Scandal and Glory: A Sermon for Good Friday, 2019

We have heard again the dramatic, heart-breaking story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and execution as recorded in the Gospel of John. For those of us who know it well, it is a story that grips us with gut-wrenching power. It also may repel us because of the ways it has been interpreted, the ways we’ve internalized the story and meaning of the crucifixion, and in John’s case the unrelenting, offensive anti-Judaism that jumps out at us. Continue reading

Listening to and reading Fleming Rutledge

I had the opportunity to hear the Rev’d Fleming Rutledge speak today. Her presentation was entitled “What happened to Theology?” I went out of curiosity and because I have read two of her books in recent months. Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ(2018) accompanied me as I prepared and preached Advent in 2018 and last week, I read Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ(2015). I found both books challenging theologically and at times off-putting but engaging with them is time well spent. I had the same reaction to her presentation today.

One of the biggest challenges for me is simply her Barthian presuppositions. She contrasts Christian (biblical faith) with religion. The former originates with God; the latter with humans. I struggle with this for two reasons. First, because of the nature of scripture itself. Without going into a lengthy discussion, holy scripture is a compilation of books, deemed authoritative by human decisions, written by humans, using language which is also a product of human culture. Thus, revelation is necessary mediated through humans and to speak of God being the subject of theology, or that “scripture is the story God is telling of Godself” is true on the one hand, yet at the same time, it is also being told and preserved by humans.

Secondly, to contrast biblical (Christian) faith with religion is problematic in our religiously plural age. Does it result in a privileging of Christianity over against other religious traditions? Does it privilege Christianity over “not-Christianity” (ie., Judaism) in reading scripture? Does it overlook or ignore all of the ways in which the various forms of Christianity, historically and in the present are similar to other religious forms? Indeed, is it necessary for her project to make such distinctions?

 

One of the things she stressed today was the importance of learning and living in the biblical story. Whether or not I accept her views of the nature of revelation, I do agree that scripture tells the story of God, and that by wrestling with the story contained in scripture we encounter God, we learn about God’s relationship with humans, and we learn about human beings as well. To read scripture, to immerse oneself in scripture, is to immerse oneself in a conversation with God, in which God does the talking, but as we listen, we are compelled to ask questions, of ourselves, of the world, of scripture, and of God.

One of the things I appreciated most about Crucifixion was that instead of laying out a theory of the atonement, Rutledge explored the many images that the New Testament uses to talk about the crucifixion. Many of these images are problematic and challenging, but in her exposition, she showed their power to convey something unique and meaningful, without asserting that any single one conveyed all of the meaning of the cross. In that work, she very much shows what it means to enter the story of scripture, as she teases out the many possible meanings of “sacrifice” for example. She insists, for example, that it was an image used by early Christians, and for us to understand the faith of those early Christians, and for us to be faithful Christians in the twenty-first century, engaging with the entire range of biblical imagery concerning the cross helps us understand our faith, and perhaps come to deeper faith. I will never again be self-conscious about loving the great Lutheran passion chorales, for example.

I was as challenged by her emphasis on apocalyptic themes in Advent as I was by her appeal to take seriously the full range of biblical imagery surrounding the cross. Advent emphasizes the Second Coming in its scriptural passages as well as its hymnody much more strongly than it does the Nativity. Apocalyptic falls in and out of fashion as culture changes, and for many contemporary mainline Christians, its association with a particular emphasis in conservative Protestantism makes it suspect. Still, while scholars may debate the extent to which Jesus himself was an apocalyptic prophet or preacher, the fact of the matter is that early Christians, beginning with Paul, were convinced of his early return, and Paul’s letters are written with an urgency reflecting the imminence of the Second Coming. His theology is shaped by that apocalyptic perspective.

At the heart of apocalyptic is both the sense of a cosmic struggle between good and evil as well is a firm belief that in the end God will make all things right. In our context, it may be that such a worldview helps us make sense of our world better than any other.

 

But to return to the theme of her talk, as I left I wondered whether Rutledge is fighting a losing battle. Given the changes in our culture, the decline of Christianity, the multiple claims on our allegiances, is the sort of deep engagement with scripture even possible? In her talk and in the question and answer follow up, she told stories of people who were biblical theologians, people who were soaked in scripture and able to see God at work in the world through eyes opened by an intimate relationship with the text. Is that even possible any more? Are the kinds of “biblical theologians” Rutledge calls for a nearly extinct species, destroyed because the habitat that gave birth to and nurtured them is now a barren desert?

