Saturday, July 14, 2018

The Baptizer: History's Greatest Deacon

Mark 6:14-2

This Sunday the Revised Common Lectionary urges us to meditate on the death of John the Baptist, one of history’s best-known second bananas.


It has occurred to me that if Ted Sorensen had not been a Unitarian, he would certainly have embraced John as his patron saint. 


Sorensen, who was President John F. Kennedy’s speech writer and unofficial chief of staff, was paid to pave the way for JFK and make him look good. He was the actual author of most of President Kennedy’s best remembered speeches and he was certainly – although he denied it – the actual writer of Profiles in Courage


Sorensen was content to fade into the background while historians recognized JFK as a beloved figure in whom they were well pleased.


I loved President Kennedy, but in the years after his death I took comfort in the fact that JFK’s best impulses and stirring eloquence still survived in the law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison in Manhattan, where Ted Sorensen was counsel until his death in 2010. 


I had a brief email exchange with Sorensen a year before he died when he and I and dozens more were addressed in a spamming email from an eccentric blogger who believed an extrapolation of the statistics of the World Series would reveal the timing of the end of the world. I had been ignoring this man’s emails for years, but this time Ted Sorensen replied to all on the list to ask, “Who is this man?”


I responded immediately to Sorensen and explained the man used to stand outside the Interchurch Center in Manhattan to pass out mimeographed copies of his eschatological calculations and in recent years he had upgraded to emails. I then subdued my blushes to tell Sorensen he had been my idol for years because I was also called to write speeches and press releases for public figures, namely church and ecumenical leaders. His response, which employed his famous rule of never using a big word when a small one would do, was simple: “Thank you for your lifetime of service.”


Naturally I treasured that response and reminded myself that being a second banana was also a service. 


John the Baptist was not only a second banana, he was history’s greatest deacon providing support and diaconal service to history’s greatest figure.


I’ve meditated frequently over the years about John and the service he provided, and also about the consequences he suffered. Looking back on some earlier reflections, I offer them again to all who will be thinking about John during Sunday services July 15.


John the Baptist: Second Bananas and Comical Sidekicks. 

If there was ever a religious or political leader qualified to think of himself as number one, it was John the Baptist. He is one of a small handful of bible characters who appear in extra-biblical accounts. He is mentioned by the Jewish historian Josephus and he plays a prophetic role in the Qur’an. According to the Encyclopedia of Islam, Yahya ibn Zakkariya, Sufi Muslims hold John in high regard because of the Qur’an’s account of his astute wisdom, unfailing kindness, and sexual purity.

John the Baptist: Getting A Head



And, most significant of all, it was John who came prepared to turn his back on fame and influence as soon as his cousin, Jesus, arrived on the scene. That’s not a common attitude. It’s like Steve Jobs telling everyone, “but even more important than me is Tim Cook, who must increase as I decrease.” Not bloody likely.

And finally, my favorite because it involves the singular insights of Oscar Wilde: Salomé of the Dance

No one knows what Salomé looked like or what her dance actually involved. If it really involved seven veils, as latter day pundits suggest, you’d think a dancer entwined in so much cloth would wilt in Palestinian sweat. Renaissance and Pre-Raphaelite artists (bless their hearts) imagine Salomé discarding every stitch of veil early in the dance, although more conservative Victorians prefer to dress her in billowy bloomers modeled after Ali Baba’s winter wardrobe. 
John the Baptist played Second Fiddle with an exquisite loveliness neither Ted Sorensen nor I could have managed, nor would we have chosen his ultimate fate. 

But he remains history’s ultimate model of deaconship, and it’s right and meet to honor him this week with gratitude and devotion. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

God in Three Persons. Discuss.


Maybe he said it, maybe not, but President Kennedy gets credit for it on coffee cups sold at the JFK library:

“There are three things that are real, God, human folly, and laughter; the first two things are beyond our comprehension, so we must do what we can with the third.”
It’s an above average thought for your morning coffee. It also works for Trinity Sunday.

God the incomprehensible.
Folly the impenetrable. 
Laughter the consoler.

Trinity Sunday, this year observed on May 27, was devised by the church fathers (I use the patriarchal term advisedly) as a counterpoint to Pentecost Sunday, when the Holy Spirit gets top billing. It’s our liturgical opportunity to think of God in Three Persons:

God the Creator.
Jesus the Redeemer.
Holy Spirit the Advocate.

The doctrine of the Trinity is a basic component of Christianity. A church has to be “Trinitarian” to qualify for membership in the National and World Councils of Churches, and the notion goes back to the fourth century.

The Nicene Creed, which sprung up in the east around 325 A.D., put it like this:
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth, of things visible and invisible.And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the begotten of God the Father, the Only-begotten, that is of the essence of the Father. God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten and not made; of the very same nature of the Father, by Whom all things came into being, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible. Who for us humanity and for our salvation came down from heaven, was incarnate, was made human, was born perfectly of the holy virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit …. We believe in the Holy Spirit, in the uncreated and the perfect; Who spoke through the Law, prophets, and Gospels; Who came down upon the Jordan, preached through the apostles, and lived in the saints.
The notion recurs in the Apostle’s Creed around 390 A.D.:
I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit … I believe in the Holy Spirit.
The creedal language is metrical and beautiful. It makes you feel good to repeat it.

