Monday, May 9, 2011

Emmaeus and Osama

The image of journeying down a road has long been an important one in prose, poetry, music, and film. The meaning of the metaphor, of course changes over time and circumstance, but we seem to return to it, perhaps because it is such a common experience. Roads, in particular, are built with the express purpose of making it easier for us to get from one place to another. It is no wonder that the story of the Disciples meeting the resurrected Jesus on the Road to Emmaeus is such a powerful one for us.

One way we imagine roads is as a symbol of our attempt to discover something, particularly something about ourselves. Jack Kerouac's, On the Road comes to mind. Under this metaphor, the destination fades in importance and it is the trip itself that becomes most valuable.

Long before Kerouac came along, though, the Church had encouraged pilgrimages. While Christians have holy sites that we encourage people to go to, there is no one place that is required. Some go to Jerusalem or Rome, others head to Iona, the Taize community in France, or a hundred other places around the world. It is the idea of taking extended periods of time out of our lives to reflect and learn about ourselves and our relationship with God that becomes most important, not the destination.

When it became clear that many would not be able to make such a pilgrimage, we adopted the labyrinth as an alternative. In a labyrinth, unlike a maze, there is only one path that you follow to the center. There is no need for decision making, and there is no great city waiting at the end, so the pilgrim has nothing to focus upon other than making the journey, which becomes more of a journey into the soul than a physical event.

There is a second way in which the road is used, however, one that contrasts significantly with this one: it is the idea of the road as the place we go to get away from something. When someone says, "It's time to hit the road." they mean that they have stayed too long. The reference may be to a relationship that has come to an end, or to a life that has become complacent. We may hit the road when we are angry, frustrated, or feel trapped. When one takes to the road in this meaning, it quite often is a literal leaving town, but not always.

It is this second image of the road that seems to be behind the story of the Emmaeus road. After the empty tomb is found in Luke, the women meet angels who tell them that Jesus is alive. They run to the apostles and repeat the story. However, the apostles have trouble believing their tale.

Thus, we find two disciples on the road. Suddenly Jesus appears to them, though not in a way they recognize. When he appears to not know what has happened in Jerusalem, they make clear that they believe the body has been stolen. They also tell their walking companion that they had thought Jesus would restore Israel--i.e., lead a rebellion to overthrow the Romans. With his death, though, comes despair. And so, they apparently abandon this failed venture and hit the road.

However, Jesus takes this journey and redirects it from 'hitting the road' to a 'journey of discovery.' He teaches them about himself and reveals himself in the bread. In the end, they never make it to Emmaeus, but return to Jerusalem to tell the story of their encounter.

At this point, it is probably important to mention that archeologists have never positively identified the location of Emmaeus. Luke tells us it was about seven miles from Jerusalem, but does not say which direction. Today, there are several sites that have been identified as possibly being Emmaeus, but not definitively. In a certain sense then, the trip's destination really is not the point.

There is one more road metaphor worth mentioning here, that of coming to the end of a road. We use that image when we want to talk about something running out of energy or steam. People talk about a romance coming to the end of the road, but this metaphor is just as easily used to talk about a failing business venture such as a restaurant or a plan that has failed to produce the desired results.

For almost ten years, the United States has hunted Osama bin Laden. It was part of the strategy had led us into two wars, increased our security budgets exponentially, and brought many attempts to curb freedoms in America in the name of security. This kill, however, was long seen as an important step towards making the U.S. safe from terrorists.

Did it? Do you feel safer now?

The reality is that little changed last week when we raided that compound. Don't get me wrong. I wanted to see justice done for 9/11. I'm not sure that is what we got exactly, but I did not think bin Laden should go unpunished, just that a trial would have been better. That was not to be, apparently.

But I maintain that little changed. We are still in two wars--and no, we cannot just go home now after tearing up two countries for all these years--and al Qaeda is still out there too. And declaring plans to retaliate. No one is safer.

The fact is, we are at the end of the road. We have pursued this policy of righteous indignation since 2001, and there is no sign of it working yet. And why is that?

