Is There Grace for Brock Turner, Omar Mateen, and Bill Cosby?

Triel_Saint-Martin_vitrail6_692

In this last week’s Lectionary reading is Luke 7:36-8:3. While Jesus was eating at a Pharisee’s house a notorious prostitute came in and begins kissing, anointing, and washing Jesus’ feet with her tears and ointment. The Pharisee, Simon, responds “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” Jesus responds with a parable about two men who owed a creditor a debt, and one of the men’s debts was ten times larger than the other. The creditor cancelled both of their debts, and Jesus asks Simon which of the men will love the creditor more. The answer, of course, is the man who owed more. And then Jesus says this brilliant line as he turns toward the woman and asks Simon: “Do you see this woman?”
Jesus is always flipping it on people who try to place people in hostile categories and under shameful labels.  Simon sees this woman for her sin, while Jesus sees this woman for who she really is. And he even suggests that there is more passion for God when it comes from someone who has more sin. That completely flips how so many of us see the world.

I want to take this even further. It’s easy to have compassion on certain “sinners”—those who get caught up in destructive paths that mainly bring harm to themselves. But what we see throughout Jesus’ life is that he has compassion for both the sinners we all rally around with open arms and the ones we all push away in disgust. The passage ends by describing those who followed Jesus from town to town: a squad filled with crooked tax collectors, zealous anarchists, women who just had seven demons exorcised out of them. This was a messy bunch. Jesus literally even had the nickname “friend of sinners”. Jesus associated with all the people you would refuse to associate yourself with.

So now that we have that perspective let’s think about today. When I think of the type of sinners we push away in disgust I think of people like Brock Turner. For those that don’t know the story Brock Turner is a 20-year-old Stanford student who recently raped an unconscious woman behind a dumpster, and is only getting 3 months in jail for it. The initial outrage for the story was the way the media covered the story. Instead of showing his mugshot they showed a happy and innocent photo of him. And instead of referring to it as rape they referred to it as sexual assault. People quickly criticized the media for this since we’ve seen several times where a black man convicted of the same crime would be represented by his mugshot and the label of “rapist”. Then there was outrage at how the judge gave him such a short period of jail time: 6 months with the possibility of 3 months with good behavior. The judge was influenced by Brock Turner’s father who talked about how great of a person his son was before the incident, and how much he has been devastated with an incredible amount of guilt for his actions. The judge bought it and gave him a soft sentence, while the public went crazy and made sure everyone knew how horrible Brock Turner is; whether that was through taking away future opportunities, to countless articles written to make sure everyone remembers his crime, to groups of witches putting hexes on him.

Brock-Turner-mugshot

Now, before I continue let me say that what Brock Turner did was absolutely awful and yes, evil. And yes, the way he was convicted unfairly compared to everyone else who had been in a similar position is also awful and unjust. And yet, when I read this story of Jesus accepting the most unacceptable of sinners I imagine Brock Turner in place of the sinful woman.

I imagine Brock Turner crying at Jesus’ feet as we look in disgust and say “If Jesus really knew what kind of person this guy is and what he has done then he wouldn’t let him touch him.”

This is what so many of us are doing with our merciless condemnations on this kid.

I think of people like Bill Cosby, who used to be seen as a wholesome Christian role model, and has now had his reputation ruined with dozens of rape accusations. What Bill Cosby did was disgusting and awful, but imagine him crying at Jesus’ feet. What would our reaction be?

bill-cosby-mugshoit

What would our reaction be to see Omar Mateen—the man responsible for the largest mass shooting in US history at an Orlando gay nightclub—crying at Jesus’ feet?

omar-mateen

And Jesus would turn to us and say “Do you see this person? Do you actually see them?”

Who loves Jesus more when he forgives all of our sins, the one with the least amount of sins, or the one with the most? The one who spends their life criticizing the sinner, or the sinner buried in their shameful reputation? Which one will love and cling to Jesus more when Jesus says: “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”

Personally, it’s hard for me to have that level of compassion. And it’s easy to condemn people for certain evil, especially when everyone around you from all different perspectives are ganging up together on it. I don’t think I want to be that kind of person though. Even several of my Christian friends love to gang up on the latest oppressor, but I keep finding myself less interested in siding with Christians, and more interested in siding with Jesus. And Jesus had radical compassion for everyone he met. Yes, he called them to more just and loving lives, but it began with a loving embrace of mercy and forgiveness. That’s the type of person I want to be in the world. I want to stand up for victims of all type of assault but I also want to be able to stretch our reach of grace to all sinners, even the ones who don’t deserve it. It’s painfully difficult, especially when we hear stories about Brock Turner, Bill Cosby, Omar Mateen, etc. but that’s the direction I’m trying to stretch my heart open. Perhaps a heart that wide could change things.

Advertisements

Open Up That Heart

Sacre-Coeur

Today in the traditional Church Calendar is the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. This has been historically celebrated mostly by Catholics, Lutherans and Anglicans, but I have always found a tremendous interest in the Church calendar.

