far from being scandalized or offended,
Jesus welcomed the gesture
and said she was preparing him for his death.
In about a week we would understand just how true that was.
Jesus was killed by the powers that be. 

But, like Lazarus, only much more so,
he did not stay dead.
He rose again.

God had done a new thing.
Psalm 126 was in our hearts and on our lips:
When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion 
Then we were like those who dream 
Then was our mouth filled with laughter 
And our tongue with shouts of joy. 
The LORD has done great things for us and we are glad indeed!

Mary’s extravagant sacrifice of 300 denarii’s worth of nard
was a prophetic act foreshadowing
the extravagant and costly sacrifice of Jesus.
Jesus, who loved us and gave himself for us
a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
Jesus, who overcame the stench of sin and death
and filled our lives with the rich fragrance
of his extravagant love.
Mary had anticipated it all.

I have spent the rest of my life trying to catch up to Mary’s faithfulness.
I have tried to sit attentively at the feet of Jesus.
I have wanted to worship him in the beauty of holiness.
I have tried to love him back with the same fragrant
and extravagant love with which he loved me.
I have tried to love others with that same costly love.
I have tried to follow in his footsteps wherever they led.
More often than not, they have led me to the poor who are still always with us –
or at least they are with us if we choose to be with them
as Jesus himself was always with the poor. 

I want to be soaked like Mary’s hair with the love and joy of Jesus.
It is the fragrance of mercy. It is the aroma of heaven.
I want to be that aroma in the world around me.
As another follower of Jesus, Paul, wrote in one of his letters,
I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do:
forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,
I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

Like Mary, I seek to love,
even as Jesus first loved us and gave himself for us – for me! –
a fragrant offering an sacrifice to God.

Friday, April 5, 2019

The Daunting Joy of Preaching

For over twenty years I have been, among other things, a preacher. I enjoy preaching and have received enough affirmation to believe that I am, at least some times, pretty good at it. But, I also find it find it daunting, even a little terrifying. I enjoy preaching for lots of reasons, most of which I will get to later. For now, I’ll just say preaching is a kind of performance in which I get to play with language and images, engaging the hearts and minds – the imaginations – of those who hear. It is as close as I am going to get to my fantasy of being Bruce Cockburn, Leonard Cohen, or Bob Dylan.

But, I find preaching daunting. The reasons for that are several.

I find the idea that I am proclaiming the word of the Lord to be audacious. I believe the Bible is inspired and that the preaching event is in some sense sacramental. When I stand in the pulpit to expound the faith, what I am sharing is not Matt Gunter’s latest ideas about God and life. I am proclaiming the very word of God. Incidentally, this is why, in spite of my natural tendency to informality, I prefer preaching from a pulpit. In any event, the idea that one is in some sense speaking authoritatively the Word of God is audacious enough to give one pause before daring to get into a pulpit.

But, preaching also seems presumptuous to me. What business do I, or anyone else, have presuming to say anything about the Mystery at that heart of it all? Even granted the revelation of the Word of God in Jesus Christ, how does our tongue not stick to the roof our mouth at the very idea that our words can come close? So much preaching, so much God-talk, sounds so glib or over-confident to me. Even at our best, all our preaching and teaching is stammeringly inadequate. How do we not choke on our words? Might we do better to just keep silent?

This is only exacerbated by the tendency to idolatry. It is so, so easy to confuse my own social, political, and personal prejudices with the Word of God. Or my own fears and shame. It is so easy to make God sound like an idealized version of myself. It is so clear to me when others do it. I can only suspect that the same tendency can infect my preaching.

Then, of course, there is my own sinfulness and ignorance. I am all too aware of the stubbornness of my own evil heart which is devious above all else (Jeremiah ). I am all too familiar with each of the Seven Deadly Sins. And I know just enough to know how truly ignorant I am. How can I be trusted to proclaim the Word of God? How dare I?

Especially because I believe in judgement. I will be held accountable for my preaching. As the Book of James warns, “Not many of you should become teachers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1). And even more frightful, our Lord warns, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea”
(Matthew 18:6). I have wondered if at ordinations we might place a miniature millstone around the ordinand as a sober reminder of the awesome responsibility for which they are being set apart.

And there are lots of ways to earn the millstone. Bad behavior and hypocrisy will do it. Preaching heresy or other false teaching will do it. But, so will the more common mistake of just making the glorious and awe-inducing gospel into something dull, boring, and domesticated.

Then there are those times when the shadow of doubt passes over me. Yes, bishops sometimes doubt. At least this on does. Not so often as I used to or so profoundly. But, every now m and then a voice in the back of my head suggests that my preaching is little than something like George, in ‘Of Mice and Men’, telling Lenny about the rabbits on the dreamed of ranch that will never be (see this video clip).

And even when there is no shade of doubt, I am often caught up short by my inability to articulate adequately what I a am pretty sure I have experienced of God and what I think I do know. How does one convey that in words?

And, so far, that’s all just me. Preaching is also daunting because of the context into which we preach. We live in an age of cacophony in which truth buried in an avalanche of information, noise, and rubbish. Every person in the pew has been bombarded during the week by more stuff than human beings are designed to process. And I am supposed to say something that cuts through that? Why not just whisper sweet nothings into a hurricane?

And each sermon-listener comes with a built-in filter that guarantees that some things will be kept out and other things will be transformed into peculiar things I never said. Can preaching reshape imaginations that have already been and are being shaped so fundamentally?

The people I am preaching to will not always listen or respond the way I hope they will. They certainly won’t always agree with me.

It can feel pretty futile. Sometimes I have an image of myself as the preacher having nothing but, “Blah, blah, blah” coming out of my might and the blah, blah, blah’s just falling to the floor and piling up in front of the pulpit, never actually reaching the congregation.

But, daunting as it is, preaching is also a joy. It is an awesome responsibility, but it is also an incredible privilege.

In spite of all I have said, I do dare to preach.

I dare to do it because I believe the Holy Spirit and the Church have called me to do it. That gives me some confidence.

Like Jeremiah, I cannot hold it in.

The Christian story of Jesus is the most beautiful and hopeful story known to humanity.

I believe the gospel is true and transforming. It is the story of our awe-inducing, but loving God
romancing all humanity and all creation. I count it all joy that I get to be a matchmaker in that romance.

I enjoy preaching because I have tasted and seen that the Lord is good (Psalm 34:8) and want to invite others to taste what I have tasted.

I have known God's mercy and delight. I have experienced God’s grace pouring over and soaking into me bringing forgiveness, healing, and transformation. I want others to experience that grace.

I can dare to get into a pulpit however daunting because of that grace which not only casts out fear, but also assures me that, as I make myself available, God will work through me. And sometimes in spite of us.

I can count on the Holy Spirit Alchemist to take the lead of our words and turn it into the gold of God’s word for God’s people.

And they are God’s people, not mine. Along with all else that is vying for their attention and loyalty, the Holy Spirit is already and always singing the Trinity’s love song into their heart with or without my preaching. Remembering that can be quite freeing.

So, preaching is indeed a daunting thing. It is good to be daunted. All that is daunting about it can lead to humility and holy reticence. But, God’s grace is sufficient and it is indeed a joy and a privilege to be charges with such an awesome task.