Thursday, February 21, 2013

On a Mission from God

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’” Luke 13:31-33

Jesus is on a mission from God.

And like more recent messianic figures, Jake and Elwood Blues, he’s not going to let anything get in his way.

Jake and Elwood sneer at the Chicago cops. Jesus sneers at King Herod Antipas.

No one can stop them.

They’re on a mission from God.

When director John Landis teamed with John Belushi and Dan Akroyd in 1980 to make The Blues Brothers,  it’s unclear if their intent was to make a Christian morality play.

Probably not.

But if you overlook some of the smarmier moments, which earned the film an R rating, it’s not a bad sermon. It’s a story of being faithful to, well, to a mission from God.

In the case of Jake Blues, who in the opening scene is released from Joliet Prison, it’s also a story of redemption and atonement.

The reunited brothers decide to visit “the Penguin,” who is emphatically not the same diverting character who bedeviled several iterations of Batman. It’s Sister Mary Stigmata, the distinctly unfunny doyenne of the Catholic orphanage where Jake and Elwood grew up.

Played convincingly by veteran character actor Kathleen Freeman, Sister Mary Stigmata reminds parochial school alums of the nun who handed out F’s to anyone who didn’t know Queen Mary I was a good and gentle monarch, and smote with a ruler anyone who asked why they called her Bloody Mary.

Ambivalent as they are about the Penguin, Jake and Elwood are horrified to learn the orphanage will be forced to close unless Sister Mary Stigmata can come up with $5,000 in property taxes.

There is no money, the Penguin tells the boys. Jake and Elwood, larcenous by nature but pure in heart, promise Sister Mary Stigmata they will save the orphanage. They jump into the Bluesmobile, a partially refurbished police cruiser that has seen better days, and turn on the ignition.

“We got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark,” Elwood says with resolve, “and we're wearing sunglasses.”

“Hit it,” Jake responds. And the Bluesmobile thunders off into the night. The boys are on a mission from – as they say in Chicagoland – “Gaahd.”

What happens next is a chaotic, picaresque, and dogged pursuit of a righteous goal: $5,000 to keep the holy orphanage open.

Viewers can tell Jake and Elwood have been inspired by a higher power, although it takes a fairly flexible theological mind to see the sermon in the story. There are one or two clearly divine moments, including a solo by Aretha and a cameo appearance by Ray Charles. It’s a blessing when the film introduces 73 year-old Cab Calloway to a newer generation of music lovers.

But it’s during a visit to the Triple Rock Church that Jake has an epiphany as to how the $5,000 can be raised.

James Brown as the Rev. Cleophus James, resplendently robed and glowingly coifed, mounts the pulpit.

“And now, people... And now, people...” Brother James starts low and builds to a crescendo, “When I woke up this mornin’, I heard a distubin’ sound. I said When I woke up this mornin’, I heard a disturbin’ sound! What I heard was the jingle-jangle of a thousand lost souls! I'm talkin’ ‘bout the souls of mortal men and women, departed from this life. Wait a minute! Those lost angry souls roamin’ unseen on the earth, seekin’ to find life they'll not find, because it's too late! Tooooo late, yeah! Too late for they’ll never see again the life they choose not to follow. All right! All right! Don’t be lost when your time comes! For the day of the Lord cometh as a thief in the night!”

As Jake stands at the rear of the church, a light from above shines in his eyes.

Jake: The band? The band.
Reverend Cleophus James: DO YOU SEE THE LIGHT?
Reverend Cleophus James: DO YOU SEE THE LIGHT?
Elwood: What light?
Reverend Cleophus James: HAVE YOU SEEEEN THE LIGHT?

It is revealed unto Jake that he and Elwood must re-unite the widely scattered and motley members of the Blues Brothers’ Band. After one or two lucrative gigs, Jake reasons, the band should be able to raise five K easily. How could it be otherwise? Jake has had a message from Gaahd.

For the rest of the film, Jake and Elwood run rough shod over seemingly insurmountable obstacles and the Illinois State Police, leaving much of Chicago in shambles as they pursue their mission with a single-minded, unalterable purpose.

The 133-minute Blues Brothers film, which went $10 million over budget before Landis brought it in for $77.6 million, is a long and expensive (and, some would say, dubious) sermon.

But it captures a sense of the power of God’s calling, and shows what it’s like when the persons called feel they have no alternative but to pursue their mission to its ultimate conclusion. (It’s also a cool presentation of 1980-vintage Rhythm and Blues music.)

