Body of Christ

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:

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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

Feeling Safe and Secure without Grief or Lament

Alas for those who are at ease in Zion, and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria. Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music; who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile, and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away. – Amos 6:1a, 4-7

The above passage is the Hebrew Scripture reading  for today (Sunday September 25th, 2016, proper 21)  according to the Revised Common Lectionary. As I prepared the sermon today I could not shake that this word of Amos’ could be addressed to White Christians (and White people in general). The response to police shootings repeatedly shows a general inability by many white people to grieve for the loss of life. Rather, in general the attitude of whites is to immediately turn to questioning the actions of the victim of the shooting. I didn’t preach on this, but this leads me to wonder what is the source of our inability (as White people) to grieve, to lament, to weep with Black folks? Why is it that if you are White ones first response to a Police shooting of a black person isn’t lament and grief but defense and justification?

Part of the problem is the story we tell ourselves about America and its moral and ideological superiority, and its destiny on the world stage. This story we tell ourselves is why the action of refusing to stand for the national anthem, by Kaepernick and others following him, elicits such an angry response.  The anthem and the flag (and pledge of allegiance) are the central sacred objects of this story.  To suggest, as Kaepernick’s protest suggests, that racism and white supremacy is at the core of our mythology and that it taints the sacred objects of our civil religion shakes the security of those who are secure in the conviction of  the innate goodness and rightness of America: its institutions, mythology, and civil religion. White Americans are, not surprisingly, offended by the suggestion that what we hold sacred isn’t so holy.

(If you are a person of color who sees something useful in the American mythology for bringing about the remedy to your continued oppression and unequal treatment, I’m not criticizing your use of that mythology for your own ends. I’m speaking of how the mythology also works against liberation among white Christians, and whites generally.)

Because of our clinging to this narrative of American destiny as guardians of liberty, if we grieve it isn’t necessarily  over the injustice, oppression, and pain, but is over our loss of innocence and  feeling secure in our goodness.

The difficulty Whites have with truly grieving for and with the victims of police murder and violence is due to the depths and extent of racism and white supremacy. White supremacy is entangled within the philosophies, ideologies, and faith we’ve been taught to revere.  To admit that racism is still a problem, to admit that our system is still (even after Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights movement) racist and white supremacist shakes us to our core. It is difficult to understand how we haven’t reformed racism out of our system, therefore the problem can’t be with the system, it can’t be the police so it must be the victim of police violence.

But this is where the mythology works against seeing the truth. We can’t accept that Francis Scott Key as a slaveholder didn’t have African-Americans in mind as citizens of “land of the Free and home of the Brave”. This is the problem : those that instituted our sacred institutions and mythology and ideology had themselves in mind and people like them and not people of color.

For White Christians what stands in the way of grief is the causes of the division between white and black, white and people of color in  American Christianity. We often talk about the White and Black Church as if that separation of Christianity into white and black was some accident enforced upon the church by some external force. Worse still we talk about the black church forming without recognizing that the Black church formed because white Christians refused to worship with and ordain Black Christians. Whites left the black Christians or forced them out, not the other way around. Denominations that are White or predominantly White today have yet to really face and renounce what created them.

When white people choose to remember their immigrant origins, we tend not to recall that we are here in part due to deliberate quota’s that favored Europeans over other immigrant groups. We don’t think about the huge swath of land now owned by white people who were European immigrants isn’t an accident of amoral and natural forces of history but due to U.S. Government policy with the full cooperation and consent of White Christianity, It was due to the deliberate policy of the  U.S. government toward Native American people, and recruitment of poor Europeans to settle land taken from Native Americans as they were rounded up on small tracks of unwanted land.

In order to grieve what is happening in our streets requires no longer sitting securely in our comfort and safe place of America: no longer sitting comfortable in the belief that we are slowly progressing away from ignorance into enlightenment. We aren’t’ here because people didn’t know better back then.  No! Whites and White Christians seared their conscience and then created reasoned justifications to support a system that was to their benefit.

