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Forgiving GOD

how our understanding of forgiveness is too small

a Homily for Proper 19A  |  Text: Matthew 18:21-35

a man on the street

Photo Credit: drivebysh00ter via Compfight cc

 

The volume of forgiveness

When Peter asks about forgiveness, about the volume of forgiveness, it triggers a cascade of central teachings to our faith. Teachings that are the foundation of everything.

On the surface, it is a simple enough question. It’s practical. I get that we need to forgive, but how many times must we? And Jesus’s response seems just as simple: every time.

And honestly, we could probably stop there, end the sermon, and move on.

How many times do I forgive again?

Every time.

I was afraid you would say that.

It would certainly save us time if we stopped. But it wouldn’t answer why? Why every time?

Well, to begin with, this is about much more than simply being nice. It isn’t just doing the loving thing. It isn’t even a rule on its own.

This thing about forgiveness has to do with GOD’s creation, justice, and eliminating vengeance. And all of this was triggered by a simple question: “As many as 7 times?”

Sabbath

From the beginning, 7 was an important number. We remember that GOD created the world in six days and it was on the 7th day that GOD rested. The 7th became GOD’s day.

It is associated with Sabbath–that time and space for devotion and rest. It was named as one of the 10 Big Rules and binds the people to that same pattern of resting on the 7th day. We do as GOD does.

But Sabbath doesn’t end with 7 days. We know that the 7th year is important, too. Any Israelite slave is to be freed at their 7th year of servitude. Farmers are supposed to give the poor and the animals free access to their land and crops for all of the 7th year, that they might eat and have their fill. The 7th year is to be a sabbatical year for landowners, workers, slaves, and livestock. Every living thing gets Sabbath. Sabbath is for all of creation.

And every 7th Sabbatical year? After 7 times 7 years, we celebrate a year of Jubilee in which all property is returned to its original owners and all debts are cancelled. It is a season of honesty and restoration and all relationships are to be made whole.

Peter’s asking about 7 times is really a reference to Sabbath: asking Jesus about the Sabbatical character of restoration, wholeness, and freedom. He is really asking does forgiveness mean the whole thing? Like blank-slate forgiveness…and everything that entails?

Justice and Vengeance

None of us really wants to talk about that kind of forgiveness, let’s be honest. And given what we have experienced of the world, we certainly seem justified. But in the same breath that GOD speaks to restoration through Sabbath, GOD also speaks to justice and our giving up and getting rid of our sense of vengeance.

GOD gives special priority to the poor, the widowed, the orphaned, and the sojourner: the people with no power or standing in Hebrew society. These people must be protected from abuse. Remarkably, causing suffering to any of these incurs GOD’s wrath directly, according to Exodus 22:

Oh, if you afflict, afflict them…! For (then) they will cry, cry out to me, and I will hearken, hearken to their cry, my anger will flare up and I will kill you with the sword, so that your wives become widows, and your children, orphans!

All the surrounding laws speak of the community dealing with its own issues. But this, abuse of the weak and the powerless, GOD takes personally. And takes care of personally.

This is especially true of the sojourner: the guest, the traveller, the outsider, for it is we who were once like that and we were liberated and given freedom. A poignant lesson for American Christians of non-Native American descent, for we were once immigrants, embodying GOD’s command twice in this same teaching:

Now a sojourner you are not to maltreat, you are not to oppress him, for sojourners were you in the land of Egypt.

Vengeance, most base of all desires, compels us to destroy others and destroys our relationship with GOD. GOD’s law was written to limit vengeance and retribution, prescribing not only specific remedies to bad situations, but balanced ones. An eye-for-an-eye is not only for punishing an offender in kind, but limiting the response. It is most remarkably used, not simply for punishing killers, but in freeing slaves who have been abused by their masters.

GOD’s fairness and justice is not your sense of justice or America’s sense of justice. It is about redemption, not retribution. It is about wholeness, not division.

GOD wants us to be whole and redeemed. As children of GOD.

The power of Sabbath

There is something powerful in the image of remembering the Sabbath: in keeping the 7th day holy because GOD made it that way, resting because GOD rested.

There is something powerful in giving generously that day to those under us because GOD gave generously that day to us.

There is something powerful in protecting the widow and the orphan because GOD protects us and loving them because GOD loves us.

There is something very powerful in showing grace to the sojourner, the immigrant, the outsider, the traveller, because we were sojourners, immigrants, outsiders, and travellers. And we still are.

This is the substance of forgiveness. The substance that Jesus invites Peter into because Peter gets what he needs to do. Jesus says to him:

For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.

Jesus seems to tell Peter about forgiving and restoring the world and then tells him a story of not forgiving. A story in which a master forgives a debt, grants freedom, then takes the freedom back.

The slave enslaves another because of debts, as a cruel twist on freedom and judgment. As Jesus tells the parable, He ultimately paints an image of servitude and cruelty at deep odds with the character of GOD we know from Jesus and in Jesus.

What if that is ultimately Jesus’s point? That cruelty reveals cruelty, but forgiveness destroys it.

This is why he used the word “compare” in the first place. Compare these two things. This picture of forgiveness against this portrait of the kingdom. It isn’t literal: he doesn’t say the Kingdom of Heaven is a place of rigidity and GOD is a spiteful master. He says to keep forgiving!

