Ecclesial Longings

The Perplexing Remembrance of Saint Nicholas

 

Saint Nicholas is one of the first Saints of the church, after those mentioned in the New Testament, that I learned about as a child (Santa Lucia was the other one, but that’s for another post). Protestants aren’t big on Saints, “All Christians are saints.”, so the logic goes. But being German remembering Saint Nicholas on December sixth was a significant for my father. He relished telling us of the real Saint Nick. I grew up hearing about that fourth century bishop, Saint Nicholas of Myra when most other kids my age were hearing about some guy in a read suit at the North Pole with flying reindeer. I never received a gift from Santa Clause. Each  year dad would remind my sister and I of the “real Santa Claus”. We didn’t really celebrate St Nicholas day. On occasion there might have been chocolate, European chocolates, but no gifts and no mention of Krampus. I didn’t learn much about St. Nicholas of Myra, beyond his being a bishop and that he gave a gift of bags of gold to three daughters of a poor widower.

This limited knowledge created a great puzzle for me. Why in the world did Saint Nicholas a bishop from what is today Turkey, ever end up being associated with a figure that lives at the North Pole with magical reindeer? Why is St Nicholas associated with Christmas at all even in the distorted figure of Santa Claus? As a child December sixth was a long way off from Christmas. Except for Saint Nicholas and Santa Lucia we never celebrated Saints days. We celebrated Advent, but I was also a little vague on its relationship to Christmas (there was a time I attempted to figure out how the Twelve Days of Christmas counted in the song fit in Advent) . Myra wasn’t in Germany, Nicholas wasn’t German. It was all very perplexing.

Saint Nicholas was a popular saint among Europeans, he wasn’t German, or French, or Italian, or Dutch, he was Middle Eastern, a citizen of the Roman empire. Our love of Saint Nicholas wasn’t because he was German, but because we came to belong to him, that is we became Christ’s.

This puzzle kept a fourth century Middle Eastern bishop as a significant figure for my Christian identity. Eventually I learned more about the Liturgical calendar and embraced the Saints as those that imaged for us Christ, and with whom we are in communion, as those who have died in Christ. In this fuller knowledge of the life and culture of the church, the puzzles resolved themselves as I had all the pieces. My dad’s strange Germanic affection for this Bishop of Myra (who wasn’t even German) worked itself in me, kept me asking who is this Saint Nicholas and why is he so important.

As my parents spoke of this Saint, I was taught the story of what it means to be like Christ, through the example of someone different from me and the community in which I grew up. Saint Nicholas taught us that exchange of gifts at Christmas wasn’t supposed to be about things and receiving. The gifts were a reminder that the Christian life was to be one of self-giving, because God gave of God’s self to us. Generosity and justice, not greed and accumulation, was the meaning of the gift giving at Christmas, St. Nicholas of Myra a Fourth century bishop helped us remember this. He was an exemplar of this divine self-giving, the divine generosity in which we were to share in and emulate.

One won’t get this from the cultural celebrations of the Germans and the Austrians and other Europeans any more than you will get this from the Jolly man in the red suit who comes down your chimney bearing gifts. But my father gave me a gift of remembering this fourth century bishop, the “real Santa Claus.” Dad allowed the cultural memory of this Saint, to instill in me a sense of generosity and love, that bound me, an American son of immigrants, to someone beyond my nationality and ethnicity.

There’s no reason, neither based on American Manifest Destiny nor German heritage, that I should know or care to remember Saint Nicholas. There is only one reason, that God entered the world in Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, and in a chain, that crossed all boundaries, grabbed hold of a fourth century orphan of wealthy merchants, whose Christ like generosity and zeal for justice, grabbed the hearts and souls of Germans. This Saint Nicholas ever teaches us of Christ. Through him we are called to be zealous for a world transformed by love, generosity, and justice, given to us in Jesus Christ, God in human flesh.

A Narrowed Way : American Christianity, Eugene Peterson and LGBTQ Christians

Eugene Peterson’s answers to Jonathan Merritt’s questions on gay marriage and Gay and Lesbian Christians didn’t read to me like a resolute advocacy for LGBTQ Christians and their full inclusion in the life of the Church. His retraction the day after the RNS interview was published, would appear to confirm this reading. Peterson’s answer to Merritt’s questions, fit with the measured tone and local pastoral focus of his writing. He spoke not from the place of moral theology but from his pastor’s heart. His retraction is disappointing and disheartening for many LGBTQ Christians. Yet, given his celebrity and Lifeway Books threat to remove his entire body of work from their stores, the retraction isn’t surprising. Currently, for many in American Christianity, both progressives and conservatives, this is where the Gospel stands or falls. Merritt’s question, Peterson’s answer, the reactions to Peterson’s answer. and Peterson’s retraction, tell us what pastoral and theological postures are no longer possible within American Christianity.

Merritt, reveals a hermeneutic clue: in his prefatory remarks he said he asked Peterson the questions about gay marriage because he couldn’t find anything on the subject matter either in his published works or in any public remarks. Peterson in his long career has been silent on the subject. This is significant in and of itself. The silence already positioned Peterson within the American Christian landscape, but the position is one currently unavailable (for good or ill) to Peterson (or anyone). This position is one of neither viewing LGBTQ Christians as sinners whose sin is beyond the pale and must be denounced, nor viewing LGBTQ Christians as those in need of active universal affirmation and advocacy in the church. As a former professor of mine said 22 years ago when asked about LGBTQ Christians in the Church: “It is a local pastoral question to be dealt with on case by case basis”. Peterson’s answer is an example of this position, as he accepts the scenario Merritt presents, with a simple “yes.”