The sense of being on a mission from God is probably the only comparison one could make between the Blues Brothers and Jesus.

Certainly Jesus is less manic when he expresses his resolute commitment to the path he is on. But he makes it clear nothing will deter him: not even death threats from the King.

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’” Luke 13:31-33

In Luke, this took place at a time when Jesus was nearing the end of his ministry. He was on a journey that began several passages earlier in Luke 9:51: “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”

Jesus is not only on a mission from God; he is aware that his time is growing short. History has taught him that prophets are not killed outside of Jerusalem, but certain death awaits inside the city gates. Until the time comes, Jesus declares, his work must continue. “I must be on my way.”

One of the interesting revelations in this passage from Luke 13 is the introduction of good Pharisees, a breed that is virtually extinct elsewhere in the bible.

The Pharisees who went to Jesus to warn him about Herod’s murderous intentions seem genuinely concerned for his well-being.

Luke, unlike his fellow gospel writers, seems disinclined to condemn the Pharisees as a class. Some commentators observe that some of the Pharisees Luke reports seem relatively open minded about Jesus. In Acts 5, Luke quotes at some length the Pharisee Gamaliel’s defense of Jesus’ apostles when they were hauled before the Council.

Gamaliel advised the Council to let them go.

If the apostles’ mission was of human origin, the Pharisee said, “It will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them – in that case you may even be found fighting against God.” (Acts 5:38b-39)

In the midst of his journey in the last days of his ministry, Jesus is on a mission from God and he will not be stopped.

The warning from the friendly Pharisees gives Jesus a chance to clarify his position: he lives and works under the divine necessity. And neither friend nor homicidal foe will deter him from his destination.

Until the time comes for him to enter Jerusalem, Jesus will stick to his appointed path, casting out demons, healing the blind, making the lame walk, and proclaiming God’s love for all people.

Only when the time comes for him to enter Jerusalem will Jesus’ ministry be consummated.

And as dark as that time will be, it will be followed by Easter dancing, and a celebration that the forces of evil have not prevailed and everybody has somebody to love.

When the time comes, let us all dance.

Saturday, February 16, 2013


or forty days Jesus was tempted by the devil. Luke 4:2a

Jesus said, “Pray then like this: … lead us not unto temptation, but deliver us from evil.” (Matthew 6:9, 13)

I love Pre-Raphaelite art.

I hesitate to say that because I was in the Delaware Art Museum once with a self-appointed art critic who asked me what kind of art I liked. Classical? Abstract? Dada? Neo-Dada?

I wanted to answer, “cartoons,” because one of my favorite artists was Curt Swan, who illustrated Superman comic books during their golden age.

But I figured my friend was looking for a more erudite response, and we happened to be standing in front of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s exquisite vision of the beautiful and sensual Lady Lilith, combing her cascading red hair.

“Pre-Raphaelite!” I blurted out with conviction.

My friend looked stunned and his derisive laugh echoed throughout the museum.

“Pre-Raphaelite?” he exclaimed with a high-pitched voice. “Can’t you ever be serious?”

Okay, I was hurt. But I think I can make a case that Pre-Raphaelite art – realistic, sentimental, mawkish, sensual – is a step up from Superman versus Brainiac and the stealing of Kandor.

Some Pre-Raphaelite artists have revealed deep truths through their syrupy and occasionally sappy canvases.

There is a particularly haunting painting by French artist William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) that, at first glance, captures the essence of innocence: A lovely child, still a baby, sits with a beautiful woman in a succulent, sun-drenched meadow. The woman, possibly the baby’s mother, is holding an apple. The child is transfixed by the fruit and captivated by its promise of pleasure.

In Bouguereau’s fancy, the scene captures a pivotal moment we all shared in our infancy: the singular occasion when our innocence was supplanted by a desire for pleasure.

Bouguereau has titled the painting, “Temptation.”

His point is clear: temptation – the urge to succumb to anything thing that offers pleasure (and we should perhaps seek to avoid) – is a lifelong experience that begins before we can talk. Locked deep in the unconscious of every innocent babe is original sin.

That is surely one reason Jesus said that every time we pray, we should ask God to lead us not unto temptation.

But we are constantly led into temptation, and most of the time we don’t even put up a fight. 

I was reading the account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness on Wednesday morning as I sat down to breakfast. Ash Wednesday is a harsh time to face our temptations. For many of us, it is the first day of a long Lenten fast in which we resolve to give up something important to us in recognition of Jesus’ sacrifice.