Forgiving GOD and each other

What if the forgiveness we’re talking about goes all the way to total and complete redemption? And what if that includes GOD? What if GOD needs to be forgiven? What if we chose to forgive GOD, not just 7 times, but 77 times? What if we give to GOD the thing we are asked to give one another and we choose to actually include GOD in that forgiving?

  • Forgiving GOD for all of the pain we’ve felt.
  • Forgiving GOD for all of the suffering and the evil in the world.
  • Forgiving GOD for accidents and mistakes and disasters and tragedy.
  • Forgiving GOD for the bad parenting and the awful advice GOD’s children have heard throughout history and we foolishly continue to follow.
  • Forgiving GOD for the discord and the confusion and the wars we wage over different understandings of what GOD wants.
  • Forgiving GOD for not seeming to care about us or comfort us when we are afraid.
  • Forgiving GOD for speaking in stories when we want rules, giving us guides when we want commanders, giving us rest when we want to work.

What if we forgave GOD? It wouldn’t make the pain go away, but we would begin to heal. Eventually we would recover. We would become whole. We would be restored.

And our relationship with GOD would be restored. A relationship built, not only on GOD’s one-sided love for us, but for our generous love to GOD and to our neighbors.

For it is through that relationship built on love which GOD brings true liberation. GOD doesn’t simply cancel our debt, but frees us from the bondage of slavery, redeeming us, reinvigorating and reviving us, offering us new, vibrant life!

Amazingly we have received the very restorative power of GOD and are told that we can actually use it! We can redeem each other!

This is where Peter and Jesus take us after we hear about sin and confronting sin in our community, which we covered last week. The very next verses, they go to forgiveness. They go there and they keep on driving because it isn’t just forgiving people for a screw up, it is redemption and restoration at stake. It is making the broken whole and the enslaved free. It is making community where there is loneliness and hope where there is emptiness.

This all comes through forgiveness. True, full-bodied forgiveness. Forgiveness as strong as the darkest coffee you can find, as powerful as the river, and as certain as the snow is coming.

Forgive. Forgive GOD and your friends. Forgive your church and your parents. Forgive your neighbor and your school board. Forgive your government and yourself. Life is too important to waste on being right, seething with anger, or feeling hurt. Forgiveness is not condoning or overlooking or staying together for the children, but offering our very freedom to one another.

Forgiveness is the only way to begin restoring and redeeming. It is how we will become whole.

All it takes is an invitation, coming to us as a confession, an uncomfortable admission. So I’ll start. I have made many mistakes. I am trying my best. Please forgive me.

How to Not Be a Stumbling Block

A re-imagined sermon for those that have missed church recently
 
Listen!

Photo Credit: B Rosen via Compfight cc

After calming the storm, Jesus and the disciples come to shore, bombarded by people looking for healing. It is from here that Jesus takes his disciples aside and asks them who they think he is.

Peter’s declaration: “Messiah!” is followed by his fear for Jesus’s safety. Peter, the rock and cornerstone is transformed in seconds into a stumbling block:

Get behind me, Satan!

Echoes of the desert temptations.
Perhaps Jesus is tempted again.

Peter is not a boulder that entirely blocks Jesus’s path, but a rock jutting up from the earth, causing Jesus to stumble. He is more than a nuisance: something that could trip him, bring him to the earth in a mighty tumble, injure him, and keep him from moving on.

And yet Jesus still takes Peter, with James and John, up the mountain
to witness, not a transformation, but a transfiguration. Jesus only appears different.

The booming voice announces

This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!

But we have trouble listening to Jesus.

Jesus tells us to be like children.
We make our children be like adults.

Jesus tells us that placing a stumbling block before our children will make us wish we were dead.
But our children suffer in broken homes, broken schools, and we expect them to inherit a broken society. It is our shame that 25% of our children go without food; that children are the true face of poverty.

This is sin. And Jesus tells his disciples that this is unacceptable. Not in the Kingdom. If they want to see the kingdom, then they build the kingdom. Here.

Be like children. Make this a church for children. Make this a world for children.

Our own stumbling block is that we neglect to see sin as the stumbling block it is. We make sin far from us. Something to avoid. Like spiders or direct sunlight. Or it becomes the weapon we use to bludgeon each other.

Sin is what we do when we put what we do before what GOD wants us to do.

Sin is selfish.
Sin is abusive, hateful, and disrespectful. It throws away the relationship GOD has been building with us since we were born.
Sin despises the humanity of other people and punishes it, calling it

weakness
criminal
stupid
wrong
premeditated
crazy
psychotic
poor
racist
lazy
deliberate

refusing to acknowledge that those judgments could be our own.

The response Jesus gives instead, is talking. Being a people who talk about our problems, our pains, and our fears. That confronting sin and repenting for sin is what we do. And if it isn’t what we do, then we are already outside of community. We are the sinner by its definition.

This is the picture of community, of church, of faith: confront and repent. Not judging and blaming, not ordering and manipulating. It is speaking and listening when things get really wrong. When we hurt and abuse each other. When we break the hope and faith of others. When we become stumbling blocks.

We pray that our friends will actually be our friends and confront us. We pray that we will be able to hear them in the challenge. And we pray that we have the strength and the faith to repent.

That is Christian community. If your church doesn’t sound much like that, then it isn’t Christian. It is ordered by something else. But it can change. It can be confronted.

You are not a stumbling block. Your weakness doesn’t cause others to stumble over you. It is your fear, your aggression, your defensiveness. Instead, listen. Be like a child, full of hope and generosity, and love.