I’ll unpack this more in a moment: Peterson’s retraction is from this same position, his retraction is in part motivated by his remarks being taken as global moral theology, and not local pastoral theology.

In the interview, Peterson is careful, he knows he’s walking a tight rope, he knows LGBTQ and affirming Christians read him and he knows evangelicals and Fundamentalists read him. Peterson answers the question within the context of his “brand”, the careful thoughtful pastor who is above the fray of the American Christian culture complex. He speaks first of not having awareness of gay Christians in the early periods of his ministry, but then tells a personal pastoral story of young gay man and musician who seeks to take up the position of organist and music director after the music director stepped down.  The young adult gay man comes out to the congregation in the process and the congregation embraces and doesn’t prevent the out young gay man from serving in this leadership position. He concludes that he was very proud of his congregation.  In the polarized moment we are in, in which there is only two possible places one can occupy, this story and Peterson’s answer was read as advocacy.

Peterson’s answer was also taken as a “change of mind” (an assumption Merritt and the RNS editors make). Peterson didn’t intend to convey a change of mind, but of a consistent pastoral approach, which was neither LGBTQ ally nor viewing LGBTQ Christians as unrepentant sinners. I’m not claiming this is or was a middle ground, rather I’m claiming it was a position one could take, and one can no longer take up this position in the American context. Both Fundamentalists and Progressives now demand you take their position or you have sided with the other side and have abandoned the Gospel. It may be true that this is that serious, but we must recognize viewing it as such is a recent development within American Christianity.

Peterson’s retraction in part is his attempt through the use Evangelical code to both assuage the conservatives and take back the terrain in which he has lived on this and, most other moral theological questions. 

Peterson affirms the Biblical view of marriage one man one woman. But it is noteworthy that he follows up that Evangelical code language with “I affirm everything that is Biblical”, which for a pastoral theologian of his attentiveness is either strangely naïve or intentionally meaningless and ironic. He is a Biblical pastoral theologian, his entire career has been about getting pastors and their congregations to be confronted and transformed by engagement with the Scriptures, so of course his positions are “Biblical”, that’s the entire point of his life’s work! To think otherwise is to misunderstand “Eugene Peterson”, and to have never read him.

Significantly he doesn’t talk about homosexual sin or that we need to love the sinner or hate the sin. Like a cranky old man irritated by a commotion outside, he’s irked that he is drawn into a dispute he has avoided his whole career. “I’ve said my piece! Now get off my lawn, and leave me in peace!”. We should also recall that is in this same interview with Merritt, that he announced his withdrawal form public Christian life.

In his retraction, Peterson says that he assumed Merritt was asking the question in relation to the pastoral situation in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A (PCUSA), so he answered the hypothetical scenario in which he was once again a Presbyterian Pastor of a PCUSA congregation. Since his approach is local and pastoral and not globally moral theological, he took the situation within the PCUSA in which “the question was settled.” And people either were going to be in the congregation because they accepted the position of the PCUSA, or if not, they would have left. Since Peterson doesn’t see the question of LGBTQ inclusion as a Gospel question nor one upon which pertains to orthodoxy, he can contemplate the situation within the PCUSA and the cultural context in which gay marriage is now legal marriage, answer with integrity of his pastoral theology that yes in the PCUSA today he would marry a gay Christian couple.

The reactions to his pastoral local answer to Merritt’s “hypothetical question”, draw his answers into a camp, that made him out to have “changed his mind” and sided with one position within the American Christian landscape. (A position he does not share , as he holds a different position) The reactions both rejoicing and condemning took his comments as global moral theological statement about LGBTQ inclusion in the Church and the moral and ethical status of homosexuality. As his retraction shows this was not his intent (and why would “Eugene Peterson”, speak outside pastoral theology). However, the position shown by Eugene Peterson’s silence on LGBTQ Christians his entire career is no longer a position available within the American Christian landscape especially if you are a celebrity and have a Brand threatened by being forced to “change one’s mind”. Eugen Peterson speaks on local pastoral theology, not global moral theological questions. When he thought he was speaking to the pastoral situation within the PCUSA he could speak in affirming terms. However, “Eugene Peterson” won’t (can’t) speak in global moral theological terms.  His affirmation is local pastoral, his retraction is a refusal of the global moral theological pronouncement on Homosexuality and gay marriage. But, within American Christianity, the only positions available are “affirming” or “Biblical view of marriage.”

At work in all of this, as I’ve alluded to throughout, is brand and celebrity. These were also in play in Merritt’s question, Petersons answer, people’s reactions , and Peterson’s retraction, but this exploration is beyond the scope of this post.

Church and Health Care

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. James 1:27 (NRSV)

As you go, proclaim the good news,  ‘The Kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleans the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment: give without payment. Matthew 10:7,8 (NSRV)

Christians in the early centuries of the Church were known for the care of those in the margins, this included caring for the sick. I recently painted the icon of St Camillo who had a chronic health condition, and founded a religious order for the care of the sick and the wounded on battle fields. In the history of the United States Christian denominations saw it as part of their Gospel mandate to found hospitals and health care institutions. Whatever one’s politics if one is a member of Christ, the care of the sick and the disabled is part of the mandate of the Gospel. We may disagree how that should be achieved but our views of how best to achieve must be motivated by this: that the care and healing of the sick and disabled, especially those who cannot provide for themselves and who are vulnerable and abandoned by society is part of what it means to live out the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

In our moment how might members of Christ, given the Gospel mandate, evaluate and act around the government’s role within a for profit health care system where having health insurance (or the type of health insurance one can get) determines one’s access to health care? Reflecting on our call in  terms of “charity” and “solidarity”, may offer a means to discern what the current out working of this call should look like.