But understand it? Please. When was the last time you had to explain the Trinity to someone?

We’ve heard the sermons. The Trinity is the way we describe the three basic components of our relationship to God: creator, redeemer, advocate.

For 17 centuries, preachers have been devising ways to explain the Trinity to simple-minded heathens. St. Patrick, with no snakes to drive out of Ireland in the fifth century, is said to have used the three-leafed shamrock to explain the Trinity to locals. If so, he didn’t write about it, nor did anyone else until about 1726, so the legend appears to be as false as the analogy is weak.

If shamrocks don’t work, there is the classic cliché about the various roles we play in life. For example, I am a father, I am a son, I am a spouse – three different roles that call for three distinct presentations. Yet these roles do not require a trifurcation into three distinct Persons. The analogy doesn’t really help us understand the nature of the Holy Trinity.  God in three persons? Why not one God with three personalities? That might work if all three personalities were spirit, but one is flesh. That factor tempts one to haiku (which tend to be more fun too write than to read):

Can corporeal
blend incorporeally 
as one in the same?

That’s where the concept becomes a conundrum, and because there are no instruments with which to take God’s true measure, the enigma deepens.

I was blessed, growing up, with three excellent pastors who succeeded one another in the United Church of Morrisville, N.Y. None of them held me accountable for comprehending the Trinity.

That was fortunate because I’ve never been able to fully figure out God or even ask an intelligent question that might bring me closer to an understanding.

I must have been 11 or 12 when I first wrestled with the concept of infinity. I put the question to my mother: “When did God begin?”

I’m sure Mom narrowed her eyes and squinted at me. She always squinted, in part because she loved questions like that and because by 1957 she was legally blind.

“Why don‘t we ask Mr. Irwin?” she suggested, referring to our pastor, Jack Irwin, whose intellect Mom respected.

Jack was an extraordinary pastor in what I once regarded as an ordinary hamlet in Central New York. During his pastorate in Morrisville he was preparing for his doctorate in philosophy at Syracuse University, so he probably thought of God in Kantian or Kierkegaardian terms, seasoned with occasional Nietzschean aphorisms. 

But all he said to me, when I was 11, was, “God always is. There has never been a time when God wasn’t, and there never will be.”

That is one of two full sentences I can remember from 1957 (the other being a headline from My Weekly Reader that was almost as un-packable as the concept of the Trinity: “Welcome to the International Geophysical Year!”) so it clearly had an impact on my youthful brain.

As I said, Mother thought Jack was an intellectual marvel, which he was, but Dad often said Jack’s sermons went over his head. From my point of view in junior high and early high school, Jack was a matchless communicator. The Youth Fellowship highlight of every year was Halloween when we’d prop desiccated corn shocks in the corners of the Grange Hall, turn out the lights, and sit on the floor in the dark to listen to Jack’s scary tales. In a quiet Philadelphia-accented voice, Jack would combine menacing elements of urban legends with his own chilling adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe themes and scare the bejeezus out of us. His stories, which I am sure he made up as he went along, were amplified with spine-tingling details that placed horrific images in our heads for the rest of our lives.  The three-dimensional zombies of modern cinema do not compare with Jack’s terrifying stories – which, incidentally, were an effective though atypical evangelical tool. Youth Fellowship became an essential place to be for the cooler Morrisville teens.

Back then it didn’t occur to me to wonder where Jack got all those frightening Halloween images. Then in 2002, he published a memoir about his World War II experiences (Another River, Another Town, a Teen Age Tank Gunner Comes of Age in Combat – 1945) that included sobering tales of combat and his eyewitness accounts of the liberation of the Nordhausen Concentration Camp. No doubt his accounts of horror in the old Grange hall paled in comparison to the horror in his head.

One of Jack Irwin’s hobbies was astronomy and Morrisville, with its northern exposure and dark winter nights, was ideal for telescopic stargazing.

One Sunday night, Jack showed the Youth Fellowship slides of planets, galaxies and nebulae he watched through his lenses. We watched transfixed as he showed us Saturn, 794 million miles from earth … the sun, 93 million miles from earth … Alpha Centauri, the closest star, 4.365 light years from earth … and galaxies so far away it would take a beam of earth light millions of years to reach it.

When the show was over and the lights were turned on, Jack leaned back in his chair and looked into our blinking eyes, one by one.

“How many of you,” he asked without drama, “have a concept of God that is as big as outer space?”

We answered with silence. Thanks to Jack, God the Creator suddenly seemed bigger to us than the white-bearded patriarch in the Michelangelo painting. In fact, God the Creator was suddenly beyond our intellectual grasp.

And that’s only one Person of the Trinity! What about the Second Person?

He was in the beginning with God,” writes John. “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. (John 1:2-3).

Here we are talking about Jesus. And the fact that Jesus was human just like us makes John’s observation as inexplicable as the God of unfathomable light years.

A lot of us find it hard to focus on the humdrum humanity of Jesus because it seems disrespectful. It’s like when Pope Paul VI had prostate surgery in 1967. The surgeons were loath to discuss the details, which might have included references to pontifical testicles and anuses, and – God and Onan forbid – might have led to hints that male masturbation could be a useful prophylactic against prostrate problems. That is far too human for comfort.

