Sunday, August 13, 2017

From mainline to front line

I have seen more than one tweet or Facebook comment in the last twenty-four hours suggesting that for those who wondered how they would have acted or reacted in the era of the civil rights movement, well, you're finding out now.

To be sure there's some truth to that. It might be slightly more accurate to say that if you haven't yet, you will soon.

I say that only in the sense that such realization might be forced on you in a way it has not necessarily been yet. You may not live anywhere near Charlottesville, Virginia, but don't be under any illusions that your town is necessarily immune from such white supremacist violence.



So I've been looking at my own town of residence with an eye towards what might incite the nation's white supremacists and Nazis and violent racists of whatever stripe to show up here.

I've never lived in Charlottesville, but in my time in Richmond I ended up making a lot of visits, some of them for work or internship reasons. Gainesville is not that much like Charlottesville. The vibe and culture are quite different. The point here is not to prefer one or the other (and neither of them will ever hold a candle to Lawrence, Kansas, to me anyway), simply to note that they are very different towns.

The universities housed in those towns are also quite different. They both claim a role as the "flagship" universities of their states, but otherwise they work in very different ways. UVa can be much more of a "snob school" than UF can get away with being, due to varying regulations and attachments that require them to take students that wouldn't get into UVa. Partly as a result, UF is larger. In fact, it is (blank)ing huge. I had no idea when I moved here how large it had become. It's like a freakin' educational Death Star.

But the two towns and universities housed in them have a few slight similarities. Both Charlottesville and Gainesville (as do many university towns) sit in pronounced contrast to the parts of their states immediately surrounding them in terms of educational level as well as social and political attitudes. But other than that, there really isn't anything in Gainesville that should set off the firestorm that happened in Charlottesville, right? No renamed park or removed statue...

Oh. Forgot about "Old Joe."

That's a statue that currently stands on the grounds of the local county administration building, placed  in 1904, and now a source of disagreement. The most recent move by the local county authorities has been to offer it to an area United Daughters of the Confederacy group (the organization that originally placed the statue) who would then be responsible for its removal from public property (supposedly it might be moved to an area with a number of graves of Confederate soldiers).

For the moment this resolution seems to have held sway. But who knows? What if some copycat bunch of hooded sheets decides to cause trouble when the time for removal arrives? So, it's not impossible for something to happen.

And if it does I have no choice to be on the front line.

That's part of the call for the mainline right now. If we're really going to live up to the gospel we claim, we have to been there when the likes of this weekend's marauders in Charlottesville show up in our towns seeking to commit racial terrorism under the guise of "free speech." We have to stand with those being terrorized, even (dare I say especially) if it's risky. We cannot pretend that racists and those hated and hunted by racists are somehow equally at fault.



Furthermore, we have to take our cues from the ones hated and hunted by those racists, the people of color who face this threat basically for waking up in the morning. It's not our job to come in and save the day; it's our job to be there with the ones who are under threat.

A lot of mainline pastors, including some old seminary classmates and friends, did this beautifully this weekend in Charlottesville. Singing "This Little Light of Mine." Praying and singing and worshiping God. Together. And then standing in the way of the racists.

Not every individual is physically capable of that kind of literal standing on the front line. But the mainline really has to, individually but even more collectively, be there with the ones who really do know what persecution is. Otherwise we might as well just go ahead and die off like all those evangelicals keep saying we're gonna do.




Sunday, July 30, 2017

A requiem for Brother Snooty

While the unnervingly usual tumult of life-or-death headlines washed over the nation and world last week, we here in Florida were ... caught up in those headlines pretty much like everybody else.

Floridians were also, however, caught up in the death of a manatee.

Specifically, the death of a manatee called Snooty garnered attention across a large swath of the state, leading to the kind of impromptu memorials normally reserved for athletes killed young or other such human tragedies.

The first-above link largely captures the Snooty story. Written by Craig Pittman of the Tampa Bay Times, a noted chronicler of Florida weirdness, it covers the life story of a manatee who lived to an unfathomable age for manatees in captivity, and died in a sad and stupid accident the day after his birthday. In between, from birth in captivity on a boat in Miami to years as a feature attraction at a museum in Bradenton, Snooty achieved the peculiar kind of legendary status that sits at the intersection of overly human-oriented animals, the ever-present desire of humans to escape their own rottenness and pettiness in a way that cute animals can provide, and the above-noted Florida weirdness.

There is inherently something sad about such a story, given that Snooty was born, lived, and died in what can only sanely be described as captivity, and that virtually all non-natural causes of manatee death are human-related; we are in a sense their worst enemies. In nature, manatees are all too frequently maimed by boats, whether large or small. Another human-created threat to manatees comes from the spoilage or destruction of their natural habitats (even the red tide that can kill manatees is frequently linked to runoff from human activities). Those manatees that are on display (a telling phrase) in places such as The Seas at Disney World's Epcot theme park and Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park (my two go-to manatee viewing spots) are frequently manatees in rehabilitation before a hoped-for return to the wild; in some cases the extensive damage the creatures have suffered mean they'll never be able to be released. Snooty's case -- actually born on a boat after his mother had been critically injured -- meant he most likely never would have had a chance in the wild. There was little for Snooty to be other than a feature attraction; that he did so and was so beloved (so to speak) as such is both heartwarming and tragic.

In many ways it is only as an object of this peculiar variety of pity that manatees have much of a chance in Florida. Manatee lives in the wild aren't particularly interesting; Discovery Channel is never going to create Manatee Week. They swim, coming to surface every twenty minutes or so to breathe (they are mammals), and otherwise munch contentedly on green vegetation in shallow waters. (Manatees in captivity or rehabilitation are usually seen munching on lettuce, which is I suppose close enough.) Because their particular food is found in shallow waters and they have to surface frequently, manatees will pretty much always be vulnerable to boat traffic. Beyond that, manatees don't really do anything exciting to garner human attention. Mind you, a manatee life actually sounds pretty enticing to me; find a way to work in books and music and I could go for it, but for too many people manatees are just big stupid "sea cows" who oughta get out of the way.

That manatees like Snooty or his wild compatriots actually hold so much fascination for as many people as they do (myself included) almost feels like a form of self-indictment.

Not Snooty; a manatee in rehab at Epcot.

It's almost as if we know better. The manatee's ultra-simple lifestyle, extreme vulnerability to us humans, and frequent captive status are a full-fledged three-strikes-and-out on us humans and our relationship to manatees and pretty much all of creation, if we're ever honest about it. They're not useful or exciting to us; they get in the way of our recreations. Even Snooty, bless his aquatic heart, first got his "in" with humans by being able to learn some simple tricks on command, not because of his essential manatee-ness or creatureliness. 

Even I'm guilty of using manatees in writing this blog post, in order to make a point (there is one, and here it comes). The human relationship to creation, Snooty included, is something that the church has failed monstrously. We have gotten all riled up by horrible translations of Genesis and indulged our thirst for "dominion" by despoiling creation on a regular and continuing basis. Seas are filling up with plastic, water is horribly abused, we've screwed up the climate royally, and the things we do in search of fossil fuels are grotesque. And church folk pretend these things aren't happening, or worse say horrible things about how we owe the oil industry our gratitude (I actually heard this with my own two ears, at a presbytery meeting no less) and our money. We use "natural resources" without any connection to the nature of which we are a created part.

So, mainline, maybe this is a humility we could learn to practice? 