 “Charity” –

Some wish to argue that the Gospel only calls the church to be charitable. Those with access to health care and the wealth enough to buy insurance, need of their own free will to give some part of their wealth to organizations or directly to people to help those who aren’t able to provide for  their own health care.  “Charity” says the  Gospel mandate is to be achieved through the more well-off Christians giving of their money to make sure that the less fortunate are provided for.

The limits of “charity”-

My denominations hospital in Chicago, Swedish Covenant Hospital, has a good charity care program. My wife and I have benefited from this when we have received treatment there that we could not afford and insurance didn’t cover (or when we didn’t have insurance.) Even though Swedish Covenant has good charity care, to receive it we still had to go through a process to prove that we indeed needed it and couldn’t pay our medical bills. I understand this. But this is the limit of “charity” it places the less fortunate as petitioners and secondary status in which the poor must prove in some way that they truly need help. I understand why this is so, in providing charity one wants to be sure that the charity is being received by those who truly need it.  But the necessary result of this need is to create a division between those who provide “charity” and those who receive that “charity.”

Several of St. Paul’s reflections on giving in the church were written as he was seeking to raise money for the church in Jerusalem, which was in need. There are two outliers in responses to St. Paul’s Jerusalem collection: The Macedonian churches who gave without bidding and enthusiastically and the Corinthian church who when asked began with enthusiasm and then were contributing little and reluctantly.  Those who made up the churches of Macedonia were largely poor yet they gave with joy and more than the Corinthian church was contributing to the collection, though on the Corinthian church was wealthier. The Corinthian Church was giving out of charity, while the Macedonian churches was giving out of solidarity. The Macedonian churches knew what it was like to be poor and so was motivated out of being with the church in Jerusalem in their suffering. The Corinthian church were giving to charity in their actions they show themselves to be distant from the plight of the church in Jerusalem and in giving out of charity are weighing if they should. Whereas for the Mecedonians there seemed to be no question of giving to aid those in a similar position as them. Being poor they understood experientially the situation of the Jerusalem church, while the wealthier Corinthian Church was giving out of their relative comfort showing pity towards the Jerusalem church. The motivation of acting charitably wasn’t as powerful a motivator as solidarity.

“Solidarity”-

So, what is “solidarity”? “Solidarity” is care with others through identification and not as an act of momentary condescension to aid someone in need. Solidarity seeks either in some literal way or through compassion identifying with and seeing things through the eyes of the poor, not to merely help them but to be with them and in their suffering in a way that also can alleviate that suffering.

Charity and solidarity interpret our call-

I don’t believe that charity and solidarity are at odds, but charity without solidarity has severe limits and often puts burdens upon the recipients of charity and can let the “more fortunate” remain comfortable in their distance from the conditions of those whom they are choosing to help. Those who are in the position to give out of their abundance remain in their abundance and often charity fails to lead to a sharing in the conditions that bring about the poverty or suffering. In contrast, Solidarity requires feeling with those who are in need. It is either being willing to enter into another’s experience or to recognize our shared needs. Solidarity is to put oneself in the place of those who can’t, in this case, provide for their own health care. This may lead to charity (as it did in the Macedonian churches), but it also may mean doing more than simply giving out of one’s abundance.

Charity is a response to the Gospel call. But what of solidarity? What does empathizing with those who risk losing what they need to maintain their health and to eat or have a roof over their head? Also, in solidarity seeks to understand the fear and the concern of those disabled persons who protested in front of Mitch McConnel’s office on capitol hill.  Can you put yourself in place of those who need to make choices between food, shelter and health insurance? The question I’m  asking is what changes if , our charity follows solidarity, on the way to fulfill the Gospel mandate.

Giving priority to solidarity

I don’t know what is the “best” way for the church, in our moment, to ensure that healing is brought to those who can’t afford health insurance apart from government assistance. But I do know that many of those who couldn’t afford health insurance and/or to pay for their own health care, are provided for under the ACA and its expansion of Medicaid. My fellow members of Christ, are you truly prepared to stand with and care for those who can’t afford needed health care except through the provisions of the ACA that repeal and replace threatens? Are our hospitals and health care systems prepared to take up the slack should ACA be repealed? I stand in support of the ACA, not because I think it is perfect, but because I know from experience that it helps those who were unable to afford health insurance. And, the law the Republicans are proposing would eventually leave me and many in my position without access to health care except through charity care.

One way or another, either through supporting government policies that ensure that all have health care (not simply “Access”) or through institutions of the Church, we as members of Christ are to care for the sick and provide healing without cost.

We, as the Church, must ask ourselves is letting the market dictate how health care is distributed truly in keeping with the Gospel and following the path of Christ? I urge you to consider that the conception of free market provision for people’s health is not consistent with the Gospel and the Mind of Christ. However, if you don’t agree and reject that the government provide for the health of your fellow citizens, then you should be able to show me the foundations and institutions and the money you will give to those institutions in order provide for those the free market will abandon on the way and walk on past without a care. “You received without payment: give without payment.”

As of right now, I don’t see the church in the United States being able to step into the gap that “repeal and replace” will leave. In the absence of the means to ensure the health of my fellow citizens I oppose the law proposed by the Republicans in congress and do so as a member of Christ. From my conviction based upon the Mind of Christ, I support the imperfect law of the ACA. This all demands prioritizing solidarity over charity so that at this moment we may live into the Gospel demands to heal the sick and care for the marginalized, without payment.

On Paczki’s, Fat Tuesday, and Ashes

What’s going on with Packi’s and Mardi Gras?