And if it’s hard to think of the pope as human, how much more forbidding is the humanity of Jesus? Imagine one sweltering Palestinian day you walk from Jericho to Jerusalem with Jesus. The sweat trickles down your cheeks. You and Jesus drink deeply at each waterhole on the journey, belching loudly as the cooling liquid soothes your gullets. And soon you and Jesus are stepping behind cedar trees to hoist your skirts and relieve yourselves. When you sit in the shade of an olive tree to rest, your robe sticks wetly to your back. Pungent underarm odor is rife, and it’s not only you; it’s radiating from Jesus, too.

If this seems a little sacrilegious, keep in mind that these are inescapable essentials of the human condition – and human is the modus operandi of the Incarnation.

Even so it’s not easy to sit next to stinky Jesus and think of him as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.

John F. Kennedy was correct when he said God – like human folly – is beyond our comprehension. When you try to figure it all out, perhaps the best analgesic is to simply laugh. It is simply beyond the capacity of our human brains to grasp the nature of the creator of universes, or to comprehend the infinite love with which God assumed mere human flesh as a device for human atonement. Thinking God’s thoughts is simply beyond us.

Thank God, then (so to speak), for the Third Person of the Trinity – the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit that relieves us of the burden of trying to figure it all out.

“The Spirit of God is like our breath,” said Henri Nouwen. “God’s spirit is more intimate to us than we are to ourselves. We might not often be aware of it, but without it we cannot live a ‘spiritual life.’”

The Holy Spirit does not vest us with answers or give us special insights into the mind of God. Yet it is the Person of the Trinity that dwells within us so intimately that it connects us intimately with God the Creator and God the Redeemer.

“It is the Holy Spirit of God who prays in us,” Nouwen writes, “who offers us the gifts of love, forgiveness, kindness, goodness, gentleness, peace and joy. It is the Holy Spirit who offers us the life that death cannot destroy.”

Just how the Creator God did it is not for us to know. And just how our brother Jesus, who shares all our glands and bunions, was present at Creation is not for us to understand.

But the Holy Spirit who dwells within each of us is the perfect connector that binds our hearts and souls (and occasionally our minds) with the Triune God.

And perceiving that, as Brother Thomas Merton said, does not require intensive brain power.

It simply requires us to be silent until, in the intimacy of our solitude, the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit will write its wonders on our hearts.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Thanks, Mom

Mother’s Day, contrary to a widely-held belief, is not a high holy day on the church calendar. It’s a capitalistic gambol seized by greeting card companies to turn our love for Mom into huge profits.

Even as I type, I can hear the complaint of my friend and mentor, the late Dr. Norman R. De Puy, that churches are held captive by Mother’s Day. Norman, editor of Missions and The American Baptist magazines, loathed the fact that so many Baptist preachers ignore the Revised Common Lectionary. “They reject a preaching tool that organizes the church year around the life of Jesus and preach on events imposed by Hallmark,” Norman would protest. 

I hear that, but I’m taking a chance that one more Mother’s Day homily will not push Hallmark’s profits any higher.

And there are good reasons to honor the women who gave birth to us. 

We love Mom, of course, and the love increases when we grow up and move away from her. The longer she is gone from our daily lives, the more we venerate her. My mother has been gone so long I remember her with a clinging idealism, even to the extent of creating a Robert Lentzian icon for her: Saint Mary of Andes. She lives forever as a consecrated porcelain image in the grotto of my heart. After 35 years without her, I still mist-up when I have an impulse to give her a call. In such moments I am grateful that my 91-year-old mother-in-law, Julia, has surrounded me with maternal love and I am glad to be celebrating her good health this Mother’s Day.

One of the awkward realities of  Mothers Day  is that adults who still have their mothers may be slightly less saccharine about them than those of us who nurture idealized memories.

No matter how old she gets – and you get – your mother’s maternal instincts never fade. She will doggedly worry about your safety, interrogate you about your personal life, try to influence your personal decisions, and attempt to control your behavior. 

My mother, the aforementioned Saint Mary of Andes, was a nurse in a geriatric home.  She once presided over the intake of an elderly man who seemed confused about what was happening.

“I want to see my mother,” the old man kept repeating. This request is common in the latter stages of dementia, and my mother spoke soothingly to distract him as he was taken to his room. 

Hours later, an ancient woman wheeled her chair to the old man’s door.

“Harold!” the old woman scolded. “What if I ignored you the way you ignore me? Did you eat your lunch?”

The man groaned. “Aw, Mom.” 

No matter how old you get, your mother is always your mother.

This Mother’s Day, all of us will honor our mothers, either in misty memory or warm embraces. 

And, needless to say, we will show our esteem with greeting cards emblazoned with sentimental doggerel that ignores the intricate complexities of mother-child relationships. 

Hallmark is far too polite to write cards that complain about Mom’s arbitrary rules or maternal hectoring. And Hallmark has yet to make a card to communicate your apology to Mom for being an obstinate or disagreeable child, or for letting her down.

