17 April 2014

God is Dead: A Homily for Good Friday, Year A

Reading: The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ According to St. John

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

It's all gone wrong, hasn't it? Somewhere over the course of the week, things have gone astray. Sunday, we were cheering a triumphant Christ, and today, we're mourning a dead criminal hung on a gallows. Even by the end of worship last week, the shouts of, “Hosanna,” and, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” faded away and the words “Crucify him,” echoed deep in our hearts. The palm branches are already starting to turn to ash.

Things certainly started out on a promising note. A protest, rich in messianic imagery, carved its way through the City of David. The King, it seemed, had returned at last. And as the Passover approached, expectation was high that God would once again deliver captive Israel. The entire Gospel, it seemed, had been leading up to this week – so much so that St. John devotes nearly half of his Gospel to the events in Jerusalem. We were finally at the crescendo and something exciting was about to happened – the world was about to turn. And then... suddenly...it didn't. Things fell apart.

The one who healed the sick and even raised the dead now lies in a tomb. The Rabbi now suffers a fool's fate. The one who came to fulfill the Law has been executed as a criminal.

Make no mistake. While we like to talk about the glory of Christ's Passion and death, this was not a death valued by any one. We venerate the Cross, but to those who frequently saw crucified bandits littering the highway, they knew exactly what the Cross represented: oppression and shame. To be hung on a cross was not a noble, good, or beautiful death, if there can ever be such a thing. For the Romans, it was the death of a traitor, a rebel – a death deemed to barbaric for a citizen of the Empire. To the Jewish people, anyone who died in such a manner, hanging from a tree, was under God's curse. It was a death carried out not according to the Law of Moses but the tyranny of Caesar and his governor. It wasn't the death of a good man – one earned in old age. It wasn't a death for a greater cause. No, this is the death of a heretic. For the Romans, it was a crucifixion of one who claimed the divine authority and kingship reserved for the Caesars. For the Jewish audience, it was a curse reserved for one who blasphemed against the one true God.

And this we call “Good”? Today is a good day? The story that leads up to this is called “good” news? It's doubtful that any of the witnesses would have agreed.

* * *

Throughout the great cathedrals of Europe, master craftsmen would include skulls and dancing skeletons – a reminder to all who entered of their own mortality. These images – called memento mori –which were always dark, could at times become downright sinister. The macabre is never far away. Skeletons dance across stone and canvas, a taunting reminder of the certainty of death. The lesson is for all: king and serf, teacher and fool, bishop and beggar. We. Will. All. Die. And it is in this spirit that we began this past season. As the world began to bloom again, as life overtook the barren lands of winter, Christians across the Church knelt and received ashen crosses, with the reminder that we came from dust and to dust we shall return. We will all surely pass on to corruption.

The grand irony is that such an ugly, painful process spurs us on to some of our most beautiful pieces of art – the grand requiems of classical music, elaborately sculpted tombs from Renaissance Italy, and the beautiful paintings that show the suffering of martyrs. Chief among the horrendous topics that artists have tried to express in beautiful ways is the Passion. In fact, when one looks at the development of art, one of the greatest leaps forward is the depiction of suffering – that the Christ on the Cross ceases to be passive and begins to show frailty and pain. Jesus begins to look very human. We need think no further than Michelangelo's Pieta that sits in Rome. The limp, lifeless Jesus may be the Son of God, but he is also all too human. His mother holds him, weeping. And yet, there is a serenity to the sculpture. There is something about the inevitability of Death that speaks to the very core of our human nature. Something is calling us to search for creativity in destruction, to find beauty in the hideous – in short, to find order in chaos. Something, deep within the very heart of who we are tells us that today, of all days, might possibly be Good.

It is in his death that we see Christ at his most fragile, and consequently, his most human. The Divine Healer hangs, broken. The One who brings living water is thirsty. The Only Begotten Son of the Father expresses concern for his mother. The person we see crucified seems very far removed from the transfigured Christ we met before the beginning of Lent. Instead, we see a human, Jesus of Nazareth, in all of his earthly frailty. And it is in this humanity that we find goodness. It is in his death that the full weight of the Incarnation comes to bear. God became human not just in form, but in very essence, sharing even in the most horrible parts of our being. It's precisely this humanity that makes the story so vital. God became incarnate in the very fullest sense, living but also dying. In his death, Jesus, the embodied Son of God, shows the fullness of his humanity. In Christ's death, we see just what it means that God became human – we see the extreme depth of that love. In Christ, God joins humanity, even in the tomb. Amen.

Raising Lazarus: A Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year A

Grace to you and Peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, who is calling us out of the grave. Amen.

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” It's hard not to hear the accusation in these words from Mary and Martha. It's even harder not to find the same tone on our own lips when we turn on the news or get the proverbial late-night phone call. Last week, we have heard the story of Christ healing a man born blind, but it doesn't match up with the world in which we live. Throughout the Gospels, we see Jesus making the blind see, the mute speak, the lame walk, and to bring those on the verge of death back to health. But these stories make us wonder – why do we still see so much loss and suffering in the world? We know surely that Death still has us within its firm, cold grip.