So I want to talk about this heart.

The heart of Jesus.

It sprang from the Franciscan devotion to Jesus’ wounds he received on the Cross, including his wounded heart. It was a way of focusing on the humanity of Jesus.

Yes, Jesus had a heart. It wasn’t a special glowing heart, or one that pumped extra nice blood into his body. Nope. Jesus had a heart just like ours. It pumped blood through his circulatory system to provide nutrients and oxygen to his body, and help remove metabolic waste. It beat faster when he was excited and beat slower when he was calm. You could hear it if you lay on his chest.

In many cultures and religions the heart has always symbolized the seat and fountain of all human emotion, passion, and will. It represents the innermost and most intimate center of a person.

Think of the expression “to open one’s heart”. Jesus shows us what it looks like when a human heart is at its most open. He shows a heart wide open to the poor, sick and needy of the world. Wide open to everyone kicked to the edges of society—everyone yearning for an open heart, faced with nothing but closed hearts by everyone around them. Jesus shows us a heart wide open for love of the enemy—of the people we were told to hate as the good and righteous thing to do.

This heart was also wide open to be wounded. Wide open to face rejection, betrayal, and absolute hatred from people he loved. That’s how it works in life doesn’t it? Many of us are afraid to open our hearts wide because we don’t want to be hurt again. Yet at the same time we know that we can’t experience the love we once experienced with a heart only halfway open. Sure, it’s safer and without much risk, but is that how we’re supposed to live? A heart that isn’t open to the most difficult pain also can’t be open to the most transformative joy and love. That’s how it works. You open it all the way for both to come in. This is what a full human life looks like. And Jesus came as a human to show us what it looks like to live fully human. He calls us to live in our full humanity.

In Ephesians 2 the apostle Paul talks of Jesus’ death on the cross tearing down boundaries and bringing together enemies. He says “His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.” Like an overwhelming magnet Jesus’ wide open heart draws everyone together. Isn’t this why so many people hate Christianity but really dig the person Jesus? They are drawn to his wide open heart, and often despise the closed hearts of so many Christians. This event was meant to tear down our walls, reconcile all humanity, and end the hostility. Then a group of people took this idea and built a new wall with it to keep the hostility going. Crazy, right?

Today let’s focus on that wide open heart of Jesus that calls us to live in our full humanity. Yes, we’re going to get hurt, stepped on betrayed but we also get the joy, love and grace that also comes with living a risky life of a heart wide open. This is so difficult for me because I’d rather be picky about who gets me at my widest and most caring. But I also understand that if I do that I am also closing myself off a whole world of possibility.

Jesus is the exemplar. Jesus is the archetype. Jesus is the model. Jesus shows us we can live this type of life, and tells his followers that they’ll do even greater things than he did. Let us follow that example and try to stretch those hearts just a little wider today.

More on Catherine, My Theological Crush

St.-Catherine-of-Siena-21

I want to write more about my theological crush, St. Catherine of Siena. Last time I wrote about her life. This time I want to talk about a quote of hers. Now, I am particularly fascinated with the way Catherine talks about love, and the way she talks about the obligation of love. Remember, for Catherine, to love God and to love others is one and the same thing, and one is not possible without the other. The more you love God the more you love your neighbor, and the more you love your neighbor the more you love God.

To not participate in this love is to deprive yourself and others in the worst way. In her Dialogue she speaks from the perspective of God and says “you harm your neighbors by depriving them of the prayer and loving desires you should be offering me on their behalf.”

Imagine living like that: believing that loving others, praying for others, and doing good for others were not special deeds, but a natural obligation. We care for others not to be a good human being, but to simply be a human being period, because that is what a human being is. To choose to participate in this kind of love is not a journey toward any sort of advanced humanity, or enlightened humanity. We learn to become more simply human by loving others. And that means embracing all the ways you and others are not advanced and enlightened, and loving those parts anyway.

Think of the people that have been a huge source of love and support in your life. If you have gotten the opportunity to express your gratitude to them you usually find that this person was never looking for any sort of thanks or reward for loving and supporting you. And they usually persist that they’re no more special than anyone else even though in your eyes this person is obviously way more special than everyone else, and you wish more people would follow their example. The people that do seem to insist that they are more special than others, and that do strive for thanks and rewards are usually the people that we don’t seem to recognize as loving and supportive. It is the people who live as if loving others is the most natural obligation to being simply human that we recognize as true sources of love.

On my desk I have a post-it-note that says “PRAY FOR ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING UNTIL YOU FIND YOURSELF PRAYING FOR MARS.” It’s kind of a hyperbolic message to myself to pray for everyone and everything you can think of—so much so that you find that there’s nothing left to possibly pray for except for the planet Mars. It began as a way to just remind myself to carve out time in the day to pray more since I found myself ending days wishing I had more time to pray.* It encourages me to think beyond myself.