But such complexities are universal aspects of the mother-child relationship. Even the purest of such relationships – Jesus and his mother, Mary – had its ups and downs. When Mary took her baby boy to the Temple, an old man warned her life would not be all lovely smells and tingly bells.
Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul, too. – Luke 2:34-35, NRSV.
If being Jesus’ mother had its disappointing moments, imagine what it must have been like for your mother.

One of the reasons we honor Mom on Mother’s Day is that she shares with all mothers the universal experiences of joy and pain. Like the mother of Jesus, our moms help us comprehend a side of God we rarely acknowledge: God’s feminine side.

Years ago I attended the funeral of a good friend on the American Baptist staff. He was young and energetic and his sudden death by cerebral hemorrhage was a shock. As we sat sadly in our pews, my late friend’s wife was surrounded by her young children. The children, confused and frightened, began to cry. And their mother reached out her arms and hugged them tightly, whispering comfort in their ears.

The minister who officiated at the funeral, Dr. Carl Flemister, pointed to the widow. “Here we see how God comes to us as a mother,” he said. “God shares our grief, our sense of loss, but the Mother God’s first instinct is to embrace and console her children.”

Our mothers are worthy of honor on Mother’s Day because they understand a crucial aspect of human life that Jesus never knew: the experience of motherhood. Jesus had the courage to redeem humankind by suffering and dying on the cross; but it was God and his mother whose hearts broke as they watched him do it.

Most Protestants do not venerate Mary as much as our Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and other sisters and brothers.  I sometimes wonder if this is why Mother’s Day has become such an important feast day in our Baptist calendar. We need a reminder that mothers have special roles and unique insights into God’s creative mysteries.

When you consider the importance of Mary to the church and to Jesus, I wish Protestants had not been so quick to set her aside. She helps us focus on this reality: that the God we want to come to us in shock and awe came instead as a mewling, puking boy. 

It was Mary who nursed him, guided his first steps, toilet trained him and whispered in his ear the Godly secrets that would change the world. Jesus was God, and Mary was his mother.

Throughout history, when a woman is overwhelmed by the joys of motherhood, or when the sorrows of motherhood break her heart, the mother of Jesus understands with an intimacy that transcends the experience of fathers and sons. “I’m a mother so I pray to Mary,” many women say. “She was a mother, too.”

Mary, and our own mothers, remind us that the God whom we call Father has another dimension we rarely call on: the Goddess. God the Mother. 

That aspect is clearly revealed to us in the person of Mary, and Protestants need to work harder to see it. 

Mother’s Day is a perfect time to honor the peasant woman played a crucial role in the life of Jesus and in the foundation of the church.

And Mother’s Day is a perfect time to remind one another of the crucial role our own mothers have played in our lives. 

Thanks, Mom. And blessings on your special day.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Riddles of the Resurrection

This week the Revised Common Lectionary reveals the riddles that remain amid the celebration of Jesus’s resurrection.

In Luke 24:36b-48, Jesus startles the disciples by his abrupt appearance, as if he has walked ghost-like through a solid wall. But Jesus insists he is no ghost, and he demonstrates the solidity of his flesh by eating fish. How does he do it, and what is really going on?

Even for lifelong mystics and dedicated theologians, the resurrection of a dead Jesus is hard to accept. I have known Christian educators who confessed their doubts.

“The resurrection is just not essential to my faith,” whispered one such educator as we sat in a darkened pub drinking beer.

My drinking companion was several years older than me and was seminary educated, which I was not. Otherwise I might have quoted Paul’s admonishment: “If Christ was not raised, your faith has nothing to it and you are still in your old state of sin.” (I Corinthians 15:17, REB). 

But I kept my mouth shut and my learned friend and I sipped our beers in silence. Recently he passed to the other side where eternal truths may have been revealed to him. For me, awkward questions persist. If Christ was not raised, what did happen that Passover week in Jerusalem that got everyone so excited?

Each year my Lenten devotions include readings from Jesus: A Pilgrimage by the Rev. James Martin, S.J. 

I was “gob-smacked” (to use Martin’s phrase) by his reference to a claim by New Testament scholar and archaeologist Jerome Murphy-O’Connor about whether the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is the actual burial place of Jesus:
The most important argument for the authenticity of the site is the consistent and uncontested tradition of the Jerusalem community, which held liturgical celebrations at the site until AD 66.
Martin speculates that these celebrations had been taking place since about AD 45, less than 15 years after Jesus’ crucifixion. Many of the celebrants witnessed that event and were so profoundly affected by subsequent events that they returned to the site for years to express their awe. What moved them so? Was it a contagion of hope? Mass hysteria? I prefer to believe they actually caught glimpses of a resurrected Jesus. But what exactly did they see?

Even the biblical accounts leave open questions. Immediately after his resurrection, Jesus’ closest friends didn’t recognize him. Mary Magdalene, the first to arrive at his empty tomb, didn’t realize Jesus was the man talking to her until he called her name.

In Luke 24, the resurrected Jesus joins two of his disciples on a walk to Emmaus, but Luke reports “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” (v.16). Mark reports, a bit mysteriously, that Jesus appeared to them “in another form” (Mark 16:12) which, as author Garry Wills writes in What Jesus Meant, is “hard to interpret.”
“Jesus appeared in numinous form (Wills writes) … his body was not the earthly body any more, but one both outside time and space and affecting time and space.” 
The resurrected body of Christ could pass through walls and, ultimately, ascend into heaven, but Jesus could also allow Thomas to touch his wounds of crucifixion. Even more amazing, Jesus could eat with his companions.

