Saturday, May 30, 2020

Psalm 137

Psalm 137 starts as a gentle lament. 

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
    when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
    we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
    our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
    they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How can we sing the songs of the Lord
    while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
    may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
    if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
    my highest joy.
                        Psalm 137: 1-6 

The longing for what has been lost is as piercing now as it was 2,400 years ago, sung by Israelite captives in exile in Babylon. The unimaginable had happened: Jerusalem had been ransacked by the invading Babylonians, its splendid temple to God burnt and left in ruins. The captives, the elite of Israel, had been marched hundreds of miles to Babylon as a means of controlling the territory. Without leadership, the remnants of Israel would be more easily governed by the Empire’s agents. It is a song of a captive people who still remember their homeland. 

This poignant hymn is rarely used in worship though: one Sunday in three years, and that as one of two options appointed for the Sunday nearest to October 5, when many churches instead celebrate the Feast of St. Francis and the blessing of the animals. And the reason is it doesn’t end with verse 6. 

Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did
    on the day Jerusalem fell.
“Tear it down,” they cried,
    “tear it down to its foundations!” 
Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
    happy is the one who repays you
    according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants
    and dashes them against the rocks.
                                    Psalm 137: 7-9

Maybe we should have read this Psalm in worship more often. Perhaps if we did, the eruption of violent anger across the country in the wake of George Floyd’s death would have come as less of a surprise. 

White America has been too willing to mourn and lament over the horrific injustices of racism in this country, and not willing enough to act. We have been willing to offer thoughts and prayers, but not to do the hard self-examination that uncovers the racism that is as much a part of us as our instinct to put our hands over our hearts when someone plays the Star Spangled Banner. We have not wanted to admit that our experience might not be “normal,” that people of color have a very different experience of law enforcement than white people. We have not wanted to consider even the possibility of implicit bias in ourselves, and have elected leaders who call white supremacists “very fine people.” 

We have constantly demanded that our black and brown brothers and sisters sing the songs of Zion for us. When Colin Kaepernick began kneeling at football games to draw attention to the ways in which out country has failed to live up to its promises, we directed our outrage at the man who hung up his harp rather than sing along with us.  When protesters shouted, “Black Lives Matter” we declared back “All Lives Matter” and patted ourselves on the back for being so inclusive. The lives of innocent black men and women continued to be snuffed out at a frightening pace. Camera phone videos of their violent ends were shared on social media, accompanied by momentary outrage that never seemed to change anything. 

And when lament and mourning boiled over into rioting and destruction, we smugly dismissed the demands, saying, “violence accomplishes nothing.”  Over and over again. 

Warning Israel of their failure to live into the covenant with God, to establish justice in the land, a failure which would result in defeat at the hands of the Babylonians, the prophet Isaiah offered a word from God: 

Woe to those who call evil good
    and good evil,
who put darkness for light
    and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
    and sweet for bitter.
Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes
    and clever in their own sight.
Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine
    and champions at mixing drinks,
who acquit the guilty for a bribe,
    but deny justice to the innocent.
Therefore, as tongues of fire lick up straw
    and as dry grass sinks down in the flames,
so their roots will decay
    and their flowers blow away like dust;
for they have rejected the law of the Lord Almighty
    and spurned the word of the Holy One of Israel.
                                    Isaiah 5:20-24

The warnings of the prophets fell on deaf ears then and now. In times of prosperity and leisure, we were too comfortable to do the hard and uncomfortable work of confronting our nation’s original sin. We have been too willing to express vague support for equality and anger against protestors who shut down streets and made it difficult to get to our jobs on time. And when tongues of flame start licking at the tinder, we are as shocked and surprised as the people of Israel when Babylon appeared at their gates. 

The Babylonian Exile proved to be a fruitful time in the life of Israel.  The need to find a way to sing the songs of Zion in a foreign land led to a new, rich theological tradition and spiritual practices that would sustain the Jews across generations and around the world for thousands of years to come. The exiles would, one day, return to Israel and rebuild their temple, but their greatest legacy would be the promises of restoration and the words of the prophets urging new generations towards justice and peace for all. 

