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: 


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, “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.