GOD reminds us to listen to Jesus, who already told us “Do not be afraid.”

 

Childproofing Church

Order, stumbling blocks, and what real Christian community looks like

a Homily for  Proper 18 A  |  Text: Matthew 18:15-20

children playing in the sand

Photo Credit: -Jeffrey- via Compfight cc

what we mean by sin

When Jesus speaks to the disciples in this passage, He speaks of sin against each other. This isn’t so much fault-finding, which we all do so easily, but sin-naming. This is about sin.

We have a lot of weird ideas of sin. What sin is. We make it a singular noun. As “a sin”. Like something you can list. Or something from which we abstain. No dancing or drinking or swearing.

Or we frame it from the positive that avoids those things. Like being “nice” or “kind”. As if all this stuff Jesus says can be summed up as “just be nice to each other.” Which I suppose might be fine if we could even handle that.

Here is how the church defines sin. From “An Outline of the Faith, commonly called the Catechism” which you can find in your Prayer Books:

Sin is the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation.

Sin is our putting of our needs before GOD’s, and the distorted relationships that result from it.

So when we talk about sin, we are not talking about trying to be perfect or eternally corrupt, but that we want to eliminate the stumbling blocks to our relationship with GOD, our neighbors, and all of creation. It is about making better our relationship to everyone and thing around us.

We get nervous when we start thinking of these stumbling blocks as other people. People whose sin (meaning true selfishness: personal needs before GOD’s) keeps our children from the redeeming love of GOD and keeps us from being like those children: so that we might put GOD before ourselves.

But we don’t want to confront each other about that do we? And we certainly don’t want to kick anybody out of our church. And it even sounds like Jesus endorsing a behavior he condemned in the Pharisees! What are we supposed to make of these rules?

what sin looks like

First, we have to deal with the impact of the church’s understanding of sin. When we speak of sin, we are speaking ultimately about relationship. Not “a sin” or “living in sin” as so many like to say. It is about acts of sin against each other. The selfish evils and vices that hurt other people, whether it be pictures of celebrities stolen from their iCloud accounts to demean them in public or when we use names that insult and diminish whole groups of people of a different race, gender, orientation, or ability, just because we like the words. It comes from carelessness and a sense of certainty. It is believing that our rights to hurt other people are more important to us than their rights to not be abused by us.

Sin is the slave trade, which is bigger now than at any time in human history. It is saying that criminals “deserve” to be abused–and that free citizens do to–because they are “acting up” or must have done something to deserve it.

Sin is getting short with your friends and snapping and it is making up stories rather than learning the truth of what we’ve missed. It is treating someone “not like us” as not one of us, breaking our Baptismal vow to respect the dignity of every human being.

And sin is hearing those words as if I were disrespecting you.

All of this is sin. And we know much worse examples.

Sin, real sin, is selfish. It is full of pride and certainty. It is full of things other than the Great Commandment to love GOD and our neighbors as ourselves. Things like maintaining tradition because we like it more than we like sharing. It is demanding faith be personal and private when it has always been public and political. We can’t take up our cross and follow Jesus to Jerusalem without a cross and without a Jerusalem: without a public witness.

Jesus wasn’t crucified in private for things resting comfortably inside His heart. Neither should we.

dealing with sin

There is a lot that Jesus said. Out loud. In public. For people to hear. What He was speaking to here, before this passage begins, is stumbling blocks to faith: what prevents the children from being in a healthy, growing relationship with GOD and what prevents us from becoming like children. Stumbling blocks to one another like Peter was being a stumbling block to Jesus in last week’s story.

Stanley Hauerwas writes

The sin that another member commits is not just a sin against the person injured; rather it is a sin against the whole church. In Lev. 19:17-18 the Lord tells Moses to tell Israel, “You shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.” Failure to confront the brother or sister whom we think has sinned against us is not simply a recommendation of how we are to work out our disputes and disagreements, but rather an indication of the kind of community that Jesus has called into existence. This is a people who are to love one another so intensely that they refuse to risk the loss of the one who has gone astray–or the loss of ourselves in harboring resentments.

Hauerwas further argues that

The procedure outlined by Jesus in Matthew 18 is how and what it means for his disciples to be at peace with one another. Jesus assumes that those who follow him will wrong one another and, subsequently, they will be caught in what may seem irresolvable conflict. The question is not whether such conflict can be eliminated, but how his followers are to deal with conflict. He assumes that conflict is not to be ignored or denied, but rather conflict, which may involve sins, is to be forced into the open. Christian discipleship requires confrontation because the peace that Jesus has established is not simply the absence of violence. The peace of Christ is nonviolent precisely because it is based on truth and truth-telling. Just as love without truth cannot help but be accursed, so peace between the brothers and sisters of Jesus must be without illusion.

We are talking about healthy relationship and being the blessed community here. It isn’t rules to follow or yet another way to abuse each other and find fault. It is the very means by which we share grace.

building community

This work we are called to here is for all of us. It has nothing to do with being a priest or a leader serving on the vestry. It is not something we can skip or have no stake in personally. It is not about our worship style or music or whether or not we are “being fed” or if we are “into it”. Our selfish impulses get plenty of air.

