Thursday, August 15, 2019

Magdalene Explained it to the Apostles

Maybe Dan Brown was on to something.

In his controversial 2003 novel The DaVinci Code, Brown builds a mystery thriller around the myth that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and their descendants now live quietly in modern France. 

Thousands of angry Christians condemned Brown for his heretical idea, but – as he is the first to admit – the idea had been around for years. 

Many readers of The DaVinci Code were reminded of a 1982 volume called Holy Blood, Holy Grail, by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln, which claimed the messianic descendants are protected by a secret society called the Priori of Sion. 

The book is unconvincing and unintentionally amusing when it offers photos of the alleged grandkids of Jesus: pear-shaped, balding, middle-aged hommes with bulbous noses and beady eyes. 

Writer Anthony Burgess said the book’s far-fetched claims would make a great novel but he never got around to writing it. Dan Brown did.

And to be sure, The DaVinci Code is a page-turner. But apart from the fictional notion of a holy blood line, the novel’s main contribution has been to revive interest in a long misunderstood biblical figure: Mary Magdalene.

Mary has been the target of so much derision, in fact, that one of Brown’s claims rings true. It seems plausible that the patriarchs of the church were so disturbed by the special presence of this mere woman in Jesus’ life that they went out of their way to misrepresent and dismiss her.

The most common calumny about Magdalene, of course, is that she was a hooker.

In Jesus Christ Superstar, the 1971 rock opera by Sir Anthony Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, Mary’s bawdy background torments her as she struggles with her love for Jesus. “I don’t know how to love him,” she sings.

I don't see why he moves me. 
He's a man. He's just a man. 
And I've had so many men before, 
In very many ways, 
He's just one more.

Mary’s profession is even more explicit in the 1988 film, The Last Temptation of Christ, based on Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel of the same title. Portrayed by Barbara Hershey, Mary is actually shown turning tricks seriatim as sweaty customers line up at her door.

In the film and novel, Jesus is tempted on the cross by his love for Mary and his desire to break free from messiahship to start an ordinary family.

“Barbara Hershey is so beautiful,” a Baptist minister whispered to me after he saw the movie, “I’d have been tempted, too.”

And for the record, there is nothing heretical about Kazantzakis’ story. Jesus was indeed led into temptation, as the author of Hebrews makes clear:
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested, as we are, yet without sin. Hebrews 5:15
It’s logical to assume that being tested in every respect includes sexual tension, and most extra-biblical traditions about Mary Magdalene suggest she was uncommonly beautiful.

But she was no whore.

Magdalene is mentioned in the gospels more than a dozen times, and it is never stated or insinuated that she was a prostitute.

The notion that she was a sex professional originated with Pope Gregory I in 590 C.E.

Gregory, dubbed “the Great” and canonized a saint by popular demand as soon as he died in 604, was a monastic mystic. He devised an enduring style of Christian worship that included the harmonious chants that bear his name. He is the patron saint of musicians, and was a respected  evangelist and church administrator. John Calvin, the 16th century reformer not known for his public relations sensitivity, called Gregory “the last good pope.”

Gregory was also a prolific writer whose cataracts of words were sometimes preceded by trickles of thought. In one of his homilies, he confused Mary Magdalene with the prostitute who anointed Jesus’ feet with oil in Luke 7:36-50, and also with Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus, who performed a similar act in John 12:1-8.

Susan Haskins, writing in Mary Magdalen: The Essential History, quotes the pope’s dubious exegesis:
“She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark. And what did these seven devils signify, if not all the vices? ... It is clear, brothers, that the woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts.” (Homily XXXIII).
What was clear to the brothers had no basis in logic, but the confused words of popes are rarely forgotten. The church maintained for 15 centuries that the prostitute who went to Jesus, Mary of Bethany, and Mary Magdalene were the same person. In 1969, Pope Paul VI – reluctant as he so often was to question the infallibility of his predecessors – corrected the error. Still, millions still embrace the notion that Mary Magdalene was a reformed hooker.

And if she was not, what was she?

No one knows the nature of the seven demons Jesus cast out of Mary, and they could mean almost anything. One theory is that demons represent an illness or menstrual tortures that Jesus cured. Whatever they were, the point is that they were cast out, and Mary was sufficiently relieved by their absence that she became a faithful follower of Jesus.