Comfort, comfort my people,
    says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
    and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
    that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
    double for all her sins.
A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
    the way for the Lord[a];
make straight in the desert
    a highway for our God.[b]
Every valley shall be raised up,
    every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
    the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
    and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
                                    Isaiah 40: 1-5

God uses moments like this one. The prophets attest again and again to God’s power in turning death and destruction to the seeds of a new commitment to justice and peace. Exiles always seem more inclined to listen to God’s voice than prosperous people comfortable in their certainty that God loves them more than anyone else. New beginnings built on the ashes of the old destruction can lead to new possibilities. 

Christians will remember that it was Jesus’s death on the cross that led to a salvation offered to the whole world and good news carried far and wide by the poor and marginalized. The fires of anger and violence consuming our country today call for lament, and for a soul-deep commitment to the work of reconciliation and renewal that we are given in our baptism. Our baptismal covenant makes it explicit: “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of ever human being?” The work belongs to each and every one of us. 
Will we take up the task, or will we continue to demand our brothers and sisters of color play us songs of joy, songs of Zion, while stubbornly refusing to hear how the song ends?

Friday, February 7, 2020

Loving Our Enemies

In case you were wondering, the words President Donald Trump said he wasn’t sure he agreed with at yesterday’s National Prayer Breakfast are from Matthew 5:43-48:

[Jesus said] “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” 

I’m not writing to point out what a bad Christian Donald Trump is. He is a bad Christian, but so am I, and so are all the Christians I know, faithful and lapsed alike. The Sermon on the Mount, which St. Augustine described as “a perfect standard of the Christian life,” includes some pretty challenging stuff.  Loving your enemies is hard enough, but there’s also instructions to turn the other cheek, not to get angry with your brother, and to rejoice while being persecuted, among others. God knows I fall short on something found in these passages on a weekly basis. I don’t know anyone who manages to be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect. We are all bad Christians. 

But that doesn’t mean we aren’t supposed to try.  The Sermon on the Mount doesn’t end with Jesus nudging Peter and saying, “Ha! I really had you going there! Just kidding!” Yeah, loving our enemies is tough. Watching some of my brothers and sisters in Christ cheer the president on as he brushed aside Jesus’ call to love our enemies made my blood boil, and it’s taking all my willpower not to shout, “You fools!” at them, thereby putting myself in danger of the fire of hell. (Matthew 5:22)  So I get why the president would find the notion of loving one’s enemies unappealing, and even absurd.

 One of those pastors should pull him aside, though, and tell him Jesus wasn’t joking. Jesus lived that way, and yes, he expects us to live that way too. After all, Jesus called on God to forgive those who crucified him as he was dying on the cross — pretty much the ultimate in loving your enemies. If he can do that, surely we can at least try to speak with compassion instead of shouting angrily, to speak words of forgiveness and reconciliation instead of vengeance, to pray for those who have hurt us instead of trying to hurt them back.

I have no doubt Jesus knew perfectly well his followers would not live up to the standard he laid out in the Sermon on the Mount — the human inability to turn aside from sin is, after all, why he died on the cross — but that doesn’t give us permission to laugh and do the exact opposite.  Our failure should leave us grief-stricken, not triumphant, and when we see someone acting in ways contrary to Jesus’ teachings, we should correct, not applaud. 

Being perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect, may be out of reach, but it should always be our goal. We may struggle to love our enemies, but that doesn’t mean we should feel free to hate them.  We don’t get to dismiss the words of the Gospel just because it’s hard to live up to them. Instead, they should remind us that we are bad Christians, and prod us to try to do better living into them, through the grace of God. 

Monday, April 1, 2019

Love One Another As I have Loved You


I sat at my desk this morning and cried over the death of a parishioner.

That doesn’t happen very often. It’s not that I do not care deeply for the people I pastor as rector of my little Episcopal church. I love them, all of them, although any honest pastor will admit that it is easier to love some than others. But the work of a pastor is loving within healthy boundaries, so you can see clearly in ways that you cannot when your heart is fully entangled with another’s. It’s not love like you love your children, or your parents, or your spouse, or even your friends. The Greeks probably had a special word for it: they seem to have had a special word for all the different forms of love, so they must surely have had a particular word for pastor-love. 