From our 21st century vantage point, where digital media create virtual realities on plasma screens, the sensationalism of the resurrection begins to dim. Jesus’ strange post-death appearances, which galvanized his contemporaries into the fiery evangelical movement that transformed the world, no longer excite many modern minds. The figure in the Easter stories makes the media jaundiced think of a benign zombie or, perhaps, an exhilarating Elvis sighting.

Looking back on my unfinished conversation with my Christian educator friend, I wonder if his problem with the resurrection was because he knew beyond doubt that a dead body could spring back to life in the same form as when life dwelled in it. 

Most clergy see dead bodies all too often and have observed they are cast-off, useless shells of the creature that once occupied them. Whether an individual dies in bed or in a violent accident, it is obvious to witnesses that something essential has departed from the body. A young cop viewing a murder victim for the first time never forgets how similar the inert remains look to that of a dead raccoon decaying on a country road. Dead is dead. Funeral directors whose business it is to make the deceased look lifelike know they must act quickly because death is immediately and totally disfiguring. The millions of microbiota that dwell symbiotically within become ravenous foragers of decaying flesh.

The most convincing argument against the resurrection of Jesus is every dead body you see – especially the ones that have lain three days without benefit of the mortuary arts.  

Even so, something extraordinary happened that Passover long ago that kept Jesus’ contemporaries returning worshipfully to the site of his crucifixion and inspired his disciples to risk their lives to keep his story alive.

Whatever happened, Professor Wills’ offers a helpful clue. Jesus’ resurrected body was not precisely the same earthly corpus that was killed on the cross, but a numinous body both outside time and space and affecting time and space.

How closely did that numinous body resemble the body of Jesus his disciples knew and loved? That’s hard to tell. Resurrected Jesus was often not recognized until he did something to call attention to himself. Only on rare occasions could the disciples actually touch him, and Jesus – when he chose to affect time and space – could eat food and – when he chose to be outside time and space – could disappear in front of their eyes.

What is that to us?

According to Paul, the numinous body of Jesus gives us a glimpse of our own numinous bodies when he shed our earthly shells. 
“So it is with the resurrection of the dead; what is sown as a perishable thing is raised imperishable. Sown in humiliation, it is raised in glory; sown in weakness, it is raised in power; sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.” (I Corinthians 15:42-44, REB)
What will our numinous bodies be like?

We hope, of course, that our resurrected bodies will be young, attractive, and – God willing – sexier versions of the husk we carried through life.

But more than that, I think.

My daughter Katie had a dear friend who, like her, was developmentally disabled on the autism spectrum. J was a charming young man who, despite his limitations, was a loving and delightful presence in all our lives. He was a caring and giving person and I have no doubt he walked this earth exactly as God intended him to be.

When J fell ill with leukemia, neither he nor Katie were fully able to understand what was happening. We loved him and when he died, we mourned him deeply.  

Not long after his death, I dreamed I was sitting at a table with a young man I slowly recognized as J. He was relaxed and his eyes twinkled and he engaged in light conversation. It was only after I woke up that I realized J and I were conversing at a level he could not have attained when he was alive, a conversation filled with humor and subtle nuance. He demonstrated insights and understandings that would have been beyond him.

I like to believe I was receiving an important message in that dream. I was introduced to J as he will appear at his resurrection.

I certainly do not suggest that J was incomplete when he lived among us, but there were many things his disability prevented him from understanding. But so it is with all of us: while we live on this earthly plain, there are many mysteries we will never comprehend. 

But the promise of Jesus is that God will restore us to a higher level of understanding when our own numinous live outside time and space but continue to experience the affects of time and space. 

Exactly how that will happen, as Professor Wills acknowledges, is “hard to interpret.” 

But for those who view death as an inevitable result of the time and space in which we are imprisoned, it’s good to be reminded that God transcends our earthly limitations. 

And we cling to this hope: that what has been sown in us in weakness will be raised in power.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

When No News is Big News


Several years ago I was asked to be the lay pastor of what must be called a faithful remnant at North Baptist Church in Port Chester, N.Y.


Just standing in that pulpit was an honor. The three Tiffany windows over a preacher’s shoulder and other brilliant displays of stained glass make it one of the most beautiful worship centers I've known. The churchs storied past also includes a former pastor to whom I am married, the Divine M, ten inches shorter but always over me in the Lord.

But by the time I came to its pulpit the church had seen better years and most Sundays the congregation barely achieved the minimal requirement for Jesus’ presence, two or three gathered faithfully. But I worked as hard on the sermons as if I was preaching in Riverside Church, and although the congregation was the size of a small prayer group, I preached from the elevated pulpit so all participants could feel like we were not just playing church.

Un-ordained and un-adorned as I am, I had never preached on Easter so when Holy Week began that first year I began pouring through scriptures and commentaries. By Saturday morning, I was leafing through dusty volumes of The American Baptist magazine, for which I used to write editorial homilies. As any columnist knows, an approaching deadline puts the Muse to sleep. That must have happened in the spring of 1980, because I didn’t write an Easter message that year. I drew a cartoon instead.