She became, in fact, one of his leading followers. And in the most important events in Jesus’ ministry, she was the bravest, truest, and closest disciple Jesus had.

She was present at his crucifixion and refused to move from his side when all but one of the male disciples escaped into hiding from the Roman authorities.

She was present at his burial.

She was the first to discover early Sunday morning that his body was missing from the tomb.

She was the one to whom Jesus chose to appear before he announced his resurrection to the world.

She was the harbinger who sought out the male disciples in their hiding place to tell them the Lord had risen.

She was, as Augustine famously said, the Apostle to the Apostles, the first to whom the good news had been given and the first herald who shamed the boys out of their seclusion.

In patriarchal fashion, the boys promptly took charge of the gospel and Mary Magdalene faded from church history.

In fact, the church treated Mary badly. She was the one to whom the risen Lord first appeared while Peter and the boys were still trembling in isolation. When Mary came to Peter with the good news, he should have knelt and kissed her ring before be followed her to the tomb. And apostolic succession over the next 2000 years would have been very different.

But the boys did not give Magdalene the respect she was due, and we are left to wonder what happened to Mary, the first Apostle.

Did she marry Jesus?

No. That is certainly not the secret the old boys tried to cover up by dismissing Mary as a cypher and a whore. The secret they wished to cover up is that a Jesus had given a woman such an important role.

Did she love Jesus?

Of course she did. Her behavior during Jesus’ last hours was a testimony of love and caring that surpassed anything the male disciples did.

Did she love Jesus in a romantic sense? Did she want to marry him?

Perhaps. If so, her encounter with the risen Jesus at the tomb must have elicited both profound and conflicted emotions: incredible joy that the man she loved was alive, and unspeakable sadness that he would never be available to her in ways a woman might desire:
Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord;” and she told them that he had said these things to her. John 20:15-18
Those would have been difficult words to hear by one who yearned to embrace a loved one thought to be lost forever: “Do not hold on to me.”

But Jesus was alive, and now his circle had expanded beyond a few earthly apostles to the whole world.

The Lord had risen and death had been defeated and salvation was available to everyone who believed.

Mary would have known as soon as Jesus spoke her name that she was uniquely special to him and he wanted her to be the first to hear it.

She was the first evangelist of the good news.

She was the Apostle to the Apostles.

And despite the fact that salient details of her life were ignored by her contemporaries and distorted by early bishops, Jesus made sure the story of his resurrection could never be told without mentioning her name.

Hers was the first name to pass his lips as he stood in the garden outside the empty tomb.

And she was the first to utter the phrase Christians use to greet each other every Easter Morning:

“The Lord has risen.”

The Lord has risen indeed. 

That's the good news the gospel proclaims. And we can never forget the woman who proclaimed it first.

Hail, Mary.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

When Was It Good to Be the King?

NOTE: This is a slightly edited reprise of a sermon-blog I posted seven years ago when I was still preaching each week. I was inspired to excavate it by an interfaith discussion on the book of Esther during a six-week bible study held at Congregation Kneses Tifereth Israel (KTI) in Port Chester, N.Y.

It’s good to be the king. Wink Wink.

In the days before #MeToo, this truism ran throughout the Mel Brooks canon of films, most notably in his 1993 opus, Robin Hood, Men in Tights

In the climatic scene, King Richard (Patrick Stewart) pulls the beautiful Maid Marion (Amy Yasbeck) into his arms and plants a lingering and passionate kiss on her fulsome lips. 

Rabbi Tuckman watches intently before giving the audience an approving wink: “It’s good to be the king.”

Brooks knows kings have been getting away with serious shit over the centuries, including having their way with willing and unwilling maidens. It’s not that Brooks approves of monarchial rape or any other abuse of power but he thinks power can be dramatically dissipated if we laugh at it. Audiences in Germany reportedly doubled up over Brooks’ “Springtime for Hitler.”

But there was a time when laughing at Nazis and kings was a capital offense. So it was throughout much of human history, and so it was in the time of King Ahasuerus (ah-HAZ-er-us) of Persia, the most powerful figure in the book of Esther.

Ahasuerus was megalomaniacal, ravenous for power, and – if the book of Esther is any indication – a devoted alcoholic whose liver must have resembled a hair ball. As the narrative opens, the king is in the midst of a six-month party in which “drinking was by flagons, without restraint” (Esther 1:8).  