Pastor-love is deeply rooted in faith in the Resurrection, because it is love that is offered so often in the midst of suffering and loss. It is love that accompanies to the gates of death. After a spate of funerals, people often ask me how I can bear to do this work, sitting regularly as I do at bedsides waiting for death and burying people I care about. I answer that it’s because I really, truly believe in the power of Resurrection. My love is paired with an absolute certainty that life is not ended, but changed, that those I love are now part of the great cloud of witnesses around the throne of God. This is not a rational belief, a carefully cultivated theology that explains away death and minimizes loss. It is, instead, an experience of trust in God welling up from within, which stands with me at the grave and says, “Alleluia!” even in the midst of grief.  It is a gift from God, a blessing given, I can only assume, so that I can do the work God has called me to do. Pastor-love means I can love without being overwhelmed by grief. 

So why am I crying for Mary this morning? 

It’s not because i have any doubt about the power of Resurrection, or the slightest concern that Mary was not eagerly welcomed into God’s  presence. Indeed, I smile when I think of Mary arriving at the gates of heaven, attired in rainbows, joyously greeting her beloved husband, and finally getting to ask Jesus, who she always loved, the same question with which she so often greeted me: “I’ve been reading my Bible, and I have a question: Why would God ask people to do so many terrible things?”  I trust she has finally received an answer that truly satisfies her. 

But even as I rejoice in the eternal life I am sure Mary is experiencing, my grief wells up as tears,  and I realize that somehow, Mary slipped under and through those healthy boundaries, into something beyond pastor-love. Not in any inappropriate way: she never asked or expected of me anything other than my pastoral care and love for her, and I never offered anything else. Our relationship was always that of pastor and parishioner, nothing more, nothing less. And yet...

I am crying today because I was loved. It was evident in the way she would send me little notes, suggestions and ideas that she wanted to share, but gently and kindly, careful not to embarrass me in front of others. The way she would hold my hand, patting it with her free hand, and laugh gently at something I said as she left the sanctuary. It was in her warm welcome when I visited, and her thoughtful, insightful conversation about everything from the Bible to church attendance to the joy of watching the birds from her porch. I am crying because her last words to me, after I had come and read scripture and prayed and offered her communion for the last time, words important enough to be forced through even though every word required herculean effort, were “I love you.” Just to be sure I knew. 

The tears are Mary’s last great gift to me —  a gift of love that fulfills of the commandment Jesus gave his disciples on the night before he died, that they should love one another as he loved them. To be loved that way breaks open the heart in unexpected ways; it draws to the surface our best self, the one that can give of itself to others without being left empty, because it is renewed by the love we share with God.

This Easter, as we gather for Maundy Thursday and hear again Jesus' last words to his disciples, as we wait grief-stricken at the foot of the cross on Good Friday, and we rejoice with Mary Magdalene to greet him at his Resurrection on Easter, I’ll be thinking about my Mary, about the gift of love, and the way grief and love can mix together into something holy.  I will wonder if that’s what the disciples felt, as they watched Jesus break bread and again when he appeared before them in that upper room, offering his pierced hands to their wondering examination. I will imagine their eyes filling with tears and their hearts overflowing with joy, simultaneously. 

“As the Father as loved me, so I have loved you,” Jesus told them. “Now remain in my love.” Thank you, Mary, for the gift of love.  May you, and all who love you,  know the peace and joy that comes of being one with the source of that Love, until we meet again. 

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Why are we reading these stories?

It was a strikingly honest question. “Why are we reading this?” 

My Wednesday morning Bible study has spent most of the past year working its way through the stories of the Old Testament, using an abridged Bible  called “The Story: The Bible as One Continuing Story of God’s People.”  Even in this modern-reader-friendly format, the stories we are reading have been, at times, shocking. For those who generally think of the Bible as a source of encouragement and comfort, the stories of Abraham and Jacob, Moses and Pharaoh, the liberation from Egypt and the conquest of Jericho, do not align comfortably  with modern expectations of a God who reliably rejects violence and offers a big warm and fuzzy welcome to everyone. The question, “Why are we reading this?” was the dismayed reaction to the story of Samson, in which every time the Holy Spirit comes upon the hero, a horrific slaughter follows. 

The Bible is both wellspring and challenge to faith. It is impossible to imagine being a Christian without the Bible. How could we be faithful without the Gospel stories to teach us about Jesus, or the guidance offered by the letters of Paul? How could we be authentic Christians without the poetry of the Psalms, the promises of the Pentateuch, or the warnings of the prophets to help us turn our lives in a Godward direction?  The Bible is the root and ground of what Christians believe, an unshakeable foundation in an uncertain and unsteady world. A Christian who does not read the Bible is, in the words of Jesus, like a seedling that springs up in shallow soil, unable to survive, much less thrive, when conditions are less than ideal. 