When even the Apostle Paul chimes in from scripture about all creation "groaning in labor pains" (Romans 8, lightly alluded to in my sermon today!), we probably ought to learn that we really are in this together with all of God's creation. We suffer when God's creation suffers, and God's creation certainly suffers from our doings. Our fates are inseparable; maybe we could learn to live accordingly.

But that of course requires us to step away from the whole dominion thing, being boss of nature or conquering or turning real live creation into "nature...on a leash." 

And maybe, if we learned the humility of being part of creation, we might also learn the humility of being part of humanity. Maybe we'd also learn to be among God's children rather than always fancying ourselves God's favorites or (even worse) indispensible to God in a way that others simply aren't. Even where we are now we haven't truly shed a lot of the arrogance of our cultural-influence peak, which doesn't help us going forward with any kind of genuine Christ-like witness. 

Maybe in our chastened state of shrinkage and decreased relevancy we in the mainline could learn that humility, OK? It won't do Snooty any good. But perhaps we might be a little less in need of the likes of Snooty to remind ourselves of our place in creation.

This is Snooty, (apparently) a few days before his final birthday.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Court Prophets Revel in Their "Unprecedented" Royal Access

JERUSALEM (ARNS*) -- Squeezed in among two dozen other prophets in residence at the royal court, Hananiah added his hand to the other reaching to pray for King Zedekiah of Judah.

The royal prayer session is just one example of the access the court of Zedekiah and his key aides have given to a cadre of prophets, from evening-long dinners to all day meetings.

"This is unlike anything we've experienced in our career in prophecy -- unprecedented access, unprecedented solicitation of viewpoints and opinions," said Hananiah.

Previous kings had granted access to prophets across the spectrum, although not always positively -- the death of the prophet Uriah son of Shemaiah at the hands of King Jehoiakim comes to mind -- but Zedekiah's court has been particularly given over to those prophets of the party of Hananiah.

Observers suggest that the cadre of court prophets gives Zedekiah a "seal of approval" among an important constituency in Judah, a significant support for a king whose situation is shaky at best. The court prophets also offer Zedekiah protection against non-conformist prophets such as Jeremiah, an agitating presence across multiple royal courts. Hananiah's spectacular attack against Jeremiah, in which he took the prophet's wooden yoke and broke it in front of the king, was reported to have been received with great favor by Zedekiah and Hananiah's fellow court prophets.

"I'm sure that the king would be happy if Jeremiah had been elimiated with Uriah years ago, although fortunately that didn't happen somehow thanks to the protection of Ahikam son of Shaphan. But to be able to put that pest in his place shows just how much the king values our prophetic utterances in support of the kingdom and of the king," Hananiah is reported to have said. "We do the job of supporting the king when fake prophets like Jeremiah won't, and the king favors us accordingly. It's the best situation we've ever known."

Clearly Zedekiah enjoys the support of the so-called court prophets; after the latest such meeting he referred to the court prophets as "my kind of people," and he was reported to have laughed uproariously at Hananiah's breaking of Jeremiah's yoke.

While prophets such as Jeremiah have not gone away, their number is far fewer and their safety is not guaranteed. Hananiah's star rose with his prophecy of the end of Babylon's power and the return of exiled people and stolen artifacts, against which Jeremiah had spoken (leading to the yoke-breaking incident). The direct attack of one prophet against another is seen as a sign of just how much favor the court party of prophets has with the relatively new king.

Jeremiah, the non-court prophet, responded to a request for comment for this story with a lengthy prophetic statement about wooden and iron yokes. Hananiah the unofficial leader of the court prophet party, was also asked for further comment but was unable to reply due to illness.



An artist's depiction of the incident in which Hananiah broke Jeremiah's yoke (video cameras were not allowed at the session).

Note: the original article being parodied is here; a quick browse of Jeremiah 26-28 is also recommended.

*ARNS = Ancient Religion News Service


(If you still need a mainline "moral of the story" at this point...don't be like Hananiah. Even Billy Graham came to regret how much he let Richard Nixon use him.)

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Other people's heroes

(NOTE: repeating a disclaimer from the first edition of this re-repurposed blog: "Evangelicals should probably move on.")

I feel the need to begin with the acknowledgment that I was never all that impressed by The Message.

I'm not sure why. It's possible that the "contemporary language" Bible versions available in my youth, titles like Good News For Modern Man (not good news for women of any age, apparently) or The Living Bible (it is an eternal shame that nobody ran with the horror-movie possibilities of that title) soured me on the whole project. For whatever reason, at that young age the "contemporary" language felt more limiting to me than enlightening (but I was a total geek even then). If anything those early hip-language versions helped form in me one of the few cliché-like statements I consider myself to have invented: "you can't say 'contemporary' without automatically saying 'temporary'." For all the hoopla about it, in my few forays into The Message or occasions hearing it used from the pulpit, it never got out of that box. It's not as if I'm immune to the power of re-contextualizations of the scriptures -- I'm a big fan of Clarence Jordan's Cotton Patch translations/recontextualizations of most of the New Testament, but then those are a thing quite other, daring far more than Eugene Peterson's magnum opus.

The above disclaimer is probably not necessary, but is about as much as I thought about Eugene Peterson before this week's kefuffle on "Christian Twitter," in which Peterson first seemed to have declared himself o.k., if somewhat indifferent, with same-sex marriage, even allowing he'd officiate such a marriage if asked, then seemed to be under threat that his considerable arsenal of publications would be shut out from the largest "Christian" bookselling firm, only to (by the end of the week) retract, apparently, any sentiments that might have been expressed in the earlier interview about same-sex marriage. (You may speculate as you wish as to his motives for retraction; I have my opinion but no particular need to express it.)

(NOTE: let me be clear that I don't endorse Christianity Today just 'cuz I used a couple of links to them. I feel icky already.)

One can predict more or less the ebb and flow of the week's reactions on various social media. I have no interest in rehashing the evangelical side of that kerfuffle; I am not into banging my head against brick walls. But mainliners, I gotta talk to y'all. Mostly to the straight white folk among you. And mostly (not completely, but mostly) to the guys within that subset.

Can we please not get so hung up on seeking the approval of other people's heroes?

Apparently Eugene Peterson was actually ordained in the PC(USA), my denomination of affiliation and choice. That said, the arc of his career and writing make it pretty clear that in the current moment he's about as much PC(USA) as Donald Trump (which is to say, not). That's fine. He's made a life and a living in the evangelical pool, and might even be said to have some celebrity status in that particular stream of the church. As far as I can tell he's probably one of the less offensive members of that particular brand of celebrity, which is probably o.k. but doesn't really mean that folks in the mainline-progressive need to be clamoring for his approval.

To be honest, I'm kinda with this guy:




Would that we'd hear. (And yes, I'm an old straight white man.)

The mainline denominations have as members a number of LGBTQ+ persons who are the folks regularly getting kicked in the teeth by the evangelical wing of the church. I'll understand why a LGBTQ+ person would get excited by the initial Peterson reaction; maybe I'll get kicked in the teeth a little less. We are also home to persons of color who are getting told far too often to accept second-class citizenship by the world at large. We are home to immigrants or descendants of recent immigrants being scapegoated by this country's government. And yet rather than listening to those voices within the mainline (brothers and sisters in Christ all), we keep our ears cocked, it seems, for any sign of approval from an evangelical celebrity. 

Can we not, please?

Can we spend more of our energy listening to the voices of those getting dumped on rather than the ones doing the dumping?

Can we listen to the least of these, even if we run the risk of realizing that, just possibly, we might be the least of these too?