Since the point of the party was to show off the king’s great wealth, the image of the palace that comes to mind is a gilded Animal House. And, as was true of virtually every Persian male alive in 450 B.C., Ahasuerus was a devoted misogynist. 

The Greek version of Ahasuerus’ name is Xerxes, which many people find easier to pronounce because they remember Cecil B. DeMille’s histrionic intonation in his biblical epics: ZIRK-sees! 

Most historians believe that Ahasuerus and Xerxes the First are one in the same. That would make the biblical Ahasuerus the devious victor of the battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. when his vast army destroyed a much smaller Greek militia. Afterwards, according to some reports (although no archaeological evidence exists), Xerxes is said to have burned the city of Athens to the ground.

The Ahasuerus we meet in Esther is not a monarch to trifle with. He has the power to bestow great riches upon his friends, and he could instantly execute anyone who inadvertently annoyed him. As he drained flagon after flagon of wine, no one knew where his foggy inebriation might lead.

As it turned out, “when the king was merry with wine, he commanded … the seven eunuchs who attended him to bring Queen Vashti before the king, wearing the royal crown, in order to show the peoples and the officials her beauty; for she was fair to behold. But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command … At this the king was enraged, and his anger burned within him.” (1:10-12).

What on earth got into Vashti, that she committed a capital offense by refusing a lawful order of the king?

The verdict of history seems to depend on the gender of the historian.

My own suspicion, admittedly Y-chromosomal, is that Vashti’s refusal is a rash and even arrogant test of her power over a king she knows to be smitten by her good looks. It makes you think of other recklessly ambitious queens, including Ann Boleyn whose miscalculation of her power over King Henry VIII led to the cleaving of her head.

The author of Esther seems to share that view. The angry King Ahasuerus summons his sages to ask what should be done with a wife who disobeys her king.

Misogyny throbs in their manly solution:

“For this deed of the queen will be made known to all women, causing them to look with contempt on their husbands, since they will say, ‘King Ahasuerus commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before  him, and she did not come.’ This very day the noble ladies of Persia and Media who have heard of the queen’s behavior will rebel against the king’s officials, and there will be no end of contempt and wrath!” (1:17-18)

It’s the dominos theory of sexual warfare: if one husband’s authority over his wife is flaunted, all husbands will lose their God-given powers over the weaker sex. And who could bear to live in a world like that?

King Ahasuerus accepts the wisdom of his macho advisors and deposes the queen. No one knows what happened to Vashti after that, although we fear the worst. Ahasuerus was not the kind of king who hesitated to take a life, or thousands of lives, at the flick of his royal finger. In Vashti’s case he was careful to make sure all seven of his male advisors were recorded by name (1:14) so history would acknowledge due process in her elimination, and he may have felt it was kinder to take her life than to send her demoted and shamed into the dung heaps of Persia.

Surely Vashti must have known she was taking an enormous personal risk by refusing a lawful order of the king, and there’s no evidence in Esther that anyone sympathized with her.

So what possessed her to say no when her whole life depended on saying yes?

For many scholars, Vashti’s refusal is an act of heroism, not arrogance or ambition.

The Rev. Dr. Martha M. Cruz (who, in the interest of full disclosure, is my spouse) holds that point of view.

“What was Vashti thinking?” I asked one night before lights-out (an aside to those who wonder what ecclesial pillow talk is like).

“What do you mean?” 

“Why on earth would she refuse the king’s command to come to him when she knew what the consequences would be?”

There was a familiar pause as she quickly studied my face to see if I’d gone mad.

“Did you read it?” she asked, referring to the book of Esther.

“Yes, but …”

“Look, the king had been drinking with his minions for six months, showing off his gold and silver and marble pillars. Then when he was ‘merry with wine,’ he summons his beautiful trophy wife so he can show her off, too.”

“Yes …”

“Well, do you think she wants to be shown off like a slab of beef?”

“Well, no …”

“She was being summoned to voyeuristic abuse by the king and his drunken male friends, and she said, ‘No way!’”

I tried to think it through.

“But,” I said thoughtfully, “he asked her to wear her crown. He wasn’t asking her to pose naked. He asked her to wear the crown to introduce her as his queen …”

“It doesn’t matter if she was dressed or not. She was summoned by a powerful man to be exposed and humiliated in front of other powerful men. No woman wants that.”