But the Bible is also a product of another era and a very different world view. The people who first shared these stories had never encountered archeology or geology; they had no written records to verify even such basic facts as the date and place of someone’s birth; they had no idea what made people ill or why some people got better and some didn’t. They lived in a world where violence was common, nature was unpredictable, and everyone assumed that good fortune came from pleasing the gods and bad fortune from angering them. The stories they told reflected the way they made sense of that reality and the way they encountered God in the midst of the world they inhabited. The differences between their world and ours can leave us wondering whether the God they encountered has any relevance to us, or even whether those divine encounters were really just a product of their ignorance of bacteria and plate tectonics. 

The temptation is to respond to those challenges like Thomas Jefferson, and excise the parts we find unbelievable or difficult, to turn the Bible into a collection of inspiring and uplifting quotes by removing the stories that depict God in ways we find unpalatable and alarming. But doing so removes the necessity of confronting difficult questions about our faith and our relationship with God, and leaves us unprepared for times of loss, pain, and anger, when a warm-and-fuzzy understanding of God is not sufficient. 

In her book, The Rock that is Higher: Story as Truth, Madeline L’Engle recounts how in the immediate aftermath of an accident in which she was severely injured, it was the stories of her Christian faith that gave her strength to endure. Reflecting on the gospel accounts of Jesus’ betrayal and death, and especially Jesus’ crying out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” she writes, “This is the story that gives meaning to my life, that gave meaning to those draggingly difficult days in the hospital and if it isn’t story it doesn’t work. The life-giving, lifesaving story is true story that transcends the facts. … In the hospital in San Diego I didn’t get much comfort from facts.” Faith is necessary for the part of the story that stretches our credulity — a story of the Creator of the universe being born as a tiny baby, “totally human and simultaneously totally divine.” But it was this incomprehensible, incredible part of the story that gave her what she needed in the midst of pain and loneliness. “Who wants a comprehensible God in the aftermath of an incomprehensible accident?” she writes.

The Bible gives us not just happy stories of people whose prayers have been answered, but also stories of people whose cries of anguish seem to have gone unheard. It gives us stories of blessings and abundance, and stories of famine and suffering. It shows us people sure of their path, and people wandering lost in the desert. No matter how blessed we are, sooner or later one fo those stories of loneliness, loss, and abandonment will be relevant to each of us. Life involves as much struggle as joy, and if the only stories we read and treasure are the ones that assure us of God’s presence when things are going well, how will we know where to look in life’s barren moments? 

But finding the value in some of these stories isn’t easy. Take that story of Samson, for example. Not only does Samson come across as a Grade A idiot, the Holy Spirit’s primary contribution seems to be to drive Samson into a frenzy of violence. Far from the ideal emissary of a gentle God who urges us to love our enemies, Samson is a brutal and violent man, whose violence is not only excused but sanctioned. How are we to find any redeeming value in such a story? Surely the ancient storyteller was wrong, and the Holy Spirit had nothing to do with any of this, because how could anyone think God would sanction that? 

A couple weeks later, though, I watched the 2018 movie Samson, from PureFlix. The movie itself isn’t going to win any awards: the acting is pedestrian and the plot predictable. But it reminded me that context matters. Sure, Samson still comes across as a young idiot, but his foolish decisions are cast into the context of a young man deeply in love, thwarted and humiliated by a cruel and arrogant man. While the book of Judges tells us that “the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord, so the Lord delivered them into the hands of the Philistines for 40 years,” it doesn’t describe the circumstances in detail.  The moviemaker, however, has imagined the situation as slavery to cruel masters, who torture and murder the innocent at will.  In that setting, Samson’s violent responses to the Philistines’ various evil acts are those of a freedom fighter refusing to submit, a war hero mowing down the enemy in order to save the men of his platoon.

