Reflection

The Liberating Mystery of God With Us

This story takes place at the edge of empire and completely out of sight of the state and its power. Though in ways unintentional and unknown to the powerful and the State act in concert with God, for their own undoing. Not immediately, not in away that to us looks timely or efficient, but undone all the same.

A Christianity associated with empires and conquerors, especially as it did the period of European colonization, distorts this story of God’s incarnation in the person Jesus of Nazareth. As Mary’s song, the Magnificat, says God never sides with the powerful and the conqueror.  So much of White and European Christianity is condemned in this story of the birth of Jesus.

No one of import in the Roman Empire is aware of this moment when God comes into the world as one of us, a human, a Jew.  In this moment of the Holy Nativity the rich and powerful have no standing and aren’t even in the picture.

God is born under the oppression of the Roman Empire, whose dictates must be followed, whose peace is achieved through the brutality of its military. This is the situation in which God comes, and becomes human: God’s people Israel, are still a conquered people, and God doesn’t come to King Herod’s, a puppet king of Rome, but comes to the common oppressed. Not only comes to them but becomes one of them. Yes, they may have traced their lineage to King David, but make much of that supposed lineage and the might of Rome would put an end to any who made such claims.

There is something odd and counter-intuitive to the joy of this is good news worthy of Joy.  God doesn’t come this time and defeat Rome like God defeated Pharaoh and Egypt at the Red Sea. Rather God comes vulnerable and becomes one of the oppressed and poor of the world. This time no emissaries are sent to the halls of power, rather heralds announce God’s arrival to shepherds in open fields. This extraordinary story of the birth of Christ, is a most ordinary story, of God coming in our midst, among the poor and powerless,- as the poor and powerless. There is no shock and awe here, no show of force, no threat.

The light that shines in darkness doesn’t come from halls of power, but from a small village in the back-water corner of the Roman Empire, a village that few of significance in Rome knew existed. This is where God choose to live.

This is liberation, that God is one with those who are deemed unworthy, who are seen as lazy, who are forgotten and

 

abandoned. This announcement o our liberation in the Holy Nativity says,  and  if we are looking for God to show up in the halls of power, the

Holy Nativity tells us we are looking in the wrong place. The powerful may move but if it is movement in concert with God’s work among the people of the world, it is for their own undoing, not that the powerful act with or for God. This is Christmas, the Holy Nativity, the world upended, God changes the world through becoming a powerless human being, that everyone of import can ignore.

The Mystery and Scandal of Particularity: A sermon or the Fourth Sunday of Advent

Scriptures for the Fourth Sunday of Advent:

King David, once a shepherd boy, the youngest of his brothers, now he has secured his position as king of Israel and the territorial integrity of Israel. With a fine palace to show for it, while the god of Israel has a tent and not a palace. The ark of the covenant is still in the tabernacle. David want’s something more impressive for the creator of all things and the god of Israel. David wants ot do what other Kings do for their god’s build God a proper temple and solidify the relationship between the God of Israel and the King of Israel.

God, Adonai, doesn’t see it that way and opposes this idea. God is content with the tent and the ark on the move among the people. God reminds David that not long ago God chose David when he was just the youngest son of Jesse, a shepherd boy. David should not imagine that he could be like other kings of the nation’s equating himself with his God, as he solidifies his power. After all it is God who chose David and established David and rather than build God a house God says he will establish David’s house. God prefers to be among God’s people, God has done and will do just fine with the tent. The tabernacle suits the creator of all that is just fine.

The history of Israel contradicts God’s promise to David in part because the Kings of Israel and Judah never escaped this idea that the gods legitimate the power of kings and their princes. God of Israel wouldn’t be so used, and through the prophets consistently declared that God wasn’t on the side of kings and princes and the rich and powerful even if they were technically god’s anointed. The God of Israel and all that is, was concerned for the poor the oppressed and the needy and sided with them not with the powerful and wealthy who oppressed.