It is time for the good stuff. It’s time to take on the childlike faith many of us used to know or know when we aren’t tripping over all of the negativity. It is time to listen to Jesus who, just before this story, was telling the disciples

Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

We don’t get to stay the same and be Christians. Not changing means you’re not a Christian! Jesus never says “stay the same” or “do what you always do.” GOD never urges the people to remain unchanged, no matter how much we want that. Remember, sin is putting our wants before GOD’s!

We aren’t supposed to stay the same. We are supposed to change. Precisely because we aren’t perfect or eternally corrupt. We don’t have it all figured out and we aren’t always right. We all need to keep learning how to be GOD’s children.

So Jesus tells us to change and become like children.

Like the children who come to communion excited and happy and looking for an opportunity to come back up! Like children who give and play and learn: always looking for new ways to move and do. Always watching others to see what they do, to learn and try it out.

Like the children who are eager and hopeful and full of thanks for cookies and hugs and the chance to play. Jesus tells us that’s the entrance to the kingdom of heaven.

So then Jesus shows us what Christian community is supposed to look like: the kingdom, which is like children playing and learning and loving! That’s how we come to understand how we behave. Learning and playing and loving. Not like adults. Like kids. Our kids, here.

Our kids are our true leaders. Our children are our example, our Christ.

And when we build that community, full of faith and hope and creativity, we protect it by talking to each other, listening to each other, and making our house safe for all the children of every age and ability.

 

Confronting Death

Jesus’s turn toward Jerusalem, following where we don’t want to go, and facing our own fears

a Homily for Proper 17 A  |  Text: Matthew 16:21-28

Photo Credit: symphony of love via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: symphony of love via Compfight cc

Fearing Responsibility

We are in the middle of a conversation. We always are. The passages of our lives are always small segments of a much longer story. A common place for us in life–to be in the middle of a story, or the telling of a bigger story–then interrupted. We pick up our conversation when we get together again.

We do this with church. Each week we gather and continue telling the story; continue piecing together our lives.

This morning, I mean it more literally. Jesus is talking with the disciples about identity and mission. He asks them “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” then “But who do you say that I am?”

Messiah! Peter says.

Shh! Tell no one!

We pick it up there: as Jesus tells them about His mission: to stare death in the face and return.

Peter’s response “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” may as well be You can’t go! Is Peter afraid of Jesus’s death, His mission’s death, or the responsibility that will fall on him, the rock, after He’s gone? Or all three at the same time?

Peter’s fear and confusion is a problem for the mission which Jesus rejects. Perhaps the danger is that Peter’s fear (just told not to be afraid) would spread like a contagion. Or perhaps Peter’s defense of Him is too tempting for Jesus.

“Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Tasting death

How we hear this conversation really depends on how we see the mission. The mission Peter endangers, the mission Jesus refuses to abandon: a mission of confrontation and revelation. Of walking to certain death and rising on the third day in defiance of the laws of nature and the laws of humanity. Laws that see death as ours to make, laws that say lives are ours to judge, laws that say GOD’s will is not as important as our own.

Many of us here feel as if we are in the middle of a conversation: a conversation too big to fit into one hour, too difficult to summarize into bullet points, too important to let go.

We are conversing about identity and purpose: the very mission of our lives and of St. Paul’s. We are hoping for more answers than Jesus can give us. Like the pious young man, coming to Jesus with a question about the afterlife, we are told to get rid of our stuff and follow Jesus. Like the disciples, it is we who are told to take up our crosses and follow Him. Still we ask:

Where?

Jerusalem, He says.

What is there?  We ask.

The cross. My cross. There will be other crosses, too. One day, yours will be there.

Tasting death.

Not all of us will. We all will die someday. But knowing the kingdom, living the kingdom, loving the kingdom here, in our Jerusalem makes death different. It tastes different when we do this His way, Jesus’s way, GOD’s way, Yah’s way. Not our way.

Following Jesus

The chapter began with another confrontation with the Pharisees: Show us a sign! they demand. Jesus tells them that there are already signs.

Jesus warns the disciples–beware the yeast of the Pharisees, beware their teaching, for left alone, it grows on its own.

Contrast this with Jesus’s teaching: follow me. Follow me. Deny yourself and follow me. Deny that vision of power so that you can recognize GOD’s vision of power. Deny that certainty they offer and embrace the only true certainty that is found in GOD’s grace. Deny that selfishness and fear that grows in your heart and follow me, together into the kingdom, a new kingdom, a kingdom come that is nothing like this evil you love, where hope withers, but is being replaced with GOD’s love; a fertile soil in which giving grows and courage blooms.

Jesus offers a kingdom that is already come and becoming visible. Signs of its presence are visible for those with eyes to see. Signs of GOD’s grace and hope and thanksgiving.

This is Jesus’s mission and His turn to Jerusalem brings it closer. His call to His followers, “Come!” Like His call to Peter on the sea, “Come!” Where Peter walks on water just calmed by Jesus. “Come!”

For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

To Jesus, life can’t be saved; not that way. Not in the ways we think about. Not through safety. Saving comes through risk; through stepping out onto the water or following Jesus into Jerusalem: into the hands of the executioners. Those who follow to the gates of Jerusalem, bearing their crosses on their backs will pass, not through the gates of the Kingdom of Rome, but the very Kingdom of GOD.