Catherine would pray in her room for hours and hours every day. For Catherine praying for others was just as much of an obligation as loving others. Imagine living as if you believed that making petitions to the God of the universe on behalf of those you care about is a natural obligation to being human. I feel like that would radically transform the way you see others.

Catherine inspires me to choose love for the reason that it is simply what makes us human. And the ones I choose to love shall be chosen to love simply because they are human too. Living this way can shatter the boundaries and boxes we put people in all the time. As a member of society I am obligated to all sorts of identities and in-groups (which as we all know, in-groups are usually more defined by who is outside of the group than who is inside). However, as a Christian I should be obligated to love first, despite all the ways we say who’s in and who’s out.

I wish I knew people as radical as Catherine, and I hope that I can be just as radical myself. Now the word ‘radical’ come from the root word rad, which means root. It’s where we also get the word radish. This radical way of participating in a kind of love that flows between you, God, and others is actually the root of Christianity. This is where we should begin and end, and where all of our choices and desires should flow out from. Now, who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?

 

 

*it’s kind of odd how so many of us talk about not having time to pray, because the first official clocks were the ones in the church that would ring the church bell each hour of the day as a way of reminding people to pray at those times. Then over time we found several secular uses for keeping track of time and ended up breaking it down to minutes and seconds. So you can’t fit prayer into your schedule? Well, schedules were invented to give you time to pray!

Catherine, My Theological Crush

siena2-franchi

I don’t know if it’s possible to have a theological crush on someone, but if it is then I have definitely have one for St. Catherine of Sienna. She was born in 1347 in Sienna, Italy during the plague. This is a woman who, as Suzanna Noffke described as “a mystic whose plunge into God plunged her deep into the affairs of society”. How does that description of a person not excite you? This is a plunge that desire to take. Catherine is a hero to me. Catherine: saint, mystic, philosopher, theologian, peacemaker, preacher, writer, missionary, monastery founder, Church reformer…bae.

This woman took a vow of virginity to God at age 7! I imagine the other little girls talking about their dreams of being a wife and mother one day and this sassy little girl Catherine sitting there like: “…that’s dumb.”

At age 15 her sister died and her parents tried to make her marry her sister’s husband but she refused, and even cut off her hair and fasted so that she can look less attractive. (…as you do.)

At age 16 she joined a female branch of the Dominican order despite much protest, since they had previously only accepted widows. She served in the Order from home and committed herself to prayer and serving the poor. She would stay in her room for hours praying, only leaving the house to go to Mass, and not coming back until much later. She gave away everything she owned to the poor, and would even give away some of her family’s possessions without asking permission. (“Honey, I can’t find the new silverware we bought last week. Do you—wait…Catherine!”) On top of this she would reject her parents’ food and say she preferred the table and meal she would have with her real family in Heaven (which sounds like the saintly equivalent to the modern day teenager protesting at the dinner table: “Mom! I told you I refuse to eat animal corpses! I’m vegan!”)

So this story begins with Catherine sounding a lot like any other rebellious teenager, cutting her own hair, stealing from her parents, always stuck in her room, going out too much and for too long, refusing to live out the life anyone want for her, and remaining stubbornly independent. But what do you do with a teenager who acts this way only because all they care about is dedicating their life to Jesus? What parenting book could possibly be of any help to her poor mom and dad? Geez.

Then at age 21 things get even more interesting. She took her independence to the next level, and left her family in order to seek a life of solitude. What’s interesting about this time period is that you saw several people choose to live out their divine calling by getting involved in society and surrounding themselves with people they can serve. Meanwhile, others chose to live out their divine calling by living a life of solitude outside of society in deserts and caves where they can live like a hermit in constant prayer and meditation. While Catherine had sought to follow the latter example in the confines of her room she decided to leave her city for the first time in her life and find herself a cave of her own.

Her desire to live as a hermit ended when she had a spiritual experience of what she referred to as a mystical marriage to Christ. Within this experience Christ told her to return to public life and serve the poor and sick. So she returned with a new swagger and a new commitment to the poor and sick in society.

This is what I’m talking about when we talk about a plunge into God that can plunge you deeper into society. It’s beautiful. Catherine believed to love this God meant to love people, and to love people meant to love God. Both were just as true for her. There is no separation. There is no fork in the road that many people of her time and ours that people create for themselves, of: “dedicate my life to serving and loving God”, OR “dedicate my life to serving and loving people”? It is one and the same thing and one could not be possible without the other for Catherine.

Personally, I’ve gotten to an interesting place in my life as a Christian. I’ve always been able to relate with people who rant on about how terrible “the Church” is today and how so many Christians are giving it a bad name. Totally. I know what you mean. I’ve seen it just as much as anyone. Yet, when someone acts like that kind of stuff is what Christianity is, I’m simply dumbfounded. I think of people like Catherine. I think of some of my family and friends who live the same way; who believe that loving God and loving people is the same plunge that Christians are called to fully jump into. And I think to myself “THAT is what Christianity is!” The stuff they’re ranting about hardly comes on my radar anymore. I simply don’t have time to worry about everyone else who is making a bad name for Christianity. The tradition is more alive than ever in places that you’d least expect.