“Of course,” I said. “But this was 450 B.C. The king’s power was absolute. In 450 B.C., Queen Vashti would not have been aware of any alternative but to do what the king said.” I stopped short of saying, “It’s good to be the king.”

Martha scoffed. “Do you think women were any happier to be exposed and humiliated 2500 years ago than they are now?”

I paused again to think it over. Of course, history’s most common thread is about powerless majorities being enslaved and humiliated by rich rulers, and I didn’t suppose one gender felt worse about it than the other. 

But history does offer rare anecdotes of the powerless taking courageous stands against the powerful: Spartacus, the Zealots, the English peasant’s revolt of 1381, Joseph Cinqué, Nat Turner.  Maybe Queen Vashti should be added to that heroic list.

“I guess you’re right,” I said tentatively, still thinking it over. We fell asleep, as we often do, with a re-run of Law and Order: Criminal Intent on the bedroom television. I can’t remember what specific episode we were watching, but it had to have been a drama about powerful persons engaged in criminal behavior toward the weak. No doubt Detectives Eames and Goren brought the bad guys to justice in the final scenes, but it was a reminder that human conflict has changed little in 2500 years.

The conflict between King Ahasuerus and Queen Vashti was clearly sexually motivated, with the male seeking to fulfill his Freudian role of dominance and the woman raising an unexpected archetype of resistance. Later on in this same scripture it will be interesting to watch Queen Esther, Vashti’s lovely successor, use her exquisite beauty to charm the king into halting a plot by one of his ministers to exterminate the Jews of Persia. Whoever wrote the book of Esther – and I assume the author is male – obviously preferred Esther’s velvety approach to Vashti’s rebellion. In fact, no one in the narrative dares express support for Vashti – including she who benefitted most from her removal, namely, Queen Esther herself.

But the question remains about the appropriate relationship between the powerful and the powerless, as well as between women and men, both 2500 years ago and today. 

We may excuse King Ahasuerus’ attitudes toward women as a Bronze Age fixation, but of course Martha is correct: even women who accepted cultural norms of low rank and submission were no more content to be objectified and humiliated then than they would be today. We tend to excuse unacceptable behavior when it conforms to historic or cultural norms, but in fact, Ahasuerus was as wide of the mark in 450 B.C. as he would be today.

This is an important lesson for the church. It’s not just the Roman Catholic hierarchy that has mishandled clergy sexual misconduct. All churches and traditions have sought to protect their professional leadership from criminal accusations on the grounds that if the clergy looks bad the church looks bad and the church’s Christian witness will suffer.

Of course it’s clergy misconduct that causes the church’s witness to suffer and efforts to cover it up make a bad situation worse. And no church that I have been aware of in the whole ecumenical movement has been entirely innocent of hiding terrible truths.

Sometimes sexual misconduct is explained away by cultural cliches, as in, “I’m a hugger,” or “I’m a toucher,” or “I grew up kissing strangers on the lips.” But that’s like excusing King Ahasuerus’ abuse of his queen on the grounds that “it’s good to be the king.”

Recently, ecumenical church bodies noticed a growing conflict in their meetings between persons who like to touch and be touched, and persons whose chests hurt if anyone stands too close to them.

The result is a brochure handed out by the National Council of Churches and Church World Service at every board and assembly meeting to explain to well-meaning Christians the truth about sexual harassment and abuse.

“Our diversity adds to the strength of our community; it is something that is cherished and celebrated,” the brochure advises.

“As we encounter one another’s differences, we cannot assume that our way of being and behaving is comfortable for every person. Sometimes our differences make it challenging to understand and communicate with one another, as well as respecting individual physical and sexual boundaries.”

As many church folks have discovered, it’s amazing how many people think a hand on the thigh or a pat on the rump is an essential component of any prayer circle.

“Behavior that has a sexual connotation, when unsolicited and unwanted, and / or repetitive, can be sexual harassment,” the brochure explains, perhaps too politely.

“Examples include: suggestive looks or comments, teasing or telling of jokes with sexual content, correspondence or calls of a sexual nature, inappropriate touching or closeness, pressure for unwanted personal or social engagement or activities with sexual overtones, or offers to use influence in return for sexual favors.