Nearly a year ago, I attended a funeral – my first funeral serving as a worship assistant instead of sitting in the pews. The deceased was a parishioner who had finally lost a five year long battle with cancer. She developed a brain tumor, and as a result, she spent her last several years alive unable to care for herself, unable to speak, and plagued by seizures. Even after chemotherapy briefly rid her body of cancerous cells, the symptoms remained. Throughout, her husband remained by her side, caring for her and hoping. Hoping that the doctors were wrong. Hoping that his wife would come back to him.

Hoping that she would be able to speak to him one last time. Hoping that the one who healed the sick would intervene, to save his wife. That the Divine Physician would show up. Hoping, in short, for a miracle.

That miracle unfortunately never arrived. And so, as we stood in our small sanctuary, singing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” I wondered, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this woman from dying?” “Lord, if you had been there.”

It's a familiar story to all of us because we have all felt that sting of loss. To be frank, we have all been angry with God because of Death's sting. Philosophers and theologians call this the “Problem of Evil,” but we know it more personally as tears shed by hospital beds and at grave sides.

We know it as the sting we feel any time a parent has to bury a child. Any time we say farewell to a loved one taken while they're still so young. Any time we watch time ravage the mind and body of a parent. The sting that we feel any time we spend late nights and early mornings in emergency rooms, praying. Any time we spend months and years in the chemotherapy clinic or the Alzheimer's ward, praying. Any time that we are reminded how helpless we are and that hope is so far removed, no matter how much we pray. It's a sting that taunts us and reminds us that no matter how hard we pray and no matter how good our intentions are, evil does exist and Death still has a say in our world. We have been told by some who quote St. Paul that God works all things for good and that surely tragedy is just part of some greater, mysterious plan. But I wonder.

I wonder if, for the sake of our own comfort, we aren't trying to turn God into some sort of chess master who, through a series of cunning – even maniacal – moves arrives at a predetermined end point. Some unknown mystery that requires divine omniscience to understand.

Instead, in today's Gospel lesson, we see Christ not playing a game against Death but flipping over the board at the last moment. We don't see a chess match but a miracle – a divine in-breaking that suddenly defies the very laws of nature itself. Not some secret, but a visible and proclaimed enactment of the Will of God. We see a dramatic reversal. When it comes to the will of God, we don't hope for a calculated strategy played out piece by piece in secret, but a sudden, spectacular, startling shift.

Brothers and sisters, the solution to the Problem of Evil is not to deny that Death is evil or to claim that Death is a secret tool for Good, but to affirm the overwhelming goodness of the Resurrection. To hope for something that is so completely Good that it overpowers all evil. Something that wipes away all tears. We hope for nothing less than a loud voice to echo through the tombs and call us into new life.

We hope for dry bones to rise up in the desert. We hope for the Lord's voice, which called Lazarus out of the grave, to do the same for us. We hope not that Death is secretly a tool for good but that Death might be no more. We hope for empty tombs and a new, everlasting life.

More than that, we hope that the One who is the Resurrection and the Life will bring us into a restored creation. Even when Death seems to have won, we hope. Even when evil seems to triumph, we hope. Even when war, famine, and plague ravage the world, we hope. For a dramatic reversal. A sudden turn. A glorious surprise.

It is, after all, this belief in the power of the Resurrection that defines our faith. The entire season of Lent builds up to one climax, foreshadowed in the story of Lazarus: just when it seems like it is too late – when all is lost – something happens. Something so completely unexpected as to overturn the established order. It's no coincidence that St. John places this narrative just before Christ enters Jerusalem. Everything has been leading up to this point, and just when it seems like all has gone astray, the unexpected happens. The single most certain thing in life, Death itself, is defeated. In the story of Lazarus, we see the prototype of this defeat, and it gives us hope.

And so when we pray, “Deliver us from evil,” this is what we mean: There is a loud voice,and it will call us from Death into everlasting life. Amen.

19 February 2014

Don't Call It a Comeback: Christianity, Politics, and Political Shifts

A friend shared an article over at The Atlantic about the re-emergence of moderate and leftist Christian politics. After twenty-some odd years of Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and the Religious Right, the author, Michael Wear, asks why we are seeing a shift towards more moderate and liberal Christian politics. Citing two influential texts, Wear concludes that the shift is a reaction against the co-option of Christian political activity by the likes of the Moral Majority. While such claims certainly ring true, there is more to it.

Overall, Wear raises an important question. All to often, the media is eager to ignore Christians who do not fit neatly into the narrative of the religious right -- a narrative eagerly embraced by both sides of the aisle. He is bringing attention to the fact that there are Christians casting off the reductionist politics of Pat Robertson. However, in doing so, he is eager to ignore two key facts. First is that the seeds for this shift, at least among the Millennial cohort, were sown in the early days of the Bush administration. Second, and more important, is that the dominate trend of Christian politics has been to fracture the simple right-left dichotomy.