Kingdom is (even) here

This is what we face as Christians: this is central to our mission and our very purpose. It is our work and our very lives. It is the most important thing we can do: for our faith and the faith of everyone we care about: to stop obsessing about ourselves! About our clothes and our jewels and our buildings and our budgets and our worship and our communication and our achievements and our calender and all of those signs our culture uses to measure us and judge us. Stop worrying about whether or not we will pay our bills or if we can keep our doors open! Stop worrying about the specks you see in everyone else’s eyes! Listen to Jesus! He’s calling! Come, take up your cross and follow me!

That’s how we’ll find the kingdom here. Fear drowns us and hope saves us.

You can’t see it yet because it isn’t visible to us all, like looking through a mirror dimly. It may feel like the valley of the shadow of death, but what do we say then? What do we say every time we pray the Psalm? I shall fear no evil; for you are with me.

Stare death in the face! Get off your butt, right up on your tippytoes and say “This is not where the story ends. We will not cower in fear. We will not fight with our friends. We will not let evil steal this kingdom from us.” That is what the cross does for us. Strapped to our backs, it gives us courage in the midst of emptiness and hope when others think all is lost. We go with Jesus to Jerusalem while the weak attack the weaker in the streets or our pews.

Jesus is moving, people! Whether you’re coming or not. He’s on His way. He’s not leaving you behind, but you’re in danger of leaving yourself behind.

Go. Do not be afraid. But do not get in Jesus’s way. For we are going to Jerusalem. We are carrying our crosses and we are following. Banish your fear! Banish the Satans that blind you! Do not stop until we get to that spot reserved for us; that place in which we confront the evil, we enter those gates, and for the first time we walk in the Kingdom of GOD. Then it’ll all make sense. Then we’ll know comfort and grace and realize that the hope and love we know was there the whole time. The whole time. Here. Even now.

Focus on the Body

The body of Michael Brown lay in the street for over four hours.

sign: "I believe in GOD"

Photo Credit: Shawn Semmler via Compfight cc

Nearly every conversation I have had or story I’ve consumed about Brown has focused on the circumstances or the politics surrounding his death. We have focused on what led up to the shooting, about the character, the police, the press, the people, the tear gas, the government, the militarized engagement, each piece a point of contention and an opportunity for antagonism and debate. Each piece has been political.

Almost as if this has been by design. Almost as if what we don’t want to talk about is the body. The body of the young man shot six times. The body that was big. And black. And young. A body that lay on the street for way too long.

Every story included this detail. Every story has mentioned that Michael Brown was shot, that the circumstances were (sort of) disputed, but each one included the fact that after Brown was shot, his body was left in the street. No ambulance. No paramedics. Not even a coroner. He was left for hours in the street, blood pooling and drying on the pavement.

This detail is so unlike every other shooting death I have ever heard of. Never have I heard of a body left. Never have I heard of paramedics not being called. Never. If a gun goes off, 911 gets called. If an officer fires his gun, he calls it in.

During my CPE term in Saginaw, Michigan, we had several cases in a few weeks of gunshot victims brought in, people who were put in secure locations for their protection. Every shooting leads to emergency personnel. Shootings lead to sirens and awareness and rushing and help swooping in quickly to save the victim. This is what I know and expect. Even in Saginaw.

So this story causes a cognitive dissonance that I have not, until now understood.

Nobody swooped in. Nobody checked to see if Michael Brown was alive or dead. Nobody involved with the shooting itself seemed to care. That’s the only logical conclusion that could be made. If I witnessed somebody getting hurt, I would call 911. If I caused someone to get hurt, I would call 911. As a clergy person, if I find out that someone is being hurt, I am required to report it.

So how could this young man’s body be lying there? There is no good reason. No just reason, anyway. You can’t give me “he deserved it.” Our world doesn’t work like that. You can’t give me “he was dead anyway.” Again, our world doesn’t work like that. This is the point:

Our world does not work like that.

The excuses, the arguments, is all political avoidance of justice. It is a dog whistle for the racist politics of the last 50 years. And we fall into the trap. Every time! We watch the people who hear the whistle jump up and move to action and we respond to their action, condemning them and calling for justice. It is a move staged to support white privilege and provoke fear. We all fall for it each time. We fell for it this time.

What is different for us today is that Michael Brown was left. Nobody swooped in quickly and delivered his body to a hospital, or some other place, out of our view. He wasn’t cared for or given proper respect. He wasn’t even treated like a human being.

He was left to rot in the sun like roadkill.

This is not neutral. This is not defensible in any conceivable way. It is not a product of a left/right political divide or community action vs. law-and-order ideology. It is that a young man, a teenager was left in the street. And we don’t do that. Not without race or racism. Not without hatred or evil. The body in the street.

Two weeks later, the police drove over his memorial.

Avoid the dog whistles. Avoid the traditional politics of race. Avoid the media’s favorite template of covering yet another shooting.

Focus on the body. Focus on the young man. Focus on Michael Brown.

He is more than a face. He is more than his future. He is more than his parents’ memory of him.

He was a young man who didn’t get the help every young man deserves. He was shot. He was left to die. He was ignored. All he is to us now is a body.

 

[Note: please click the above links to two powerful stories. One is about the politics of the dog whistle by Ian Haney López and the other is a story for On the Media about the media's template for covering shootings, and how the media helps us normalize the politics.]

On Confidentiality

confidentiality (countable and uncountable, plural confidentialities)

1. (uncountable) The property of being confidential.

2. (countable) Something told in confidence; a secret.

two monkeys telling secrets

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As a priest, I get confidentiality. I respect not only those things told to me in confidence, but the person doing the telling. I understand the issues and the fear and how unconfident a person can be in sharing.