I’ve written subsequently about how my immigrant Swedish family through our settling Wisconsin and California play into what I’m talking about above. But even this second blog post is just beginning to tease out the depths of our racist system, what lies behind the persistence of systemic racism in spite of reforms and the reformers. What I believe is that this all persists because it is in the very structure of our society, it wasn’t that Racism and White supremacy wasn’t an add on after the U.S.A and the global economic system we inhabit it is in the very structure and foundation of everything we know.

Edited on October 18th, 2016

Listening for the Mind of Christ in Time of Crisis: Do not be afraid, Part 3

12 Meanwhile, when many thousands of the crowd had gathered so that they were trampling on one another, Jesus began to speak first to his disciples, “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. Nothing is hidden that will not be revealed, and nothing is secret that will not be made known. So then whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms will be proclaimed from the housetops.

“I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more they can do. But I will warn you whom you should fear: Fear the one who, after the killing, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! Aren’t five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten before God. In fact, even the hairs on your head are all numbered. Do not be afraid; you are more valuable than many sparrows.   Gospel of Luke 12:1-7 (NRSV)

Fear is powerful and at times needed. Fear alerts us to danger and prepares our bodies for confronting that danger, either by fighting or fleeing.  Jesus though calls us to not fear those who would have the power to end our life, “…do not be afraid of those who kill the body”. Why might Jesus tell us not to fear such a threat as someone who has the power, opportunity, and means to kill us?

I suggest part of the reason Jesus encourages us to not live in fear even of those who can kill us, can be found in reflection upon the tenor of the GOP national convention in July.  That whole week the GOP and Donald Trump wanted us to be afraid, to be very afraid. We were told to Fear the terrorists, fear the refugees who might be terrorist, fear immigrants and the list of what to fear continued on. One may argue that there’s no need to fear these things. The terrorists aren’t refugees Yet there are those who aren’t controlled by any legitimate government nor represent a nation who seek to harm the U.S. and its standing in the world. There is a real danger, though, not an immediate danger to most of us residing in the U.S. One may even want to counter that it is more realistic to be afraid of a random person carrying a legal firearm than an Islamic Terrorist (who actually kill more Muslims than Americans).  Whether or not what the GOP and Trump wish us to fear is based in any actual potential threat, the effect is still the same: the focus on who or what is feared, a focus that doesn’t allow us pay attention to much else, let alone seeking to find other possible responses than fight or flight. Fear works at its best in instances of immediate threat, in which we can immediately respond in either standing to fight or in getting away. Then the fear and adrenaline can dissipate once the threat is dealt with. But to fear that there are people in the world who may harm or even kill when that threat isn’t imminent keeps us from seeing the larger picture. Fear about generic and non-immediate threats allows us to be manipulated by fear mongering and we begin to fail to make a distinction between actual imminent threat, possible future threat, and plausible but unrealistic threat. We saw this mix of real and unrealistic fear in the GOP convention in July.

Yet, Jesus’s remarks aren’t only set against this jumble of undiscerning fear mongering. For Jesus, the reason not to fear isn’t that the fear is misplaced, but that it is generic and not immediate. When we live in fear even if of a legitimate but not immediate threats our focus is still on the fear and the feared. Jesus, says do not be afraid of some future possibility that there are people in the world who can harm you.

In order to demonstrate this, Jesus goes on to say that if one must be afraid of a possible future bodily threat, then be afraid of God. Jesus isn’t counseling actually fearing God, but if one is going to fear a potential real future threat, God serves as good as anything else to fear, after all, God is much more threatening, and then at least your focus would be on the source of ultimate meaning and of all life. Jesus is pointing us to an awareness and a way of being beyond fight or flight of our fear response.