Hours earlier, following a sumptuous Mardi Gras meal at a local church, I had downed a pint of Ben and Jerry’s and promised myself it would be my last sugar fling until Easter.
I assured myself that a little self-discipline and a lot of prayer should be sufficient to ward off the siren songs of the sugar nymphs. 

But as I opened the refrigerator that morning, the bottle of New York maple syrup clinked beguilingly against a bottle of sugar sweetened Coca-Cola from Mexico. Sweet jams and jellies cooed seductively, and sugar-clogged Belgian waffles groaned for attention from the freezer.

“Get behind me, Satan,” I growled tentatively. But as I grabbed the box of oatmeal from the cupboard, it seemed to me the rosy-cheeked Quaker pouted in vicarious resignation. It was going to be a long six weeks.

All of us go through life with the angel of self-control and the devil of surrender circling our heads and whispering in our ears.

“Who’d know if you ate a waffle floating in syrup?” asks my devil, a cartoon version of me with a red nose and bovine horns. “God will know!” shouts my angel, who looks like a tiny me in a rumpled toga. “You’ll know!”

It’s the same for all of us.

“You’re tense, you need a cigarette,” says someone else’s little devil, shouting over the angel’s rejoinder: “No! You’ve quit smoking! Don’t give up now!”

“Unwind, have a drink,” your little devil says. “No! You’ve been on the wagon for two years,” pleads the angel.

Food, booze, sex, unprotected merchandise in retail stores, someone’s lost wallet ripe for picking.

We are led into temptation every hour of every day.

How did Jesus resist temptation?

We tend to think Jesus could do anything because he was God’s son, that good behavior was easy for him.

But as Jesus prayed and fasted for days in the Judean desert, I doubt it was any easier for Jesus to turn down a loaf of bread than it would be for me.

The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” Luke 4:3-4.

One is also tempted (so to speak) to think that if one is starving in the wilderness for 40 days, one is likely to be dead as a stone.

Maybe Jesus had a remarkable physiology, but the preponderance of biblical evidence is that his body was as vulnerable as ours. Most scholars doubt he stayed in the desert long enough to starve to death. The late Robert C. Campbell, a professor of New Testament who was general secretary of American Baptist Churches from 1972 to 1987, put it this way: “When the bible says 40, it means umpteen.” We know that Jesus fasted in the wilderness for a long while, just as it rained a very long time on Noah, and the Israelites wandered a very long time before they found the Promised Land. In each instance, no one knows how long.

However long Jesus fasted, it’s certain he was very hungry when the devil appeared to remind Jesus he had the unique power to create manna out of rocks. It was one of his more useful splinter skills.

If it had been me, I would have welcomed Satan’s helpful suggestion. “Hey, thanks, Dude, don’t mind if I do.” I’m pretty sure of this because of the number of times one of the kids persuaded me to do a drive-through at McDonald’s rather than go home and prepare a healthy meal.  Generally, I didn’t blame the kids for having such a high calorie notion, and I’m sure I would not have blamed Satan for suggesting I turn a rock into sweet challah. What, I would have asked myself, could be the harm in that?

But Jesus knew very well that the first time you take Satan’s advice, he becomes your full-time consultant. Soon, he’s your chief of staff.

And Beelzebub had some ideas for Jesus that were more destructive that a harmless loaf of bread.

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.”
Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Luke 4:5-8

A cursory glance at world history suggests the devil has made this offer to hundreds of potential monarchs, dictators, popes, and presidents, and most of then accepted immediately.

Jesus spurned the proposition.

Even without the devil’s caveat – “if you, then, will worship me” – this is a shrewdly devious offer. God did not send Jesus into the world as a political leader, and the devil offered Jesus unconditional power as a scheme to derail God’s plan to save the world.

It comes as no surprise that Satan is the broker of all political power in the world. Most rulers and politicians, I suspect, come to power with the best intentions. Recent U.S. presidential candidates clearly believed they could use their power for good. This may even have been true of the oligarchs of Jesus’ day, including King Herod, the Emperor Tiberius and his mad successor, Caligula.

Herod may have convinced himself that his people were well off under his rule and it would be a righteous act to protect his power for the common good. If his reign appeared threatened by the rumored birth of a usurper, he might reason that the unpleasantness of massacring a generation of baby boys was balanced by the benefit of keeping a wise and experienced king in power.

Tiberius also tortured and executed his opponents for the good of the empire, and some historians believe Caligula smothered Tiberius with the aim of saving the empire from a sadistic tyrant.