I read the words of St. Catherine of Siena (which we’ll get to another time) and I just want to say “YES!” and give her the biggest hug, and serve alongside her. She emulates a type of faith that is beautiful and exciting and a type of faith that our world needs more than ever.

Some Thoughts on Loving

4f823-sang-bleu_kintsugi

Love is a difficult word to describe, especially in the English language. You can say you love tacos, you love your cousin, you love your spouse, and you love your life, and in all those statements you are talking about different kinds of love.

The Greeks had four words for talking about love:

Storge – enjoying someone for their familiarity, whether that’s family or old friends

Philia – the strong and unbreakable bond between best friends

Eros – sexual desire; the root word for erotic

Agape – unconditional love; to love with no bounds, even without reciprocation

We experience the first three loves all the time, but it’s this fourth kind of love that can revolutionize how we love others.

Agape is the type of love that none of us deserve and yet we all need. It’s the type of love that chooses to forgive endlessly, and embrace people for the simple fact that we’re all human.

We can start by no longer seeing people as a means to an end, but see everyone as an end in itself. In other words, don’t treat people as something that’s going to get you something you want later. Approach all people as if just interacting with them is the final and most perfect goal you could ask for. Appreciate people for simply being human.

Another beautiful way of describing love is a Japanese concept called Wabi Sabi.

It’s not easily translatable to English, but it refers to the value and beauty of all things that are imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It’s even an aesthetic in Japanese art. A Wabi Sabi art piece would present a vase, but highlight the crack in the vase—or perhaps even fill in the crack with gold.

This is a beautiful analogy for how we can see each other. We’re all broken and imperfect. Our real beauty is in our unique quirks and imperfections that can only be seen and appreciated when we slow down and pay attention.

All things are impermanent.

All things are imperfect.

All things are incomplete.

And that means we all have room to grow and learn, so be more gracious with others and celebrate any small movement of growth or learning experience however you experience it.

You’re lovely just the way you are.

So is everyone else.

So love yourself and others a little bit more today. We all can use it.

What David Bowie Can Teach Youth Ministers

Processed with VSCO

My first thought when hearing of the passing of David Bowie was that even though David Bowie grew to be old he will be remembered as forever young, like many icons that passed too soon. You usually hear this said about legends like James Dean, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain who will be forever young because they died young, but David Bowie still seemed younger than ever during his last days and his legacy carries that on.

So what was it about David Bowie that drove that youthful spirit of his? Was it because he behaved like the young people of today or in the 70’s? Not at all. And he definitely didn’t follow the trends of young people of today or in the 70’s. I believe David Bowie’s spirit stayed young because he able to consistently be vulnerable in all his strangeness.

The myth that says the older you get the less out of touch you get with the youth is only true when it comes to surface behaviors and interests. But there’s something much deeper that connects the young and old. I’m talking about radical authenticity.

Even though all of David Bowie’s characters can’t exactly be labeled as his authentic self, each of those characters were each authentic fragments of the complexity that is David Bowie. Philosopher, Simon Critchley put it beautifully in his book Bowie: “Identity is a very fragile affair. It is at best a sequence of episodic blips rather than some grand narrative unity. As David Hume established long ago, our inner life is made up of disconnected bundles of perceptions that lie around like so much dirty laundry in the rooms of our memory.”

I definitely believe in some sort of concept of a true self, but I don’t think it’s accessible enough to ever be understood or explained. All we have is brief brushes with fragments of ourselves that combine somehow to make us who we are. What people like David Bowie do for young people is permit them to more freely explore all the fragments of their identity without shame. Bowie helped generation after generation feel comfortable in their own skin by being revolutionarily comfortable in his own skin.

Bowie was a voice for and to the young weirdos and freaks of the world. And when weirdos and freaks are given something to gather around outside the large circle of normalcy we try to fit into, that circle becomes smaller and smaller as you see how many people are actually outside feeling the same as you.

People like David Bowie are able to teach something to youth ministers who are currently struggling with helping youth feel safe and able to express themselves. It’s very important to pay attention to what connected David Bowie and youth underneath all the characters, make-up, and controversies.

I’ve grown tired of youth ministers who believe their ministry will work by following the trends of present day youth. I’ve seen it fail miserably, whether it’s through the minister being so current in pop culture that they end up making references over students’ heads (just because it’s popular among youth doesn’t automatically mean it’s popular among your youth), or on the other end they come off as fake and trying too hard. And youth don’t need yet another person in their lives who is more up to date on trends and memes than they are.

Face it. Following the trends of wearing oversized t-shirts and growing a man bun isn’t going to do anything for your ministry. It’s cool if you want to do that (I’ve started wearing slightly oversized t-shirts myself, but I don’t have the patience to grow out my hair) but it’s not going to make people feel more comfortable connecting to you. That comes through something a lot deeper than the references you make, and the ways you look and dress.