What is Jesus doing here? I suggest that the reason Jesus says to not be afraid of even legitimate possible future threat is that we know God the creator of the universe who knows us intimately and lovingly knows odd details about us (the numbers of the strands of hair we have on our heads). We are intimately known by and sacred to our creator. So if we are going to fear a legitimate but future potential threat then we should fear God, but if you know God, when you come to know God, you are aware that God is a ridiculous thing to fear. For the members of Christ’s Body, we know something further about this God who knows intimate details about ourselves that we can’t know about ourselves; this one not only cares for us but is joined with us in our humanity and suffers with us. In Jesus of Nazareth God went to the extremities of life even death.  This one who cares and upholds our life also knows what it is to suffer, to be oppressed and abused and knows what it is to die, Jesus of Nazareth the Christ.  This is the God we know and love.

Now this doesn’t tell us what to do in the place of actual imminent threat. But it can and has led many to face and submit to violent death without fear. Yet, it has also led others to flee in the case imminent danger, until it was no longer time to flee the threat. To not be afraid doesn’t mean to be passive and do nothing in the face of a threat. But, it is to be put in the place of discerning beyond fight or flight. It allows us to be critical of all calls to fear something by the powerful (including the call of the Clinton campaign for us to fear a Trump presidency.).

So be not afraid, and oppose the powerful, but do not fear them. Don’t focus your attention on such potential threats.  Focus on God and the transformative work of God’s coming kingdom in the world through Jesus Christ.

Part two can be found here and part 1 here

Listening to the Mind of Christ In Time of Crisis: Nothing is Hidden that will not be revealed, Part 2

12 Meanwhile, when many thousands of the crowd had gathered so that they were trampling on one another, Jesus began to speak first to his disciples, “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. Nothing is hidden that will not be revealed, and nothing is secret that will not be made known. So then whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms will be proclaimed from the housetops.

“I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more they can do. But I will warn you whom you should fear: Fear the one who, after the killing, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! Aren’t five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten before God. In fact, even the hairs on your head are all numbered. Do not be afraid; you are more valuable than many sparrows.   Gospel of Luke 12:1-7 (NRSV)

“Nothing is hidden that will not be revealed.”

This Gospel text came to mind as the succeeding revelations that followed the WikiLeaks DNC e-mail leak, that lead to Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s stepping down as DNC Chair, which revealed the likelihood of Russian Intelligence as the source of the e-mails, and giving a possible glimpse into Russian attempts to influence the current election and possible ties between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.  In this one instance we had a cascading set of revelations of things done in secret (that even people would have rather been kept under wraps). I wondered is there something hopeful in these things coming to light? Depending on your political slant or loyalty one may spin those revelations one way or another, but that isn’t the same as something hopeful being found in the unveiling of secrets.  I wondered, and still am asking is Jesus here talking about a sign of the Kingdom of God?  In contrast to the hypocrisy that acts like yeast hidden in dough, unseen except in its eventual effects. Does the truth of the transforming work of the reign of God in the world simply expose what is hidden?

DNC e-mails and Russian covert operations aren’t the only thing being brought into the open this election, overt White-supremacy and racism has come into the open in the wake of Trumps campaign and rhetoric. Trump’s campaign and rhetoric has made overt white-supremacist feel they can more publicly display their opinions and attitudes. While dangerous and frightening I think this bringing out into the open what we as a culture and society had effectively kept out of sight.  What is hopeful in this is the possibility to also then recognize and bring to light the covert and social acceptable white-supremacy and racism

Overt and Covert White Suppremacy

Above image found in a the Salt Collective Facebook Page post August 8th 2016 p

Part of Socially acceptable white supremacy and racism, is being exposed as in the arena of policing and lethal force use against people of color. Exposure in and of itself doesn’t solve things, it can even worsen situations.  Such is the case of people feeling free to come out in the light and overtly show their White-Supremacy KKK affiliation, etc., creates a less safe environment for POC. The exposure of the DNC e-mails and Russia’s involvement has ratcheted up anti-Russian sentiment and rhetoric and accusations of collaboration and infiltration eerily and frightening analogous to Cold War Anti-Russian and Communist rhetoric and accusation.  Things being brought into the open in and themselves isn’t’ necessarily hopeful.