For one thing, it is because we have chosen to hide behind labels of evil and insane to justify any action we take towards the perpetrators without regard for the reasons they might have had for what they did. We never stopped to ask why they hated us so much because we assumed our complete innocence.

Don't get me wrong. The 9/11 acts were never justified. They were wrong pure and simple. But when people organize and spend millions to plot acts of terror like the ones of that day, there is clearly some sense of desperation involved. And for every extremist willing to blow him or her self up, there are a hundred or a thousand other people just as angry, but more restrained, feeling the same anger. And so far, we have not explored why.

We never mention the economic poverty, the propped up dictators, the exploitation of their natural resources. We never mention the way they see us benefiting from their cheap labor or our failure to respond to human rights violations by their governments. We never mention being the ones who buy the drugs that are grown instead of food plants.

At some point we have to stop and ask ourselves why they hate us so much. And we never have asked it in part because we have some pretty good ideas about what the answers would be. So now we find ourselves down this road which is ending right before us. It should never have been this long.

For Christians at least, this does not have to be a dead end. The other road has always been there for us to take should we choose to do so. It is a lot less traveled, and will require more work on our part to traverse. But it is not a road of death. It is the road that Jesus walks and calls us to walk as well, the road of discovery we so desperately need to walk if we ever wish to find reconciliation and life.

Which way are you going? Which road will you be on?

Friday, March 4, 2011

Young People in Church?

This moment is being given to one Tamie Fields Harkins a blogger at In a posting last November, she had this to say. i can't say it better.

When I was an Episcopal chaplain--for four years--all the time people in the church would ask me, "Why don't young people come to church?" or "How do we get young people to come to church?" I have some suggestions now, so listen up.

Here is a step-by-step plan for how to get more young people into the church:

1. Be genuine. Do not under any circumstances try to be trendy or hip, if you are not already intrinsically trendy or hip. If you are a 90-year-old woman who enjoys crocheting and listens to Beethoven, by God be proud of it.

2. Stop pretending you have a rock band.

3. Stop arguing about whether gay people are okay, fully human, or whatever else. Seriously. Stop it.

4. Stop arguing about whether women are okay, fully human, or are capable of being in a position of leadership.

5. Stop looking for the "objective truth" in Scripture.

6. Start looking for the beautiful truth in Scripture.

7. Actually read the Scriptures. If you are Episcopalian, go buy a Bible and read it. Start in Genesis, it's pretty cool. You can skip some of the other boring parts in the Bible. Remember though that almost every book of the Bible has some really funky stuff in it. Remember to keep #5 and #6 in mind though. If you are evangelical, you may need to stop reading the Bible for about 10 years. Don't worry: during those ten years you can work on putting these other steps into practice.

8. Start worrying about extreme poverty, violence against women, racism, consumerism, and the rate at which children are dying worldwide of preventable, treatable diseases. Put all the energy you formerly spent worrying about the legit-ness of gay people into figuring out ways to do some good in these areas.

9. Do not shy away from lighting candles, silence, incense, laughter, really good food, and extraordinary music. By "extraordinary music" I mean genuine music. Soulful music. Well-written, well-composed music. Original music. Four-part harmony music. Funky retro organ music. Hymns. Taize chants. Bluegrass. Steel guitar. Humming. Gospel. We are the church; we have a uber-rich history of amazing music. Remember this.

10. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

11. Learn how to sit with people who are dying.

12. Feast as much as possible. Cardboard communion wafers are a feast in symbol only. Humans can not live on symbols alone. Remember this.

13. Notice visitors, smile genuinely at them, include them in conversations, but do not overwhelm them.

14. Be vulnerable.

15. Stop worrying about getting young people into the church. Stop worrying about marketing strategies. Take a deep breath. If there is a God, that God isn't going to die even if there are no more Christians at all.

16. Figure out who is suffering in your community. Go be with them.

17. Remind yourself that you don't have to take God to anyone. God is already with everyone. So, rather than taking the approach that you need to take the truth out to people who need it, adopt the approach that you need to go find the truth that others have and you are missing. Go be evangelized.