It comes through radical authenticity.

It comes through being vulnerable about your strangeness and fearlessly expressing it.

After all, we need less youth feeling like they need to be “cool” or “up-to-date”, and more youth permitted to be vulnerable turning and facing their strangeness, and embracing it.

In 1974 Bowie was asked about fans putting on costumes to look like him and he said that it was like that in the beginning but people were also discovering things about themselves that had nothing to do with him. “If I’ve been at all responsible for people finding more characters within themselves than they originally thought they had then I’m pleased,” Bowie explained. “Because that’s something I feel very strongly about: that one isn’t totally what one has been conditioned to think one is; that there are many facets of the personality, which a lot of us have trouble finding and some of us do find too quickly.”

I believe the reason there is so much confusion concerning identity in young people today is because society gives us labels with distinct interests and behaviors attached to each of those labels. Confusion comes when a person experiences behaviors and interests that spread across many labels and feel that something is wrong with them, instead of the weirdly strict nature of today’s labels. We should be allowed to both fully be ourselves and reinvent ourselves without labeling it.

There is something profoundly Jesus-like about all this.

Jesus’ entire ministry consisted of boundary breaking and label smashing whether that was taking the role usually filled by female slaves by preparing and serving his disciples food, or by hanging out with everyone kicked to the edges of society. Jesus was authentic at his core, and his authenticity brought out the authenticity in others.

Perhaps the constant ch-ch-ch-ch-changes in culture today demand not a trend following formula of youth ministry but more of an avant-garde, formula-rupturing approach to youth ministry, sprung forth from the beautiful strangeness of all those personally involved. This is the type of youth ministry that can actually make a difference in the lives our wonderfully complex young people. Let’s make things less ordinary, and more exciting. It is truly a gift, after all, to be able to live in such strange times as these, isn’t it?

The Messiness Required (Mark 8:31-38 from the Lectionary Gospel Reading)

tissot-behind

In this week’s passage in Mark 8:31-38 Jesus takes his disciples’ understanding of his reason for being there and completely flips it all upside down. He says he’ll be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes: the ones that his followers naturally sought the approval of. He goes on to say that he will be killed, and after three days rise again. So of course Peter tries to rebuke Jesus for saying such things, because the Messiah was supposed to be the one who takes the throne in Jerusalem and reestablishes the rule of God. Jesus disrupts that simple expectation and tells them that it’s going to be a lot messier.

Jesus says “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who want to lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” This language of taking up one’s cross can get confusing with all the familiar religious symbolism that surrounds the cross today. In that time all the cross symbolized was execution by the Roman government, and nothing else. If we take away the inherent horror of this passage then we miss the point and we wind up thinking Peter is being ridiculous for trying to calm Jesus down. But I’m pretty sure most of us would have had the same reaction as Peter.

Leaving the horror in without the sugarcoating, we see Jesus showing us a new way to relate to our life and to our death. I’ve been having a lot of conversations with people lately about death and leaving legacies, and it seems like the most honorable thing to do is to give up the desire for credit when it comes to trying to leave a legacy. The more honorable thing to do is to seek results more than credit. That means not getting the recognition you may think you deserve but part of maturing is seeing that recognition is so temporary. Results last longer.

Living life and doing work for a greater cause ends up being more life-giving than trying to hold tight to credit and recognition for the work that you do. For example, people would most likely be more offended if we decided to give someone like the CEO of Starbucks a $300 million bonus than if we were to give a $300 million bonus to someone like Mother Teresa. Jesus also says his followers would be known for their fruit (by what they do). Fruit speaks for you and people give more value to that than to what you say about yourself.

This is the kind of life Jesus is talking about when he talks about saving your life by losing it. One of my heroes, St. Francis of Assisi was a man who made himself more poor than everyone around him, refused to eat delectable food, ordered his followers to verbally abuse him whenever someone would speak well of him, and did many other things in order to debase himself from any high standing. Initially this sounds like a man who would be easily forgotten, but instead he became the most famous saint in history. This is how things actually work, and this is what Jesus is demonstrating with his life. This is the messiness required to be a follower of Jesus. You sacrifice your own life and ego, and throw yourself into this work of liberation and justice.

Jesus is trying to plug people into a story bigger than just you and your friends being restored, bigger than just you and your denomination being restored, bigger than just humans being restored; Jesus is in the business of restoring the whole thing. How? By demonstrating the process of sacrificing your own life and desires in order to bring life to those who do not have it. Then he gives us the responsibility of doing the same.

The kingdom of God is the present reality we step into when we let God’s mission of liberation become our own mission. The kingdom of God flips the traditional understanding of kingdoms upside down. In this kingdom you lose your life in order to save it and you lose your life if you try to save it yourself; the last are first and the first are last, the poor are the first to be blessed and the rich have received all the comfort they’re going to get; the hungry are fed, and the full are made hungry; those who weep will laugh and those who laugh will weep; God blesses those who are hated excluded, reviled and defamed, and brings sorrow to those who are spoken well of. We can go on all day with this stuff.