Today in many grocery stores In Chicago you will find the polish pastry paczki, prominently displayed for sale. Today is of course Paczki Day, or Mardi Gras. If one is from New Orleans the celebration of Mardi Gras isn’t confined to this Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, in Brazil and other Countries this SEASON before Ash Wednesday is known as Carnival. Tomorrow, many Christians of various traditions will begin the season of Lent by receiving ashes on the forehead. This all may appear to be very disjointed and individualized. How does this all fit together? What connects Mardi Gras, the eating of paczkis and receiving of ashes upon the forehead?

A sense one may have from all this is individual indulgence followed by Forty days of individual self-denial. Celebration of life and abundance and the confrontation of mortality and limits. This picture isn’t entirely wrong but it largely misses the point. Carnival, Mardi Gras Ash Wednesday and Lent are all of a piece. We feast and we fast aiming for the same goal. In each we are preparing to receive again the mysteries of the faith of the church.

The dishes of Mardi Gras, are intended to use up items that one won’t be eating in one’s fast. In this way, the feasting of Mardi Gras is a holy act of preparation, so that we might be prepared (through not having in our cupboards empty of the items from which we will be fasting during Lent. Of course, buying the paczki from the grocery store on Fat Tuesday forgets this aspect of our feasting.

Preparing to Receive again the Mysteries of the Faith

Yet even if our feasting doesn’t literally empty our cupboards, we should recall that feasting and celebration of Mardi Gras are as much part of our preparation for Holy Week and Easter as is the fasting of Lent. However, we may observe the Lenten fast Today is part of that practice. Feasting today is part, our observing Lent.

In the liturgy for Ash Wednesday before ash is put upon the forehead and we hear “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” We are called to the observation of a holy Lent. What is a holy lent? It is one in which we take up with greater focus the practices fasting, alms giving and other acts of pious act of charity and justice. This all from carnival to Ash Wednesday up to Holy Week is all preparation. A holy Lent is one that prepares us to return to who we became through our baptism, ready to reaffirm those vows of baptism and receive again the mysteries of our faith, “Christ has died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again”. A holy lent is preparation is what we do as the Church, members of Christ. None of this is some individualistic celebration and navel gazing upon our individual mortality.

Unfortunately the way we often observe lent reduces it to individual piety, “What will I give up for lent” and we focus on one aspect of the liturgy of Ash Wednesday (“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”) that we forget that this remembrance of mortality is to send us into the arms of Mother Church, the body of Christ, to regain and renew our being as the baptized who are being joined together as the body of Christ, holy stones of the holy temple of God. Our repentance, our fasting, our alms giving all are oriented to this goal or remembering who we are that we may be renewed by the great mysteries of our faith.

We should stop and question the ways we may individualize and separate ourselves off from this corporate feasting and fasting in preparation to receive the mysteries of our very being as the body of Christ. Lent is to return us to ourselves as the Church, the Body of Christ. However, we observe Lent, we are to seek to be more like Christ and to grow more into our Baptism. If we aren’t focused growing father into Christ anticipating and preparing ourselves to renew our baptism and return to the Church, then we aren’t observing a holy Lent. So, do what your community or your spiritual director encourages you to do. Don’t worry if you are doing too little or too much, don’t worry about how strict or lax you are. Focus on being ready for Easter. Whatever you do have as your goal to renew and deepen your sense and understanding of yourself as a member of the Church, our mother.

Examining a practice “Ashes on the Go”

A few years back some priests and ministers experimented with getting Christian liturgy in the streets on Ash Wednesday with Ashes on the Go. I wonder if Ashes on the Go by focusing on the moment most individuated within the liturgy of Ash Wednesday if this fails to communicate the meaning of receiving these ashes in this time of preparation? Given that we already have the tendency to view Lenten disciplines as individualistic private pious acts disconnected from our being called back into the church and back to our baptism, there’s a danger this innovation reinforces individualistic interpretations of Lent and Lenten disciplines.

If Ashes on the Go is just this one moment of the Ash Wednesday liturgy I see “Ashes on the Go” reinforcing an individualistic pious interpretation of the day. How would one communicate the corporate nature of this act without a gathered body of believers? There would need to be some reminder in the liturgy of Ashes on the Go that those who receive the ashes should also be finding and involved with a local body of believers in following through on their having received ashes, some reminder of their baptism and membership in the body of Christ. Otherwise this innovation risks (whether the priest intends this or not) of reinforcing the individualized misinterpretations of Lent and Ashe Wednesday that are prevalent in our treatment of Lenten practices.

Ash Wednesday as an act of becoming church.

Ash Wednesday isn’t about confronting my own mortality, nor an individual penitence. It includes those things, but only as an act of joining with the other members of Christ. It is more importantly a collective entering a time of self-examination and repentance to be prepared to receive again the central mysteries of the faith of the Church.

In Ash Wednesday, we are asked as members of Christ to face how we have both individually and collectively exhibited a failure to live into the call l or baptism and our collective mortality. We are reminded that being a member of Christ isn’t a space of triumphalism nor a celebration of our ability as individuals to bravely face our limits. Rather, it is a space of humility, to again remember we need God and each other, to be what we are called to and that we often forget in a short time, what it means to be the body of Christ, we were initiated into at our baptism.

When we receive ashes, and reflect upon our mortality as an act of corporate repentance and humility, we are called back to who we are as baptized members of Christ Body, the temple of God.

As you feast today, and as you receive ash and begin your Lenten practice tomorrow, let it be focused upon return, renewal and receiving again the mystery of who we are as the church, baptized members of Christ. Then we can know that we are observing a holy lent no matter what we do, or don’t do, as we prepare ourselves to come face to face with the mystery of our Faith.