 

 

 

 

Drawing all people to himself: A Sermon for Good Friday, 2018

It is finished. We have heard again the familiar, haunting story of Jesus’ passion as recorded by the gospel of John. We have heard of Jesus’ betrayal and arrest, his trial, and his execution. We have watched as Joseph and Nicodemus took his body down from the cross and buried it in a tomb. We have listened as the world fell silent, our hearts broken.

It is finished. Those are the last words Jesus speaks in John’s gospel. Last night, at our Maundy Thursday service, our gospel reading began with the words, “And having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” The words translated here as “finished” and there as “end” derive from the same Greek word “telos.” So we could just as easily, just as accurately translate Jesus’ words from the cross, “It is complete.”

It is finished. With these words we see not only the end of Jesus’ life, the finality of his suffering and death, we may also begin to meditate on its meaning and purpose. That which he had come to us, to earth, to do, is brought to fruition.

But this story of suffering and death, as familiar as it is, confronts us with questions. Even as human suffering, the evil people do to each other every day, the horrific suffering our world has seen, and continues to see—all this confronts us, challenges our faith, even our very humanity. We want it to make sense. We want the suffering of the world to make sense, to have meaning. We want the suffering of Christ to make sense, to have meaning. And too often, the answers we give, or the answers that are given us, ring hollow, empty, leaving us in despair.

This year, as I have sat with scripture in Lent and Holy Week, while the lectionary has focused our attention on Mark, I have also been deeply moved by the Gospel of John. Reading both of those gospels, as familiar as they are, has brought me deeper into the mystery that we ponder today. I have, as I said last night, and to use one of those words so beloved in John, I have been abiding in John’s gospel, abiding with Jesus and with John.

And words, verses, have been in my mind and on my heart throughout Lent and now Holy Week, verses like one we heard last night from chapter 13, “and having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” And from chapter 3, as Jesus (or the gospel writer) reflects on his encounter with Nicodemus, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

But the verse that has burrowed into my heart and soul this year is one we heard on the 5th Sunday in Lent, and again on Tuesday in Holy Week, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

In the cross, in his crucifixion, in that symbol of Roman empire, its power, ruthlessness, and oppression, in the cross, that stumbling to Jews and folly to Gentiles, in the cross, Jesus is drawing all people to himself.

In the cross, we see the love of God, drawing us, grabbing us and not letting go. In the cross, we see God’s love offered for us, offered to us, offered to God. In the cross, on the cross, we said God, utterly vulnerable, utterly powerless. Yet even then, we see God’s love, drawing us to Godself. On the cross we see the vulnerable, invincible, irresistible power of God’s love.

Today, our hearts are broken. They are broken by the anguish we feel as we hear again the story of Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, trial, and death. Our hearts are broken by all the ways we have acted like those around Jesus, betraying and denying him, abandoning him. Our hearts are broken by all the ways Jesus continues to suffer among us, with those who are caught up in the criminal justice system, the homeless and the hungry, immigrants who fear for their lives and livelihoods, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community who are marginalized and prevented from leading lives that flourish and reach their full potential.

Our hearts are broken as we hear about families torn apart, children separated from their mothers by ICE, the scourge of gun violence that includes mass shootings, senseless suicides, and accidental deaths. Our hearts break as we hear about the opioid epidemic that rages in communities beset by hopelessness and despair.

In all that suffering, we should also see the suffering of Christ.

In the cross, we see the full power of the Roman Empire brought to bear on a rabbi on the edge of empire who dared to teach an alternative the domination, oppression, and violence of Rome, who preached peace, and cast a vision of a new reality coming into being where the first would be last and the last first, where tax collectors, sinners, and the outcast would have a place, would be welcomed and embraced. For his challenge to the religious establishment and Roman power, Jesus was crushed by Roman power.

If that were the end of the story, we wouldn’t be here. If that were the end of the story, Jesus’ death would have no more meaning, make no more sense than any other death, –the death of someone from capital punishment, or teen-aged victims of mass shootings, or an African-American man killed by law enforcement officers in Sacramento, or Ferguson, or Madison, or any other of millions of deaths, victims of wars or violence, or deaths of homeless people, or victims of disease or natural disaster.

But the cross is not meaningless. When Jesus said, “It is finished” he was saying that the work he had come to earth for, the life he had lived had been accomplished. We know that the resurrection is God’s vindication of Jesus’ life and death, that the resurrection gives meaning to Jesus’ death, but in the cross we something else, Christ’s love outpoured for us, to us. And more, in Jesus, we see the love of God come to us, come for us. So that it all becomes one current, one flow—God’s gift to us of love in Christ, Christ’s gift to God and to us, himself and his love.