God doesn’t need David’s power and prestige, and God isn’t going to let David think he can establish the relationship between him and God. God is free, God acts, David and we respond to God’s action in the world. David wants to connect his success and his sovereignty as King to God, by establishing a temple and cult for God (and Solomon will do this). God refuses the equation, and reprimands David for the idea telling David that on this God has been clear; While God has given David his position as King in Israel, he wasn’t the first “shepherd” of Israel and God has never desired a central location, God chose Israel as God chose David, as God chose the other leaders of Israel, but it isn’t to make the equation between David and God, God and David. The God of all creation is the God of Israel, this is a difference, Adonai isn’t a tribal God, though God cares for and desires good for Israel and Israel’s King, David.

The confusion of David and even the prophet Nathan, is a confusion that one can trace through much of the Hebrew Scriptures. It is a mistaken conclusion based the God of Creation, interacting with the created order in its minutia to achieve global ends. This is what some have called the scandal of particularity. As God renews a relationship with humanity, God does so through particular persons and times. The temptation is to believe that choice means that time or person or place is on its own terms special, rather than point out God’s way of doing things. We may have some understanding of God through the universal character of God as creator, but we come to know god personally through God’s choices, first of Abraham and Sarah.  The God of Israel is always the God who meets us through others of God’s choosing.

St. Gabriel, Archangel – 7 1/4″ x 5 1/2″

When God sends the messenger Gabriel, to announce to Mary God’s intention that she is chosen, this is in line with God’s actions throughout time. Abraham and Sarah were no one of significance to the emerging States and the powerful of their time. We are told that Mary is a descendent of David. The promise to David is kept, but that promise was always for God’s purposes, as God renews a relationship with each of us and all creation. Mary a descendent of David, a member of the people of God, young just beginning her journey of life, see’s something that her Ancestor David failed to see, though God tried to remind David of this, tried to get him to see that God isn’t about power in the way kings and the powerful among humanity understand power. Mary see’s that God is set against those who try to dominate. God’s deeds of power lift those we who look for prestige and power ignore. God moves among the people not among the halls of power.

We remember Mary and her ancestor David, and Sarah and Abraham. Mary is and isn’t special. She is among the long list of those whom God has chosen in specific times and places to participate in God’s plan to restore a relationship with God. God choose particular persons, like Mary, and a particular nation, Israel, to relate to each of us personally.

This confounds us, this is the mystery that was hidden but is now revealed in Jesus Christ, that the God creator universe, of the vast expanse of Galaxies upon galaxies, cares for the minutia of the universe. God doesn’t think like a human managing some vast realm or corporation, letting others attend to the minor workers, the janitors, the easily forgettable workers. God isn’t limited like us, able only to care so much, God relates to all creation in all its particularity and minutia, not in distant only in its global and universal aspects.

Each of us through Jesus Christ and the Spirit, are like these ancestors of our faith, Mary and David and Sarah. Through them we know that God doesn’t reside in the halls of power neither in Washington, in congress or the Whitehouse, nor internationally in New York at the U.N. God moves among us whom the rich and powerful care little about, and give little thought except when they need us to vote, or buy something, or work for them. God isn’t like the powerful.

Through Mary God is one of us in her child Jesus. God was and is and will always be God with us, joined to our human flesh and God’s creation through this descendant of David, Jesus of Nazareth the Christ, a Jewish Palestinian peasant who lived far from the powerful and the rich who except for God, would have long been forgotten by the world and the rich and powerful.

This is what we are called to embrace that God cares for us in our seeming insignificance and powerlessness, that the rich and powerful seek to hide from. God doesn’t deal with us as an anonymous collective of being to be controlled but comes to us and deals with us in our particularity, and did so by forever becoming one of us, Jesus of Nazareth. And so we remember Mary and honor her, and consider her blessed, because it is through her that we know God and it is through her particularity that God comes to us and meets each of us in our own personhood. This is what we are about to celebrate, this astounding love of the creator of all that is.

Waiting on the Fire of Repentance

Isaiah 40:1-11  •  2 Peter 3:8-15a   •  Mark 1:1-8

The Scriptures read on the Second Sunday of Advent lead us to contemplate repentance and waiting.

