Sunday, April 29, 2012
Sunday, April 8, 2012
Sermon Easter Sunday April 8, 2012
Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Good! Okay! Wonderful! But what does that mean?
We all have that question, I think: Christ is risen – but I’m still the same old dope I’ve always been. Christ is risen – but my father is still beating up my mother. Christ is risen – but politicians still lie and cheat and steal. Christ is risen – but women and children in Syria are still being murdered.
So what good is it? What does it actually mean?
Do you ever wonder about that?
Well, the first question I think we have to ask is this: Is Christ really risen, or not? Because to look at the state of things, sometimes it’s hard to believe that he actually is.
Barbara Ehrenreich, that wonderful writer, wrote a book about the working class in the United States. To do her research, she actually went “undercover,” working as a waitress and a hotel maid and a house cleaner for $6 - $7/hour. Her question was, “How does anyone survive on those kinds of wages? How does anyone get ahead?” And her answer was that most of the time, they don’t.
Anyway, one day she went to a church revival meeting where a lot of her co-workers were going to church. She found herself sitting with these incredibly hard-working and poor people, while the preacher went on and on about believing in Jesus so they could go to heaven. She wrote:
It would be nice if someone would read this sad-eyed crowd the Sermon on the Mount, accompanied by a rousing commentary on income inequality and the need for a hike in the minimum wage. But Jesus makes his appearance here only as a corpse; the living [Jesus]… is never once mentioned, nor anything he ever had to say. Christ crucified rules, and it may be that the true business of modern Christianity is to crucify him again and again so that he can never get a word out of his mouth. (Quoted by Borg and Crossan in The Last Week.)
She concludes her story by saying, “I get up to leave,… and walk out to search for my car, half expecting to find Jesus out there in the dark, gagged and tethered to a tent pole.”
This has become a very familiar kind of criticism that we hear a lot these days: that the people most responsible for keeping Jesus crucified are Christians themselves, especially preachers. And so we see things like the YouTube video entitled “Why I hate religion but love Jesus.” If you haven’t seen it, just ask your kids, they probably have – at last count had over 20 million hits. And so we have this cover story in Newsweek by Andrew Sullivan: “Forget the Church; Follow Jesus.” And so we have countless celebrities, who are happy to talk about Jesus as their “guru” but are quick to say that of course they think organized religion is for the birds.
And of course, the thing is, they’re right: there are all sorts of ways in which modern Christianity is the first offender against Jesus. On the one hand, conservative churches are selling their souls to gain favor with right-wing politicians while ignoring everything that Jesus and the Bible actually says about economic justice; and on the other hand liberal churches are so lacking in imagination and stuck in the rhetoric of the 1960’s that they are quickly becoming obsolete.
All that is true. And I just wish all of those people would just come to our church and see how it’s done right! If only all Christians would become Episcopalians! Then we’d get it right for a change!
But seriously, I think it's fair to say that here, Jesus is not found bound and gagged outside; here, the homeless Jesus is fed a hot meal on Sunday morning; here, the homeless women and children Jesuses are fed and cared for Monday-Friday; here, we don’t violate everything Jesus taught by condemning homosexuals or by coddling millionaires or by pretending that Jesus was a free-market capitalist. All that is nonsense. We just praise God and feed poor people and that’s at least a pretty good start.
But of course, we have our problems, too – huge surprise – which is exactly the point. Churches are institutions, like hospitals and schools and sports teams. In order to survive, they have to have rules and boundaries and budgets. And that always leads to compromise and disappointment because there’s no way an institution can be Jesus.
But people who say they want to follow Jesus but they don’t want to join a church – that’s like saying I want to play football but I don’t want to join a team; I want to get open heart surgery but I don’t want to go to a hospital; I want to become a scientist but I don’t want to go to a university. It’s like saying I want to change the world but I want to do it alone and entirely on my own terms.
In other words, it’s incredibly naïve. Because like it or not, being a disciple of Jesus is a team sport.
But now I’ve gotten carried away again – that’s just a little rant that I have to make now and again. But let’s get back to the original question, which is: Yes, Christ is risen! But what does that mean?
To answer this question, I rely on two of my favorite scholars, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. During Holy Week I’ve been reading their very good book, The Last Week, which takes us through the final days of Jesus from an historical perspective.
And what they finally conclude is that, to the people who wrote the Gospels, the resurrection of Jesus means two things. The first thing is about us as a society; and the second thing is about us as individuals.
The first thing is this: Jesus was not killed in a car accident. He was killed by the politicians of his day. The Roman Empire killed Jesus; the chief priests – paid collaborators of the Empire – killed Jesus: because he was presenting himself as the King of the Jews, when everyone knew that Caesar was the King of the Jews. He was called the Son of God, when it was Caesar who claimed that title – he even had it written on the coins bearing his likeness. Jesus called for a Kingdom in which the poor were sitting at the banquet table, not the rich; he called for a world where people who had become slaves and prisoners because of their debts were freed, and restored to the land that was taken from them. There is no doubt that this was Jesus’ message; it got him in trouble with the people in power and it got him killed.
I’m sorry to have to say it, but anyone who says Christ was not political simply does not have his facts straight.
So when we say “Christ is risen,” we’re saying that those in power have no power; we’re saying that God is on the side of those who are hungry and powerless; that Caesar can kill the messenger but the message lives on because the universe itself favors justice and compassion.
Christ is alive every place where love and justice stand against contempt and violence. It doesn’t matter if the people who know this power of love are Jews or Muslims or Christians: the power of the resurrection is not contained by any mere religion. Every time people stand for life against death – whether it be in Damascus, or Tehran, or Selma, or Stonewall – the resurrection is alive.