We can’t understand that love, we can’t comprehend it. We can’t explain it. But it is love we can know, love that is ours to become and to be, ours to share. We experience that love of Christ, as we are embraced by his arms outstretched on the hard wood of the cross; as we are drawn by him, drawn to him. As he is lifted up, he draws us to him, lifts us up to him, he bears our sorrows and our sins. In his love, in his gift, we see the possibility of new life and a world remade in, by, and for, love.

May our knowledge of this love, our experience of his love, remake us in his image and help us become and be that love in the world.

Christ is killed every day

Christ is killed every day by the injuries that we cannot bear. He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows and our first emotion, our first reaction is relief. Christ who lifts responsibility from us, Christ who suffers for us, Christ who takes away our burden and our misery, who stands between us and the world’s dreadfulness, between us and the squalor of our lives, as he was once thought to stand between us and the wrath of his Father. Christ the substitute, Christ the surrogate, Christ who saves us the trouble of being crucified. God will forgive: that is his job; Christ will suffer: that is his.

… And so Christ is killed every day by the injuries we refuse, by what we will not let ourselves feel and know, by the risks we refuse, the involvement we refuse.

Rowan Williams, Holy Living: The Christian tradition for today (2017)

Were you there? A Sermon for Good Friday, 2017

“Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” The old, familiar spiritual that we will sing again in a few minutes has taken on new meaning for me in this season. A few weeks ago, as I was preparing for one of the sessions in our Lenten Study on the meaning of the cross in the twenty-first century, I came across a movie of lynching postcards compiled and narrated by James Allen. By themselves, the images are haunting and horrific. They depict the gaunt, celebratory faces of white people surrounding black bodies hanging from trees. Continue reading

The Silence of Jesus: A Sermon for Palm Sunday, 2017

 

“But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed.” (Matthew 27:14)

Some of us were joking with Michael Covey earlier this week when he told us that he was going to read the part of Jesus in today’s reading of Matthew’s passion narrative. Michael is a criminal defense attorney. He travels across the state to defend clients in all sorts of cases, including murder trials. One week he might be up in Bayfield, another week he’s in La Crosse. His is an important, but often unappreciated, even vilified job, because he represents people accused of sometimes horrific crimes. He advocates for them, gives them voice, protects their rights. It’s ironic, though fitting, that he read Jesus’ role, because in this trial, Jesus stood alone, abandoned by his friends, confronting the most powerful authority in the known world, without rights or hope. And as Matthew tells the story, from his arrest through his execution, Jesus remained silent for the most part in the face of his accusers.

It’s hard for us in the twenty-first century to understand how enormous a problem it was for early Christians that the person they regarded as the Son of God, risen from the dead, had been executed by the Roman Empire. Crucifixion was, as one scholar has called it, “execution by torture.” It was used against those Rome regarded as its worst offenders, especially revolutionaries. Crucifixion was a public display. The upright posts were permanent fixtures on roads coming into important towns and cities—the condemned would often carry the crossbeams themselves, as the gospels say Jesus did. And the deaths were prolonged as well as excruciating. It could take days to die. The corpses would be left hanging as mute witnesses to the fate of those who opposed Rome. For Jesus to have been crucified was to mark him, and his followers, as enemies of Rome.

It’s hard for us, in twenty-first century America to comprehend the ignominy, the disgust with which those condemned to crucifixion were regarded by the good people of the Roman Empire, the fine upstanding citizens of Jerusalem, or Rome, or any other prosperous Roman city. The best comparison for us might be to understand crucifixion for the Roman empire and culture as we regard someone branded, and prosecuted, as a terrorist—an enemy of the state, an enemy of everything we hold dear, all of our cultural values.

That’s how Rome regarded Jesus. That’s why he was executed, because he was fomenting rebellion against the state, because he was advocating an alternative to the Roman Empire, to Roman cultural values.

Of course, Jesus wasn’t just a rabble-rouser, nor was he a terrorist, although it is likely that the two men who were executed with him were something of the sort. As bandits, they were involved in some sort of armed resistance against Roman authority. What brought Rome’s attention to Jesus, and what finally resulted in his execution, was his proclamation of the coming reign of God, a realm in which values diametrically opposed to Rome were proclaimed, experienced, and shared.

We heard those values announced and explicated in the Sermon on the Mount. The vision laid out by Jesus there and throughout his public ministry is a vision of a transformed world, transformed relationships, where the poor, outcasts, outsiders are welcome; where enemies as well as neighbors are loved, where violence and oppression give way to peace. It is a vision of self-giving love, for individuals and for the whole people of God. Most of all, it is a vision of a world in which the values held dear by the wider culture—celebrity, success, wealth, and power give way to a different set of values—where the first will be last and the last first.