In this season of self-denial let us remember that this path is what leads to leaving a true legacy after our death. Let us loosen our tight grips on our reputation and our desire to be esteemed and recognized. Let us completely throw ourselves into the thing that God is doing in this world through those who choose to be his body in the world. This is our calling, our responsibility and our gift that Jesus gave to us all.

Hearts, Treasures, ‘Afterlife’ and Lent (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 from the Lectionary Gospel Reading)

ashes

And now, we’re in the season of Lent. Today’s passage is Matthew 6:1-6 and 16-21, which was read on Ash Wednesday. I won’t be doing the passage read on Sunday because my first post was on that very passage. It will help if you read those passages to understand everything I’m referencing because that’s easier than wasting space quoting full chunks of the passage in this post. We get one of the most memorable quotes from Jesus in this passage: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” And that’s what I want to focus on.

In Judaism this language of where the heart is was about what a person centered their life in. This is how Marcus Borg understands ‘faith’ in his Jesus: A New Vision. He sees faith as a matter of the heart, rather than intellectual belief. “Faith must mean something more than what the mind believes, namely a radical trust in God, a centering in God by the self at its deepest level.” He also notes that this “centering in God is the opposite of anxiety as well as the antidote to anxiety.” Shortly after this passage Jesus speaks of an anxiety tied to earthly possessions, saying “do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’”

This anxiety seems to be central to the hearts of the trumpet-blowing alms-givers and the hypocrites who pray for the streets to hear, and disfigure their faces so that others can know they’re fasting. They cling to temporary constructs of status and reputation so that they can receive a reward that’s just as temporary. This is what Jesus is referring to when he warns his listeners not to store up treasures on earth “where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal.” Instead he advises to store up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do no break in and steal.”

Sometimes we can read this verse about storing up treasures in heaven instead of earth and reduce it to this idea of doing a good deed and imagining a point being marked up for you in this heavenly realm somewhere else, waiting there for you to receive after you die. This idea runs the same way we understand working a specific amount of hours, knowing we’re going to see it on our future paycheck. We work overtime and think of the extra money that will be racked up later. However when we view the way of life that Jesus is presenting here this way then all we’re doing is waiting for this cosmic paycheck that we’ll receive when we die for all the work we did. This is not what Jesus was talking about.

The Jewish understanding of any type of afterlife that existed in Jesus’ time was of what the rabbis called Olam Ha-Ba (The World to Come). And it doesn’t necessarily mean a literal different world waiting somewhere else and arriving, but it’s referring to what this world will be like in the next age after this one. Actually in the Hebrew Bible (The Old Testament) any idea of there being more life after death didn’t develop until around the time of the exile, when God banished the Israelites from the Promised Land and handed them over to enemy nations. As a nation that spent most of the their existence being defeated, enslaved, exploited, and massacred throughout the centuries the prophets developed this idea of a day when God would restore it all. John Dominic Crossan refers to this idea as God’s “great clean-up of the world.” It’s a day when God raises everyone from the dead to judge all the nations and remove all forms of injustice and violence; in order to bring his reign of peace and prosperity.

There is no concept of leaving to some other realm somewhere else after you die in the Bible but what we read again and again is this expectation of God restoring, renewing and reconciling everything, and bringing his dwelling place among us; not to say that his dwelling place is somewhere else for now, but that the clouds of mystery that surround God will be removed, allowing us to fully experience that dwelling. This is what we mean by heaven. This is Olam Ha-Ba.

So how does one store up treasures in this World to Come? We do it by living as if we are already experiencing the World to Come. As Jesus said in the Lord’s Prayer “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” God is calling people to throw away the scorecards and to take up for yourselves the kind of life that God is bringing in this World to Come. If the purpose of God’s “great clean-up of the world” is to eradicate injustice and bring peace, then as God’s people this should be our purpose as well. We help create the kind of world that God would want to dwell by doing our part in bringing peace to the world.

This season of Lent is a season of reflection and self-denial, leading up to commemorating the ultimate self-denial of Jesus on the Cross on Good Friday. This kind of path takes courage and humility. It requires us to loosen our grips of temporary value and this is what we do when we give up things during this season. It’s important that we do not see the things we give up as necessarily wrong or evil, but in giving them up it reminds us of how we should hold these things. A tight grip on temporary valuables will get us nowhere. If we hold temporary valuables loosely however we are freed to throw ourselves into this path of Jesus: the path of living the World to Come and enacting the present reality of the kingdom of God. And I want to be able to center my heart on that.

Waiting To Be Transfigured (Mark 9:2-9 from the Lectionary Gospel Reading)

dark_clouds_hd_by_mattthesamurai-d37p539

Here on Transfiguration Sunday and the last Sunday of the season of Epiphany we’re jumping quite a few chapters over to look at Mark’s account of the transfiguration in Mark 9:2-9. Jesus takes Peter, James and John up to a high mountain where they witness Jesus transfigured (or transformed, in Greek: metamorphoō). Jesus’s clothes become ‘dazzling white’ while Moses and Elijah appear to converse with Jesus. Out of fear Peter suggests making three dwellings for each of them when he is interrupted by an overshadowing cloud saying “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Then everything disappears except for Jesus. As they walk down the mountain Jesus orders his disciples to tell no one of the event until he has risen from the dead.