18. Put some time and care and energy into creating a beautiful space for worship and being-together. But shy away from building campaigns, parking lot expansions, and what-have-you.

19. Make some part of the church building accessible for people to pray in 24/7. Put some blankets there too, in case someone has nowhere else to go for the night.

20. Listen to God (to Wisdom, to Love) more than you speak your opinions.

This is a fool-proof plan. If you do it, I guarantee that you will attract young people to your church. And lots of other kinds of people too. The end.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Does Sarcasm Become Jesus?

Being as I am wholly associated with a denomination that can be incredibly unforgiving of rudeness (or of choosing the wrong fork at dinner), the title question seems to be a no-brainer. Surely Jesus would never want to condone a form of humor that calls attention to the foibles of its audience. Why even ask the question? Except....

Like many preachers, I began last week's sermon by reading the lessons. For those of you in non-lectionary churches, you need to know that we have assigned sets of lessons for each week, last week being the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany. The value of this is that we do not get to pass over those biblical passages that are difficult for us. Sooner or later, they come around, and we are forced to wrestle with the difficult areas of our own understanding.

Last week was one of those weeks. The passage was Matthew 5:21-37. Besides including the stuff about looking at women with lust in our hearts, there is that piece, smack in the middle of the reading, about cutting out your eye or cutting off your hand if it causes you to sin.

Now, conservative evangelicals love this passage. It actually uses the words lust, adultery, sin, and hell. What could be better? Just take out that floppy Bible to wave around and go to town! Today is the day for that altar call you wanted to have to make sure everyone gets saved from the depravity of lust leading them to hell. Never mind the fact that the passage has nothing to do with being saved, and the hell reference is for not being reconciled with your brother or sister.

Liberals do everything in their power to say that Jesus' words were not to be take literally. Of course Jesus does not want you to cut off your hand. No, Jesus is merely trying to point out how important this is. And, by the way, in this version, the whole passage is really about how obedience to God is impossible without God's unearned grace, which, we receive in baptism.

Did you notice how both sides just ended up at essentially the same place? Whether it is an altar call or a declaration of the saving effects of baptism, they have diverted from Jesus' point, which was about a faithful life.

Just prior to this passage, Jesus was talking about how he came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it. What we have here is his take on a few of the laws and what they were intended to do. It's not enough to not commit murder; you need to treat your brother and sister well and repair any enmity between you when it occurs. It is not enough to tell the truth; you should keep any vows you make (including wedding vows), and you should be so trustworthy that you do not need to swear oaths because people will know that you will do what you say you will do.

And in between those two is the one about not lusting in your heart, followed by the cutting of body parts. Here's the thing. Most of the time, people who refer to the eye and hand passage remove it from the lust passage (Let's face it; either one of those gives you plenty to work with, right?). But they really should be looked at together. Why would Jesus (or at least Matthew) put them back to back?

Have you ever really thought about what it means to say "If your eye causes you to sin..." Really? Your eye causes you to sin. Your eye or your hand is some independent agent committing atrocities apart from the rest of you? I don't think so!
Don't try telling the judge "My hand stole the money, not me." Does Jesus suddenly sound a bit sarcastic? You betcha!

Surely at least part of Jesus' point was to remind us that we have agency over what our various body parts do (apart from an occasional unplanned belch, or...well, you get the idea!). Your hand does not cause you to sin. If anything, you cause your hand to sin. The eye does not commit lust in your heart. It sees the object of lust, and you take it from there.

In other words, take some responsibility for what you do, and begin to take steps to change your life. Now, the liberal theologians can come in and remind us of Paul's understanding of sin and grace. And the conservatives can remind us that what we do has real consequences (I'll leave the bumpy road to a theology of hell for another day.). In the meantime, I'll take Jesus' words to remind me that the letter of the law is not even hardly the point.

Note: All of you trying to get the 10 commandments placed on the courtroom walls, please stop it. You are reinforcing the opposite of what Jesus tried to teach. And the fact that you don't even realize it should tell you to rethink this one.