Wear neglects a four year stint that saw the publication of Blue Like Jazz (2003), A Generous Orthodoxy (2004), Velvet Elvis (2005), and The Irresistible Revolution (2006). As a Millennial, these four books were heavily influential. I remember many late nights in the dining commons at UGA reading Shane Claiborne and wrestling with issues of just war. I don't know what it is that convinced Thomas Nelson and Zondervan to take a risk on moderate and liberal Christian authors. I suspect it was the success of Blue Like Jazz, relatively tame when compared to Claiborne's work. Regardless, it opened a floodgate, at least for those of us born in the late 80s. Shane Claiborne became the Jim Wallis of the new millennium. (I'm still waiting for a younger Stanley Hauerwas.) Don Miller went on to deliver a prayer at the 2008 Democratic National Convention and served on Obama's task force on issues of fatherhood. And the moderate Christians who weren't lucky enough to get book deals saw that they were not alone, that it was safe(ish) to speak against the religious right. Yes, the over-politicization of the Church helped to erode the foundations of the Moral Majority, but the rise of the Emergent Church movement ensured that there was an alternative for those searching.

Furthermore, Wear mis-represents the political atmosphere of Christianity at the end of the 20th century. In the US, we certainly saw a concerted effort to align American Protestantism with fiscally conservative politics, but this is not the whole story. In the States, Jim Wallis and Sojourners were still around. (In doing some quick research into this issue, I found a fascinating lecture on the "Evangelical Left," paying special attention to the work of Wallis and the like -- as well as Falwell's rather harsh and vocal criticism thereof.) Outside of our political borders, Blessed Pope John Paul II and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta embodied the same orthodox yet charitable faith that Wear finds so remarkable in the current Bishop of Rome.

24 September 2013

Serving Dishonest Wealth

Proper 20, Year C -- Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Luke 16:1-13

Grace and peace to you, from God our Father and our Lord Christ Jesus. Amen.

Wall Street

Five years ago, as the stock and housing markets crashed, we heard about a lot of bankers who, despite their culpability in the economic fiasco, were getting away largely unscathed. CEOs who took paycuts that still left them making millions of dollars, traders who were receiving bonuses with public funds, and golden parachute severance packages – plans that pay executives exorbitant amounts of money when they leave a job. For years, it seemed that you couldn't turn on the news without hearing about brokers who, as the rest of the world went broke, made sure that their pockets were lined and that their bank accounts were well cared for. Frankly, it all seemed a bit like that 80s movie, Wall Street, and the antagonist, Gordon Gecko's famous line, “Greed is good.”

Today, we hear a parable from St. Luke that echoes (or foreshadows) this same sort of financial self-interest but does in a rather bizarre way. Imagine if a modern banker started cutting borrower's debts to curry favor with his neighbors like a bizarrely selfish Robin Hood who robs from the rich and gives to the poor, but only because there's something in it for him.

The Parable

In the parable, St. Luke tells us, a steward – someone who manages the estate for a wealthy landowner – is accused of rather shady bookkeeping. When the owner confronts the steward, the owner demands to see the records and fires the steward. But here's where things get weird. The steward realizes he is not cut out for physical labor, but he's also too proud to become a beggar. What's a guy to do? Instead, he decides to curry favor with the property owner's debtors. Imagine if a soon-to-be-fired Bank of America employee were to cut the amount owed on your mortgage in half with the expectation that he could sleep on your couch. That's more or less what the steward is doing. It's not the most logical plan. Given the choice, I would have more readily expected him to raid the owner's coin purse. Either way, there you have it, the steward has managed to create his own severance package.

The parable takes a second awkward turn, though, when the owner catches on. The owner approaches the steward and says (I can only imagine), “You conniving, back-stabbing, lying, little cheat! *beat* That was brilliant!” And at this point, I'm sure the steward, expecting the worst, was cowering in fear and then....just...really confused.


Thus the story ends, and we find ourselves just as confused as the steward. Christ begins to offer an interpretation of this bizarre little tale. The parables are confusing, often detailed around specific aspects of life in first-century Judea and the “moral of the story” isn't always obvious. Clearly, even the disciples – the very people who are supposed to understand what Christ is saying – get lost. But here, Christ's words of explanation just add more confusion: “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth.” Wait, did the Bible just say that? This is an arresting statement that demands more attention. It is not something we ever expect to see in Scripture, let alone in the Gospel. It spits in the face of so many prophets who condemned such neglect for the poor.

Making matters even more confusing, the parable ends with Jesus telling his disciples that they can't serve both God and wealth. And almost immediately after, Jesus tells the story of the rich man and Lazarus. Within the span of a single chapter, we hear Jesus seeming to praise a man who “makes friends by means of dishonest wealth,” but then immediately after, Christ tells us we shouldn't love money or be like the rich man who shuns the beggar Lazarus. Such different positions are incompatible, aren't they?