Okay, now what do we do with this story??

It’s a story that many Christians (particularly from the Western Christian tradition) tend to forget when surveying the life of Jesus. We can dismiss this story, and make the mistake of viewing it as less significant than Jesus’s miracles and teachings. We could also dismiss it because of its odd nature. It is difficult for the modern individual to take a story like this seriously. And yet several of us have had weird and unexplainable experiences in life that have changed us. And even though we take those experiences more seriously than anything else, if we were asked to explain them to a group of strangers we may find ourselves fumbling over our words, afraid of sounding ridiculous. I believe Peter, James and John experienced something very similar.

This is an epiphany. It’s a manifestation, or appearance of something. Today people might call this a mystical experience, where some feel a sense of oneness with the divine (or something beyond ourselves). This ‘oneness’ can simply be a feeling of the lines and boundaries you mentally created to divide people, or events, or ideas suddenly disappear. It’s when the boxes that you neatly compartmentalized in your mind explode and you realize that things aren’t as you once thought they were.

The word ‘mystical’ comes from the Greek μυω, which means ‘to conceal’ and it’s also where we get the word ‘mystery’. In relation to God we can see it as the humble confession that there is a concealed nature to this mysterious God that we cannot know. For me, a mystical experience is an unexplainable encounter with the concealed nature of God that opens our eyes to the revealed nature of God; and the revealed nature of God is that which has always been revealed to us, but we were not aware of it.

For Jesus’ disciples this transfiguration had revealed that which had always been revealed. Peter had even confessed to Jesus that he believed that Jesus was the Messiah about a week before this event. The transfiguration proves that belief and confession isn’t much until you’ve actually experienced the thing you’re talking about.

But here’s where things get tricky. How did these young fishermen ultimately experience God?

Through an overshadowing cloud.

Apparently the purpose of this epiphany isn’t to reveal every mystery.

It was through a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night that God had led the Israelites out of slavery. Of course this scene is also a way of portraying Jesus as a continuation of the prophets of Israel. God used Moses to liberate the Israelites out of slavery, and then to give them the Law on Mt. Sinai, where Moses’ appearance was also transfigured whenever he would meet with God on the mountain. Through all of this Moses was given the responsibility of representing God, as God told him before going to Pharaoh “See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh.” Elijah was known as the greatest of the prophets, and also represented God, since the prophets were known for speaking on God’s behalf. And then there’s Jesus, on a mountain with these Jewish heroes. And a cloud, who has also represented God says of Jesus “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” We see all these images that had represented God in Israel’s past: Moses, Elijah, the cloud, the mountain, all coming together in one big and terrifying event. Then Mark adds “Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.”

The purpose of this scene is to show Jesus as the representation of God, equally significant to every other representation of God in Israel’s past. Skip to the end and you find that Jesus gives his followers that responsibility among his departure. And this is the complexity of God that we are left with. All we have is the revealed nature of God. All we have are representations. Religion points to God, but as for God, we are left with a mystery.

As the season of Epiphany comes to a close I want to be reminded that these epiphanies, whether in the New Testament or today, are epiphanies of the revealed nature of God. And if we fool ourselves into thinking that God has been fully revealed to us, or that we’ve caught God in just the right lines and boundaries to explain him, then we are dealing with something that is not God.

In his book, Everything Belongs, Richard Rohr says “The last experience of God is frequently the greatest obstacle to the next experience of God.” Our appetite for certainty is as natural as our appetite for food. The mistake we can make with epiphanies is that we can take it to be the final revelation of God necessary to formulate who exactly God is. And yet the more tightly we hold onto that, the harder it is for us to experience God again in new and fresh ways. We must take these experiences absolutely seriously but hold them loosely, remembering that what we have experienced is simply pointing to God; while God rests beyond our appetite for certainty, slipping out of our tightly fisted grasps.

I choose to believe that something actually happened on a mountain somewhere in Galilee that made these men tell this story among the first Christians, ending up in the Gospel of Mark decades later. Perhaps it happened exactly how it is written or perhaps this account is the author’s best attempt at putting this miraculous event into words, using symbols, metaphors, and images that his readers would understand. Either way I believe that they did experience a transfiguration and that transfiguration continues today.

Epiphanies are all around us, waiting to be transfigured for what they truly are before our very eyes. All it takes is some humility, the ability to hold our notions of God a bit more loosely, and the desire to not only be born again, but to be born again and again and again.

Jesus Didn’t Have a ‘Messiah Complex’ (Mark 1:29-39 from the Lectionary Gospel Reading)

200_s

Or “Why Jesus Did NOT Crowd Surf”

Today’s passage is Mark 1:29-39.