Repentance isn’t just confession and being sorry for one’s sin. Repentance is opening up to transformation, thus turning around and going in a new direction. Repentance isn’t saying I’m sorry and then carrying on as before. Repentance responds to an offer for a different way of life one in line with God’s vision of the world. Repentance is a response to God’s offer of a different way of life. Repentance is not only asking forgiveness for doing a thing called a sin, but being open to change and transformation that leads one away from doing particular sins. Repentance prepares ourselves and the world for the presence of God that reorient ourselves and opens us to our true selves.

In the work of John the Baptist repentance is what prepares the way of the coming of God in Jesus Christ. In 1 Peter, there is a connection between our repentance and waiting for the ultimate transformation of the whole cosmosthat is to come. The radical transformation we open ourselves to in repentance is what Peter envisions is happening to the entire cosmos. It’s not that the burning up of the cosmos ends the cosmos but to use a Pauline term purifies it like smelting silver and gold. The physical universe will not cease but is transformed by a smelting fire to burn away all that is opposed to what is true, good, and whole. This is the work we open ourselves to through repentance. It is why the earthly ministry of Jesus of Nazareth was preceded by this call to repentance. God was reforming God’s people in and through the work of Jesus of Nazareth. This restoration always connected with the Jewish people into which the other peoples of the world were grafted into as God restores humanity in Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ.

This restoration and transformation requires a repentance which in turn upends and undermines the presumption of the State and its demands of loyalty and assertion that it is the solution to human need and oppression. The good news of Jesus Christ Son of God, is a radical and political statement that sets things a blaze by using the political mythology of the Emperor for a Jewish peasant in the back water of the Empire (As Jason Chesnut has pointed out in his recent Advent reflection.) The repentance the Gospel, the good news, calls us to is to turn from our faith in the salvific claims of the State, the power of the sword as St. Paul the Apostle summarizes it. As Paul indicates that power of the sword may be necessary to constrain evil, but that power can’t transform the cosmos and cannot bring about the deepest and permanent change we desire. Only God at work in Jesus of Nazareth does this.  God does the patiently, slowly burning away the dross of sin, unrighteousness, injustice and oppression, transformig us and the entire cosmos.

In repentance we willingly become subject to this work and become participant in it. repentance is a waiting for the consummation and a movement by which we are participants in God’s work in Jesus Christ. We are acting and waiting in repentance. During Advent we are at the beginning and the end. How does this good news of Jesus Christ move you? Do you know what you are waiting for? Have you made the turn and opened yourself to God’s transforming love?

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.

On Kings, Sheep, and the Reign of Christ

Scripture texts, RCL Year A, for Reign of Christ Sunday:

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

Psalm 95:1-7a

Ephesians 1:15-23 Matthew 25:31-46

It was not uncommon in the ancient world for kings to be described metaphorically as shepherds. This metaphor carried the ideal of a king as protector of the week and the innocent. This was the fable of kingship. The king was to be in solidarity with those in need of justice and protection. The reality was quite different. Much of the proclamation of the prophets including Ezekiel was aimed at this discrepancy of how the kings and princes were expected to treat the vulnerable and the poor in Israel and what Israel’s kings and princes did.  Both in Israel and in the nations kings and princes were as likely as not to use their positions of power not to protect the vulnerable but to shore up their own power prestige. God expected the kings and princes of Israel to act according to the law and be just and not accumulate wealth and power to themselves. Thus, the judgment of Ezekiel upon the leaders of Israel. As Christians we read Ezekiel’s “servant David”, the shepherd to come, as Christ. Thus, Christ the King. Jesus Christ is the king who is the true shepherd who is in solidarity with the poor, the vulnerable, the marginalized, and the oppressed.