While things coming to light and into the open that were once hid away and in secret are often frightening and carry danger, there’s also the hope that once exposed change can happen. When overt white supremacy is hidden away it is possibly more difficult to see more covert-white supremacy. When certain things are kept under wraps and hid in a corner where there is no light there’s the possibility for yeast like hypocrisy to invade and lulled into a false sense of security and sense of progress

Due to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s,  overt and some forms of covert white supremacy were through Federal intervention, legislation and legal decisions brought to an end. Along with the ending of de jure white supremacy overt expressions of white supremacy where rightly marginalized and relegated to the privacy of one’s own secretly held opinions. Since overt white supremacy was now taboo and no longer supported by law gave the impression to many of us that white supremacy is merely a matter of attitude and hate, that could be addressed by individualistic transformation, ignoring the way that the de jure elimination of overt White Supremacy didn’t address or change the more covert and structural aspects of White supremacy woven into the very fabric of our nations consciousness, history and legal and political and economic realities. With the ascendancy of Trump giving people permission to express their overt White supremacist has exposed along with the Black Lives Matter movement, the lie that White supremacy is just in the past and simply has to do with personal hate of another person or fear of a group of people.

There is an opportunity in this moment, especially for White members of the body of Christ, to fully acknowledge the depth and breadth of white supremacy in American institutions (including our denominational institutions) and turn aside not only from the overt white supremacy but all forms of it. As these things come to light we can truly repent and let our POC siblings in Christ to tell us how we should respond, and taking their cue rather than attempting to justify ourselves and our attempts to reform the White systems of government, and white religious institutions.  When things are exposed hypocrisy comes to light and there is the opportunity to repent.  Then change, healing injury, and mending what is broken can begin What is hidden away only fester and remain unacknowledged and unchangeable.  This is the hope of Christ’s word’s what you speak in secret will be shouted from the rooftops.  This is often painful, even frightening and far from safe, but it offers the opportunity for true repentance and radical transformational change of the Beloved Community God sent in motion in the life death resurrection and ascension of Christ.

Next week Part three, “Be not afraid.

And if you missed last week here’s the link to part one An Hypocrisy that is like Yeast

Review of Tom Sine’s Live Like You Give a Damn!

Tom Sine’s Live Like You Give a Damn!:  Join the Change Making Celebration is an introduction to social entrepreneurship and community empowerment for the moribund congregation unaware of these things.  The book is not for anyone already aware and involved.  Sine believes these movements are in differing ways expressions of God’s reign. Yet for a book that wishes to awaken within these congregations the alternative vision of reality of the kingdom of God, there is little critical analysis of what he presents in relation to a concrete theological vision of the reign of God., While I agree with the author a great deal both in the social entrepreneurial field and especially the community empowerment field are signs of the movement of the Spirit and movement towards the reign of God, but at times the author seems to believe that capitalism as such is the engine of God’s work in the world.

I can see that it would have been difficult for the author to balance his desire to encourage congregational engagement with social entrepreneurship and at the same time sustain a certain critique of the underlying system. Again, I’m aware this book wasn’t addressed to me, nor my own concerns.  However, even recognizing this the author seems to equate most any change with the reign of God, thus discerning what may or may not be of God and the spirit and sign of God’s reign in our midst is absent from his vision.