Jesus’ reputation as a healer is perhaps the most undisputed claim among historical Jesus scholars. Of course Jesus was not the only healer, exorcist or wonder worker in first century Palestine. ‘Wonder worker’ was a very common occupation and everyone in Galilee knew of these men, whether they were Jews proclaiming to be performing miracles by the power of God, or Gentiles performing ‘magic’, which was against both Jewish and Roman law. What set Jesus a part however from the others is that he healed people and exorcised demons free of charge. In Jesus’ day no one else was doing this kind of thing without requiring compensation. We may read these stories of huge crowds chasing Jesus begging to be healed and think that it was because they had never seen anyone healed before. Now we can see that the reason word may have spread so fast is because this man was healing and exorcising without requiring these poor individuals to empty their pockets.

According to cultural anthropologist, Bruce J. Malina, in the first century Jewish world, where the ideal was to be honorable, there were many subtle sensibilities that enforced this ideal in their culture. “The honorable persons never admit to initiation bonds or alliances with others; such things either ‘just happen’ or they are ‘asked by another’.” It was considered shameful to offer your services to someone because it “may be interpreted as presuming or imposing on others, trying to get something to which they may not be entitled.” This is why we don’t see Jesus volunteering to heal people, but he is always sought out and asked by others. It’s Simon who asks Jesus to heal his mother-in-law and it’s Jesus who asks the disciples to follow him. The only two people who asked to follow Jesus (offer their service) in Luke 9:57-62 aren’t fit to be his followers in Jesus’ eyes. The rest of Jesus’ followers follow him after he heals them. This happened several times. They asked for Jesus’ healing (for his service), he healed them, and then they followed him (serving him). This is why Simon’s mother-in-law’s first instinct is to serve Jesus after he heals her.

Malina also points out that most people did not thank Jesus after he healed them. It was shameful to express gratitude or compliment someone of equal status because it would imply that the relationship of mutual obligation is over and that they could not be compensated. Instead of thanking Jesus people usually “praised God from whom good health comes, further implying that they might have to interact with Jesus again should illness strike later. To thank Jesus would mean that the relationship is over.” It was honorable, however, to compliment or express gratitude to a person of higher status, but still considered a sign that no further interactions should be expected. Jesus seems to discourage this treatment of him, such as refusing to be called ‘Good Teacher’ in Mark 10, saying “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” We also see this attitude when Jesus tells people to not tell anyone of their healing after he heals them, telling his disciples not to tell anyone that he is the Messiah, and not letting demons speak while casting them out “because they knew him.”

What we see in this passage is that Jesus joins in these open-ended and unfinished relationships with all these people that he heals…and then he leaves. There is always a great amount of confusion, frustration, and sometimes even violence whenever Jesus leaves a town. Usually we interpret these scenes to mean that these townspeople are just being strangely selfish, wanting to keep Jesus to themselves or something. However, Jesus is always the strange one in all these situations of leaving, not the townspeople.

If we see Jesus as a pretentious know-it-all, imposing his ‘much needed abilities’ on everyone then we’re talking about a completely fictitious Jesus. Even Jesus didn’t have a Messiah complex, having an inflated sense of ability and privilege, or holding himself at a higher status than other individuals. Jesus didn’t act or live like that. We find it easier to imagine a crowd surfing Jesus rather than the real Jesus who ran away from each crowd much before they would consider it. Right at the point where he knew that people understood who he was he knew they would want to exalt him. Instead of basking in their exaltations he leaves to the next town. He does this through every town, telling his disciples that this is leading to an execution, not a throne.

Again and again Jesus gathers these huge crowds and gives them the message that the kingdom of God has arrived, whether that’s through teachings or healings, and when they get it he leaves the crowd there. Mark says that the whole city was gathered at the door of Simon’s house. Jesus gives them the picture of the arrival of the kingdom of God and then he leaves, perhaps to allow them to turn to each other. Throughout Jesus’ whole ministry he is trying to show his followers that this kingdom of God thing is collaborative.

Desmond Tutu once misquoted Augustine of Hippo, giving us the brilliant phrase: “God without you won’t; you without God can’t.” In other words God won’t bring this kingdom of God without your collaboration, and you can’t collaborate in this kingdom of God without the help of God. This is why I believe Jesus gathers crowds, reveals the kingdom of God, and leaves, again and again.

This is Epiphany! The Church Calendar season of Epiphany is ending soon as we prepare to enter into Lent so let us try to understand the full Epiphany of Christ. To let this present reality of the kingdom of God flourish requires our collaboration. To turn around and go home after the big epiphany is to completely miss the point of Jesus’ life and message. To follow Jesus is to do what he did and to be what he was in the world today. Between the major epiphanies of the divine that we experience we are to collaborate in this revealed kingdom of God by being the body of Christ; the hands and feet, the flesh and bones, the blood and skin of Jesus. This is the purpose of the Epiphany of Christ. To miss this is to miss everything.