Can we worry about getting our own (shrinking but maybe a little less quickly shrinking) house in order, rather than worry what the doomsayers and vultures and vultures have to say about it?

Can we actually listen for the "sound of a sheer silence" instead of getting caught up in the yelling?

Maybe I'm naive or stupid, but I can't help but wonder if we mainline types (at least the straight white portion of us) would be better off if we didn't care so much what Eugene Peterson thinks, except to the degree that it harms our sisters and brothers in Christ. That's the thing to care about, not our puppy-dog need for approval.

In short, move on and listen to the folks who were really hurt in yet another round of crossfire.


He's made his bed, he may now lie in it.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Don't be jerks

I sometimes wonder if the best starting point for a lot of mainline churches to figure out how to move forward (whatever that turns out to be) would be to put a sign on their most public lawn saying, very simply, "We don't hate you." Nothing fancy, not clubbing folks over the head with a Bible verse, just a very simple "We don't hate you."

Once when I expressed that opinion a ministry colleague responded that such would require the church to live up to it. That colleague had a point.

While away this weekend I met a lot of people, but one in particular (really, one family in particular) struck me. The mom of the family was actually on the program staff of the conference in question, despite not being a Presbyterian (it happens, actually fairly often). In fact she is a member of a much more conservative evangelical denomination. She's worked with Presbyterians and the conference center in particular quite a few times, though, and has gotten relatively comfortable working with PC(USA) types, enough so that (in her words) moving to PC(USA) would not be that hard.

If such a move ever does happen, though, I don't think it will be because of getting called upon to work with Presbys. It will be because of her daughter.

That daughter is in high school, fun age that that is. She is what might be called by some "quirky" or a "free spirit"; she is, by mom's description, not great at conforming to the rigidities of modern education, and doesn't play the shoot-for-Harvard game that is usually thrust upon kids with her test scores. When I met her, her hair was an undecided shade somewhere between purple and lavender, and she was wearing a t-shirt proclaiming her Harry Potter house -- not that such is all that uncommon, but it wasn't Gryffindor, which I don't see as much.

This young woman has, apparently, a pretty miserable time not just in school but also in the denomination to which that family belongs. She ends up much less stressed when she joins up with activities in the PC(USA), be it in local churches or larger gatherings (she was in fact arriving for a week upcoming at the same conference center). Apparently her contemporaries at these gatherings don't make a fuss about her career ambitions, or her unusual educational background (a period of homeschooling that ended in disappointment, to some degree because of raging fundamentalism in that field), or her hair (except possibly to ask how she did it).

In other words, she's accepted. Welcomed, even.

Radical concept, that.

This does hold a lesson for us mainline types in our struggle/quest to move forward (whatever that turns out to mean), and I think it's a fairly obvious one. It is one that the old guard (or at least some of it) didn't always get, feeling compelled (or privileged?) to take up God's role of judgment to themselves. Judging is pretty easy to do, but it's particularly insidious when directed at some designated other, a them perhaps, with the intention of keeping the outsider distinctly and clearly locked away outside. And frankly, it is a nasty little luxury the mainline doesn't have. Any judgment on the part of the mainline needs to be directed at the advocates of injustice in the world, of which there are too many to count. But as to the misfits, the quirky ones, the weirdos or Hufflepuffs or free spirits, the mainline really needs only one simple rule:

Don't be jerks.

Supposedly I'm a Ravenclaw, for what it's worth...

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Face the past

One of the challenges the mainline faces in finding a way forward (whatever "forward" may turn out to be) is that we oftentimes haven't quite finished reckoning with the past. And as everybody knows, those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.

To be more specific here, mainliners have no memory, or maybe in some cases a selective memory, about the degree to which the mainline was once a frequent, some times even a primary perpetrator of many of the same things for which mainliners now get peeved at evangelicals for doing.

For example: do you think that the only pastors to whom Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was writing from the Birmingham jail were evangelicals? Uh, no. While a few mainliners managed to stand with the civil rights movement, many, many more were either keeping silent or chiding King for making trouble or wanting to move too quickly. 

I am reminded of the kerfuffle over the "new" book by Harper Lee that somehow appeared late in Lee's life, Go Set a Watchman, in which Atticus Finch (the hero of To Kill a Mockingbird) was a rather less than heroic figure. I'm not sure which was more upsetting to many folks: the original perception that Go Set a Watchman was a sequel, suggesting that we were finding out that a beloved literary character was less wonderful than previously thought, or the later realization that GSAW was in fact an early version (a first draft, if you will) of TKAM

For me, I think, the later version is ultimately a more depressing version of events. One could easily get the idea that Lee more or less wrote what she saw and experienced, raw as it was, and sent GSAW for potential publication with Atticus as the more flawed character she had probably known in many of the men she had known and seen as a youth, only to discover that readers of the late 1950s/early 1960s needed to have the story "sweetened" to make it palatable; they required a good guy, and specifically a white good guy. (This is of course leaving aside more mundane editorial issues that needed to be addressed in GSAW.)

Modern mainliners may be guilty of this to some degree. 

It's not hard, for example, to be in Presbyland and hear of Eugene Carson Blake. A Presbyterian minister and educator, later denominational and ecumenical leader, Blake holds a place of high regard in mainline Presbydom for having stood with and even marched with King and other civil righs leaders in the March on Washington, and speaking at the Lincoln Memorial. I don't know how many other folks outside Presbyland would know of him, but he is highly regarded within this particular domain.

As far as I can learn and discern, Blake was legit, a throughgoing progressive on race and many other matters. But we moderns shouldn't necessarily assume that Blake was necessarily representative of all of the then-PCUSA or UPCUSA denominations in which he served. 

So yes, Presbydom and the mainline in general can take some measure of solace in Blake's work. But the mainline also has some real pieces of work in its various family trees, like one James Fifield. A Congregational minister who fought like, well, hell to prevent the merger that created the United Church of Christ, Fifield is particularly noteworthy as the "Apostle to Millionaires," embracing without apology and with horrible exegesis what would seem like a proto-prosperity gospel, except that its aim was far more sinister, and far more directly corporate. It wasn't just prosperity for which Fifield shilled, but specifically the prosperity and profitability of American tycoons. The "Christian America" rhetoric of today (like this) has its roots not in anything of the colonial era, but in Fifield's work. 

Note: I have already recommended Kevin M. Kruse's One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Created Christian America, in which Fifield figures prominently. This NYTimes article from a couple of years ago summarizes some (but not all, not nearly) of the salient points of that book.

In short, if we're gonna claim our Blakes, we gotta own our Fifields. We gotta be forthright about the role we played in how supposed Christianity in this country got to the point where it is today. A lot of the stain might be on evangelicals now, but they didn't do all the work. 

There won't be any successful going forward (whatever "forward" turns out to be) until we do that reckoning.

Rev. James W. Fifield, Jr., the "Apostle to Millionaires," or "St. Paul of the Prosperous"
.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Ridiculous Comparison: The mainline and Broadway

So if the mainline church is lacking in celebrity (whatever that means in churchworld), what of it? Where's the fit? Despite the most virulent naysaying of the vultures, the mainline is not dead yet, and as long as that's the case it maintains some toehold in American religious culture (whether that's a good thing to be part of is a question for another time). So, what is that toehold?

I'm going to put forth a Ridiculous Comparison. I'm liking this so much I'm putting that in caps, as a potential recurring feature of this blog. Or a threat to do so. Who knows? But here goes:

The role of the mainline in American religious culture is somewhat, a little bit, kinda sorta like the role of Broadway in American entertainment. (Yes, I'm currently watching the Tony Awards. Why do you ask?)