I was particularly encouraged by the authors various accounts of community empowerment.  And what he chose to recount in the realm of social entrepreneurship certainly bodes well for our future, and gives reason for optimism.  Yet, although he spoke of having an alternative vision of the reign of God, Sine is fairly vague about what the reign of God might look like and where it might lead us. Such that in the end the reign of God looks remarkably like reformist neo-liberal capitalism, in which for profit enterprise (now oriented towards making a profit while also working for the common good) and the need for investors who will get a return on their investment, remains the prominent engine for change.  As I see it the Gospel and the reign of God remain a challenge to both social entrepreneurship and community empowerment.  While Sine encourages a great deal of dreaming and expressing our vision for there is little talk about discernment, or any sense that that not all change is necessarily for the better or even that all change even if for the better isn’t necessarily the in breaking of the Beloved Community.  As I read I was seeking some clear articulation of vision of the Gospel and the reign of God, that Sine saw as what should form us as the people of God. The sense I get from the book is more the mind set of a reformist capitalism and that social entrepreneurship should form us as the people of God, because of Sine’s conviction that God was at work in these things (which I think he’s correct, but we only can know that if we have a clear sense of end goal of the reign of God, and some sense of who we are to be as the body of Christ.  I would assert that if we engaged in this sort of discernment the Body of Christ would be in a better position to recognize moments when the Spirit is at work in the world and when the reign of God pops up in the midst of the world.  From the perspective of the Gospel the people of God are called to not seek the benefit of others and change the world for the sake of our own monetary and material benefit rather the Gospel and the reign of God, challenges us to give up these motives, for the benefit of others at times at the cost of our own wealth and benefit.  This requires more than a desire to make a profit and make money in an ethical way, but the abandonment for profit and wealth accumulation.

For the moribund Christian congregation who desires something more but is stuck and unsure how to move forward and let go of past forms of congregational life that no longer makes sense, this book could be a good catalyst for getting out of a moribund rut.  Even for such a congregation the book is only a beginning point.  Yet, the book lacks one needed component, and that is the articulation of the mind of Christ, and vision of the reign of God, that even challenges the good of social entrepreneurship.  If you or your congregation are already aware of various movements of change in the fields social entrepreneurship and community empowerment this book is not for you.  If you or your congregation wish to become aware of these fields and desire some aid in thinking through orienting your congregational life towards such movements this book may serve that purpose and could put a fire into some in the congregation, but it would need to be supplemented with a good resource on the radical nature of the Gospel and some extensive theological reflection on the nature of the kingdom of God. Without these supplements I find Sine and this book caught up to much in a theology of Change that isn’t necessarily an articulation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

New Changemakers
Mustard Seed Associates
Tom Sine interview on the Future of the Church
Tom Sine on Facebook
Tom Sine on Twitter


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

Listening for the Mind of Christ in Time of Crisis: An hypocrisy that is like yeast, Part 1

12 Meanwhile, when many thousands of the crowd had gathered so that they were trampling on one another, Jesus began to speak first to his disciples, “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. Nothing is hidden that will not be revealed, and nothing is secret that will not be made known. So then whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms will be proclaimed from the housetops.

“I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more they can do. But I will warn you whom you should fear: Fear the one who, after the killing, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! Aren’t five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten before God. In fact, even the hairs on your head are all numbered. Do not be afraid; you are more valuable than many sparrows.   Gospel of Luke 12:1-7 (NRSV)

Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy”. We can too easily dismiss the Pharisees. The Pharisees were seeking the renewal of the people of God, and in comparison, to the likes of the Herodians they took the high road. The ideals of the Pharisees were closely aligned with that of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ metaphor of hypocrisy being like yeast indicates that we are to be on our guard for what is hidden and isn’t obvious.  The hypocrisy of the Pharisees is something that is subtle and unseen except ultimately in its effect.

The hypocrisy of the GOP and the Religious right has been brought to light.  The choice of Donald Trump with so many republican and religious leaders stumbling around to get behind him, when for years the GOP and the Religious Right have talked of the personal and moral character of candidates for high office criticizing at times their opponents for not being such persons of character.  The GOP’s hypocrisy is easy to see it has leavened the whole loaf, but we must be on guard for hypocrisy before the dough starts to rise. In the case of the GOP and its presidential candidate this election, the dough has risen!