A number of biblical scholars have tried to make sense out of this story and engaged in some fairly impressive mental gymnastics in the process. Why is the steward the good guy? Some have pointed out the Bible's condemnation of usury, or charging practice. This theory suggests that maybe, in reducing the borrower's debts, the steward also reduced the amount of interest they were paying. Another idea recalls that stewards and tax collectors would add a “finder's fee” to the debts they collected. Maybe the steward is foregoing his fee as a way to curry favor with the debtors. Both of these theories claim, in short, that the steward, upon being fired, decides to do the right thing, but they still leave plenty of questions. Why does the property owner find this so impressive? Is Jesus really commending the person for doing the right thing for ulterior motives? Sounds like it. But Luke doesn't usually paint Jesus in such cynical language. Something is certainly going on here.

Cynical Jesus?

Indeed, we do see a slightly more cynical Jesus than we're used to, but his biting sarcasm is turned in a different direction. Instead of praising the steward for his cynical actions, Christ is telling a story of self-congratulating back-stabbers. The point of the story is not to extol the virtues of selfishly looking out for yourself. Instead, the end of verse nine instructs us to turn our minds to our “eternal home.” The parable isn't telling us to look out for ourselves but to look out for others. To forgive those who trespass against us just as our trespasses are forgiven. To give to those less fortunate. Jesus isn't instructing us to prepare our own golden parachutes. Instead, Christ is challenging us. He is saying, in essence, “If the shrewd businessmen of the world use their wealth to prepare for their future, why won't you sell your possessions, give your money to the poor, and follow me to your home in eternity?”

Serving God and the Poor

Christ is urging us to care for the poor. Reminding us to remember the words of the prophet Amos. Commanding us to show favor to those less fortunate than us. And this, not because it is good for us right now. No, not because we stand something to gain from it. We aren't called to act in the name of self-interest or profit, but in the name of Christ, our Lord, God incarnate. We are called to act in the name of a God who looks with favor upon his lowly servants, who scatters the proud in their conceit, who fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty.

It's an uncomfortable proposition and rubs against everything we're told by our culture. We are called to care for those on the bottom as the rest of the world focuses on the top. But, as Christ challenges us, if we are unfaithful with the money and resources we have in this life, how can we expect to be entrusted with the Kingdom of God? If we are enslaved to our wealth in this world, how can we properly serve our God?

This is certainly a difficult teaching. It calls into question up against what we've been taught as Lutherans. It sounds a lot like works rather than grace. At times, we might be tempted to ask the same question as the wealthy young man in Luke 18, “Then who can be saved?” And we can only point to and have faith in Christ's answer: “What is impossible for humanity is possible for God.”

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

25 June 2013

The Offerorty and the Kiosk

A recent (satirical) post over at Stuff Christian Culture Likes got me thinking about how wrong-headed we are about the Offertory. This post started off as a series of Facebook posts and, eventually, I realized it should be re-edited into something a bit more coherent. I owe a great deal of thanks to my liturgy professor, L. Edward Phillips, my Eucharistic theology professor, Ted Hackett, and to James K.A. Smith and Simon Chan for helping clarify my thoughts in this area over the past year.
Ok, I get that these things might be practical (just like online giving, I guess). Sure, the clergy does need health insurance and a living wage (and yes, seminary loans are expensive, but don't get me started on the education system...). If it helps, it helps. I question, though, the wisdom (specifically, lack there of) in separating the Offertory from the Holy Eucharist. The money (et al) that we give accompanies the bread and wine, God's own gifts which we return in thanksgiving, as our participation in the Kingdom of God (over and against the earthly city-state). The Offering is an act of participation in the Holy Meal (which is why, historically, Christians sent forth food, not cash), not the divine banking system.

Let me rephrase. It's less the separation of the Offertory from the Blessed Sacrament and more the substitution of the former for the latter. The sustenance, sanctification, and continuing salvation of the Church is in the Body of Christ (especially in as much as it makes us into the Body of Christ), not the image of our various Caesars.

Especially in as much as the Table of our Risen Lord is a place where all are welcome, be they Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free, white or blue collar, banker or janitor, wealthy or impoverished. The Offertory isn't about squeezing every available dime through holy ATMs and consecrated iPhone apps. It is about redistributing the gifts of Christ's Church to those in need. Our blessed Church fathers and mothers weren't concerned with building campaigns, worship expenditures, or the bishop's salary. They were looking after the widow, the virgin, and the orphan. The gifts returned in the Offertory were consecrated for the service of those in need.

The Eucharist is, even today, an act of rebellion against an economy of consumption. The ecclesia (assembly) sends forth its gifts (the Offering, including the bread and wine to be consecrated) that they might be given to the Church for the support of all. Communion is, by default, communal. To remove the Offertory from the Feast is to deny its original role in service to those in need. Worse still, to so completely divorce the Offertory from the Eucharist is to marry it to the very consumerist society to which it is inherently subversive.
For more, see James KA Smith's Cultural Liturgies series (especially Part II of Imagining the Kingdom) and Ed Phillip's forth-coming work on God and Wealth, an examination of the ritualization of monetary offerings in place of the Eucharist.