No, I'm not trying to make a full-fledged equation betwen the two, although somebody will probably try to claim I'm doing so. But there are similiarities, I think, at least enough to justify a Ridiculous Comparison.

So, for your consideration, a few rough comparisons of Broadway and the mainline:

1. They're both quite overshadowed by far more pervasive and flashier options in their respective fields of endeavor. Speaking of the Tony Awards, the occasion of that broadcast is for an awful lot of people the only awareness of Broadway they ever get. In many ways I do count myself among such people. I don't get to New York very often at all, and while I'll try to get to a show if one comes near me, I'm not living in a place where that's the easiest thing to do.

On the other hand, Hollywood churns along with ridiculous sums of money going into movies that can potentially tank incredibly badly, and yet the cycle happens again and again. If that happened to a producer one time on Broadway you'd probably never hear from that producer for quite a while; Hollywood somehow doesn't work that way.

Throw in television in its various permutations, streaming services, and other entertainment options that frankly encourage people never to leave their homes (or to not look up even if they do), and Broadway becomes a lot of work and a good deal of expense by comparison, at least in the perception of a lot of potential audience members.

A mainline church can seem like a lot of work. If they're doing worship right you can't just show up; you actually are asked to participate. You might even end up speaking as much as the preacher (or is that just my church?). They can be rather hard to find depending on where you live -- the mainline is getting a bit more scarce in some rural areas, for example. Mainline churches don't tend to carry quite the prestige that they once did, and certainly not the sense of social compulsion that once filled pews if nothing else would. Megachurches tend to consume a lot of oxygen in the communities they inhabit, and mainline churches can struggle to breathe. The mainline and its churches don't get to fail; when you go down, you're gone for good. Church celebrity, as noted elsewhere, tends to be an evangelical thing. In multiple ways, the mainline just gets overshadowed.

2. For both, the most vital signs of life are found when those long excluded, and their stories, are , included. Suffice to say Broadway benefits tremendously from the presence of artists male and female (and even in-between), artists of color, LGBTQ+ people, and more that I'm sure I'm not thinking of in every role possible -- on the stage, directing, providing technical prowess, composing, and all the other jobs that make a show happen. Further, an awful lot of the best of Broadway happens not just when the excluded are in the cast or behind the scenes, but also when their stories are the ones being told.

This last point might be more aspirational than current in the mainline, but as far as the life of the church, the places where church is actually showing life tend to be the places where the once-excluded are included. You want examples of the moribund and fading mainline to justify your vulturing? Find the churches where the old white guys still hold sway. When the folks who have spent generations being shoved aside or thrown out or worse are now part of the church, not just on the margins but being heard and welcomed and having more than a token voice, the church is living and even feisty.

3. They are both at their best when they tell the story differently, finding an unconventional perspective to illuminate what we (think we) know. Hollywood can give you movies, for example, based on the events of September 11, 2001. They can give you a movie about what happened on that plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, one about the emergency personnel responding to the attack, a forthcoming movie (originally a play, admittedly) about people trapped in one of the towers that day, and so forth. Broadway can do those, but it's at its best when it tells the story of Gander, Newfoundland, the place where all those transatlantic flights on 9/11 landed when they could no longer get into the US. (I really, really want to see that show now.)

Similarly, this may be more aspirational than real, but the mainline church is at its best when it "tells the story slant" (to crib from Emily Dickinson). The more the church opens up the whole of scripture, finding the stories the rest of the church doen't hear or doesn't want to hear or wants to stop anybody else from hearing, the more the mainline is telling the whole story of faith, of salvation, of the relentless God who would never accept human lostness. Are you willing to learn from the midwives Shiprah and Puah, or the slave Onesimus, or the Syrophoenician woman who, when first rebuffed by Jesus, nevertheless persisted? They're not tidy stories, but they still tell us of God's moving among God's people. And those stories certainly haven't been told enough.

Maybe this is silly, but it's not as if we don't have some things to learn as a community of churches trying to be faithful, even if a faithful remnant. If we can learn something from Broadway, let's learn.

A number from Come From Away at the Tony Awards. 
Yeah, I want to see that show.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Uncelebrity

So is there such a thing as a "mainline celebrity"?

An article in a journal called Faith and Leadership posits as its title the question "Why are there so few mainline celebrities?" You can read the article for yourself, but for me it was a bit of a befuddling slog to contemplate if only because of a tremendous lack of definition, particularly of the key word "celebrity." Nonetheless, if the question itself is not necessarily a helpful one, it is nonetheless useful for raising other questions that might be more helpful or more illuminating in considering where the church stands more generally, and the condition of the mainline in particular. So this is an old favorite kind of blog entry for me: one in which I address a question by asking a bunch more questions. So, here goes:

1. In this context, what exactly do you mean by "celebrity"? Who defines it? As best as I can tell, the author's main criteria for "celebrity" seem to involve book sales and televised "ministries" (I feel that to be a very loose use of that word, but don't have a better one at hand), with a particular interest on the latter. If you go by that as your primary definition, I have an easy answer for the author's question: because being that kind of "church celebrity" is frankly gross. Who in the world wants that? (To be fair, one anonymous pastor does seem to be quoted in the article as expressing that sentiment.)

Of course, this requires another qualification, namely that we are talking about a very limited and specifically defined kind of "celebrity" here, celebrity within the limited but sometimes white-hot cauldron of "church culture." And again, this also begs a pretty quick answer to the author's original question: because that cauldron of church culture caters primarily to that portion of the church carrying the name "evangelical," the "celebrities" formed in that culture are going to be folks who tell that culture what it wants to hear, i.e. other evangelicals. That culture writ large isn't particularly interested in hearing from Walter Brueggeman or Carol Howard Merritt, and such "mainliners" as do appear among the big-ish names (thinking of Rachel Held Evans here) tend to do so as objects of hatred.

On the flip side, you get yourself among the right mainliners and mention Walter Brueggeman's name and the room gets all glassy-eyed and dreamy and starts rhapsodizing about any one of his several dozen books and how it changed their life. In the mainline, Brueggeman is about as much a "celebrity" as there is. Held Evans (who is, of course, a recently signed free agent for the mainline roster, as a fairly new Episcopalian) is popular, to be sure, at least as much as an object lesson ("see what they do to you?") as for her writing (and note that she is not a pastor, which means of course that the televised megachurch route to fame isn't really open to her anyway). Other mainliners might point out the likes of Diana Butler Bass or Carol Howard Merritt as having a pretty strong following in the mainline. (This also begs the acknowledgment that of those four potential mainline celebrities named, three of them would be very specifically disqualified from speaking in the pulpits of a lot of evangelical churches or colleges. Just making an observation there.)

But again, this definition also leaves out the possibility of other "famous" mainliners (or evangelicals for that matter), who actually do exist. Even if he's been dead many years now, we Presbyterians will always have the record for The Most Bestest Ever Ever Ever Famous Person in the United States of America, namely Fred (Mister) Rogers, and no denomination will ever top that. (Insert smile emoji here.)

Now, let's try a living person: if you're a fan of Pixar movies you may well recognize the name Pete Docter. Even if not you probably recognize the titles Inside Out, Up, Monsters, Inc., and the various Toy Story movies. He wrote and directed Inside Out, Up, and Monsters, Inc., and created the original story for the Toy Story movies. Dude's a Presbyterian, too. In the larger world that would count for a level of fame well beyond any "church celebrity," but Docter is known for movies, not for being Presbyterian (and certainly not for arguing about it). We are talking about a tempest in a teapot here, for sure, by comparison to most sane definitions of "celebrity."