A subtle yet largely unnoticed hypocrisy is already needed into the dough of U.S. history.  For his own hypocritical ends Donald Trump has used this hypocrisy in attempts to justify restrictions on Muslim immigrants and   tracking Muslim U.S. citizens by appeal to the use of concentration camps of Japanese during WWII along with the restrictions and surveillance of Germans and Italians during WWII by FDR’s administration.

The administration of FDR with the approval of the U.S Supreme Court in prosecuting war for “Freedom” and human rights, without cause robbed Japanese Americans of their freedom and violated their human rights.  We compound and perpetuate this hypocrisy by attempting to justify or explain away the hypocrisy by excusing it or claiming they didn’t know better at that time.  We let our guard down when we for the sake of our ideals and our mythos of America pretend that the U.S. Government and a great number o its citizens have hypocritically held to its own ideals.  We further compound this when we do not admit that the seeds of this hypocrisy, are needed into the dough of our national life from the moment of our revolution and founding.  As the founders of this nation wrote and spoke eloquently of Freedom they were also slave holders or those who in some way benefited from slavery or at least tacitly approved of the enslavement of Africans. To be on our guard for the the yeast of hypocrisy is to be conscious of this radical hypocrisy at the founding of the United States.

At the Democratic Convention where we at last have a woman for presidential candidate of a major party, we also extolled how we are the greatest nation in the world surpassing all others yet, ignoring a failing that doesn’t fit with our national aspirational narrative of being a leader of the nations, of being out in front.  Women have been at the helm of Government in nations all over the world, in growing numbers over the years, since at least the 1980’s.  On this we haven’t been a leader in the world nor in line with America being the best and greatest.  In not looking closely at ourselves and the narrative we use here is another place where hypocrisy can slip in.  We aren’t even the only nation to have the aspirations to freedom and democracy and equality.  France too has it’s mythology and believes itself to be a beacon in the world to freedom and democracy, after all “LIberte, Egalite, Fraternite” is its national moto.  We should be on guard for way our positive and aspirational story of America has this leaven already within it.

What this means for us as member of Christ and citizens of the U.S. is to be aware of the ways in which hypocrisy can invade and appear even in our desire for the moral high ground.  Especially if that moral high ground is identified with a particular nation and when those aspirations are also human aspirations shared beyond the boundaries of the nation.  We may even say that the leaven of the Pharisees was precisely; in this area:  They were good people devoted to Gods law and ensuring that the people of Israel stay true even under a harsh occupation when the occupier sought to dissuade their unique devotion to their god and customs (because it excluded paying fealty to the occupier’s ways and God.) Even thought there was much good in what they did, Jesus calls them out for their hypocrisy.  Good motives even seeking the Good of your group doesn’t prevent the yeast of hypocrisy.

To be on guard in this manner means not resting in party religious or national loyalties. To be on guard means to be attuned and open to God’s work of building up the Beloved Community which transcends and transgresses national and other boundaries we draw and write and put up.  To be on guard in this way is both positive and negative.  We are to be aware of where the reign of God is popping up and to be aware of the ways in which simply resting in our sense of Good or being part of the right group can lead to a hypocrisy that can choke out.  member of the body of Chris be on your guard hypocrisy is rampant it is in us, it is in the stories we tell ourselves.

In the next two weeks I will continue with this reflection on these words of Christ, part two “Nothing is hidden that will not be revealed…” and part three “…do not be afraid …”

Having Nothing to Show: Spirituality without Accounts

Jesus said to the twelve, “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.
“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”    Mathew 10:7-16

“Freely you have received, freely give.”
I was mulling over this aphorism of Jesus’ from Matthew’s Gospel a couple of days before the Feast of St. Barnabas. Then I found myself at a Mass on that feast and heard the full context of those words. “You received without payment, give without Payment.” The gift economy of this aphorism depends upon the hospitality of others, for others to receive and act within this gift economy. This is not easy; we can easily decide that this only applied to the Apostles during Jesus’ earthly ministry. I’ve lived as though this applies to me as a member of Christ, and a minister of word and sacrament. But now I’m wrestling with having taken Jesus’ words to heart. At times this part of the Gospel asks too much.