Grace + Peace

07 June 2013

Soul-Body Dualism and Sacramental Theology

About a week ago, I put forward some thoughts on death and Fundamentalism's Gnostic tendencies, suggesting that the Fundamentalist view of death (especially as expressed in Grudem's Systematic Theology) tends towards an ancient heresy. In reading James K.A. Smith's Imagining the Kingdom (appropriate as it was in reading Smith's Desiring the Kingdom that I got the idea for the original post), though, I noticed a further connection: Fundamentalist adherence to mind/soul-body dualism detrimentally shapes their sacramental theology.

Smith's project is a philosophical anthropology that explains human desire and imagination (thus, the books' titles) in relation to worship and education as Christian formation. In Imagining, he suggests (by way of Pierre Bordieu) that practice arises from between the intellect and instinct. We are not merely thinking things rationally contemplating every single action nor are we merely automatons driven by biological hard-wiring -- though both intellectual rationality and biological impulse do come into play. Instead, we are shaped by who we tell ourselves that we are and what we do (and what we practice doing). Nowhere is this more obvious than in how we worship. Liturgy (be it the strict rubrics of the Roman rite, the general ordo of contemporary megachurches, or reciting the Pledge of Allegiance before class everyday) asks us to participate in a story -- both in the mind and in body -- that tells us who we are.

In chapter two of Imagining, Smith looks at what Bourdieu calls "the religion of the knights": physical postures when swearing fidelity to the feudal lord, placing hands on holy things (crosses, Gospel books, relics) and reciting a ritual creed. Bodily position and action was of the utmost importance. (One sees immediate connection to the importance of manual action in Eucharistic celebrations.) Smith says:
It's not that the knights were insincere or "didn't mean it;" such concerns about sincerity are still operating with a dualism that assumes we "go through" rituals because "inside" we first believe something -- that rituals externally "express" some prior, mental interiority. But that fails to recognize (and honor) the integrity and irreducibility of the logic of practice.
And for those of you who have spent any time around Baptists or "non"-denominational Christians will hear an echo. Most Christians with Baptist leanings think of Holy Baptism as an outward sign or expression of an inward change. The same dualism that says the soul can live without a body, is somehow the true person, leads to a belief that Christian initiation is fulfilled in a purely cognitive act.* In such a view, ritual washing as initiation is just an outward sign (and, in its least orthodox iteration, can be performed multiple times).

What Smith is suggesting, however, and what has real traction for the "High" Church traditions, is that what we do with our bodies is part of what we do with our minds and souls. Baptism (or swearing an oath on holy relics or consuming the Eucharist) actually does something to us -- to our true selves. Baptism (and all worship) is not just expressing with our body what we are thinking with our minds or believing with our souls. Smith and Bordieu say that such physical actions are "enacted belief" (though embodied gets more to the heart of the matter). As Smith puts it, "Ritual is the way we (learn to) believe with our bodies." The action itself is a way in which we believe, in which we are shaped into who God calls us to be, and in which we are drawn into the Kingdom.

Grace + Peace
_ _ _
*Here I say cognitive because whether the dualism is mind-body or soul-body, it's still the same thing. The view puts a barrier between the true self that thinks and believes and the physical flesh. Same thing, different language. This is, of course, not a universally accepted view; some place a separation between mind and soul as well. However, in the intellectualist view as well as the Fundamentalist, mind and soul serve as the respective location of the "true" self, and thus I think we can easily (at least, for this conversation) use the term with some accuracy.

29 May 2013

Against (Further) Heresy: or, Fundamentalism's Gnostic Secret

About a year ago, Thomas Long took aim at what he sees as the deeply Gnostic bent in the more liberal branches Protestantism. "Preaching Easter at Old First Gnostic" suggests that scholars like Crossan and Bishop Spong, along with the congregations that follow them, are the contemporary heirs to the Gnostic tradition in as much as they reject the mystical and metaphysical aspects of Christianity in favor of a post-Enlightenment ideal of right knowledge (over and against right belief). The people at "Old First Gnostic" don't take seriously the belief in an incarnate God or the resurrection, reducing Christ to the (or a) moral teacher.

There is, though, another type, more subtle, form of Gnosticism that Long fails to mention. Whereas Old First Gnostic would probably be ok with the Gnostic label (and might have Elaine Pagels in their congregation's library), this other group would balk at the title. They are very serious about weeding out any and all heretics; they take very seriously most of, if not all, of the claims of miracles; they might even burn books by Crossan, Spong, and Pagels. There form of Gnosticism is, much, much more subtle -- but it is also hidden in plain sight. This Gnosticism posits a strict dualism between the soul and body. Taking a page from classical Greek philosophy, they hold that the soul is fundamentally immortal.

There is a certain strand of Fundamentalist* thinking, exemplified in Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology, that suggests when a person dies, there soul immediately ascends to Heaven and hangs out with God until the Resurrection. In this soul-body dualism, we are souls trapped in outdated, faulty flesh machines just waiting to die so that our souls can go be with God. God will eventually grant us new flesh machines that aren't faulty.** We are, in essence, under factory recall. We are encased souls, and our bodies aren't that important. Of course, most Fundamentalists would disagree with such a summary position. Grudem goes out of his way to discuss the sorrow that comes with the death of a loved one. This is, however, the logical conclusion of such a belief. The Gnostic theology does not mesh with our lived experience, and yet Grudem holds on to it.