Building Upon a Foundation: Practicing the Sermon on the Mount

Unbounded Love as Resistance, Part 2.

The sermon on the mount (Matthew 5-7) concludes with the parable the wise and foolish builders. The wise builder builds on a rock as the foundation for the house. This builder who builds upon a firm foundation is the one who hears Jesus’ teaching and practices what Jesus teaches. Putting Jesus’ teaching into practice is to build upon a solid foundation.  The apostle Paul in his letters, also uses this image of building upon a foundation, which is Christ. However, we tend to treat the sermon on the mount as a structure that we are to live in and which we must remodel or deconstruct. The parable suggests that practicing Jesus’ teaching is more like building a structure than inhabiting something already in existence. The sermon on the mount provides a foundation for living in a way that builds upon Jesus Christ and Jesus’ teaching.

How is Jesus Christ and the teachings in the sermon on the Mount foundation? Are we building upon this foundation? What does it mean to build upon Jesus and these teachings of Christ.?

Taking Jesus Christ and the Sermon on the Mount as foundation means reading the Sermon on the mount not so much as rules to be applied in all situations, but a teaching that gives us a dynamic life giving way of being. In hearing and studying the sermon on the mount we become familiar with this way of being.

Some aspects of this we won’t go into here: The Sermon on the mount is itself a summary of Jesus’ interpretation of the Torah. Jesus is describing himself in his own teaching, Jesus is the way and fulfillment of the Torah. As the Word made flesh Jesus is the Torah interpreting Torah.

Jesus’ teaching is a whole, not discrete isolated instructions. Only as a whole are they the firm foundation on which to build. Any one saying or teaching isn’t , isolated and discrete, able to stand on its own, rather Jesus’ teachings provide the interlocking basis for life and for our building upon this foundation. Take for instance the teaching of turning the other cheek this instruction is bound up with Jesus teaching on hate and murder, with the charge to love enemies, the charge to not worry, the blessing of those who seek after justice and righteousness etc… Seeing this as foundation and way of being means that every part is part of the other unable to be removed and atomised, and picked over for its supposed utility in following Jesus.

Once we accept Jesus and Jesus’ instruction as foundation, we are not meant to build upon this foundation individually by ourselves. This way of being isn’t an individualistic path anymore then the teachings of Jesus are individual disconnected rules applied by our own wisdom. We are to build upon this foundation with others, namely other baptized members of the Church.

This is Christ’s way of being, the very nature of the church. We can’t answer how we are to live out this way and build upon the foundation individually.  We can do this only as the body of Christ, only in conversation with others, both those who are living and those who have lived upon the foundation out in the past: Like St. Francis and St Clare, St. Benedict, St. Scholastica and the Benedictines, and the first monastics, like St Anthony of Egypt. The lives of the Saints show us how others have lived upon this foundation. This is a spiritual and Eucharistic practice of becoming Christ, it requires regularly taking in Christ and being with other’s who are baptized members of the body of Christ, encouraging each other to practice and build upon Christ and Christ’s teachings.

A note on false prophets and those who teach but don’t live on the foundation Christ:

If you still have misgivings about the Sermon on the mount or some of Jesus’ sayings, because some interpretations of the teaching seem to support the status quo, or oppressors, or the wealthy, remember Jesus warns against those who would twist his words for their own ends. Jesus warns of false prophets and those who would claim to speak for Jesus but do works that have nothing to do with the Jesus or Jesus’ way of being.

Jesus wraps up the Sermon on the Mount with warnings against false prophets and those who say “Lord, Lord” and claimed to do great works in Christ’s name but who don’t do the will of God as found in Jesus’ teachings. The harmful interpretations of the sermon on the mount, come back to these false teachers and false disciples. We are called to watch out for those who distort the foundation or who teach but do not live upon the foundation of Christ. But such misapplication misinterpretation and false teaching doesn’t alter the solid foundation which is Christ. Turn aside from those false prophets, and those who claim knowledge but know nothing of Christ. Do not let them shake your confidence in this foundation and the life-giving way offered by Christ.

This was the final reflection in a sketch of a  theology of resistance that began with this post: Hope as Virtue and Discipline

Unbounded Love as Resistance: The Sermon on the Mount (part 1)

Jesus’ Love ethic as the interpretive center of the Sermon on the Mount

There is an extremism in Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7, parallel in Luke 6 as the Sermon on the Plain). Many in the history of the church have attempted to soften the teaching or restrict the application of the teaching to a class of Christian. Part of this radicalism, is Jesus Christ getting at the root of Sin, injustice, and unrighteousness. The sermon on the Mount is also, an articulation of Jesus’ ethic, the way of life or being for his body, the Church.

This ethic or way of life is nurtured in the soil of the Torah. The teaching is enriched by going beyond surface adherence of the commands of the Torah, so that one can dig into the richness of the Torah as life. This ethic also has its source in a radicalization of the Love command taught in the Torah: Love of God and neighbor as self. Jesus accepts this Love command as a summary of the Torah. In the sermon on the Mount love of neighbor (if neighbor is taken as someone one knows and with whom one shares an affinity) is radicalized as love of enemy. This radical neighbor love exposes how we justify our failures to live by the Torah and love of neighbor by cordoning off from ourselves certain others. We know this well: treatment of our in group (whatever that might be) stands in stark contrast to our treatment of the out group. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus makes explicit that the way of love Jesus shows and exhorts us towards doesn’t allow us to hate anyone even those who may harm us, that is our enemies.