And me? Well, I have reconciled with an old friend already this week, so I am trying my best to live Jesus' words. But mostly, I am laughing at Jesus' joke. Now, if my mouth would just stop eating fattening foods....

Monday, January 10, 2011

Tucson, Ourselves, and Violence

Yes, I have been away a long time. Just have not much felt like writing. That is coming to an end, and I will return soon with much more.

In the meantime, here is something that I penned in response to a challenge from Diana Butler Bass, adapted from my sermon yesterday. I have included her words because they provide the context.

With remarkable clarity, Dianna Butler Bass, Church historian and frequent Internet writer summed up the situation surrounding the violence in Tucson on Saturday. Within hours, she posted this note:

“The Sunday after Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, my husband's family attended their Presbyterian church. They went with heavy hearts, expecting the pastor to help make sense of the tragedy. The minister rose to preach. The congregation held its breath. But he said nothing of the events in Memphis. He preached as if nothing had happened.

“My husband's family left church that day disappointed; eventually, they left that church altogether.

“This Sunday, many Americans will go to church. A sizeable number of those people may be hoping to hear something that helps them make sense of the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the others who had gathered at her sidewalk townhall in Tucson. Some pastors may note the event in prayer and some may say something during announcements or add a sentence to their sermons. But others might say nothing, sticking instead to prepared texts and liturgies. Many will eschew speaking of politics.

“That would be a mistake.

“Much of American public commentary takes place on television, via the Internet, and through social networks. We already know what form the analysis of the assassination attempt will be. Everyone will say what a tragedy it is. Then commentators will take sides. Those on the left will blame the Tea Party's violent rhetoric and "Second Amendment solutions." Those on the right will blame irresponsible individuals and Socialism. Progressives will call for more gun control; conservatives will say more people should carry guns. Everyone will have some sort of spin that benefits their party, their platform, and their policies.

“But who will speak of the soul?

“Since President Obama has taken office, many ministers have told me that they have feared addressing public issues from the pulpit lest "someone get hurt." Well, someone is hurt--and people have died--most likely because bitterly partisan lies have filled the air and most certainly because some unhinged individual killed people.

“At their best, American pulpits are not about taking sides and blaming. Those pulpits should be places to reflect on theology and life, on the Word and our words. I hope that sermons tomorrow will go beyond expressions of sympathy or calls for civility and niceness. Right now, we need some sustained spiritual reflection on how badly we have behaved in recent years as Americans--how much we've allowed fear to motivate our politics, how cruel we've allowed our discourse to become, how little we've listened, how much we've dehumanized public servants, how much we hate.

“Sunday January 9 is the day on which many Christians celebrate the Baptism of Jesus: "When Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, 'This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.'" Jesus' baptism in water symbolizes life, the newness that comes of cleansing. But there is a darker symbol of baptism in American history: that of blood. In 1862, Episcopal bishop Stephen Elliot of Georgia said, "All nations which come into existence . . . must be born amid the storm of revolution and must win their way to a place in history through the baptism of blood." Baptism as water? Baptism as blood? Baptism accompanied by a dove or baptism accompanied by the storm of revolution?

“American Christianity is deeply conflicted, caught between two powerful symbols of baptism, symbols that haunt our political sub-consciousness. To which baptism are we called? Which baptism does the world most need today? Which baptism truly heals? Do we need the water of God, or the blood of a nine-year old laying on a street in Tucson? The answer is profoundly and simply obvious. We need redemption gushing from the rivers of God's love, not that of blood-soaked sidewalks.
“If we don't speak for the soul, our silence will surely aid evil.”


So let’s speak for the soul today. Let’s be reminded that Jesus’ life and ministry were all about not doing things the normal way. Let’s remember that, when the people were looking for a powerful military hero as the Messiah, one who would bring that baptism of blood, John and Jesus held to a different way of change, one that started within and spread out. Let’s remember that violence—even the violence of hate-filled speech—has never been the way of the Christ.