We see something of that vision expressed by Paul in today’s reading from the letter to the Philippians. It is the Christ hymn that sings of Christ emptying himself to become human, humbly and obediently living in such a way to show us God’s love incarnate; living in such a way that he aroused the hatred and enmity of Rome, and died on the cross.

We may want to focus on the cross today and in the days to come, but the important point to remember is that death is not the end of the story, either for us or for Jesus. As Paul argues here, Christ’s obedience, humility, his incarnating of God’s love that ended in the cross was vindicated. The gory, painful, ignominious death transformed into life, a victory over the forces of evil and death.

Jesus’ silence comes to an end on the cross with his final, despairing cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It is a cry of despair, doubt, and pain, at a moment when all seems lost, when the reign of God seems farther away than ever before, when the message of love proclaimed and lived by Jesus seems to be refuted completely by the power of the Roman state.

But in that moment we see the power of God; we see God suffering with us in all of our struggles, suffering, and pain, we see God with us, in the struggle for justice and peace, we see God breaking open the gates of hell and conquering evil.

Many of us struggle; we are disheartened by the world in which live; horrified by the fate of refugees and immigrants, fearful for the future of human life and our planet, crushed by the weight of injustice, our hearts breaking for the victims of oppression and violence, including those who were gassed this week in Syria and the US’s knee-jerk military response to that carnage.

The cross offers no escape from any of this. The cross is a symbol of the reality of our world, the depths of human evil and depravity. But in its horror, in the horrors of our world, the cross also symbolizes the presence of God in all of those places, suffering with us, suffering with victims of injustice, violence, and oppression.

The cross is a symbol that even when things seem darkest, when it seems that evil has triumphed, the story is not over. God hears the cries of the suffering and the oppressed. Sometimes, we cry with them, sometimes we cry on their behalf. Sometimes, God cries with those who are suffering and in pain. The cross is a symbol of hope, of our hope that ultimately God will prevail. God does prevail.

 

Torture and the cross

Finally, today, the executive summary of the Senate’s torture report was released to the public. It’s available here.

I’ve not gathered up the courage or the stomach to read it but from what I’ve read, the CIA  used torture much more widely, indiscriminately, and ineffectively than previously reported. Andrew Sullivan’s liveblog makes for interesting reading as he includes commentary from tweeters and from voices on the left and right.

Of everything done by the US in the war on terror–the wars, the indiscriminate killing, the destruction of people’s lives, the lies, the assault on civil liberties–what has affected me most profoundly is the use of torture. To subject human beings to such pain and suffering in the hope of getting useful information is counter-intuitive. The report documents just how ineffective torture was in the war on terror. That many continue to defend it is mind-boggling.

In my last term as a college professor, I taught a course on the witch hunt in early modern Europe. We read a wide variety of sources including handbooks for witch hunters, the accounts of interrogations, and trial records. I remember a student asking as we discussed the case of one accused witch, who implicated her neighbors after being tortured, why anyone would believe the testimony of someone who had been tortured. The year was 2009. I reminded him and the rest of the class about the contemporary debate about torture. He got very quiet, very quickly.

My own scholarly research was on dissident religious groups in early modern Europe. I read trial records, interrogations, and the like of hundreds, perhaps thousands of individuals who were suspected of holding heterodox religious beliefs. Many of them were tortured. Some of them persisted in their beliefs, some of them denied them, many of them seemed to search for the words to say whatever they thought their interrogators wanted to hear, if for no other reason than to end their suffering.

The Enlightenment comes under attack for many things, but one of its great achievements was to bring some order and reason to the judicial process and to assert some very basic human rights. There was a time, not too long ago, when the community of nations condemned the use of torture. There was a time, not so long ago, when the US condemned torture. But now we make use of it and our President, our President!, seeks to suppress the evidence of torture and refuses to bring those who perpetrated these acts to account.

Perhaps most offensive to me is the fact that many, perhaps most American Christians, seem not to care that the US has used torture. We worship a God who became human and dwelt among us, a God who was crucified, a form of capital punishment that is essentially execution by torture. We Episcopalians promise at our own baptisms, and at every baptismal service we attend, “to respect the dignity of every human person.”

By definition and practice, torture denies human dignity. Reading accounts of “rectal feeding” is gruesome evidence of what happens when interrogators no longer see the people they are questioning as human.

Perhaps we Christians would begin to understand what it’s all about if we began to use a waterboard as the symbol of our faith instead of the cross