“In the end, harassment is not necessarily what is intended, but how that behavior and attitude impacts another’s well being defines harassment.” 

The brochure encourages persons who feel that have been targets of sexual harassment to speak out.

“Gatherings of church bodies also need to be mindful of the presence of this kind of behavior. Within the sacred context of worship and Koinonia, sensitivity to and respect for each person is important.”

Queen Vashti is one of millions of women who were not treated with sensitivity and respect by one who held power over them.

The fact that Vashti took a stand when it would almost certainly result in her destruction is one of the most remarkable acts of courage in the Hebrew scriptures, equal to the courage of the queen who succeeded her.

We don't know what finally happened to her, but we do know this: Queen Vashti set an example not only for her time but for all time. And we honor her as one who knew her true worth in God's firmament – and showed us how to do the same.

That legacy is Vashti's gift.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Simul justus et peccator, Baby.

Stephen Schwartz’ lyrical  and mystical Godspell has always provided new insights into the Gospel stories most of us know by heart.

The musical has been doing that for nearly fifty years and lately the infusion of disco, hip hop, blues, and funk brings the parables even closer to home. 

One of my favorite skits in the 2011 revival was the separation of the sheep (“baaahhh”) from the goats (“maaahhh.”) As the goats realize to their horror that they are being shut out of the kingdom because of their lack of empathy for suffering people, they taunt the sheep: “But, Lord, if we knew it was you, we would have invited you over – for LAMB chops.” But Jesus – on stage as in the bible – is unyielding. “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me. And (you) will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

How could Jesus could be so mean? You can hear the pathos in the bleating of the goats: “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” But Jesus makes it plain: when we step gingerly over a sleeping homeless person at Grand Central Station, we step over Jesus. There is a story that when First Lady Rosalyn Carter did just that in 1978, she wept.

But life isn’t always simple for us goats. Several years ago my niece in Melbourne, Fla., posted this on Facebook: 
Doorbell rings at midnight- creepy guy with a sketchy story trying to get in our house ...  My husband got up and went to the window with a baseball bat while our daughter and I hid under the covers. First the guy said there had been an accident. Then he said he had taken a cab but needed help to pay the driver. Finally, with the dog barking ferociously inside the house, the guy disappeared.
Was that guy Jesus? Not bloody likely. But how do we judge the divinity of every panhandler who greets us in the mall with a sob story? The truth is, sooner or later, we’re all goats. Maaahh.

But much of the time, we’re sheep, too. We care for those who are hungry, thirsty and ill clothed. We support the poor. We nurse the sick. We have our prison ministries. Baaahh.

It’s interesting to note, by way of a scientific affirmation of a metaphysical observation, there is such a thing as a goat-sheep hybrid – a geep. This doesn’t happen often in nature. Goat and sheep do cohabit on a thousand hills, and they have been known to cross species lines and do the nasty, although their offspring rarely survive. But sheep-goat chimeras were created by researchers at the Institute of Animal Physiology in England by combining sheep embryos with goat embryos. The offspring were a mosaic of goat and sheep tissue. The parts that grew from the sheep embryo were woolly. Those that grew from the goat embryo were hairy.

It’s puzzling and perhaps a little disturbing why physiologists would want to do this, but it does make an unusual sermon illustration. When Jesus separates the sheep from the goats, how will he deal with the fact that most of us are geeps?

It took Christian theologians several hundred years to realize we are all an awkward combination of sheep and goats: Simul justus et peccator, as Martin Luther put it. We are all simultaneously saints and sinners.

Actually, I think this is a bigger problem for us than it will be for Jesus. He knows very well that all of us sin and fall short of the glory of God, and there must be some kind of divine formula to protect us from eternal punishment when we miss a deposit at the food pantry. But how much slack is Jesus willing to cut us?

Luther taught that even when our bent to sinning is washed away by the waters of baptism, we will still be sinners.  Only the grace of God can save us and our only hope is that Jesus cuts us a lot of slack. 

Still, sin and saintliness are intricately interwoven in each of us.