Confidentiality allows some freedom of expression. This is why we go to it. This is why we find the person we feel most comfortable with and we tell them what is on our minds. We share, and we open ourselves up. We do this because we are confident in our relationship; we trust them. We want to feel safe.

But

Poor use of confidentiality can also be dangerous and the wrong avenue for healthy conversation. And worse, it is often used to manipulate people and can become a cancer to a whole organization.

Confidentiality is confessional by nature.  That freedom and opening up that we celebrate, which allows us to be vulnerable, is not just about the things being said; it is about the person herself. When a person speaks in confidence, it isn’t a place of conversation or dialogue. It is a place of confessing that there is a problem but with the hope that a solution may be discovered.

Confidentiality is for a personal problem, however. This is not the place for solving a group’s problems. Institutional problems aren’t solved in the confessional booth. Or the parking lot. Or the living room.

If one’s problem is with the group, there is certainly a place for speaking in confidence, but only to fix their problem with the group.

If it has to do with the group, then you are not claiming it as your own problem. You are claiming it is the group’s problem. This isn’t confessional and not suited for confidential speaking. This is about us. We need to deal with us together.

Therefore, confidentiality cannot be expected when the group is the subject.

There are circumstances in which we begin in confidence and move to public. The most challenging example comes in those matters of systemic abuse, in which verbal, emotional, or sexual abuse creates a personal problem that can affect multiple people, becoming a public problem.

Our Choices

Because it is often hard to tell the difference between what should remain personal and what should be public, we so often err on the side of confidentiality. This instinct is good, for the most part. Here’s what we need to look for.

Are you in a position of power and are they coming to simply tell you how they feel?
Not a problem.

Do they expect you to do anything about it?
If yes, then that’s a problem.

Why?
Several reasons. Chances are that the issue is not something you alone are responsible for. Chances are that the issue is brought to you as a personal feeling, but they are seeking a public response, which does not make it personal. Chances are they are putting you in the middle of their conflict, shifting ownership from them to you.

 

When someone comes to you in confidence, is there an expectation of ongoing dialogue with you?
If yes, this can be a valuable and rewarding experience.

Are they trying to avoid speaking to someone else?
If yes, then you are being triangulated. They may be seeking to shift ownership of the problem to you.

Do they maintain ownership of their problem?
If yes, then confidence is appropriate. If no, then a new arrangement must be made.

 

Do they come to you for your response for things they do not understand?
If you are able to provide assistance, then great! Everyone is happy! You are able to be a personal connection to them.

Do they then go and tell someone else or seek a different response from a second party but want to retain confidence with you?
Sounds like trouble. And worse, this twists the very idea of confidentiality, turning a personal connection into a type of triangle. This is not OK.

From Personal to Public

Notice how easily a personal feeling is transformed into a public expectation? If you are unsure of why this is a problem, I suggest you seek out further reading by Edwin Friedman or Peter Steinke, who illustrate the problems with triangulation in what is called Family Systems Theory.

My own test is to look at who owns the problem and what the owner wants to do with it.

If they come to you and the problem is entirely about them and their experience and they are looking for some help in dealing with with their problem, then the anonymity of speaking in confidence can be a valuable resource in helping them solve their problem. Examples of this are people with marital struggles or looking for help with alcohol or narcotics abuse. It may even include those coming forward to speak of abuse they are receiving. This, however, will elicit a notification of proper civic authorities, making permanent confidentiality impossible.

If they are bringing a problem to you so that you can deal with it, then they are no longer owning the problem as theirs, but trying to make it yours. This is often how church members come forward with concerns about the music or finances, for example. This is a public concern, not a personal one. Often, fears of retribution or discrimination falsely prevent us from bringing these things forward. In cases of actual systemic abuse, then confidentiality isn’t what we should worry about, it is the abuse!

Many of the people that come to me with what they think is a personal problem, are unable to tell the difference. Particularly when it is couched as personal. I don’t think I can stay where this goes on. or He’s offending me, so he needs to be talked to. or I don’t like that kind of music; we need to play different hymns. None of these is personal. They deal with personal taste or experience, but they all demand action from someone other than the person and involves even more people. That isn’t a personal problem.

I’m all about asking for help. If you have a problem and I can help, I will gladly be there.

It’s just that I’m not your problem-solver or your burden-carrier. And neither are you for someone else. If it really is a problem for you, then you wouldn’t mind owning it.

 

When tradition must be broken

When the Pharisees enter the story, I see the religious establishment. They are the truth police, arresting those who compromise their view of the world. You are doing what we tell you not to do.

Seeing them, I see the church today. In every skeptical comment the Pharisees make and every philosophical trap they try to set for Jesus, I hear the voices of televangelists, Internet trolls, and certainly many of the people who join with me in worship on Sunday.

I am tempted to turn to the people around me and shout “Listen, this is our part of the story!” We, the religious establishment are much more like the Pharisees than we are imitators of Jesus. By virtue of being in church we are made part of the establishment.

A recent survey by the Barna group attempts to openly name this problem. They surveyed self-described Christians and asked them a set of questions they crafted to see if they are more like Pharisees or Jesus in action and attitude. The results did not surprise me in the least.

how we are way more like Pharisees than like Jesus

Photo Credit: Barna Group

The study is far from perfect, but its methodology is strong and its findings are really quite clear. We are more like Pharisees than we are like Jesus; in behavior or belief. By a lot.