The movie raised at least as many questions for me as it answered. The movie portrays Samson’s pacifism as resistance to God’s will for him: can violence really be God’s chosen solution, ever? How do we tell?  What about Jesus’s teaching that we are to love our enemies? Are the Philistines really more evil than the Israelites, or are they equally oppressed by unjust leaders? If the latter, do they deserve death and destruction?  But at the same time, it also made me realize that I would hear this story very differently if I and my family lived under the constant threat of torture and death. A hero miraculously given the power to destroy those who tried to kill me and my children would, indeed, be God-sent. 

It is my deep and fervent hope that Samson will never really speak to me, or anyone around me.  I pray for a world in which Samson is always horrifying, to everyone, everywhere.  But to simply throw the story away because it doesn’t speak to me here and now is to ignore the many oppressed people over the centuries who have found in it encouragement that God is present in the midst of their oppression, and will act to free them. Who am I to say that God is not, even now, lifting up a champion for a people unable to fight back against their oppressors, a hero who will overthrow those who cruelly misuse their power by might of arm? Wouldn’t that be a life-giving, lifesaving story for those who have no hope of rescue?

I don’t know for sure. But I do know that because the Bible is full of stories, it is adequate to the whole of human experience — the uplifting and beautiful and the desperate and despairing and everything in between. Unearthing its wisdom requires discernment, and a willingness to consider that possibility that while Timothy may be right that "all scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness" (2 Timothy 3:16),  some parts of it may not be for us, or our particular situation. Sometimes we should hear warning where others hear encouragement, and vice versa.

And I am confident that we need to read these stories, if only to keep us from complacently assuming that God loves us best and will never let anything bad happen to us, no matter how badly we transgress. The very stories we least want to read are probably the ones we should study most carefully, lest we forget that while God loves us all, we are promised judgement as well as mercy. These stories might stop us from continuing to do evil in the sight of God while we reassure ourselves with words of comfort meant for those we have harmed. 

At the Museum of the Bible, one of the exhibits invites vusitors to write a word on a digital tablet to describe how reading the Bible makes them feel, which are then projected onto the walls in a collage reminiscent of end-of-year word montages on social media. Most of the words floating around the room the day I was there were words like, “peaceful,” ‘happy” and “encouraged.” After a few minutes, I added mine: “challenged.” And I think that’s a good thing. 

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Unreasonable Hope

It never lets up: The news media offers a relentless pounding of anger, bitterness, and hate. Bombs are mailed to people who voice opinions in opposition to the president. A white man, who minutes earlier had tried to force his way into a black church, shoots two black shoppers in the parking lot of a grocery store. A man whose anti-semitic rants on social media concludes with “I’m going in” strides into a synagogue in Pittsburgh and kills 11 people gathered for worship and to celebrate the blessing of a new baby. 

New reports reveal that we have already damaged our planet possibly beyond repair: the oceans are warmer than we though and animals and insects are vanishing at a pace unmatched since the great extinctions launched by an asteroid slamming into the earth at the end of the Permian era. Venice is under water, again. So are the Carolinas. And Florida. Another year of powerful hurricanes has wiped out whole communities. And yet our leaders shrug, and do nothing. 

Thousands of refugees across the planet desperately seek safety, only to be vilified and turned aside everywhere they go. Men, women, and children fleeing violence in Central America are described as “invaders” and “thugs” and thousands of troops are deployed to keep them out, lest they reach our soil and ask for asylum and refuge. 

The older I get, the harder it is to be optimistic. If the Holocaust didn’t end anti-Semitism forever, what will? If the Civil Rights movement didn’t convince us racism is wrong, what can? If thousands of scientists worldwide warning us for decades about the consequences of our reliance on hydrocarbons isn’t enough to convince us we must change our ways, what will lead us to believe something must be done? If exhausted, weeping toddlers and mothers begging for help doesn’t break through the hardness of our hearts, what hope is there for any of us? 

There is no reasonable hope that a people so determined not to admit our role in the destruction we have wrought will somehow stop listening to the voices of fear and denial and decide to forge a different future. It is unreasonable to hope that our divisions will be healed and we will find new unity in working and sacrificing for one another and generations not yet born. No reasonable person could realistically hope that if we do not repay evil for evil, if we love our enemies, if we pray for those who persecute us, those who seek to do us harm will somehow stop and repent and join with us in healing the world instead.  It is not reasonable to think that hate can be overcome by love, that fear can be conquered by hope, that our broken, angry world can be healed by forgiveness and self-sacrifice.  