The 2004 European film, “The Downfall,” directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, depicts the final ten days of Adolf Hitlers life in his Berlin bunker in 1945. In an unlikely but apparently documented scene, Eva Braun – soon to become Frau Hitler – and Hitler’s young secretary, Traudl Junge, take a cigarette break in the bunker and talk about der fuehrer. “I’ve known him for ten years, and yet I don’t really know him at all,” confesses Eva. The lithesome Traudl takes a deep drag and shrugs. “In private moments he can be so kind and gentle,” she says. “At other times, he is so brutal.”*

Hitler is one of those malevolent figures so monstrous that partisan comparisons of our current president to Hitler fall ludicrously short. No one in history, with the possible exception of Caligula or Stalin, was as bad as Hitler. He is evil incarnate.

But I remember reading an essay by entertainer Steve Allen that speculated no one can be malicious all the time, and he used Hitler as an example. “Probably much of the time he was a very nice fellow,” Allen wrote. 

The speculation seems to hold true in many scenes from “The Downfall,” which are based on eyewitness accounts. At one point Hitler rages at his generals, saying the German people deserve to starve and die because they hadn’t done enough to defend the Reich. In other scenes, he tweaks the youthful cheek of a pre-teen soldier, or pats his secretary on the shoulder, saying, “You need to get some rest, dear.”

Probably no one is a monster 24-7. Many of the murderers I knew as a newspaper reporter were perfectly nice people. There is as telling scene in HBO’s Treme in which a felon in prison warns a visiting lawyer that a New Orleans councilman she admires is on the take. The lawyer, who believed in the councilman’s integrity, expresses shock, but the prisoner finds her attitude to be naïve. “We’re all nice guys,” he says. “We all love our mothers. We all root for the Saints.”

Even so, it’s not easy to think of ourselves as both good and evil, simultaneously goats and sheep. Our hymnology assures us that faith in Jesus will wash our all our sins away, leaving our souls – in that irksome Victorian metaphor – white as snow. We fervently want to believe that people can be good, that there are those who do not have “an evil bone in their bodies.” We’d like to think this was true of our sainted mothers, our favorite pastors, our idolized teachers. We’d like to believe that, someday, it will be true of us.

We’d like to think that, perhaps, but it’s not good theology or, for that matter, good psychology. The great psychoanalyst C. G. Jung insisted that evil and good do and must exist together in every human heart. In a Southern Cross review of an unpublished essay by Jung, Frank Thomas Smith quoted the great man:
“Evil is the necessary opposite of good, without which there would be no good either. It is impossible to even think good out of existence.” Jung, Smith writes, believed in the “titanic magnitude of evil,” and he believed Christian theologians “consistently and disastrously dwarfed the picture of evil as arising from the unconscious of humanity.” In Civilization in Transition, Jung wrote that evil “is of gigantic proportions, so that for the Church to talk of original sin and to trace it back to Adam’s relatively innocent slip-up with Eve is almost a euphemism. The case is far graver and is grossly underestimated.” 
Jung wrote these words before Hitler came to power, so history’s ultimate base line of “grossly underestimated” evil was as yet unavailable. But there is always ample evidence that evil impacts our lives with “titanic magnitude.”

Perhaps one of the messages in the parable of the sheep and the goats is that humans must strive to overcome the resident evil in our hearts by conscientiously living out God’s commandments to support the poor, “the least of these,” as Jesus called them. But out best efforts to be Christlike are not always successful. There are times when we will be moved to help “the least of these,” but also times when we will step over their sleeping bodies on subway vents. As in many animated features, the angel of our good nature orbits around our heads with the angel of our evil nature, one reminding us we are sheep, the other dismissing us as goats.

It’s not pleasant knowing good and evil are competing in our breasts but the knowledge does keep us realistically balanced. Some people go through their lives assuming they are good and godly, even while they ignore “the least of these” who cross their paths.

In this abnormally hot summer of 2019, the saint and sinner within us are writhe and kick as we Americans are called to take sides: 

Is it saintly to remain mute while tens of thousands of aspiring immigrants are arrested, imprisoned, and separated from their children? 

Is it saintly to close our ears as the president of the United States exacerbates racial divisions among us by saying some white supremacists are very fine people, or calls for Congresswomen of color to go back where they came from? 

Is it saintly to remain quiet while ignorant politicians deny the science which calls for immediate action to impede the factors which lead to climate change and global warming?  

Is it saintly to remain mute as one in five children go to bed hungry and 40 million Americans live at our below the poverty line in the U.S.? 