As Lord Acton said in an 1887 letter to a bishop, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” And that was part of the devil’s design when he tried to convince Jesus to seek power. If Satan had succeeded in corrupting God’s son, all would have been lost forever.

And the devil took Jesus to Jerusalem and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “if you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here; for it is written, ‘He will give his angels charge of you, to guard you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”
And Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God.’” And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time.” (Luke 4:9-13)

The story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness ends happily for us poor sinners, especially those of us who would have eagerly grasped the Faustian offers of food, power, and fame in exchange for worshipping Satan.

And we know we would have done it, too, because that’s the kind of guys we are. Bouguereau’s heartwarming painting of the innocent baby tempted by a wholesome apple is convincing evidence of that. When we behold the baby’s lovely but calculating countenance, we see ourselves.

Satan came to Jesus in the wilderness with a cunning plan to divert Jesus from a ministry that offered few benefits for Jesus. Jesus’ Godly power was manifest in powerlessness, homelessness, and sacrificial servitude. In order to fulfill his mission, he had to willingly submit his body to humiliation, pain, tortuous crucifixion, and death.

If any of us had been offered a way out of that mess, we’d have jumped at the chance.

Because that’s the kind of guys we are: weak, sinful, and susceptible to temptation.

Happily for us, Jesus demonstrated in his encounter with Satan that he alone was capable of resisting temptation.

And because Jesus stayed true to his calling, we are rescued from our own bondage to temptation despite our most strenuous efforts to succumb.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Pope Benedict

Local commentary written at the request of the Port Chester Patch.

February 11, 2013. Now it’s harder to say Joseph Ratzinger was a hide-bound traditionalist.

There is nothing traditional about spurning two millennia of custom that requires the successor of Peter to hang around the throne until God calls him home.

And while Pope Benedict’s announced abdication is not unprecedented – Pope Gregory XII quit under intense political pressure in 1415—his departure may be the first prompted by ordinary human frailty.

Facing one’s encroaching infirmities requires courage and wisdom that is not often seen in monarchs, potentates, or popes. Benedict’s decision to lay down the Petrine miter while he still lives may constitute his greatest and most radical contribution to the church.

He has, in a sense, liberated all his successors and other powerful leaders from the excruciating bondage to duty that compels them to endure weakness and pain until their last agonized breath.

He has, indeed, born testimony to a truth many popes, bishops, pastors, rabbis, and imams cannot face: that no one is irreplaceable; that the world will go on without you; that God will find other people and other means to get the job done.

In that sense, Benedict XVI has changed the church and other religious institutions forever. We wouldn’t have expected that kind of change from Joseph Ratzinger, but we will always be in his debt.

For many Protestant ecumenists, including me, Benedict’s extreme act may prompt a reappraisal of his personality and reign.

He is not the soul of ecumenical or interfaith cooperation. He referred to the Roman Catholic Church as the “true” church and declared all others as “deficient.”

Yet he welcomed Orthodox patriarchs, rabbis, and ecumenical activists to the Vatican. Early in his reign, he hosted former World Council of Churches General Secretary Sam Kobia, a Kenyan Methodist, and they clearly enjoyed each other’s company. The resulting photograph prompted Protestants to repeat an old joke: “Who’s the guy up there with Sam?” It was a sign that Benedict can be, if not entirely open minded, then disarmingly polite.

Even so, I must confess, there are things about His Holiness that chill the cockles of my Baptist heart.

He has turned his back on the ordination of women as priests, despite the experience of Protestant churches that women match and often exceed the skills of men as pastors, bishops and primates. And despite the fact that the Holy Spirit continues to call women to pastoral ministries within the Catholic Church and elsewhere.

He supported a church investigation of nuns for straying from church doctrine and seemed indulgent of the ancient old boy network that gives the ultimate power to define doctrine entirely to men.

Too, Benedict has carried the burden of presiding over a church contaminated by the “filth” – his word – of clergy sexual abuse of children. He has apologized to victims for the abuse they suffered, but carries in his heart the memory that as a cardinal, he, too, protected an abusive priest.

No one knows better than Benedict XVI what St. Paul said about sin: everyone does it. Everyone falls short of God’s glory.

To his critics, Benedict is a sinner like everyone else, working out his salvation in fear and trembling.

But, like all us sinners, he is also capable of great grace and great wisdom.

And grace is what shines through so brightly in his announcement today.

When your conscience says you have given all you can to the cause to which God has called you, there is no shame in setting your burden down.

May God bless the Pope for sharing that liberating insight with the rest of us sinners.