In just a few minutes, we will recite the words of our Baptismal covenant. Now, the Baptismal Covenant in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer was unique in the Anglican Communion when it came out. Back in the 1970s, the Episcopal Church was still referred to by many as the Republican Party at prayer. We had more members in Congress than any other religious group at the time, and, despite being 3% of the population then, we had produced more presidents. We had the highest level of education and income in the land.

What made our Baptismal Covenant suddenly unique from those of the rest of the Church—and not just the rest of Anglicanism, by the way—was our addition of five questions in the end that were not about what we believed but about how we intended to live out the Christian faith.

People outside of faith communities often think that liturgy is just the repetition of words for some kind of comfort that has little or no meaning. Nothing could be further from the truth. Liturgy done well shapes meaning and understanding in our lives, gives context and purpose to our behavior.

Bishop Curry of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina believes, and, upon reflection, I have come to agree with him, that those five questions about our behavior have been transformative, not only for individuals in the Episcopal Church, but for our Church as a whole. Preachers quote them all the time. “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?” “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?” “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” And we as people respond, “I will, with God’s help.”

If Bishop Curry is right, the repetition of those vows, the teaching of them, and preaching about them have changed us. And those questions are largely behind what has put us at odds with much of the rest of Anglicanism. Those words have pushed us from merely thinking about what we believe to attempting to live what we believe.
When I tell students—even students who have been raised in the Episcopal Church—the line about us being the Republican Party at prayer, they are shocked. That Church is not the Church they know. Even those who have been raised in fairly conservative Episcopal churches wonder how that appellation could have ever been applied to what is now seen as the left wing of Anglicanism and of American Christianity. It’s not that conservative thought has disappeared by any means. But we have become a much broader church, open to exploring a lot of new ideas of what it means to live our faith.

So what are we to do now? We celebrate and remember our baptism. In January, the first month of the year, we also frequently on who we are and what changes we wish to make.

Now, Church critics are right if that Covenant ever becomes merely comfortable words for us. If we are not the Republican Party at prayer, then we are not the Democratic Party at prayer either. Or the conservatives or progressives or the Tea Party or the birthers. We are the body of Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit to bring a different way of living into the world.

And, in the wake of yesterday’s tragedy, that means refusing to accept a place in business as usual, upholding one set of talking head commentators as it blasts another set for what is exactly the same behavior. It means turning off the 24 hour news media, that—have you noticed—almost never broadcasts news shows anymore.
Most of all, it means seeing one another, including those we have come to see as our enemies, as human beings, even when they cannot see us in the same way. Jesus never said do unto others as they do unto you. He said do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It means refusing to accept soundbite theology as being any way for Christians to think or express ourselves. And it means the renunciation of violence as a destructive rather than constructive force for change—and I mean the language of violence in which we destroy our opponents with our arguments.
We Americans are amazing in our desire to see the Israelis and the Palestinians sit down and talk through a settlement rather than go to war. We said the same thing in South Africa, in Northern Ireland, in other global hotspots. Yet our language towards one another is death and destruction. And, occasionally, it erupts in actual violence.

The Unibomber. The Oklahoma City massacre. The recent Post Office bombings in Maryland. And now, the death of a nine-year-old girl and five others, along with a Congresswoman fighting for her life. That language eats at our souls. Is that who we Christian Americans really want to be?

Notice the order I place those words. Christian Americans, not the other way around. In so doing, I remind us of the proper order of those two commitments. Peter reminds us in the tenth chapter of the book of Acts that God shows no partiality based on nationality or class, and calls us to do the same. Let us vow to make the language of our mouths reflect the language of our Savior.

So we begin again today. With the words of the Baptismal Covenant. With the commitment to changed lives. With not just the denunciation of violence but the renunciation of it. With our vow to live differently, according to the will of God.
And then, slowly, surely, we might begin to reclaim our souls. Then we can truly transform this country from hatred. Then we can see the Shalom that God calls us to as we live out the Kingdom of God. Then we will understand, finally, the meaning of death and resurrection that is our baptism. Let us begin.