Jesus’ love ethic and love command has two elements. One aspect is seeking to be neighbor to all (shown in the parable of the Good Samaritan told in answer to the question “Who is my neighbor?”. The answer to that question is the seeming non-sequitur question “Am I a neighbor?”). The other is love of those who do not return my love – love of those who hate me and seek my demise, even death.

If we conceive of love only as sentiment, we make pure nonsense of Jesus’ teaching. This radicalized ethic shows that the basis of love for Jesus isn’t only an emotion but also an action that extends love to all possible persons and all circumstances. Jesus’ teaching tells us that what is usually grounded in an emotive response to familiarity and affinity, is deeper and grander than our habitual way of understanding love. Love is more human and more divine than we realize or usually notice.

The Sermon on the Mount or Plain needs to be interpreted from this extreme love ethic rooted in the Torah and its summary as “Love of God and love of neighbor as self.” radicalized by removal of any limit we might put on “neighbor”. This is accomplished first through focus not on others but the self being a neighbor in any and all circumstances, this focus on self being neighbor and in the command to love one’s enemies.

Love of Enemy, Resist not the evil person and turning the other cheek

To hear correctly Jesus’ teaching on love of enemy, resisting not the evil person and turning the other cheek we must keep in mind that they occur in the portion of the sermon called the antitheses; “You’ve heard it was said (interpretation of the Torah…. but I (Jesus) say to you (new teaching on the Torah)…”. When we look at this section from the perspective of Torah summarized as love of God and neighbor as self, we can see this section as rooted in Torah and not it’s rejection. Jesus always has the Torah as the basis of the radicalized way of living and being he leads his disciples into, and moves it towards the extremity of the Torah’s meaning at points almost seeming to enjoin doing the opposite. Except that the Torah is never abandoned, but s clarified trough Jesus’ teaching. This is what is going on in the antitheses. Jesus isn’t questioning Torah but offering a different or new interpretation based on the love ethic.

Jesus’ teaching to ‘resist not evil” and turn the other cheek are often interpreted without reference to the love ethic. As often as not these sayings of Christ have been interpreted by powerful and privileged Christians to insist that the poor and the oppressed not upset the status quo, and endure their lot in life. While also being interpreted as not applying to Christians exercising the power of the state. There are interpretations of love of enemies, turning the other cheek and resist not evil all which subject the one suffering evil or oppression to accept the dehumanizing condition in the name of Jesus Christ. Jesus teaching is turned into a defender of the status quo, rather than a uncompromising insistence on love that upend established order.

James Cone in his book on Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X recounts Martin Luther King Jr’s account of influences of Kings child hood in Atlanta and of the example of his parents as key to his views. One of the incidents Cones recounts from Kings autobiography is an incident of King’s father being pulled over by a police officer when King was a child.  Cone quotes King as saying that the elder King didn’t turn the other cheek but that the elder King insisted on being treated as a “man” and an equal. When the police officer called the elder King “boy” the elder King’s reply was that the younger king in the car with him was a boy but that he was a man. Turning the other cheek in Martin Luther King Jr.’s account is the opposite of standing up and demanding that one’s humanity be recognized in the face of degradation, oppression and injustice.

If this is Jesus intended teaching (accept and don’t stand against dehumanization) then what sense can we make of the Beatitudes, when what we see in the Beatitudes is the humanizing of those who are being dehumanized. When the Beatitudes are together with the command to love enemies, then we have a radical stance against dehumanizing any human being whatever they may do or have done, or however monstrous we may view the other. To refuse hate, even to refuse to hate one’s enemy but instead to love them, is a humanizing way of life that has no boundaries.

Jesus Christ’s love ethic is meant to humanize everyone and to eradicate within each of us the desire and need to dehumanize those who threaten us. We will next explore, In part 2, “turning the other cheek” and “resisting not the evil person” from this perspective of Jesus’ ethic as a humanizing way of life, that refuses all forms of dehumanization, and the ways in which this radicalism can lead us into a contradiction that is the very nature of our call as the church to confront (not avoid) Sin, unrighteousness, and injustice.

A prologue to this post is Hope as Virtue and discipline. The prologue this post and the following two posts on the Sermon on the Mount entail a sketch of my theology of resistance.

Leave your thoughts on how you’ve been taught to understand “turn the other Cheek” and “resist not the evil person.” How does viewing Jesus’ teaching from the perspective of a radical interpretation of the Torah from the perspective of love without bounds, including those who seek to harm us, reinforce or challenge interpretations of the sermon on the Mount you believe or have been taught?

On the Edge of Enlightenment: The Epiphany

Even on this day, as when we were waiting for God’s transformation of the world, we can miss the illumination. As often as not the illumination we seek is obvious and at the center while the epiphany we get is on the periphery just out of sight.

The Epiphany comes to us as odd foreigners speaking of an obscure star they saw. These same foreigners visiting an infant with rare gifts.

Enlightenment comes as an ordinary man, by appearance, who comes to the river baptized by a man in camel hair along with everyone else. Then the heavens are opened, Spirit descends, a voice speaks, or was it?

Epiphany is tasting excellent wine suddenly discovered after the momentary crisis of having no wine as the head steward of a wedding feast. But only the servants know what happened, they poured water into jugs and when the drew out the water there was wine. A parlor trick? For a very exclusive audience of servants.

This manifestation is not a sudden clear insight. What is manifest isn’t blindingly and unambiguously clear. It’s not entirely convincing.  It’s queer. Boundaries have been crossed and it takes place out of the way on the borders. It’s in our peripheral vision, and never quite comes into focus.

The Epiphany is odd. It is disconcerting, because such an illumination tells us the truly important doesn’t happen at the center: center of power, center of ourselves, center of meaning.

The Epiphany doesn’t give us a place of residence.  The manifestation sends us again on our way.  Our illumination on this day sends us to live unsettled at the boundaries.