2. Is such celebrity necessarily a good thing? You know who else was a "mainline celebrity"? Norman Vincent Peale. I'm not sure how the Reformed Church in America feels about Rev. Peale today, but back in the day he was one of them, and a big freaking deal to boot. He's the guy who wrote The Power of Positive Thinking, one of the more controversial books to be issued by a clergyperson of any type in the twentieth century, denounced as both a psychological and theological disaster. Nonetheless, it caught on with a lot of folks, and persisted as a general frame of mind even in the face of widespread denunciation. (Backintheday he was a favorite pastor of both Richard Nixon and Donald Trump, if that gives you any idea.)

It would be hard to imagine Peale as a mainline pastor today, but when you start surveying the history of "mainline celebrities" from past decades and Peale is the type you wind up with, you're going to be naturally turned off from the idea of celebrity.

3. Would "celebrity" necessarily be all that helpful to the mainline? For that matter, has it been all that useful to evangelicalism? Do book sales and TV ratings points necessarily translate into spiritual integrity and maturity? (From here the evidence suggests not.) Are the products of evangelical celebrity necessarily beneficial to the "consumers" of the products of that celebrity? (Again, straining to see here... .) If your goal is anything beyond "butts in seats," what good does celebrity do?

Of course, the drawbacks of celebrity are pretty obvious when celebrity becomes notoriety. While "church world" gets all a-flutter when scandal erupts around the likes of Mark Driscoll or Steven Furtick, there are plenty of us whose first reaction to those scandal stories was something along the lies of "I'm sorry, who now?" The old saw "the bigger they are, the harder they fall" most definitely applies here. Ugly ethical horrors are bad enough; having them happen under the magnifying glass of celebrity, even small-scale celebrity, only amplifies the ugliness and rancor.

And even if we expand our gaze to the realm of "real" celebrity, what exactly about that world recommends itself to the mainline?

3a. Is it even possible to be a "celebrity pastor"? Yes, it's clearly possible to be a celebrity preacher -- we've got a bunch of those walking around for better or worse. But a celebrity pastor, in anything more than title? Performing the functions and roles and ministries that happen outside the pulpit?

Seriously, how would that work? TV cameras following the celebrity pastor on hospital visits? So paint me dubious on this one.

Now, to be clear to the point of transparency, I'm no candidate for "mainline celebrity" status even if I were ever to want it, which I don't. I pastor a small church, and am pretty unlikely to pastor anything like a large church. I'm already fifty-two, so I'd be getting a late start on celebrity of any kind. I look like a deformed toadstool, and whether or not that should matter, it does. (This is of course another point against the desirability of church celebrity, which you can place in whatever category you see fit.) And I'm waaaay too cranky to put up with the demands of celebrity of any kind. So, to be clear, no sour grapes here -- if anything, great heaving sighs of relief.

I simply don't see how having a greater "celebrity" presence in the mainline is actually helpful to the churches of this tradition in doing the things these churches need to do to be the churches God calls us out to be. Maybe I'm wrong (that happens a lot). Show me otherwise, if it matters that much to you.

But frankly, I don't find the lack of mainline celebrity anything to be mourned all that much.

Uh, I'm gonna pass on this one...

Sunday, May 28, 2017

When (or to whom) not to listen

So the previous entry on this fool's errand suggested that the staggering but "not dead yet" mainline needs to do a heap of listening as it seeks to find the way forward in the Spirit to be (finally, at last?) what God has ever been wanting the church to be. There are limits to that, however.

Folks involved with computer science and programming (and probably lots of other folks) will be familiar with the phrase "garbage in, garbage out" (sometimes shortened to "GIGO"?), an expression that reflects a computer's inability to do anything about the quality of the data entered into it; given flawed data, the computer will duly process that data according to its programming, producing output that is as flawed as the input from which it is generated.

(A further extension of that acronym points to human gullibility about anything that comes out of a computer: "garbage in, gospel out." Now this really begs to be considered in the life of the church, but in its own blog entry, or maybe several.)

So in short, bad input generates bad output. And that certainly has application to the mainline. Given this maxim, we'd better be very cautious about who or what is allowed into the church's head space. Whether it is those who are up to no good, those who are sincerly but desperately misguided, or those who can only envision a rival to be conquered, there are plenty out there who should not be allowed to deposit garbage into the soul of the mainline.

Such as...?

Don't listen to the vultures. You know, those people. Just don't. It's bad for your soul.

Don't listen to the fixers. They often overlap with the above, as in "you're dying but I can bring you back to life." Unless Jesus Christ in the flesh (or in the Spirit) is the one standing in front of you saying this, run. Run very hard in the opposite direction. One thing the mainline absolutely, positively cannot get caught up in is "personality churches." To the degree that any human figure usurps the role of Christ as head of the church, the church is no church and should be euthanized immediately. The mainline has usually managed to avoid such a thing, thankfully, but now is not the time to be anything other than extra-vigilant.

Don't listen to the clone-makers. That would, not surprisingly, be a related category to the fixers, though it might not involve a lone hero figure. Instead it might sound like "if your church would do (x) and (y) etc. like our church does it would be great." No, it wouldn't be great. It would be a pale imitation of something else transplanted into a situation where it (very likely) makes no sense.

Don't listen to the nostalgia-mongers. Now this is the hard one, but every church has them. You know them, the ones who remember when the church was full every Sunday (though what defines "full" can be hard to nail down...), when the choir was the best in town, when all the right people were there...you know the drill. And you also know, dear mainline church leader, that the road that follows Christ never goes backward.

(Somewhat on this subject, I cannot recommend highly enough Kevin M. Kruse's One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America. The title says it all. Even that spasm of everybody going to church and all that was part attack on FDR's New Deal, part "parasitic greedhead scam" in the ever-poetic words of singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn. Just read it.)

Do you notice how these seem to have a lot in common? How to fix. "I alone can fix it." (Really, shouldn't we know better by now?) These are all things that distract one from the hard work of knowing where you are and how you and your church got there, and how you and your church might respond to that particular, distinctive context. (They also tend to involve human heroes, but I harped on that already.) In other words, they lead you away from the hard work of listening. And they certainly don't lead you to the leading of the Spirit.

There are more red flags to discuss and I have a feeling we'll get to them. But in the meantime, a kind of "shaking the dust off your feet" (Luke 9:5) is not out of line here. They don't listen to your testimony, because all they can do is tell you what to do? Shake that dust, baby, and walk away.

One thing that might make all this easier to remember is the hard but needful saying that it is not your  (pastor, educator, member) job to save the church. It is your job to be the church.

Confusing the two only leads to misery. So don't.




Monday, May 22, 2017

The mainline and the "fine art of listening"

I'm not wild about my local classical music station.

(Note: I spent part of grad school as a music host at such a station, so such things are nearer to my heart than to most folks' hearts, I suspect.)

I mean, I don't hate it by any means, and I'm highly aware that the phrase "local classical music station" doesn't actually apply in many places in this country, and I'm exponentially more likely to listen to it than to any other radio station around here. On the other hand, I'm also aware that the phrase "local classical music station" doesn't necessarily apply even to those places that technically do have one; the music is actually piped in from some syndicated national source, and in many places there is little to any local content. (For part of the year there is a three-hour afternoon block of music with a local host. That program apparently takes academic holidays off.)

There is one thing about this station that I not just like but love, however: its tagline.