Pharisees, as we know, saw themselves as the rules-lawyers or the purity police. They didn’t necessarily have authority to actually police their own people, they just took on that responsibility.

A persistent problem

Going back only the last thousand years, we can see a problem in the church with our own purity police.

In the Romanized church of the post-Schism world (11th through 15th Centuries), we saw a church of central authority. It’s increasingly prominent critics of the time could see how that authority was wielded to punish the poor, exclude those they declared sinful, and enrich itself from selling sacrament. The great universal church saw rule-following as its most important attribute to maintain order.

In the Great Reformation, we see the Protestant reformers latching on to a different kind of purity policing. Burning the books, vestments, and symbols of Catholicism, breaking stained glass windows and pipe organs, reformers sought to rid the world of what they declared was evil through destruction and violence. Of course, the Roman church retaliated in kind.

The Protestant ethos, however, did not question the central problem of Roman authority, just how it was manifested in a central figure. Protestants continued to create a new breed of purity police, in some ways even more like the Pharisees. They were decentralized and were, for the first time in human history, large populations of newly literate people gaining access to the Scriptures. Protestant theology, based on sola scriptura (scripture alone [as the authority]) allowed the newly literate to declare themselves enlightened and police one another.

In the U.S., our religious forebears were the Puritans, whose cuddly story of fleeing religious persecution makes us feel better than the truth of their actions. More restrictive, more condemning than your average Protestant, the Puritans maintained strict rules, placing the rule of law (as they wrote it) as superseding the command to love their neighbors as themselves. Reading about the Puritans makes me wonder if they ever read the gospels–for their actions and attitudes were so unlike Jesus’s.

Then, in the late 19th Century, prominent evangelicals gathered to create a list of beliefs that would be known as fundamental to the Christian faith. Without publicly assenting to these beliefs, they contested, one could not be a Christian. They produced a magazine The Fundamentals, and those who read the magazine became known as fundamentalists. They embody this classic Christian trope of declaring the boundaries of Christianity and judging those that don’t fit inside their laws or rules. Which is a lot of people.

All so very like the Pharisees.

Nicaea

Precedent for this was set early on. Christians in the first part of the 4th Century were neither unified nor systematic. What you believed was determined best by where you lived and by who was teaching. Christianity was regional.

Then the emperor ordered a council.

The historians reading up to this point would now love to wade into the weeds, exploring the power players of the time and hypothesize why Constantine ordered a council. That distraction is for another time. What I am interested in is not what they were trying to “correct”, but what they chose to do.

In gathering for this first council, the churches of the world developed a precedent, repeated several more times, of gathering to better define Christianity. And each time, they did so at the expense of minorities. The councils became increasingly contentious and violent in the succeeding centuries, leading to mob rule and labyrinthine twists in theology. Less the purely “Spirit-led” endeavor that many modern Christians describe, these councils were divisive, disorderly, and increasingly, discriminatory.

In the end, whole regions of churches, accounting millions of Christians were expelled from the church and rejected like wilted flowers. This dark time in Christian history is papered over because we are so comfortable with the remaining flowers allowed to bloom in the end; the lives sacrificed and crushed be damned.

These flowers were, in the end, a collection of rules. Rules that could be used to enforce who is in and who is out. Rules about, not just what we believe, but the precise words we use to describe these beliefs. Words that often lead us into political traps if we stray from their formulation and attempt to actually reason them out.

The trouble with our tradition

This troubled history is why so many Christians are compelled to look as far back as they can. Specifically to the first few generations of Christians who knew Jesus or knew people who knew Jesus, to see what they shared and wrote about and believed about this newly birthing faith. Long before the Constantinian corruption or the universalizing of beliefs. What did those first followers believe and do? we want to know.

I’m concerned that the rules-obsession is too baked into the tradition of our faith. Luke Timothy Johnson has argued that Greek philosophy and culture is too tied up in our faith to ever remove it, but I am more concerned with Roman philosophy of order. For it is Rome’s belief in peace through might, authoritarian control of the people, and the supremacy of the rule of law that have had a far greater influence on the behavior of Christians, and therefore, the development of Christian tradition.

Our very tradition is corrupt. It was entered into with great intent, but evil action. And I fear that in adoring the flowers we’ve picked, we avoid dwelling on the flowers we’ve trampled underfoot; that they may also be GOD’s creation.

It is here that the theologians will want to wade into the weeds, exploring those particular theological ideas and frameworks that are troubling. Or perhaps some would have us dismiss the whole course of history, that we might instead raise up what we have received as a priceless jewel that is to be protected at all costs. This would certainly distract us from engaging with not only the circumstances of our tradition, but their very corruption.

For, if we take the tradition as we’ve received it, and place that on our desk and then begin to add to that other parts of the scene: the blood and the bodies of Christians who were murdered by other Christians; the artwork, songbooks, poetry, and mystic writings of great beauty that were burned or permanently “lost” to us; the many signs and symbols used by Christians throughout history whose only crime was to seek a better understanding of GOD: we might find the scene spilling over the edges of the desk to cover the floors of our offices and classrooms with whole treasures of love and devotion destroyed by the tyranny of the Pharisees’ Christian descendants.

There are whole avenues of faithful belief revealed to faithful people, whose sole purpose was a new exploring of GOD; better understanding of GOD; better loving of GOD. Lives destroyed, civilizations ruined, enemies created, and evils perpetrated; all for what?