Now before I move on, let me clarify: such a position does have some validity. As we occupy space and time, we long for the Kingdom of God outside of time. The Kingdom of God is eternally present (in much the same way as the Son is eternally begotten of the Father). In that sense, when a person dies, they are in Heaven because they are present in the eternal Kingdom of God, outside of time. In the very linear time that we inhabit, however the person if dead -- soul and body. It is obviously difficult to comprehend this distinction. Eternity, after all, falls completely outside of our experience. Chronology is difficult to discuss when it involves the eternal. It is a distinction that must be made, though, and one that the Church has traditionally held. We do not believe in reincarnation, a independent soul that jumps between bodies. Instead, we believe in a human existence in which body and soul are linked. Grudem (et al) does not take the time to make the distinction of existence in time and existence in eternity, but instead argues for an immortal soul. He (unknowingly) joins the Gnostics.

The problem with the Fundamentalist position is not that it agrees with ancient heretics. Some heretics make for great conversation partners. Rather, at issues is that this Fundamentalist Gnosticim does not fully consider the consequences of death.If the soul survives, then is a person truly dead? Sure, there body might cease to function, but the soul -- the part of them that is not just recycled atoms -- lives on. The person -- separated from the body -- "goes to be with the Lord." Death becomes nothing more than a physical experience and does not include the full person. Given Grudem's emphasis on a "person" going to be with the Lord, we can safely imply that he places personhood firmly in the soul (which is, itself, an issue; see the discussion on anthropology below). In Grudem's thinking, then, a person does not die. Thus, death is undone by mental acrobatics rather than the Resurrection of our Lord Christ. Such a position ignores the fully glory of the Resurrection.If a person does not truly die, how can they truly be raised? Again, it reduces the resurrection to getting a new flesh machine rather than a restored and perfected life.

The position inevitably leads to multiple systematic issues, such as an incomplete anthropology that is not concerned with physical things. The end result of Grudem's theology is that the body is only important as a vessel for allowing us to exist on Earth. On a related note, the theology (as explained by Grudem) is very selective about its biblical foundation (as is most Fundamentalist theology). First, it ignores texts that rejoice in our embodiment (cf. especially Song of Songs). True, Paul was worried about "the flesh," but it doesn't take a New Testament expert to realize Paul has something more specific than a human body in mind. (Of course, Grudem is not alone here. Augustine introduced this particular strain.) Second, it ignores texts that talk about being in the grave or asleep in Christ. One last point on systematics: Grudem suggests that our death joins us to Christ's death and completes our sanctification, but here he turns death into a sacrament. It is our death in baptism that joins us to Christ's death (and our resurrection to Christ's resurrection). By extension, it is Christ's death that joins him to all of humanity (as death is the final part of the human experience in the here-and-now).

There is a further theological point, though it is more of an issue of popular theology, falling into the domain of pulpits and Sunday school rooms -- and the belief of the common Christian. Arguably, it is in the popular understanding that this theology becomes its most dangerous. In the popular understanding, it's amazing how quickly the Resurrection of the Body falls off. We die and go to Heaven, end of story. At best, the Resurrection becomes some immediate act. At worst, it is conflated with death itself.

Instead, we must maintain a developed anthropology that includes death. We cannot separate out our souls as the true and undying self. We will die and do so entirely. We cannot ignore the importance of our bodies. Whether the body is good, bad, both, or neither, it is important. The body is part of the full self. We cannot degrade the Resurrection. It is full, complete, and glorious. We cannot be secret Gnostics, despising the flesh as an evil cage to be escaped.

Grace and Peace+
_ _ _
*It is difficult to come up with a concise label for this group, especially since their heresy spreads beyond their own group. It is prominent in Baptist circles, but certainly exists in popular theology. Most would label this group as "Evangelicals," but that rubs me (a member of the Evangelische tradition) the wrong way and is not entirely accurate. I'm going with Fundamentalist, but I recognize two things: a) as with Baptists, the belief spreads beyond the strict definition, and b) as with Evangelical, it is difficult to pin down a precise definition (for instance, I'm certain that not everyone who holds this belief is a strict creationist).

**This position inevitably shapes the general fundamentalist theology of creation and an ethic of conservation, as well. The world is faulty, just like us. We will leave it eventually, so why should we bother maintaining it? It is a faulty logic, of course, but one I have heard argued many times. Operating within the logic of the theological position, however, it quickly falls apart; just a tenant should maintain his or her apartment, so to should humans maintain the earth -- both to please the landlord and also because we don't know how long we will need to keep the lease. Of course, this position does not grant much (if any) inherent value to creation, but it is a starting point for a much-needed conversation on care for Creation.

12 May 2013

Thinking Through the Ascension

Below is my homily for the Ascension, but first, a word: it is perhaps obvious to say, but a sermon which meditates on the ineffable quality of the Ascension is, itself, hard to put into words. "Beloved people of God, we cannot explain this. So let me now explain how we can't explain." Sunday comes too soon.