I'm talking about the thing you hear at the end of a station identification or frequency ID blurb. The masculine announcer voice gives the call letters and frequencies of the main station, its various translator frequencies or HD locations in this case, and then finally ends with this gem of a line:

"Dedicated to the fine art of listening."

BAM. Now that is how to sell your classical-music station, particularly in an age when the classical music establishment doesn't have the caché that it used to. Now I might wish their musical progamming actually lived up to such a lofty standard, but at least the standard is there.

Needless to say, I have a sneaking suspicion the church, particularly the mainline, could learn from this tagline.

I mean, I have been arguing since the second entry ever posted on this blog, lo these many years ago, that the mainline had a period of high influence (sort of) that was largely squandered (with a few exceptions). We had (or at least fancied that we had) the numbers, we had the right people, we had the influence.

If anything is apparent these days, it is that those things are no longer true.

Right now we're the corner of the church on which, ahem, other branches of Christendom are laying odds on our death. Out of Christian love, you know, and all that.

So, now that we're pretty severely stripped of all those pretensions of human power and influence, what do we do? I'm going to suggest that we might take a cue from the Gospel reading for this Thursday, Ascension Day.

(You did know that Thursday is Ascension Day, right?)

Stay in the city and wait.

And, I might add, listen.

Listen to the scriptures from which we preach. Listen to it. Study it in great large gulps. Resist the urge to reduce it (or to stand by as others reduce it) to "greatest hits" verses and cherry-picked checklists.

Especially listen to the gospels. Don't just resist, absolutely fight the sanitized Jesus of schlock paintings and shlock songs. Problematize Jesus. When Jesus is difficult, say so. Plow into the really difficult passages. Absolutely call out and stomp on anything that turns Jesus into anybody's mascot.

Listen to our worship, in particular (from my point of view) our liturgy and the songs we sing. If they don't match up with what we hear when we listen to the gospels, ditch 'em. This is no time to be sentimental, folks; that's how we got in this hole.

Listen to the folks who don't look like us. (Talking to the white folks here.) The mainline has, with a few exceptions, been at best an uneven partner in seeking justice, especially when that justice has called into question the exalted position we just kinda naturally assumed was ours because we were just really nice people. Folks, we didn't hit a triple; we were born on third base. (Wow, did I just riff on a Barry Switzer quote?) In this particular case the listening we need to do to Christians all over the world, and to Christians in this country who have gotten ground up in injustice, is going to involve an element that is necessary for good listening in general, but will be desperately important here; shutting up. Not getting defensive, not playing wounded, just shutting up and listening.

Listen to the Holy Spirit. (Back to everybody now.) You remember that, right? That embarrassing thing that some groups get all excited about. Yeah, that. Part of that Ascension Day story is that, of course, when the disciples went back to the city and waited, eventually Pentecost happened. I'm not expecting the on-the-spot ability to speak Korean or Punjabi to appear out of nowhere one day, but who knows? And we have to know by now that relying on our own inspiration isn't cutting it.

It's not as if this really is a list of discrete items to be checked off a list. I've gone on record in a forum that got read a lot more than this blog ever does about the degree that listening to our congregational song and listening to the global church (or, you know, the church) will likely interact with one another if we do it right.

Of course, the really big challenge for us is that listening takes time. With the overeager vultures circling overhead, the temptation is to be urgent, to do something now. That would be foolish. Part of the need to listen is about learning, and clearly we've got a lot to learn before we rush off into anything. Trying to do things our way, on our own timetable, in our own particular idiom (watch through about 1:05 or so) gets churches in trouble.

Listen. Quit assuming we've got the answers. Quit assuming it's all about us. Quit assuming we call the shots.

Listen.




Sunday, May 7, 2017

I fight authority, authority always wins...

Twitter is a pretty good place for following the latest public theological kerfuffles, if you follow the right people.

These things occasionally erupt on what sometimes gets called "Christian Twitter" (an aside: is that really a good idea? I mean, "Christian Twitter"? Isn't that just a gold-plated invitation to disaster?), usually provoked by some straying evangelical suddenly getting woke and questioning some of the darker tenets of that particular wing of current Christian faith. Frequently the straying evangelical is also female, which seems to bring out the sharpest of knives.

One of the latest Twitter kerfuffles apparently involved a woman named Jen Hatmaker. I confess, even after her name has come up in a couple of such kerfuffles (yes, I'm going to keep using that word), that I really don't know who she is. She's enough of a big deal to have a stub article on Wikipedia, though, so I can learn that she was a presenter on some HGTV show, she said something about how the church ought to be inclusive of LGBTQ+ persons, and for that she got dumped on by the evangelical community and her books got dropped from the stores of a large evangelical bookseller. That was kerfuffle enough.

The more recent kerfuffle perhaps sprang from the Hatmaker blowup, or maybe from some other flareup, but it was set in motion by an article in Christianity Today. I link to it only reluctantly, in that it's a pretty fatuous article, but you probably need to be able at least to glance at it to get what's up. The title kinda gives away the game, though.

The obvious answer to the question is "nobody." Look, like it or not, the "blogosphere," like the rest of the internet, is a bit Wild West-ish; you're only "in charge" of whatever patch of territory you stake out. I "control," basically, this blog, and maybe my Facebook and Twitter accounts, and that's about it. Given that the readership of this blog seldom cracks triple digits, it's not as is I even exert much influence with the little bit of cyberspace I tend; someone like Hatmaker or other, I guess, "celebrity" bloggers (does that even make sense in the church? About as much as "Christian Twitter, I guess) like Rachel Held Evans or Carol Howard Merritt get much more of a following and, presumably, more influence.

About all you can really do in the end is talk back. Frankly, trying to crack down on such figures is at least as likely to give them more credibility or interest in the blogosphere as it is to shut them down. About the best you can do is state your disagreement and move on.

One guesses this is what puts off people who ask questions like "who's in charge of the Christian blogosphere?" There's precious little control wielded over what people blog or Facebook or tweet (if there were we would not have the President we now have, would we?), and so folks like the above bloggers can pretty much write what they are moved to write. The right-wing evangelical establishment can throw mud at them, but they can't really silence them, and it drives that establishment nuts. Plenty of mud got slung at Hatmaker, and she somehow failed to recant. So far as I know she's still a supercalifragilistichyperevangelical, so they haven't even managed to satisfy their urge to control by running her off (unlike Held Evans, who has quite contentedly slipped into the Episcopal Church).

Of course, it seems likely that the other major sin committed by the likes of Hatmaker and Held Evans is the heinous, unforgivable crime of having girl parts.

We are, after all, talking about a movement that, if it really got its way, would have women be at home cooking, and routinely getting pregnant. Even tolerating female clergy, though it has been done of necessity (the author of the above article is Anglican clergy), goes against the grain of the hardest-right wing of evangelicalism, and is sometimes still an awkward fit in other parts of that branch of the church. (By contrast, most mainline traditions have been ordaining women for a while now, fifty years or so in some cases.) That non-ordained women like Hatmaker and Held Evans write stuff (even real books with paper and covers and everything!) and have lots of readers (even if a certain number of those readers are mostly there for trolling purposes) and don't participate in the mandatory bashing of LGBTQ+ folk or other disapproved types is just unacceptable.

Not surprisingly, the topics that provoke the most angst over "authority" tend to be those for which "authority" is at best sketchy and involves things like really poor exegesis of scripture (like the infamous "six verses" used to bash homosexuals (or seven, depending on who you ask). Most of the time you don't get big Twitter kerfuffles over things like the Trinity, about which it is almost impossible to speak without committing multiple accidental heresies. I almost suspect that someone could write a blog article suggesting that 2 Peter, a real dogpatch of an epistle, should get eliminated from the canon of scripture and get less grief that the "uppity female blogger" du jour who fails to toe the line on gay people.