In a world where we are told we get only what we earn or take, saying we begin with something not earned, something which can’t be purchased, runs counter to our experience molded by concepts of earnings and profit.

There are costs to following these words. I’m at the end of my rope, uncertain how to evaluate how I’ve spent my life. I have given freely, convinced that I had been given something beyond payment and accounting. Yet, to give without payment is also to not earn. To give freely is to not accumulate: wealth, followers, supporters, congregations, fans. To freely give is to give without strings. The cost is this; giving freely looks a great deal like failure.

I have doubts. Have I given anything at all? This is the problem of being without accounts, of not keeping a ledger. There’s no means to call in debts, because there is no indebtedness. There’s no means to say look how much I have given, because to give freely is to give without account. Is this not complete foolishness? A voice in me accuses: “Did you not set out on this path knowing you could not succeed so, you kept no accounts so then you could avoid facing your own failure.”

“Freely you have received, freely give.”

A part of me says, the cost is too high in a world of ledgers, earnings, accounts, and debt, financial, emotional, psychological and social. I may freely give but others demand an account. I freely give but I still want to accumulate, receive payment for my efforts. I still want my earnings.

I still want to say I will succeed. I want recognition. I want wealth to eventually accumulate to me. Yet, I gave without demand for payment, and so there are no returns.

What this tells me is I’ve yet fully converted. I’ve yet to comprehend and ingest these words “You received without payment, Give without payment.” I’ve yet to learn the love of God Father Son and Holy Spirit, who gives without account, who reaps without sowing, who has wealth without accumulation, who loves without end or return.

When all is given freely there is no return for there was no investment. There’s invitation without RSVP, so that the guests that show up weren’t those invited.

Jesus says all this throughout the Gospels. Through the incarnation and the Cross, God removes the accounts and the ledgers, or proves to us there’s never been a ledger, or accounts, the reality remains that God isn’t keeping accounts. In Christ Jesus, God comes to us and says you have no debt, there are no accounts, no ledgers, only gift. Live accordingly. This is the life of faith, this is the way of the Cross, this is what it means to be a member of the body of Christ. Even so, we create again and again out of the gift, other economies. We bind people and wealth to ourselves in return for what we give. We accumulate people, money, property, debts (financial and social) to ourselves.

Or we do like I have done, give freely while attempting to reserve the right to demand a return on investment, and then become despondent realizing there is no ledger, no accounting, no measure.

Have I succeeded in ministry, and in life? have I failed? I have no idea. I can make no judgment.
What I can say is that I have lived with the conviction that I did freely receive what is beyond accounting. In my life and ministry I’ve sought to freely give. And at this moment all I can say is that my desires and my longings are divided and conflicted. I’ve held back, I’ve kept a ledger so that I could give an account, call in debts, account my earnings and my profits. Yet, now when I open that ledger the pages are blank, I have nothing to show.

What I received I received without account or credit, and I heard the call and gave accordingly. Thus there was nothing to record, nor proof to give, yet I held on to the ledger all the same.
Now I feel the need to keep accounts, and there’s nothing to show.

Is this failure or success I don’t know? There’s no measure. And I’m at a loss.

Signs and wonders of Pentecost as material effects of God’s work on the earth.

If we focus on what is seen, heard, touched and is located on the earth in Luke’s account of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-21), we can gain a sense of what are the material effects of the incarnation and the descent of the Spirit. If we’ve encountered the reality of God come in Jesus of Nazareth, the Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension, we will have seen it, it will have a material effect.  This material manifestation is oriented towards a goal, that is only understood if we know how to interpret what we are seeing hearing and handling.  These manifestations show God’s work on the earth. God’s work is to restore the relationship between God and God’s creation, to reconcile humanity and God. The purpose of God’s work in the world is relational, and is born out of God’s desire for us and for all creation: the work of God in the earth is aimed towards relationship and love.