All told, that's several million unrecognized and largely ignored Jesi seeking food, water, shelter, safety, and justice.

It could not be clearer: we should not be able to see a person suffering from poverty, race hatred, xenophobia, islamophobia, antisemitism, homophobia, or any form of othering, without recognizing  the face of Jesus.

That probably won’t remove from us the stigma of being geeps, or temper the issue of good and evil in human hearts. 

But it will remind us that when we walk among those who are hungry, those who are thirsty, those who can’t afford a decent set of clothes, those who are persecuted by injustice, we aren’t walking among strangers. We are saved by the grace of God and we are walking with Jesus.

We won’t be able to help everyone, perhaps. But knowing who we are walking with should be wonderfully clarifying – and motivating.

*Toward the end of her life, the real Junge told an interviewer: “I was satisfied that I wasn’t personally to blame and that I hadn’t known about those things. I wasn’t aware of the extent. But one day I went past the memorial plaque which had been put up for Sophie Scholl (a 23-year-old Nazi resister), and I saw that she was born the same year as me, and she was executed the same year I started working for Hitler.  And at that moment I actually sensed that it was no excuse to be young.”

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Escheweth Thy Burdens and Chilleth

“He maketh me lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters; he restoreth my soul.” 
Psalm 23:2-3

“And he said unto them, Come ye yourselves apart into a desert place, and rest a while; for there were many coming and going, and they had no leisure so much as to eat. Mark 6:31

Familiar bible verses, like oldies rock songs, cometh heavy laden with clandestine memories.

The 23rd Psalm takes me back to fourth grade Sunday school in the United Church of Morrisville, N.Y., circa 1956.

The old church is gone, long ago reduced to ashes by undetected frayed wiring. 

The Sunday school teachers have adjourned to the village cemetery on Cedar Street. 

The students have grown old and gray and need large-print name tags to recognize one another at class reunions. 

But the words of the psalm bring them all back with uncanny clarity:

The crew cut boys in pressed white shirts and clip-on bowties. 

The pony-tailed girls in billowing crinoline skirts and ankle socks. 

The dusty green chalk board propped kitty-corner on wobbly wheels in the front of the room. 

The smell of well-thumbed India paper in the tattered Authorized bibles we borrowed from our parents, books we caressed with our hands and pressed to our noses to experience the tactile comfort of the holy.  

We memorized the 23rd Psalm in the Authorized Version - King James English - motivated by the promise that our diligence would be rewarded by a gift of our own personal bible. 

Some of us memorized the 100th Psalm, or John 3:16. One or two tried to stuff the Beatitudes and all ten commandments into callow lobes. 

But all of us memorized the 23rd Psalm and took our turns standing nervously in the front of the class, lisping Jacobean fricatives. 

I think I was good at it. And so were Donnie and Joan and Jack and Reese and Mary Linda. I had known each of them all my life, and now the first thing I think of, when I think of them, is how they stood tensely in the front of the classroom to recite the 23rd Psalm:

“…Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over …”

The poetry was delicious even to 10-year-olds. We didn’t know the words were early 16th century English so we assumed that was how God talks. But in sooth, it was merely the way King James Stuart talked whilst he wresteth with Guy Fawkes, the Gunpowder plot, and a dissident Parliament.

But to us and millions of English speakers, God could be heard most clearly when God spake in Jacobean rhythms.  It was a shock, then, when we received our newly published Revised Standard Version presentation bibles to discover God was now speaking with a mid-20th century American accent. The meaning was clearer, perhaps, but my generation memorized long passages of scripture when God still spoke with old world lisp. When the 23rd Psalm is summoned to mind, many of us find it is the King James Version that remains deep in the furrows in our brains. And many of us still turn to the fading cadences of that distinctly unsaintly reign when we seek a scriptural balm for our fevered brows.

The 23rd Psalm is a psalm of David. Perhaps he wrote it when he was a shepherd boy. Or perhaps his ghost writer thought it was the kind of thing he would have said when he was bent down by the burdens of kingship, wistfully remembering the day when all he had to worry about was wayward sheep.

The power of the psalm is its reassurance that, no matter how complicated or stressful or threatening life becomes, God looks over us as a good shepherd. The metaphor of lying down in green pastures or lapping from cool, still waters is probably meant for sheep, but it is no less appealing to us humans. And the psalm assures us that God relieves our stress, offers peace and recreation in the midst of overwork, and promises us a safe outcome – in this world or the next – when we face mortal dangers.