Meanwhile, the mainline is pretty quiet. There aren't a huge number of "celebrity mainline bloggers" of either gender, and such churches as have real "authority figures" like bishops don't seem to expend a lot of energy on controlling bloggers. So far as I've heard, the head Episcopal bishop hasn't come down on Rachel Held Evans, for example. (My own denomination is governed by a General Assembly that meets once every two years, with the closest thing to a denominational "voice" in the interim being a Stated Clerk -- hardly an awe-inspiring title, even if the current holder of that title is pretty cool. So far as I know nobody in that office even knows this blog exists, much less cares. But then, I am ordained and have boy parts, so I guess my authority is not in question.)

While the mainline doesn't necessarily incline to suppress voices, I'm not always sure it's good at encouraging voices from within its ranks either. The Christian Century magazine makes a go at fostering a few blog voices in its online version, and a few other periodicals do likewise. Still, it's not so easy to find "Christian Twitter" or a "Christian blogosphere" (ugh) in non-conservative form.

In short, people need to speak up, partly because (as Carol Howard Merritt notes on one of those CC blogs) just because most of the hot-button issues are more or less settled in the mainline denominations doesn't mean they are settled in other regions of the church, and mainline voices still need to be heard, explaining and exegeting and affirming. Also, speaking up is simply a part of bearing witness, and even mainline folk are supposed to do that.

How each person chooses to speak up will vary, naturally, and nobody's promising instant celebrity just because you start a blog or open a Twitter account (and if you're lucky you'll be spared that). But speak up, because there's still good news to be told.

Yeah, that was his song quoted in the title...

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Yep, we're dying again...

NOTE: with my sermons now being posted in a different, church-specific location, this blog can go back to being a blog.

In case you haven't been told lately, fellow mainline Christian, we're dying. Again.

In this case, the gloatingly gleeful evangelical writing the propaganda piece has been so kind as to offer a specific death date. As you can see from the title, we've only got twenty-three Easter seasons left to celebrate, not counting the one we are in now, I guess (although it's not clear if the mainline may pass away in the midst of that twenty-third Easter cycle). Plan your sermons and Easter musical services accordingly.

As you can guess, I am no fan of such garbage. The author may feel entitled to excercise godlike proclamatory powers over a tradition he scorns, but I don't find it that wise to proclaim anything about the future of any corner of the church, my own or anyone else's.

See, I can read statistics and see trends just fine, even if I'm not quite willing to put such a specific countdown clock on the end of my church.

(Note: before anybody tries to defend the author, whom I have no intention of respecting by calling him by name, I saw him try to claim he takes no pleasure in the claim he is making. He is not telling the truth. A person who took no pleasure in such a claim would not make it.)

If you're looking at statistics, mainline churches are on the decline, but they're hardly alone. The author's sainted evangelical tradition has come over the hill and, now that their trajectory is downward, they're picking up speed. To my knowledge the only church type that is growing or at least not declining is the independent or non-denominational church, one beholden to no one but its all-powerful pastor. I'm not sure that there's anything to celebrate here.

If the author is looking for a branch of Christianity to fix, he might consider starting with his own.

He is, after all, an acknowledged leader (for reasons beyond my comprehension) in that branch of Christianity which has most wholeheartedly participated in the election of the current occupant of the office of President of the United States. All (white) branches of the church in the US were complicit in this to some degree, but it had better be acknowledged that, between the endorsements and enthusiastic support of some of its most prominent pastors and the overwhelming vote support of its members, our current president is their doing. That particular immorality should frankly disqualify evangelical leaders from being taken seriously about anything, much less any other church's problems. While the Washington Post may have not quite stooped to the New York Times's level of capitulation in hiring a climate denialist as columnist, printing propaganda pieces like this is not to the Post's credit.

Mainline churches have problems, not least of which is the continuing evangelical urge to keep on kicking the mainline while it's down. But the mainline has gotta do better at being church.

If, as other batches of statistics suggest, the church's fascination with so-called "contemporary" worship is waning, mainline churches have got to do a better job of making the case for worship that doesn't ignore the other 1,950 years or so of the church's history and practice, invites (or even demands) participation beyond sitting or standing and watching, and has that unnerving habit of making people think. Frankly, it's time for the mainline to call into question worship practice that fails at these basic tasks in its proclamation of the gospel. If we are really going down, I say we go down swinging.

So this blog is being repurposed again, to this end.

After its chronicling of my seminary journey, and its period as a sermon repository, it's time for this blog to take up yet another "fool's errand": making the case for the church that everybody likes to pick on.

Evangelicals should probably move on. I have no interest in being lectured to, and I have no problem blocking the hell out of you if you are here only to parrot propaganda. Just shove off if that's you.

My audience is my fellow mainline. My corner of that is the Presbyterian Church (USA), where I was caught when I was falling out of the evangelical branch, having jumped before anybody had a chance to push me. Other mainliners are welcome to chip in. In words I believe were first uttered by Benjamin Franklin, "We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately."

And I'm not interested in hanging, in twenty-three Easters or otherwise.


Remember, he was a mainliner.


Sunday, March 12, 2017

Sermon: The Sword

Grace Presbyterian Church
March 12, 2017, Lent 2A
Jeremiah 20:7-13; Matthew 10:24-39