But I am a Christian, and my hope is not reasonable.

On All Saints Day, the gospel appointed is John’s account of the raising of Lazarus. The story begins with word coming to Jesus and his disciples that their good friend Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha of Bethany, is deathly ill. Inexplicably, Jesus does nothing for several days. By the time he and the disciples finally arrive in Bethany, Lazarus has been dead for four days. 

Mary and Martha are understandably distraught. They do their best, but it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to hear a note of accusation in  their voices as each, in turn, greets Jesus, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  When Jesus promises that Lazarus will rise again, Martha’s resignation is plain: “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”

For those who knew Jesus, these were reasonable hopes. Jesus was well known as a healer: the gospel notes that there were some in the crowd you had gathered to mourn Lazarus who wondered, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” It was perfectly reasonable to think that someone who had exhibited the kind of healing powers Jesus had could have stopped Lazarus’s fatal illness in its tracks, if only he had come in time.  Since he hadn’t, the reasonable response was looking forward to  the promised Resurrection on the Day of Judgement. What else could anyone do? 

But what came next wasn’t reasonable at all. You can hear it in Martha’s incredulous warning: “Lord, there is already a stench because he has been dead four days.” Lazarus was not mostly dead: the body had already begun to decay, the soul fled. Lazarus was dead, and people who are dead do not come back to life, no matter how much we deny our loss, no matter how much we want them to, no matter how hard and sincerely we pray.  

And then… Jesus calls, and Lazarus comes out from the tomb, still tangled in the graveclothes. Beyond all hope and all possibility, he is restored to those he loves. He is reclaimed from death itself. God’s love proves stronger even than the tomb. Suddenly, unreasonable hope does not look so unreasonable after all. St. Paul would later sum up this newfound sense of impossible hope by writing, "For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

As Christians, we have many reasonable hopes. We have reasonable hope that if we live lives of charity and cancern for others, we will reap what we sow. We have reasonable hope that if we feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, and advocate for social justice, we can help guide our country toward being a more just place, a better place to live for all. We have a reasonable hope that if we participate in self-examination and prayer, our eyes and hearts will be opened and we will be healed of the sins of racism, bigotry, and hatred that hide in the dark corners of our own minds and souls. 

But looking out in our world, these hopes are just not enough. Sin and evil and hatred seem so much bigger and more powerful than our hopes. Death looms over us and denies the God of Life. It warns us to go home, to hide, to close our borders and our doors to keep the dangers of the world at bay for as long as we can. Despair tells us not to bother voting or protesting or  writing letters, because we will not be heard.  Fear mocks us for speaking of our reasonable hopes, telling us we are foolish and naive. 

We must instead trust in unreasonable hope — the hope revealed to us when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, when God raised the crucified Jesus on the third day, the hope that Paul writes about in Romans 8:18-25:

"I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience."

In the face of so much death and despair, only unreasonable hope will do. And that’s what we have been given: unreasonable hope. Because if Jesus could raise Lazarus from the dead, then nothing is beyond the power of our God. We may have hope in the promise of new life no matter how much the forces of evil and death assault us. Our hope is not reasonable, but it is true. As John says, "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it." May we live and act filled with this unreasonable hope that no amount of fear and anger and bitterness can destroy. 

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Listening to Queen Esther

Queen Esther on stage at The Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida.

Back in May at the Holy Land Experience, one of the musical extravaganzas shown in the main auditorium was a theatrical telling of the story of Esther. If you’ve read the book of Esther in the Bible, you can see why the creative team might have been drawn to this story — it has the opulent setting of the Persian royal court, a storyline filled with twists and turns worthy of a soap opera, and a villain right out of central casting at Disney.  The Holy Land Experience team made the most of these elements, giving us glittering costumes and outstanding choreography, and a score to rival a Broadway musical.

Esther’s story is all about the vulnerability of women in a world of powerful men. The story opens with a drunk King of Persia ordering his current wife, Queen Vashti, to appear before a court full of men who had been served all the wine they wished to “display her beauty to the people and the nobles.”  She refuses, and the king and his nobles decide that she must be removed, because if Queen Vashti is allowed to defy her husband, then other women will also be able to get away with defying their husbands. Everyone agrees that replacing Vashti with a more compliant woman and sending out an irrevocable decree that men are to be the rulers of their households and women must obey their husbands is the perfect solution. Queen Vashti disappears from the story; she has been effectively silenced, along with any other women who might dare to defy their husbands.