Some people say it’s impossible to prove the existence of God. But I say, look no further than the example of those who prove, with their very lives, that God’s love is greater than any power on this earth.
This is what St. Paul – who despite his flaws was himself a model of this fearless love – this was what he was talking about when he said,
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? … No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 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 8:35, 37-39)
No power on this earth can get between us and God. Because God is alive in each of us.
And that’s where the personal dimension of the resurrection comes in.
Because, no matter what it is that’s oppressing us – whether it’s a dictator like Assad, or just a terrible boss; whether it’s a battering husband, or just a case of low self-esteem – nothing on this earth can separate us from the love and power of God.
The other day I found myself staring at a photograph in the newspaper of a protest going on in Damascus, Syria. There is no place on earth more similar to Jerusalem 2,000 years ago than Damascus today. I found myself staring at the faces in the photograph. They had a certain look to them – as if they were lit from within – and I found myself wondering: where have I seen that look before?
And then I realized. It’s that same look I see in the faces of people here in this church. It’s the same look as I saw on the face of Jose ___ – who even as the pancreatic cancer was literally ripping his abdominal wall, he had no words on his lips but love for his family and friends. I saw it on the face of Margaret ___, who for years battled cancer and yet never flagged from her call to serve the community, and who bore her pain and her grief with enormous courage.
I see that look now, on your faces. I see it on the face of Barbara ___, one of our most active servant ministers, who I swear is growing younger, not older. I see it on the face of the homeless men who come to our breakfast program, who despite the trouble they’ve seen, still live with gratitude and kindness. I see it on the faces of every person who comes to this communion rail, as they take in the body and blood of Christ, and in the process give themselves over to lives of service and of love.
Yes, that resurrection power is alive and well here at Church of the Incarnation. How do we find it? We find it in Christ, who counsels us to spend time with those who are worse off than we are – they might have something to teach us; who counsels us to let go of our egos, our aspirations, our striving – that all just gets in the way; who counsels us to be like the seed, which falls to the ground and dies, in order for new life to be born from it.
I pray that this same resurrection power, which knows no bounds, may find its way into all of our hearts, on this Easter morning, and always.
So... Yes! Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Thursday, April 5, 2012
Andrew Sullivan's cover story in Newsweek, "Forget the Church, Follow Jesus"
is one of the most bizarre and ridiculous articles I've ever read - by a writer I usually love.
1. If you're going to issue a sweeping broadside against all religion in order to create a sexy cover and sell a ton of magazines to your most important demographic, which is the millions of kids downloading "Why I Hate Religion But Love Jesus", then it is inconvenient to have religions that you actually respect and love on the same table with the bad churches. So you quietly remove them from the table before you sweep the rest of them off with loud and dramatic flourish.
Thus, Sullivan dismisses the "Mainline" churches as being in such "rapid decline" that they apparently don't even count as religions anymore. He's talking about churches like mine, which are actually thriving, thank you very much, and not because we're trying to seize power or gain national media attention but instead because we are happily going about our lives praising God and feeding poor people.
Sullivan thus makes sweeping declamations against Religion without seeming to offend the religions that he actually respects and values. As on-the-mark as his critiques of the Catholics and Evangelicals are, they do not constitute all of religion. This is just lazy writing for dramatic effect.
2. Let us pause to appreciate the sheer hilarity, the incomprehensibility of this idea that Jefferson was devoted to following an "apolitical Jesus". How is it that someone who rose to the very top of the political world claims to follow an apolitical Jesus? What is he talking about?
Sullivan tries to critique institutional religion by asking, "What does it matter how strictly you proclaim your belief in various doctrines if you do not live as these doctrines demand?" You mean, like Jefferson hearing Jesus say we should "give up power over others," as he rises to the highest office in the land? What is he talking about?
Sullivan later describes Jefferson as "renouncing Caesar in favor of Christ". When was that, exactly? After he was the American version of Caesar, or before? After he retired from the most powerful job in the land, sold Monticello and gave the money away to his slaves, whom he freed? Because that would most definitely have been what Jesus taught.
3. Sullivan cites the fact that "Obama invokes his faith in Jesus to defend his plan for universal health care" as evidence that "the ability to be faithful in a religious space and reasonable in a political one has atrophied before our eyes." What is he talking about? Is he saying the President should not reflect on the Golden Rule and how it guides his values? Must a president be silent about the religious ground of his convictions, and is that somehow a violation of what Jesus preached? Are you kidding? How has the President abdicated his responsibility to be "faithful in a religious space and reasonable in a political one?"
4. "I think I grasp what it means to be both God and human..." Really? Seriously? He's got that figured out? Wow.
5. "There are times when great injustices - slavery, imperialism, totalitarianism, segregation - require spiritual mobilization and public witness. But from Gandhi to King, the greatest examples of these movements renounce power as well." Again, what the is he talking about? Gandhi and King were all ABOUT power! Nonviolent power, the power of love and social justice, "soul force," - but it was power in every sense of the word, thoughtfully and pragmatically applied in order to bring about real political change. To say that Dr. King was not political or was not interested in power is just delusional.
As it was with Dr. King, so it was with Jesus. Jesus grew up 4 miles from a town that was burned to the ground by the Romans. Jesus directly challenged the heart of the political system of his day, riding that colt into the capital city, into the very heart of Roman domination, critiquing the very people in power while he knowingly commits a treasonous act that would get him killed in a particular manner reserved for political criminals. Jesus was political from day one. How could anyone who knows anything about Jesus say he was apolitical? He quoted the prophets directly and modeled himself after them. He explicitly presented himself as an alternative king in the line of David, in direct opposition to the Emperor. Why would Sullivan pretend otherwise? What the hell is he talking about?