Grace to you, and Peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, the Risen and Ascended One. Alleluia and amen.

Last summer, while I was working in the Smoky Mountains, I spent the night on top of Mt. LeConte. It's the third highest peak in the national park and a difficult, steep five miles to the summit. Once up there, I had an amazing view of the surrounding mountains and breath-taking places from which to watch the sunset and sunrise. While watching the sunset from a hidden ledge that only a few people (including my guide) knew about, I was excited to get back down the mountain and record the experience in my journal. The more I tried to write, though, the more I found my words failing me. I don't have the vocabulary to fully express the majesty of what that sunset. The way the sun hovered at the horizon, catching the clouds around it on fire, and the sky's slow fade from blue to the deepest purple, will forever be indescribable.

Comprehending the major Christian feast days is eerily similar. Words fail to do full justice to what is happening. Sure, we can understand birth and death. Christmas and Good Friday make sense. Easter? Well, we can sort of cognitively grasp what's happening. A heart can stop and then start again. We know that these are only partial understandings, but at least we have a starting point, right? Theology can take root in biology, at least in our minds. Much like the majesty of sunsets and mountains, we have scientific language available. I know that the sunset on Mt. LeConte was a function of slow geological movement, atmospheric distortion of light, and the rotation of the earth. All of this is true, but it fails to account for the full, sublime beauty of these events.

Just so, we miss the point when we limit our understanding of theology to that which can be understood scientifically. Christmas is about the full incarnation of God as Man, not reproductive health. Good Friday is about God's self-sacrifice, not just the cessation of biological function. Easter is about so much more than a heart beating again. This season isn't about divine defibrilation but an entirely new way of being alive, a new way of being, and a new creation.

And then we get to the mystical feasts. If we have trouble with understanding the more common place events in the life of Christ, how much more confused are we by those unique events which fall completely outside of human experience? We become even more lost. We lack a point of comparison. The Transfiguration, Ascension and Pentecost? Not even the most theoretical of physicist can provide insight into those.

No, we need a poet, not a scientist.

Instead,we end up with an idea of these great feasts that is overly reductionistic. We try to make sense of that which is wholly other. The Ascension becomes little more than Christ flying around like Superman. And then we really start to think about it. So, he ascended...to where? How exactly does one get to heaven? Second star on the right, straight on till morning? No, that's Neverland. Where's Jesus? Where's Heaven?

This question never really bothered me until I tried to think about it. Jesus is at the right hand of the Father. Ok, cool. But...then I tried to put the Ascension into words. How did he get there? He ascended and, what, just kept going up? How far “up” does one have to go to get to the Kingdom of Heaven?

In The Truman Show, Jim Carry's character sets sail on a local body of water and eventually tears a whole in the fabric of his small little world. While the metaphor is certainly an apt way of thinking about Christ's life, and the image of tearing the fabric of this world is a beautiful expression of divine revelation, that's not what happens during the Ascension. What we read in today's Gospel was not Jesus going up and up and up until he burst out the side of the universe. We can't reduce the Ascension to such a literal interpretation.

These questions used to have answers. In the ancient way of understanding the cosmos, Heaven had a very definite physical location in space. The Ptolemaic cosmologists had an answer for this. Heaven is the outer-most sphere, just past the seven planets. It was obtainable in a physical way. But, from where I sit, as the first human-made objects leave the outermost parts of the solar system, they haven't hit any angels yet. Such a blunt view of heaven doesn't work well with how we think about the universe and our place in it. We can't reduce the Ascension to archaic astrophysics.

Where does this leave us? Did Jesus go up to space and disappear into another realm? No, we can't reduce the Ascension to divine teleportation.

Instead, we are forced to face a discomforting truth: we don't understand. We can't understand. It is too far afield from anything we have ever known. We think of theology as “faith seeking understanding,” but we fall short. There is nearly 2,000 years of theological tradition urging us to make sense out of what we believe, but we simply can't. We don't have the vocabulary to fully express the majesty of the Ascension. Instead, we should look east and turn to our Orthodox brothers and sisters. Orthodox theology offers a much-needed break from the over-bearing scholastic bent of theology; it invites the Church to dwell on the mysteries of the faith, to enjoy the unknown, and to celebrate the unknowable.

In rejoicing in the mystery, we can turn then to the altar with confidence. We can give thanks for God's own gifts of bread and wine and trust that the Risen and Ascended Christ is truly present in this sacred meal. Even though He is seated at the right hand of the Father, Christ is in the Holy Eucharist – in a very real way. And when we offer theses gifts back to God, we too are lifted up. In Christ's Ascension, we see the fulfillment of Creation being joined to the Kingdom of God. A human enters eternity, just God entered time. Just so, when we celebrate the Eucharist, we are, in some very small way, joined to eternity. Heaven and earth unite. Our prayer joins with the Christians who came before us and those who will come after us. The Church – past, present, and future, here in Decatur and all across the world, Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox, on earth and in heaven, wherever that may be, the whole Church – ascends to the Kingdom of God. Just for a moment. Christ becomes present in midst of the Church. Heaven becomes present on Earth. The Church becomes present in the midst of the Triune God. It's a mystery.
Thanks be to God.

