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.”