The cartoon is hastily drawn and shaded with press-on screens that had to be shaped by Exacto knives and pressed on to the paper. My drawing shows a TV news van pulling up to a tomb carved out of rocks in the middle of a barren desert. A reporter with a microphone emerges from the empty hole as a videographer waits tensely from his perch atop the van.

“Just an empty tomb,” the reporter calls to the camera guy. “Signal the assignment desk. That news tip musta been a joke.”

Ha, I must have thought at the time. Irony. Very funny. But for me, the agony and ecstasy of art was still to come.

About a month after the cartoon appeared, I was one of thousands of participants in Religion Communication Congress 1980, a once-a-decade event for religious communicators. That was the year the newly elected Pope John Paul II addressed the gathering by videotape, and Harvard theologian Harvey Cox was a keynoter.

I watched Harvey from a balcony at the rear of the auditorium. He was - and is - a major American Baptist celebrity and he was idolized by a Roman Catholic chaplain I had worked for in the Air Force. Chaplain Kucharski, one of the young liberals swept into the church by the fresh air of Vatican II, quoted Harvey Cox incessantly, especially paragraphs from Harvey's best-selling book, The Secular City. Years later when I joined the American Baptist staff I met Harvey, joined him for staff coffee breaks, and even edited some of his essays for The American Baptist magazine. I made plans to casually run into Kucharski one day so I could pinch my fingers together and tell him, “Yeah, me and Harvey are like this!” Sadly, the next time I heard about Kucharski, he had dropped out of the priesthood, gotten married, and died. But I never think of Harvey without thinking of Father Kuch.

As I was settling in the rafters of the auditorium on that warm spring day in 1980, I was astonished to hear Harvey say, “I saw a cartoon recently that summarizes the state of the church.” I was stunned and then breathless as Harvey went on to describe my drawing and quote the caption as a smattering of applause broke out in the audience. Whoa, I thought. Is this my 15 minutes of fame?

I don’t remember what Harvey said after that (although I think he did conclude his speech by quoting the cartoon again). After he finished I made my way through the crowd to shake his hand. He smiled toothily at me and I thanked him for the endorsement.

“What?” he said. He lowered his ear in a quizzical manner.

I realized instantly that he had no idea what I was talking about. He had forgotten where he had seen the cartoon or the magazine that printed it.

I thanked him again and stepped back so the rest of the admiring crowd could get to him. My fifteen minutes of fame fizzled in the footlights.

It was a harsher lesson then, when I was in my early 30s, than it would be now. Three decades later I’ve accumulated a sufficient number of humbling experiences to handle them with a modicum of aplomb. Perhaps the real message back then was that there’s no limit to what you can accomplish if you don't care who gets the credit.

But I’d like to think that the message of that cartoon still has meaning this Easter.

The fact that Jesus’ tomb is empty is big news. But it no longer tops the news hour or appears on page one above the fold. Seasoned reporters don’t get it. It’s the most overlooked headline of our times.

That became the message I preached to the faithful remnant at North Baptist Church on Easter morning.

North Baptist Church, alas, is closed now, and this year I’ll be celebrating Easter as a contented Lutheran at St. Paul’s ELCA Church in Rye Brook, N.Y.

But it really doesn’t make any difference where any of us greet the rising sun on Easter morning. The tomb is still empty. The Lord is still risen. And each of us it called to make sure everyone understands that this is big news.

The Lord has risen. Victory over death. Hallelujah.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Jesus, Who Are You?

Matthew 21:1-11

Who is Jesus?


Is he a playful Messiah who cops to loving wine and food and having his feet massaged with a womans silky hair soaked in fragrant oil? Does he enjoy telling jokes, as when he plants in our heads the mirthful image of a camel slipping through the eye of a needle? Did he pray one moment and play the next?


One of the lessons of Palm Sunday is that people’s attitudes about Jesus have always been changeable. 


One week we’re cheering him with palms as God’s promised messiah. Days later, we’re calling for his head as a dangerous blasphemer.


For centuries Christians have blamed these treacherous mood swings on the Jews. But it was mishegas, not treachery, that accounts for their fluctuations in attitude. We should know because we Christians have always been mashuganah about who Jesus is. 


Over the centuries we’ve argued about whether he is all God or all human, or equal parts of both. We’ve debated whether he died as a substitute for sinners, coining the phrase “substitutionary atonement” which sounds to some like a Mary Poppins song: 


Substitutionary-granted-free-atonement, 

This-is-our-God’s-loving-way-to-save-us-in-the- moment. 

At other times we’ve surmised Jesus did not die for our sins, but rather his death and resurrection defeated the satanic forces that hold us in bondage to sin – the Christus victor view.


We’ve also spawned sects declaring Jesus was not even divine, and some wacky humanists insist he never existed at all. “No one has the slightest physical evidence to support a historical Jesus,” writes Jim Walker of nobeliefs.com, “no artifacts, dwelling, works of carpentry, or self-written manuscripts. All claims about Jesus derive from writings of other people.”


Palm Sunday is the day Christians allow themselves to be carried away with the crowds waving palms at him, affirming his existence, celebrating his importance and, usually, upholding his divinity. 