But of course, a powerful man cannot be expected to sleep alone. The king’s commissioners are commanded to bring beautiful virgins for the King’s harem, where they are given “beauty treatments” and sent to the king’s bed, so he can choose the one who pleases him the most. It would be nice to imagine that the girls are all volunteers and what the king is most interested in is witty conversation, but I somehow doubt that. In any event, after a year of “beauty treatments,” Esther is sent in to the king, who is mightily pleased, and Esther soon takes Vashti’s place as queen.

There’s a subplot in which Esther’s uncle Mordecai foils an assasination attempt on the king, and then earns the enmity of the king’s favorite noble, Haman, by refusing to kneel before him. Like any good villain, Haman is determined to destroy not just Mordecai but everyone related to him, which means all the Jews in exile in Persia, and persuades the king to decree their destruction. Esther faces a choice: keep silent and be safe, because the King doesn’t know she is a Jew, or speak out and risk death for pointing out the injustice about to befall her people. 
That’s where the Holy Land Experience stage show ends: with Esther’s dilemma and her courageous decision to go to the king. In the Bible, the story continues with Haman getting his comeuppance and ending up impaled upon the same gallows pole he had intended for Mordecai, and some bureaucratic wrangling over how to negate a command that legally cannot be negated. But on stage, the dramatic denouement comes when Esther stands before the king and tells her truth with operatic zest.  It is a story of a woman’s triumph by daring to say, “enough,” whatever happens next.

The fact that the scriptwriters at Holy Land Experience chose the moment moment Esther decides to risk everything to speak the truth as the high point of the play strikes me as prophetic.  I surely cannot be the only woman who thinks of her own visits with Mary Kay and commercials for Mabelline and Oil of Olay when the Bible lovingly describes Esther’s year-long skincare regimen utilizing oil of myrrh, perfumes, and cosmetics. This week, I suspect I am not the only woman picturing the descriptions of alcohol-fueled high school parties and the alleged behavior of  Brett Kavanaugh when I imagine why Queen Vashti might have refused to put on her crown and parade before a gathering of drunken men. And I hope I am not the only woman who sees in Dr. Christine Blasey Ford the same courage Queen Esther displayed in speaking her truth in front of the powerful, even as those angered by her actions threaten her life and the lives of her family members.

But I also think that it might behoove us to go read the rest of the story. We might want to pay attention to how carefully Esther has to approach the king, to put him in a receptive mood, before she can speak her truth. We might want to notice that even as Esther names the terrible injustice Haman has perpetrated, she apologizes for disturbing the king by bringing it to him. And we might also attend to how the powerful man, after his fury at Haman subsides, explains to Esther that, while he heard her words, his hands are tied because he can’t simply overturn the unjust law. And how Esther must once again speak up to shame the king into finding some kind of solution.  We love to celebrate Esther’s courage: are we also willing to acknowledge and condemn the arrogance, sexism, bigotry, and careless cruelty -- in both her time and ours -- that made it necessary?

In May, it struck me that the show seemed to assume that everyone in the audience was familiar with the story, and so did not need to be told how the story ended. But this week, with the country once more in the midst of yet another #MeToo moment and a president dismissing women who report sexual assault as liars and fame-seekers, I find myself seeing the Holy Land Experience telling of Esther in a new light.  If you are tempted to dismiss the whole Brett Kavanaugh scandal as a “smear campaign” or you think the women you know are making a mountain out of a molehill, consider this: The Bible's book of Esther is also a #MeToo story. How many women need to speak up, to offer their truth at the risk of their lives, before we finally listen to them? 