Using the above framework, we can look at the manifestations of Pentecost and their interpretations given to us by Luke in his recounting of the Descent of the Spirit on the Church.  First the manifestation and its effect are things that are evident and noticeable. Sound of wind, tongues of fire that are seen, languages spoken.  Those who wanted to discount what was happening couldn’t deny the event they simply gave it another explanation, the drunkenness of the individuals around whom the commotion started. But the manifestations aren’t random either.  Sound of wind, tongues of fire: These are consistent forms of epiphany and theophany that the people of Israel have known and experienced. They aren’t new, remixed yes, entirely new, no.  God manifesting God’s presence through meteorological phenomenon especially wind, and in fire is consistent with the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, which the celebration of Pentecost marks. The effect of the coming of the Spirit as a continuation of the work of Jesus Christ, does so in continuity with the work of God in human history in people Israel. The manifestation and effect is relational and reconciling, it bridges gaps and breaks down barriers that simply are the case in the world.  Languages and location and identity divide us as human beings, on the Day of Pentecost God uses what divides to bring together, and shows that the intended effect of the incarnation and the passion is to bring together, to reconcile in relationship. Furthermore, Peter in referencing Joel tells us the effect is intended for all no mater one’s social location or identity and the speaking of all languages from all parts o the earth shows that your geographical location doesn’t matter. Yet the descent of the Spirit also doesn’t erase those differences or identities, rather the work of God makes possible relationship and connection where such seems impossible or difficult. Lastly, it shakes up what is considered inevitable, simply set in the nature of the cosmos, or dictated by the powerful.  Peter tells us that what we have seen in the descent of the Holy Spirit is the same as the cosmic powers of Sun and Moon being changed, shaken and upended.

On this Pentecost, what might we take from all of this?  First, Pentecostal and Charismatic manifestations and signs and wonders aren’t meant to be ends in themselves, without interpretation they are dead ends. Yet, to ridicule or otherwise diminish them is to deny the incarnation. To so ridicule or diminish is to deny that salvation is earthly and material.  The story of God’s activity in the world to reconcile God and God’s creation that begins with Abraham and is brought to fulfillment in Jesus of Nazareth.  If we attend to that story we will see that this reconciliation this transformation isn’t an escape from materiality and the earth, but is a deep and profound affirmation of all that God created.   Yet, many of the material conditions of our current worldly existence are at odds with God’s transforming and reconciling work on the earth and in the entire cosmos. The miraculous, or signs and wonders, are manifestations, epiphanies, that are meant to point out how and where God is at work.  We members of Christ’s body, the Church, should be both where these manifestations appear and those who are looking for these theophany. Yet, these epiphanies and theophany aren’t only the miraculous. We should find, in various ways, a transformed and reconciled and transfigured world replacing the world as we know it and find it.

The Church isn’t supposed to be seeking merely the reform of worldly structures and certainly isn’t supposed to be a means of escape from this earthly existence, rather it is to up end the worldly powers whatever name they go by: socialist, communist, capitalist, neoliberal, progressive, conservative, democracy, monarchy, ad infinitum.  God came to earth to transform and redeem and reconcile God’s creation the physical and material created universe, seen and unseen. The signs of the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and the signs and wonders that manifested around the early Church and show up again throughout history, show us that God means to transform our material existence.  God’s reconciling work is for the earth, for all creation, for the entire universe. Our very existence is to be transformed, and it happens in time, in history and on earth. Yet, the work of God is also not from history, nor is it historical nor merely material. This is the incarnation, this is the coming of the Spirit, this is the meaning and reality of the Church in germ. Look, listen, be sent into the world so that we may truly see where God is at work and be ourselves individual and corporately sites of God’s reconciling and transfiguring work on earth, upending all world systems.