What is revealed on Epiphany is a god who embraces the “neither nor” and the “both and”. We are invited to meet one who is neither human nor divine, who is both human and divine.  At this moment, we are invited into this transgression of the order of things. The mixing of creator and created for the sake of love.

If we affirm the doctrines of “incarnation”, “Virgin Birth”, “Trinity”, “Fully God and fully human” and “begotten not made” we should not do so because of their intellectual or philosophical power to convince. Rather we should affirm these dogmas because they give voice to our epiphany, our enlightenment and encounter with God. The Epiphany shows us that these doctrines describe something queer, transgressive. This all though is seen just out of the corner of our eyes.  They point to what we can’t quite grasp but can intuit.  A flash of light, a voice an appearance of a dove.

I invite us to speak of incarnation and virgin birth, and say Jesus of Nazareth is fully divine and fully human.  I invite us to do so not to grasp an insight, but to be embraced by the transgressor of our creaturely limits.  Allow this speech, and this contemplation to take us to the borders. So, we may live with God on the edges, in that place between human and divine. This borderland is the place of the one who was honored by Magi and who enraged the powerful. In this place, we are with the Beloved in whom God is well pleased.  I invite us to come to the Jordan, take up residence on the edge of the empire. It is in the borderland where love was revealed, and God affirmed God’s love and union with human kind and all creation. In this transgression of flesh and divinity we are illumined.


The Veil Over the Holy Nativity

The icon of the Holy Nativity has something that eludes us.  I return, again and again, to its contemplation because it is a rich image but also because it challenges me. I don’t see it completely. The meaning eludes us, there is a veil over the icon.

One layer of this veil is the familiar imagery of Christmas, which smooth’s out the edges, softens the light, ignores the presence of death that lurks in Holy Nativity.  Most images seek to honor this moment through abstraction of the material and fleshly reality the holy nativity inhabits. There is a veil (The “veil” is an allusion to Saint Paul’s usage in 2 Corinthians 3:12-14 ) over this icon and the reality the icon invites us to enter. Because of this veil we are unable to enter Christmas, we turn away from the crack in the world it created.

We look at this icon and we see only a dogmatic claim. VIRGIN BIRTH, screams out at us. Isolated, without context, we hear “Just accept and believe that Mary conceived without intercourse with Joseph.” What is at root of this dogmatism disconnected from a lived and material existence? Why might we only see in this image a dogmatic assertion? Why the fascination with and the rejection of the miraculous? More importantly why do we think the miracle is the point? (side note, it’s not!)

Asking the question of whether a Christian need to believe in the Virgin Birth as Nicholas Kristof does in his interview with Timothy Keller, misses the point. Timothy Keller’s answer that the virgin birth is integral to the Christian thought system, reinforces the veil over the icon of the Holy Nativity (though I agree with his point that the doctrine has meaning). What is this veil? Why the retreat into abstraction and systematic theology and the integrity of belief systems and organizations?  This is so far from the material and physical reality of a virgin birth. Why do we retreat from the holy nativity’s visceral moment? Keller, later in the interview, when talking about the Resurrection, will tell Kristof that these beliefs about Jesus were an offense to the Greek philosophers who couldn’t abide a God bound up in the messiness of the material and fleshly, and yet Keller answers with that same attitude of distance from the messy material world. What Keller presents is a tidy precise sterile world with discrete doctrines that ensure the precise relationships, and the protocol for dealing with God. If doctrine and belief is all you see in the Holy Nativity, then you aren’t seeing.

I think I’ve identified the veil and turning away from this sight. The eyes are veiled for both the one who professes to believe and the one who is skeptical or has abandoned belief. (for my purposes here, I make the distinction between faith and belief. Belief is assent to propositions, faith is about trust and relationship that can be expressed in propositions but whose referent isn’t those propositions.) From what are we shielding our eyes, as we rush to take these  postures.? From what do we veil ourselves, what can’t we bear to look upon in the icon?

Our turning away has been happening for a very long time. All I give at this moment is a quick sketch of this retreat and veiling. I will make some rapid connections of disconnect and retreat. Trump and his Christian supporters have more in common with those who don’t appear in this icon; the client King Herod (see, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s
use of this trope in his Open Letter to King Herod at Red Letter Christians
) and the other religious leaders who know the Torah (the Bible, if you will) and who in differing ways collaborate with the occupation of Judea and Galilee. White Christianity isn’t found in this icon. The “we” if you find this icon unintelligible, is a Christianity of Empire, in service to Babylon the Great (Revelation 17 and 18). The most recent iteration of Babylon is that which inherited the White supremacist system of European colonialism. This sketch of course isn’t convincing (for the case and argument for this sketch one must read Willie James Jennings, James Cone, Harry H. Singleton III, and others).

I will add to this historical sketch a tableau, a “pastoral image”*, if you will: Christmas on the plantations in the “new world”, slaves and their masters at Christmas. In the celebration of Christmas, the White Christian slave holders would allow slaves a moment of reprieve from their harsh conditions. Some of the conditions of their enslavement were lifted, surveillance was lessened, work load lightened. Some slaves, tasting of this Christmas liberty, grabbed hold of it and fled to freedom. Some managed to gain their liberty at Christmas. There were also slave rebellions at Christmas. (see Christmas and the Resistance to Slavery in the Americas in AAIHS)

This is the veil, the reason of our retreat: White Christians instinctively loosening their grip of oppression, but not understanding that the Holy Nativity stood in opposition to them. The White Christian is nowhere to be found in the icon of the holy nativity. The religious collaborators do not make an appearance in this film. We’ve attempted to make the holy nativity a pastoral image of innocence that White Christianity can’t claim for itself, but must insist upon.