Perhaps the best way to experience Palm Sunday is to follow the advice of St. Ignatius to imagine we are actually there in the crowds, feeling the sun on our backs, leaning away from palms slapping our faces, watching the faces of the crowd, waiting breathlessly for a glimpse of the man on the donkey.


And what does this man look like? We have to guess.


Almost certainly, assuming he looked like everyone else, he was a bearded, dark-haired, brown-skinned man with a kaffiyeh covering his perspiring head and untrimmed sidelocks.


But that’s probably not the Jesus we’ll see in our mind’s eye because classical art has distorted his image for centuries. Renaissance  artists portrayed him as European, and Pre-Raphaelites thought of him as fair-skinned and blond. Asian and African artists sought to make him look themselves, and if you ask most American boomers what Jesus looks like they’ll describe the image hanging on their Sunday schools walls: Salman’s head of Christ.


More recently our image of Jesus has evolved even further. I love the Jesus who appears in the opening credits of Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal TV show, a tall, winking, statuesque figure whose crooks his finger to invite Bee to approach him – though whether it is to bless her or mansplain to her is unclear. There is even a bobble-headed Jesus on my desk, though I regard it as a figure of iconic respect, like the bobble-headed popes and Elvises sold in novelty stores.


But perhaps the most vivid image of Jesus, based on his admonishment that “when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me,” is the person we regard as the least like him: the tattooed prisoner, the bagwoman with a shopping cart, the homeless veteran, the woman in a hijab, even the surly fat uncle who won’t stop praising Trump.


I have a feeling we run into this  version of Jesus more often than we realize – a theme I expanded on a couple years ago in an earlier essay, Is That You Jesus? 


Last year as my Lenten devotional reading, I read Father James Martin’s Jesus: A Pilgrimage.


At the risk of sounding hackneyed (which someone my age must not), the book has brought me closer to Jesus. 


The book is the story of Jim Martin’s 2012 pilgrimage with a Jesuit friend to retrace Jesus’s ancient steps from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. Martin encourages his readers to engage their Ignatian imaginations to place themselves in the midst of the biblical byplay. What did Jesus look like and sound like? Did he ever smile or raise his voice? How did the people around him react to what he was doing and saying, especially when he was performing miracles? What did his physical surroundings look like? 


Martin expresses his surprise that many landmarks described in the Gospels, often dismissed as legendary or allegorical, actually exist. Twentieth century archaeologists uncovered the long hidden pool of Bethesda and found that it has five porticoes as described in John 5:2. 


The Bay of Parables, discovered by Martin off the beaten tourist track, is a natural amphitheater where one’s Ignatian imagination can see Jesus standing in a boat as the water provides natural acoustics to carry his voice to the crowd on the shore. 


And 2000 years on, the Bay of Parables offers other tantalizing tidbits for the fanciful mind. Martin writes:

I was gobsmacked to see rocks, thorns, and fertile ground. No one planted the thorn bushes, carted in topsoil, or arranged the stones to make the locale look as it did in Jesus’ time, as if we were in a theme park called Jesus Land. They were just there.It dawned on me that when Jesus used objects from nature to convey his message – seeds, rocks, birds, clouds, water – he may not have been talking in generalities, but about things right here.
Holy Land pilgrims also quickly learn that the locations of most biblical sites are open to speculation, citing the caveat that if a famous event didn’t happen here, it happened close by.

For example, Golgotha. When I visited Israel in 1974, we were escorted to a site favored by evangelicals as the place Jesus was crucified. The location was endorsed by a 19th century British general, Charles George “Chinese” Gordon because he thought a natural rock formation looked like a skull.


But it is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the old city of Jerusalem that scholars say is “almost certainly” Golgotha.


Martin quotes New Testament scholar and archaeologist Jerome Murphy-O’Connor:

The most important argument for the authenticity of the site is the consistent and uncontested tradition of the Jerusalem community, which held liturgical celebrations at the site until AD 66.
It doesn’t take Ignatian reverie to realize many of the people who attended those celebrations were alive when Jesus walked the earth and presumably witnessed his death and resurrection.

Jim Martin’s Jesus is a commanding account of the life and times of Jesus and, although I didn’t need it, a persuasive counter argument to those who doubt a man called Jesus walked the earth.


Martin also testifies to the church’s traditional characterization of Jesus as a divinely human conveyer of God’s unconditional love for God’s creation, and – through his miracles – a paradigm of God’s limitless power over disease and death.


Thanks in good measure to Jim Martin’s book, I can imagine myself immersed in that Palm Sunday crowd:


A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?”The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” (John 21:8-11)


I may, like the crowd, be asking myself, “Who is this?”


Granted, in the years following my born-again Baptist period in the 1960s I wandered down many different paths of understanding of who Jesus is. In my years as an ecumenical communicator I inhaled the smells and danced to the bells of a wide range of marvelous views of Jesus of Galilee. 


But, thanks to Jim Martin and a little Ignatian imagination, the Son of David has come closer to me than ever before.


And this Palm Sunday Ill be waving figurative fronds with added enthusiasm, singing hosannahs and blessings to the complicated carpenter who comes in the name of the Lord.


Why an Ass?

In all of the Palm Sunday school classes I’ve attended, two questions keep coming up. One, the most common, is, why didn’t Jesus walk? The other is, why didn’t he ride on a horse, although the notion is less common because people have a hard time imagining Jesus on Trigger.