Jesus describes himself as a king concerned for how the poor and the vulnerable and the oppressed are treated. In Ephesians Jesus Christ is the cosmic ruler, Emperor, ruler of all, for the Church. Ephesians takes Ezekiel’s promise of God being the shepherd of God’s people and the Shepherd God’s people, God’s servant David, moves it beyond Israel into the whole cosmos. Christ isn’t just the shepherd of God’s people Israel, but is ruler over all nations, and peoples and over all cosmic powers of the Universe. God in Christ shepherds the entire universe.

But what does this mean for us? How we might live as members of Christ’s body the Church, with this knowledge?

In the parable of the last judgement, Jesus Christ the king, brings us to a point of self-examination. the heart and solidarity of the shepherd is revealed in this parable. It’s not enough to read this as a check list for righteousness: “Have I fed  the hungry?” Check. “Have I clothed the naked?” Check. “Have I cared for the sick.” Check. “Visited people in prison?”. Check. At the same time, we can’t ignore the call to right action. But we should be moved into action by knowing God’s heart, and living as Christ in the world. We miss the meaning of the parable if we see ourselves as isolated from Christ and a those with whom Christ identifies as king and judge of the nations.

Liberation theology encourages us to read this as a judgement not of individuals but of nations, Christ the King in the parable gather’s the nations and divides people from sheep and goats. This highlights for us that the parable is about groups, collectives and thus solidarity. On this interpretation, the parable has collective action not necessarily individual action as its focus. This parable isn’t just about individual charity, but justice: it’s about how we together, not just isolated individuals, treat the poor the oppressed the sick and the imprisoned.

The question isn’t simply what are you individually doing, or did you individually do all this but were you part of communities where the vulnerable the hungry the sick, those without shelter or clothing, the imprisoned were attended to, or were you part of communities that ignore the least of these. It also asks with whom are you identifying? Do we identify with the prisoners in our prison industrial complex the victims of what Michelle Alexander call “the New Jim Crow”? We the U.S. imprison more people per capita than just about any other nation in the world, we accepted tough on crime legislation and demanded more prisons be built, and reports from the conditions of those prisons is horrific and, our prisons are the place of perpetuating the racist white supremacist heritage of our country.

On to our self-examination:

In Jesus’ story of judgement, the heart and goodness of God is revealed: God in Jesus Christ, identifies themselves with the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned.  Christ the King identifies himself with those in U.S. Prisons, with those who are the streets experiencing homelessness, with those without food or the ability to care for themselves or provide for themselves. God knows are weaknesses, and while Jesus’ story is stark sheep and goats, Ezekiel and Ephesians are less stark, put more weight on God’s action then human action, and encourages us that we can grow into knowledge and action.  This is the heart and goodness of God: God in Christ identifies with the poor, vulnerable, oppressed, and forgotten.  God seeks us to even when we don’t have God’s heart and we are able to grow into identify as Christ Identifies. We don’t act alone but we enter God’s work of justice and care for the vulnerable.

So, examine and pray for wisdom, and growing in love.  Jesus Christ the good shepherd is seeking you out along with all the other lost and hurting humanity including the hungry the sick, the naked, the thirst, the imprisoned.

In our examination we ask do we separate ourselves from those we see as weak or in need or do we share the solidarity that Christ has with them? Before we ever step out to act on this parable of the judgment seat of Christ, we must ask do we share Christ’s solidarity with the vulnerable oppressed and marginalized, or do we seek to separate ourselves from vulnerable, oppressed, and poor humanity. Is your response to this story of judgment to help those unlike you, or are you driven to recognize your solidarity with those mentioned by Christ?

Our action can’t be from s place of doing for those who are less than us or other than us, but helping those who are our equals, because Christ says the least of these, those who are suffering, are Christ, are those with whom the King of the universe says these are mine, how you treat these human being is how you treat me. Do you want to know how to live out your faith and what faith means for the world, then Begin here, in solidarity. From this beginning, you will know what you are to do, and you will grow in knowledge and wisdom and love. Let Christ take you over, let the Spirit of Christ fill you, such that you can have solidarity with those the powerful will pass by and harm without a thought, or those our society and world use up for the sake of preserving wealth and status and power.

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.

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.