We are some distance from the above tableaux of Christmas on the plantations. Yet, it still reverberates. Babylon and its religious (often devoutly so) collaborators, who can answer the questions when those seeking truth come, and ask “Where is the messiah to be born,” and knowing the scriptures can give the correct answer. Even so, white Christians never come into the Holy Nativity.

Where are we, (by “we” I mean both those who seek to come out of Whiteness (Babylon) and those upon whom Babylon has fed and who cry out “how long” (Revelation 6:9-11)- people of color, who currently cry out “Black lives matter”).

In this icon. At this moment, I think most of us are at the bottom of the icon with Saint Joseph and the midwives. We are either caught in a moment of indecision, uncertain what to make of it all, without answers, full of doubts. We ask with Saint Joseph, has any of this been true, the apparition of angels, the message they delivered. Or we are with the midwives handling the holy as they’ve done year in year out, perhaps not fully aware of who they are handling, and washing, swaddling, protecting through their resistance, (recall the midwives, Shiphorah and Puah in Exodus 1)

The veil hasn’t been lifted, we can’t yet see the center of this icon. Even so, we are drawn into this holy nativity, we are here. We who sit with Saint Joseph this is a very melancholy Christmas. There is much to ponder, and the lies of Satan, and the lure of Babylon must be resisted. We who sit with saint Joseph need to pay attention to the resistance and the strength of the midwives. Yes, we must ponder and reflect, but we must also be drawn into the activity of the midwives who know Christ in the flesh ( 1 John 4:2), who handle and wash and protect and guard God in this vulnerable moment of newness and liberation. But many of us are frozen in Saint Joseph’s melancholy, the veil still hangs over our eyes and we have yet to remove the veil and gaze upon  the light emitting from this icon..

*by using “pastoral image” I’m intentionally referencing Billie Holliday’s reported explanation of the term as used in “Strange Fruit.”


When God-with-Us is no Comfort: Feast of Holy Innocents

Scriptures Readings: Holy Innocents:

The sound track for this post:

:

What are we to make of the feast of the Holy Innocents? What is happening as we remember and celebrate these innocents, the unknown number of infants and toddlers who are martyrs? To what do these innocents witness? In what way do they give witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ?

Rachel weeps for her Children. Rachel a collective ancestral name, one of the mothers of Israel. Another name for Israel, just as Israel is also known as Jacob.

This is a strange feast combining lamentation and celebration of these martyrs, the Holy Innocents: infants and toddlers slain by king Herod.  The lamentation of Rachel refusing to be comforted.

Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus escape being warned to flee to Egypt. The hymn “Audit tyrannus anxius, in the Benedictine Daily breviary, for Holy Innocents speaks of these infants murdered by Herod as martyrs, and rejoices that these innocents are in the presence of God. It’s an unsettling sentiment. We, I suppose, are more likely to escape with Mary and Joseph than to sit with Rachel.

We, of whatever persuasion of Christian, we fail to let the reality of this day sink in. There’s the rushing to contemplate these infants in the presence of God singing the hymn of praise “Holy, Holy, Holy” without contemplating the horror of this moment.  The opposite response is to merely focus on the tragedy, which is making use of the tragedy to insist on the relevance of the Gospel and proof text the social gospel as a means to chastise those who seem indifferent to suffering injustice and oppression. We are avoiding what is most troubling: After God’s coming to be with us, God in human flesh, Jesus, escapes the massacre of the innocents, but God does not prevent the massacre.

We need the space of faithful Lament. We need the space to sit with tragedy when we see no action of God in which we are confronted with overwhelming evil and the power of death unleashed, and life squashed. We need a space to lament when Life has no answer. “Rachel refuses to be consoled.” Matthew recalls the words of Jeremiah. Jeremiah was also speaking of his time and the destruction of Jerusalem and Judah. In this story, there is the permission to not be consoled, when there is no comfort to be given.

In the Benedictine Daily Breviary, there’s a contradiction in celebrating this day: on the one hand the hymn appointed doesn’t let us grieve or lament (this is a feast day after all celebrating martyrs), but in the Day Time prayers we are invited to lament; the scriptures appointed for the day are from lamentations.

I wonder if there’s something to this contradiction. An invitation to in celebration not let ourselves be consoled. We are invited to lament the continued power of death even as God is with us in the word made flesh. The contradiction invites us to remember that this lament and lack of consolation is as much part of the Christmas story as “Peace on Earth, and Good will toward all.”

In a mash-up of Luke and Matthew and John, what we find is that not long after God in human flesh is born, and the angels announce tidings of great joy, and proclaim “Peace on earth and Good will towards all”, this proclamation is contradicted by Herod.  At the moment God moves into our neighborhood in the Word made flesh, Death rears its head and strikes and God is powerless. God with us doesn’t stop Herod from his destructive and death filled evil ways. More troubling is that God with us draws out Herod’s furry and God with us becomes an occasion for Herod’s tyranny as he seeks to stamp out the Word made flesh.

What then does Rachel and her “holy innocents”, her saints, these martyred infants, give witness to? Acknowledging God with us and God at work in the world, is not consolation for suffering oppression and tyranny. God’s solidarity with us isn’t necessarily a comfort. These innocents as martyrs and saints must be among those numbered who in addition to “Holy, Holy, Holy”, sing out “How long…

On this day during the joy of Christmas we join our voice with those dressed in white before the throne singing not only “Holy, Holy, Holy”, but also in lamentation sing “How long, O Lord!”

*Edited for clarity and corrected typos, 12/29/2016