Most of my Sunday school teachers didn’t know why he rode on an ass, although some skirted the issue by raising their fingers in the air and proclaiming, “Tradition!” And perhaps that answer is good enough. But there are other possibilities.

I think Jesus chose not to walk because that would have placed him on the same level as everyone else, just another pilgrim in the dense Passover crowd. That would have made him virtually invisible unless he was taller than everyone else, which, if so, was not mentioned in the bible. If an average size Messiah required a triumphant entry into Jerusalem, he had to ride in on some conveyance that set him apart from the crowd. Strolling wouldn't do it. A cart ride would have been silly. A chariot would have been out of the question. 

So why not a horse?

Horses don’t make a lot of appearances in the bible, unless they are the stuff of visions, such as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. But horses were surely common in Jerusalem and would easily overcome sheep and goats in the excremental sweepstakes. Riders of the Roman Equites Legionis were used as scouts, messengers, and defensive screens when soldiers were surrounded by overwrought Goths. Horses also served to make Roman officers look big and scary. 

Horses were beasts of war. Any king who rode a horse through the streets of an ancient city had either already conquered or was signaling his intention to take the city by force of arms.

Hardly an image fit for the Prince of Peace.

In ancient times, the donkey was regarded as an animal of peace, and on the first Palm Sunday the pacific intentions of a king on a donkey were unmistakable to the teeming crowds .

The donkey also provided another advantage for Jesus. A person straddling a donkey attracts more attention than someone merely walking, but that person is not lifted high above the crowd. Seated on a donkey, Jesus was accessible to the masses. They could reach out to touch him as he passed. The donkey permitted him to pass through the people as one of them, not as a king on a horse whose prancing hooves would frighten them out of the way.

It’s obvious that Jesus had given careful thought to the sermon he wanted to preach by riding on the donkey. Somehow he knew a donkey had already been arranged for him in a suburb of Jerusalem before they entered the city.
When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone said to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this: ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” (Mark 11:1-3)
One thing we might conclude by the promise to return the creature unscathed is that used donkeys do not depreciate in value during a test-drive.

Another thing we might conclude is that Jesus knew exactly how the sermon on the donkey would be remembered through the millennia. Neither a horse nor a stroll on foot would say it as clearly: here, on a humble ass, is the monarch of the universe, who was in the beginning with God, who took on human flesh to experience all the joys, pains and travails of humanity, who was one of us, who came to rescue us from sin, who came in peace to reconcile us with the God we had rejected.

It’s impossible to envision Jesus on the donkey and mistake him for a shock-and-awe conqueror. He rode on the ass through the streets of Jerusalem to say, my time is near. Raise your palms and spread your cloaks before me as signs you know who I am. Then depart in peace and ponder this revelation in your hearts. Leave the violence and flogging and crucifying to others.

Five days later, we know, the fickle frond wavers joined the vicious crowds to call for a brutal end to the sermon. They stood outside Pilate’s palace shaking their fists and chanting, “Crucify him.” 

It’s an excruciating story to hear every Passion Week, all the more so because it set a pattern of church brutality and carnage that has lasted to the present day. Even the peaceful donkey ride through Jerusalem was re-invented by the church as an opportunity for mayhem. According to an online source:

In the 16th and 17th centuries, Palm Sunday was marked by the burning of Jack-o-Lent figures. This was a straw effigy which would be stoned and abused. Its burning on Palm Sunday was often supposed to be a kind of revenge on Judas Iscariot, who had betrayed Christ. 

What a travesty of the sermon Jesus was preaching, but less a mockery than other incidents of church history: the Crusades, stake burnings, beheadings, disembowelments, and other hideous tortures of Christians who didn’t believe what the Christians in power believed. 

Christian persecution of Christians continued relentlessly throughout the centuries. The Mennonite Martyrs’ Mirror records countless examples of Christian-on-Christian cruelty. 

For example, a Mennonite named Dirk Willems who was jailed for heresy by his Dutch Lutheran neighbors in 1569, and sentenced to die. Willems escaped from jail and was hotly pursued by angry Lutherans, one of whom fell through thin ice and was about to drown. Willems, a true Christian to the end, stopped running  and pulled the man to safety. It was just enough time for the crowd to catch up with him. They arrested Willems and burned him at the stake. 

No wonder we cannot repeat Tertullian’s Apology without snickering: “‘Look,’ they say, ‘how the Christians love one another, and how they are ready to die for each other.’” The quote is from an essay written in 200 A.D. And looking back, one wonders if it was ever true after that.

As we begin the last week of Lent, Passion Week, it will be good to reflect on these matters. Lent is a time of reflection and repentance. It’s a time to remind ourselves of the reasons Jesus came to us. It’s a time to recommit to the commandments Jesus said were the essential ingredients for human behavior: to love God with our heart, mind and soul, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Jesus expressed all of this in the simple symbolism of riding a donkey through the gates of Jerusalem. 

And as we watch him in our minds eye, making that astounding passage one more time, may we remember the message he intended.

And may we join the cheering crowds in that cleansing refrain:

Hosanna!

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!


Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!


Hosanna in the highest heaven!