This relationship to God the good shepherd works best when we think of ourselves as sheep, and when we make it a point to avail ourselves of God’s offer to relieve the strains and worries of life. 

But a lot of us tend to gird ourselves with the pervious armors of own self-sufficiency, because we think reaching out for help – to God, to anyone – is a sign of weakness. 

That dubious and often self-destructive approach is particularly common among the shepherds themselves: pastors, executives, parents, teachers, anyone given charge over others. For them, shepherding may be perceived as so essential a calling that it must take precedence over personal needs. Naps, days off, vacations, or sabbaticals are postponed indefinitely lest they take time away from vital ministries or dependent sheep. 

For the record, Jesus didn’t call anyone to such an exhausting, soul-draining ministry. 

Nor did he set that kind of example. He napped when he was tired, dined and imbibed with friends, and encouraged his hard-working apostles to take breaks when they needed them.

“Jesus said to them [in American English], ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.” Mark 6:31

However you say it, this is a message of crucial importance. It’s too bad we don’t encourage kids to memorize it along with the Beatitudes and Decalogue. We may not realize it when we are 10, but almost certainly our lives will devolve to the point at which our jobs and careers will keep us coming and going until we don’t have time to rest and eat. 

If we don’t get that under control, we will lose our ability to employ the gifts God has given us to carry out the tasks and ministries to which we have been called. 

It’s an alternative form of the Peter Principle, which observes that companies and institutions, including the church, keep promoting their best people until they rise to a level at which they no longer have competence. 

In the alternative, gifted shepherds work so unremittingly hard that they burn themselves out and are no longer useful to their sheep or to themselves.

There have always been leaders who work themselves to irrelevance, but it’s hard to think of a time when it has been more prevalent than now.

In thousands of non-profit service organizations, denominations, and congregations around the country, leaders are pushing themselves to the brink of collapse to keep their ministries alive. 

The Great Recession of 2008 still has a death grip around the neck of the churches. There is not a mainline denomination in the United States that has not been forced to cut critical programs and hundreds of employees to minimize financial deficits.

Once august and indispensable ecumenical councils, no longer able to depend on contributions from struggling member churches to maintain their ministries, have slashed programs and staff until they are mere shadows of their former selves.

The resulting dynamic is that surviving staff feel obligated to work harder – often at significantly reduced salaries – to maintain the same level of ministry as before. The reality is that no one individual, however gifted and eager, can do the work of five or ten fired colleagues. 

In most cases, the well meaning CEO’s and boards of church institutions can do nothing about it. 

Their statements exalting the creativity and devotion of overworked staff are necessarily mitigated by periodic memoranda announcing salary reductions and furloughs. 

But these staff are not mere bureaucrats; they are shepherds who have heard God’s call. The more their hours and salary are cut, the more energy and time they pour into their jobs. 

In too many cases, it becomes a race to see who will expire first: the fiscally beleaguered institution or the savagely overworked shepherd.

Certainly these harsh realities are not restricted to the church. These are harsh times, and unemployment figures remain unacceptably high. The White House and Senate continue to propose budget cuts to programs that support individuals and families living on the edge and below the poverty line. 

People are exhausted, struggling and stressed out. And the greater the stress, the harder it is to hear Jesus’ voice amid the tumult: 

“Come away … rest a while.”

So let’s stop whatever we’re doing, take a deep breath, and listen.

“Come away,” Jesus said. “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile.”

Jesus, we should note, is not saying, “Come away because what you’ve been doing is not important,” or, “Come away because we’ve decided to cut your program.” When he says, “Come away,” he means there is nothing more important to him or to you than your mental, physical, and spiritual health. And in order to maintain that, you’ve got to come away and rest a while.

No doubt those of us who take a break from important ministries will soon discover God has other plans for us. In the same chapter of Mark, Jesus and his disciples are back to work almost immediately – tanned, rested and preaching to the multitudes.

But none of us will be of any use to future ministries if we don’t take a break when it’s offered, and when we need it so badly.

So this is the Scripture message of the day:

Take a moment. 

Lie down in a green pasture with a loaf of bread, a bottle of wine, and an iPad of verse. 

And let the good shepherd restoreth your soul.