19 April 2013

Scattered Thoughts on the Killing of a Killer, Redux

In the aftermath of this week, I decided to revisit my thoughts on the killing of Osama bin Laden. My thinking has changed slightly over the past two years, and I have edited a few parts of this post to reflect that.


On September 11, 2001, I was told of the attacks more than six hours after the fact. Within a year and a half, I was watching my father depart home for the impending war in Iraq. I watched and prayed the night the attack was launched. I welcomed my father back as his unit marched past the memorials dedicated to those who had given their lives for the freedom of another nation. I remember waking up one Sunday morning to hear that Saddam Hussein had been captured and I watched the night they announced his execution.

Nearly two years ago, as I slept before an exam, I was awoken by a text message informing me of the death of Osama bin Laden.

This week, I watched the attack and resulting manhunt in Boston unfold almost in real time. After Newtown, Aurora, and so much violence.

These events are the stories I will tell my children; these trying and terrifying times that have shown the best and worst in humanity are what I will remember, just as my parents remember watching the unfolding of Vietnam, the moon landing, and the assassination of JFK. Just as my grandparents remember the Korean War, VJ and VE Days, D-Day, and Pearl Harbor.

Unfortunately, I must recognize that the death of Osama bin Laden will not bring a sudden end to the fighting in Afghanistan. Killing and capturing the perpetrators of the the Boston attacks will not end the cycles of violence that led to such bloodshed, panic, and chaos.

These events are not our V Days.

In light of this, how do we respond to a death? A human death, even if it was that of a man committed to violence and the triumph of Chaos. Surely, it will bring some closure to those who have lost loved ones in the attacks perpetrated by al Qaeda and the war in Afghanistan. The survivors of the Boston Marathon bombing are undoubtedly comforted; surely, all of Boston is able to sleep a little easier tonight -- if only slightly. For this, we can be grateful, and we can pray with those who still, and will always, mourn. May they find peace.

But even more assuredly, the loss of human life is tragic.

Poets often say best what needs to be said, and so I turn to the great English priest and poet, John Donne, as quoted by my friend Josh:
Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

 And now, let us turn to the Good News, that the the glorious Resurrection, of Christ our Lord, Jesus of Nazareth, will bring us all the closure that we so desperately need in the that eternal Kingdom where violence has no place. Hear the Gospel, as preached by Donne:
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so.
For those, whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy picture be,
Much pleasure, then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou'rt slave to Fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,
And better than thy stroke why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And Death shall be no more. Death, thou shalt die.

Kyrie eleison.
Forgive us all, for we know not what we do.
Lord of Peace, remember us as you come into your Kingdom.

Rock on.

12 April 2013

Reflections on Beginning the Ordination Process

Today, I had my Meet and Greet with my synod's ordination committee.

Let me start off by saying that I left the meeting feeling as though the panel members affirmed my calling into the ministry in the ELCA. I have never heard any of my seminary friends, all further along in their respective processes than I am, say that they left such a meeting feeling affirmed (or even good). The four pastors who interviewed me were very gracious, insightful, and kind. The questions were direct, but served a purpose. I know that as I get further along, the questions asked will become more probing, more difficult, less affirming. We can expect -- and should demand -- nothing less from those overseeing the ordination process. Our future pastors should be well-prepared for tough questions. The process should find and select those capable the herculean task ministers regularly face. Today, though, I feel respected and valued -- not just as a potential young clergy person, but as a candidate for ministry. I left feeling that there is hope.

Looking at the path ahead, however, I realize the problem with how most liturgical traditions "do" ordination. There are certain demands placed on students, and these demands are at odds with one another. On the one hand, it is expected that students be able to drop everything, possibly move across the state, region or country, take classes full time for at least three years, and spend spare time working on ordination requirements (in my case, it will be at least three years after completing my MDiv). This assumes candidates are young and relatively un-tethered by family commitments. The move and time commitments assume that one does not have children, that one's spouse has not started a career (assuredly, he or she would have to give it up or postpone it), and that one has several years to devote to the awkward stages between laity and clergy.

On the other hand, ordination is an expensive process. It requires that one have a well-stocked savings account to raid to pay for school, living expenses, psych evals, CPE applications, and "registration fees." Ordination can easily cost well over $90,000 (assuming you don't have additional requirements like an extra year at a denominational school). Such expenses are only affordable to second-career candidates.

The Church needs leaders from all walks of life, from every age group, from every background. But when you look at the process and all that it requires, the denominations really seem to be asking for a 40-year-old, single former lawyer. (May God have mercy on us.)

I'm excited about my future, even though it's a long road. I certainly didn't answer this call for the financial security. I know that I can no sooner shun this vocation than I can my humanity. I look forward to participating in and even leading the ministry of the Church. But it still scares me.
Now if you excuse me, I'm going to go apply for jobs so that I can pay down my debt during my gap year.

Rock on.