The Sword

Honestly, this just doesn’t fit.
We call Jesus the Prince of Peace. We sing a whole lot, particularly around Christmastime, about peace – “Sleep in heavenly peace,” or “Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace,” or there are songs like “I’ve got peace like a river” or any hymn based on St. Francis’s prayer, “Make me an instrument of your peace.” In fact, if you go to the back of the hymnal and look at the indexes, you’ll see that in the Subject Index “peace” actually gets two different sections – “Peace, Personal (Spiritual)” and “Peace, World.”
And it’s not as if Jesus doesn’t have plenty to say about peace: earlier in this gospel, one of the Beatitudes plainly stated “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (5:9). John 14:27 records Jesus’s words to his disciples, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.” And in almost all of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus recorded in the gospels, one of the first things Jesus says is some variant of “Peace be with you.”
And yet, there’s verse 34 in today’s reading, with Jesus saying plain as day, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
A sword?
Not what we want to hear.
Even another gospel writer, Luke, seems to be in agreement with us. When Luke records this teaching, he replaces the word “sword” with “division.” Now that sits uncomfortably enough in our ears, but “a sword”? We can’t bear to hear that.
But Matthew pulls no punches. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace,” Jesus says. “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” And he doesn’t stop there, but goes on to suggest that families will be divided – man against father, daughter against mother, daughter-in-law against mother-in-law – and flat-out upends what we would call “family values” altogether. The final sentence seems hardest of all: “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
The modern church has built up a veritable cottage industry around being peacemakers and generally promoting the idea that peace is the way to live. But Jesus doesn’t seem to have a lot of patience with that idea here. Before we despair too much, though, it’s a good idea to back up and hear what has brought Jesus to this point. What sounds like a total renunciation at first turns out to be a simple statement of fact.
This passage we have heard today is part of a larger unit of teaching with a specific purpose. Jesus is, from the beginning of chapter 10, preparing his twelve disciples to go out and do the teaching, preaching, and healing that he himself had been doing. This teaching and sending is not described here in the same degree of detail as it is in other gospels – Matthew never does record the disciples’ return from this commissioning, for example – but this commissioning does have parallels in the other gospels. On the other hand, Jesus’s teaching in those other gospels is not quite so stark and pointed as what Matthew records.
Already in verse 16 Jesus has warned the disciples that he is sending them out as “sheep in the midst of wolves” and that they should be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves,” which suggests that their experience will be a bit more challenging than your average Vacation Bible School. Verse 22 makes the warning more explicit: “you will be hated by all because of my name.” So when Jesus says in verse 24 that “a disciple is not above the teacher,” he is making clear to his disciples that they should, if they are truly following him, expect the same kind of attacks and slander that he has experienced.
What we often forget or overlook here, though, is that the attacks and slander Jesus has experienced and will experience, and that Jesus warns his disciples that they will experience, aren’t from random strangers. Jesus isn’t being challenged by “the world,” that generic boogeyman we in the church love to conjure up; Jesus is being challenged by the religious authorities of his time and place. Beginning in chapter 9 Matthew records the Pharisees, the great advocates of cultic and personal piety and purity in Jesus’s day, increasingly turning their questioning towards Jesus, culminating in the strange accusation in 9:34, after Jesus has cast out a demon, that “by the ruler of the demons he casts out the demons.” In short, they’re charging Jesus with being in league with the devil.  And Jesus rightly points out in 10:25 that if the religious authorities are willing to say that about Jesus, the disciples can’t expect to be treated any differently.
In the midst of this uncertainty, Jesus takes pains to remind his disciples that for all the likelihood of false accusation and defamation, betrayal and hatred, they are watched and cared for by God, the one who cares even for those two-for-a-penny sparrows. Even that comfort seems a bit late, when Jesus’s idea of reassurance is that the disciples be less concerned over “those who can kill the body, but cannot kill the soul” and more over the one who can kill both. I’m guessing that by now the disciples are wondering what they’ve signed on for after all. Even after the Sermon on the Mount and the healing episodes Matthew describes in chapter 8, this commissioning speech must have felt a bit jarring to a bunch of fishermen. Being scorned as poor dumb fishermen was one thing, but family turning on you? Being attacked by the Pharisees? They couldn’t have expected this.
Then the hard sentence, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword,” which makes sense in the context in which Jesus has already spoken – if you follow me, if you truly follow me and do the will of God and live into the kingdom of Heaven, the sword will find you. Even if you’re living into that beatitude about “Blessed are the peacemakers,” the sword will find you. But you are not abandoned, any more than those two-a-penny sparrows. And even the losing of one’s life – whether in a literal sense or in the sense of one’s life being truly absorbed into following Jesus in genuine and submitted discipleship – will end with life, true life, real life found, not lost. On the other hand, those whose life is caught up in the world, congruent with the world’s standards – or even the standards of the empire-accommodated church so prominent these days – will find their lives are truly lost.
In the end, then, that hard sentence is just practical advice – know what you’re getting into, know what’s coming, know that the sword will find you. And follow Me anyway.
For the One who cares for us even when the sword comes, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#829            My Faith Looks Up to Thee
#478            Save Me, O God, I Sink in Floods (Psalm 69)
#718            Take Up Your Cross, the Savior Said
#661            Why Should I Feel Discouraged?


Credit: agnusday.org (consider it a word of caution...)

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Sermon: Don't Eat First

Grace Presbyterian Church
March 5, 2017, Lent 1A
Matthew 4:1-11

Don’t Eat First

“When going to hide, know how to get there.”
“And how to get back.”
“And eat first.”
That exchange comes from the finale of Stephen Sondheim’s highly popular Broadway musical Into the Woods. In that show, a mashup of numerous fairy tales, “the woods” are clearly a place of trouble, danger, and even (in the case of one character) death. In the course of the show the characters – the likes of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack (of beanstalk fame) and Rapunzel (and her mother the witch) – have gone into the woods twice, each time facing the challenge of giants making their way down the aforementioned beanstalk. Whether simply for comic effect or as a demonstration that these characters really didn’t learn much, those lines slip in amidst the patter of a number of similar bon mots of supposed wisdom gained from going into and coming out of the woods.
Taken on their own, those lines suggest that success in the woods is all about preparation: make sure you know where you’re going and how to get back when it’s all over, and make sure your physical needs are well supplied beforehand – “eat first.” By such fairytale standards of wisdom, Jesus’s journey into the wilderness in today’s reading from Matthew was doomed to be a spectacular failure.
Jesus goes into the wilderness immediately after his baptism, and we do mean “immediately.” If there were such a phrase as “very immediately,” it would apply here. He certainly didn’t “eat first,” and by the standards of that fairytale wisdom he paid for it, not eating for forty days and forty nights.
And waiting at the other end of that forty days and nights is none other than the Devil, the Accuser, the Tempter as Matthew calls him here. And of course the Tempter goes straight for the hunger: “If you are the son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Our fairytale folk might just be tut-tutting by about now: “See, there you go, you didn’t prepare and you’re right into the trap. Shame about that Jesus boy, he had potential.”
Except, of course, Jesus was prepared after all.
However hungry Jesus might have been he could still remember Deuteronomy 8:3, and thus shut the devil down. The Tempter tried again, with the temptation of putting on a great show amplified by his own biblical allusion (thus giving us the quote “the devil can cite scripture for his purpose”), only for Jesus to refute Psalm 91:11-12 with more Deuteronomy, this time 6:16’s injunction against putting God to the test. Finally the test of ultimate power is all that the Tempter has left, which of course isn’t really all that tempting to one who, well, already has ultimate power. With one more Deuteronomy verse (6:13, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him”) the Tempter is brushed aside and angels appear to minister to Jesus, who, after all, still hasn’t eaten in forty days and forty nights.
We get confused about wilderness experiences. We tend to use that phrase “wilderness experience” when we are facing the consequences of our own actions, of our own falling into temptation, rather than for the act of facing that temptation. We have relied on our own preparations (“know how to get there…and how to get back”) instead of letting our preparation be in our reliance upon God, our immersion in God’s teaching to us, our trust in the Holy Spirit. It does make a difference.
These trials Jesus faces in the wilderness speak not just to immediate temptation to fill immediate need, but they reflect temptations or challenges that were repeated throughout Jesus’s earthly ministry: how to meet the needs of those to whom he ministered (he wouldn’t make bread out of stones for himself, but he’d feed thousands off a few loaves), how to save himself (ultimately, not; Jesus did not flee even the cross), how to draw all people to himself (by being lifted up on that cross, not by bowing down to that Tempter). The wilderness experience was less a moment of temptation, as we often tend to experience it, than a preparation for a lifetime. God’s preparation for us is not our way of preparing for the worst. Yet Jesus comes through, and in just a few verses is healing multitudes in Galilee, even if he didn’t eat first.
Yes, it’s a little ironic that this sermon comes as we will be coming to the table in just a few moments. Here, though, the bread broken and the cup shared point us to that Jesus who faced the wilderness armed with the teaching of scripture and trust in God. The bread here comes as gift and sacrament, not as temptation, that indeed we together might be fed on the stuff of eternal life rather than relying on empty processed foods for our spiritual fortification. For indeed, real wilderness experiences will come, whether we have “eaten” or not.
For the wilderness, and a God who would prepare us for it, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#392            Jesus, We Are Here
#833            O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go
#525            Let Us Break Bread Together
#167            Forty Days and Forty Nights

Credit: agnusday.org, and yeah, I feel this one...