Friday, September 7, 2018

Selfies with Jesus

Among my adventures during my summer sabbatical, I took a trip to the Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida. My friend the Rev. Sr. Sarah Randall and I had already spent a couple days splashing about in the Volcano Bay water park and riding the rides at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter when we made our way down I-4 to the ersatz Jerusalem. It was everything I expected it to be — a kind of Holy Land version of Epcot, replete with actors in colorful costumes performing song-and-dance numbers that bore about as much resemblance to the real Holy Land — in Jesus’s time or today — as Epcot France does to the city of Paris. The Holy Land Experience lacked the thrill rides that headlined at Universal, but the Temple in Jerusalem and the public square at Bethany had been as loving rendered with as much careful attention to detail as Hogwarts and Diagon Alley had been at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

The Holy Land Experience uses this setting to present a series of stage shows based on various Biblical dramas. These change seasonally, from the Passion and Resurrection at Easter to a “God With Us — Redeeming Love” theme when we visited in May. The audience moves from stage to stage — from the Temple courtyard to watch the woman caught in adultery to a side stage to watch the same woman (who is somehow also Mary Magdalene and Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman) make the decision to cast aside her life of well-heeled prostitution to follow Jesus; then a walk past the two-story high baptismal fountain to the main auditorium, where Christians cower in a darkly lit catacombs and tell stories of courage in the face of persecution, through the tales of Queen Esther and the Three Young Men and the Fiery Furnace. It’s Sunday-School-meets-Broadway-Musical, with dancing Pharisees and Assyrian belly-dancers, and frequent appearances by Jesus,  predictably played by a tall, handsome man with shoulder length wavy brown hair.  The Holy Land Experience owes as much to Jesus Christ Superstar as the Bible.

All this feels a little ridiculous. OK, a lot ridiculous. How else can you describe the disciples engaging in an acrobatic dance-off with the Pharisees, a la West Side Story, while they waited for Jesus to arrive at the Temple for a day of teaching? And the tellings undeniably perpetrate some of the worst cultural misconceptions around the Biblical narrative, with the Jews as the set-piece villains, European Jesus who is always calm and patient, and Mary Magdalene conflated with the prostitute who washes Jesus feet (and apparently is caught in adultery… talk about lumping all your sexual sins together in one package!)

But as my friend Sister Sarah noted, it also carried the spiritual energy of a place that was prayed in. Scattered around the stages were invitations to prayer — an ersatz Western Wall where prayer requests could be slipped between the “stones” and would be transported to the Holy Land; a wooden cross where thanksgivings for prayers answered could be pinned for all to see; a pocket-sized Garden of Gethsemane where the faithful could kneel at the fock like Jesus and lift up their lamentations to God. It was, Sarah said, “Ignatian theology a la theme park.” Yes, it was tacky. But it was also a place where people offered their heartfelt prayers, and Jesus showed up.

It is easy for those of us with advanced degrees and a passion for historical-critical Bible study to be dismissive of Theme Park Jesus. But the people who bring their whole families, from grandmothers down to the little babies, to the Holy Land Experience instead of spending an extra day at Disney are looking for something — a Jesus they can relate to, a Jesus who, in the words of the Easter hymn, “is no longer bound to ancient years in Palestine.”   My sister’s mother-in-law — a lovely Southern Baptist lady from Georgia — had put her finger on it when she described her encounter during a weekend church-sponsored bus trip: “I was sitting in the Garden of Gethsemane when I looked up, and there was Jesus coming towards me!” she said. “Now, I know it wasn’t really Jesus. But in that moment, it was like Jesus was really coming to see me.”

It is the same longing that sent medieval pilgrims on dangerous journeys to walk the Via Doloroso in Jerusalem on Good Friday, and led them to purchase fragments of the True Cross to bring back home. Modern pilgrims come by minivan and take selfies with Jesus, but they, too, are looking for the God who is with us, a Jesus they can see and touch and high-five.Theologians might call it an incarnational theology, And the stories being told — of a love that is not deterred by the secret shames of our lives, of the courage to speak boldly about one’s faith, of a God whose power is stronger than death — are, indeed, ones we need to hear.

Truthfully, the Holy Land Experience isn’t entirely my cup of tea. The militant insistence on scriptural inerrancy, the casting of European Jesus, and the conflation of the woman caught in adultery with Mary Magdalene trigger my preacher's instincts and make me want to explain to passers-by how they distort the Biblical narrative.  But given the elaborate vestments I don each Sunday to lead worship, I’m not sure I have any right to complain about over-the-top costumes or Broadway-style music swelling behind the actors as we approach the story’s dramatic conclusion. And in truth, maybe we have all come looking for the same thing, whether we are at the Holy Land Experience or the sanctuary at St. Mark’s — the promise that God is with us, a savior who understands us and still loves us, a concrete reminder that we are not alone. As Sarah says, “And Jesus shows up.”