Order. Tradition. Power.

Fixing our faith

I am a deconstructionist. But we make the mistake in believing that our questioning of and taking apart of things is destructive, or that when one takes a thing apart, deconstructing it, we are merely and haphazardly disassembling a thing and tossing it away when the disassembly is complete.

The deconstructionist is looking at the thing as an attempt to deal with its problems.

And a true deconstructionist will tell you that it is in naming the problems, exposing the problems to the light of day, and wrestling with their meaning, that truth emerges. That in finding something lost, we might have what John Caputo loves to call “the event”.

Jesus’s coming was such an event. And all throughout our history, we see small, human events. Each, like the Jesus event, gives rise to the Pharisees, who crucify the human and codify her belief as evil. If you want to explore many of these events, read Diana Butler Bass’ A People’s History of Christianity. Many of these moments, only later, may be seen as violent overreactions to protect doctrinal purity: protecting it from a thing that might make more sense of it.

Tradition born this way cannot be the entirety of the answer. There is more to it. There are whole parts of what is “traditional” that we are not allowed to explore, but have existed throughout history. There are whole parts of our tradition that do not violate Scripture, and certainly do not contradict the Jesus portrayed in Greek scripture, but violate only our inherited tradition. We even have physical evidence of popular scripture, more widely read than some canonical works of the time, that reveal a wider sense of GOD.

Our adoration of our tradition is the adoration of a false idol. It is much like the idol we made of Scripture in the Great Reformation. What Callid Keefe-Perry recently described as the dark joke on a Theology Nerd Throwdown Podcast that, in the 21st Century, we’ve added a fourth part to the Trinity (a Quaternary?): Father, Son, Holy Spirit, and Scripture. He argues that we use at as a fourth part of the Godhead. For many of us, we might call Tradition a fifth.

Tradition is not the way, Jesus is The Way. Tradition only helps us see in GOD what tradition allows us to see. And right now, the tradition we’ve inherited, the tradition which crucifies Christ throughout history, drowns the creatives, burns the heretics, lynches the prophets, mutilates the visionaries, and leaves the weak in the desert to die, forcefully blinds us from actually seeing the GOD we pray to.

If knowing the GOD we love is what we want, then we have no use for a tradition that cannot open its doors to the breadth of revelation. We can instead embrace a tradition that cares much less for being right, certain, and in control, but one that actually looks like the Christ we follow and the persistent lover He reveals GOD to be.

Photo Credit: -KOOPS- via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: -KOOPS- via Compfight cc

When a rock is not a rock

rethinking Jesus’s vision of church, Peter, and the love of GOD

We mistake the naming of Peter as reflective of his character, rather than His.

a Homily for Proper 16 A  |  Text: Matthew 16:13-20

 

a kiss on the cheek

Photo Credit: thejbird via Compfight cc

desiring proof

Again the Pharisees. Those ancient ideological evangelicals–obsessed with rule-following–return. This time they’ve brought back-up: the Sadducees. Not normally friends, the Pharisees and the Sadducees represent the religious establishment. They are like rival gangs teaming up to take on the young pup trying to make a name for himself by honing in on their turf.

Give us signs of your power! they say. Prove yourself!

Like Satan’s tempting, inviting Jesus to prove himself, the elites ask of Jesus what He isn’t to give. Because it isn’t about Jesus: what Jesus can do. It is about GOD. What GOD wants for the Children of Israel. There is no proof. No proving. Jesus tells His followers that signs aren’t there to prove, but to mark. To show how GOD already loves. Not that GOD loves, but what love looks like and how we know it.

The naming of Jesus as Messiah and the naming of Simon as Peter is such a sign. It is the revealing of love as it exists, not because it is requested.

demanding love

A parenting tip we read some time ago reminded Rose and I that parents ought not make their children kiss them. Our place as parents isn’t to receive affection from our children as a payment or from demanding that behavior. We aren’t to impose rules that require affection or give our children The Top 5 Reasons to Kiss Your Parents guilt trip.

Our job is to show our children what love is like so they can know what love actually is. That they can feel love before they can know to express it.

So we learned not to force our children to kiss our cheeks, but kiss theirs. It is affection and praise when she wins and when she loses; when he falls and when he celebrates. That love isn’t a reward or an accomplishment; it isn’t something to withhold or legalize. Love is given like a gift and revealed so that it might be known.

Our insecurities or fears or rules or expectations don’t reveal love. Probably they reveal our neuroses.

Jesus warns the disciples about the yeast of the Pharisees right after getting ambushed by them and right before this morning’s part of the story. He warns them because their teaching didn’t reveal love or encourage it. Teachings that are so like our own: about obedience to authority, condemning the outsider, ignoring the plight of the weak, making love transactional.

In all of the ways we as Children of the Living GOD fail to reflect GOD’s love, we fail to teach love itself. We teach obedience and condemnation and selfishness. We reveal nothing like love itself. We reveal the evil of expectation–like Satan and the Pharisees–of certainty and affection, not for people, but for the status quo: for a world ruled by empire; a world more comfortable with the violence of authority than the genuine care for the afflicted. Such as listening to what 50 years of police brutality feels like. Certainly this is nothing like love that we offer. Nothing like GOD’s love.

when a rock is not a rock

All of this colors the way Jesus turns to His disciples to ask them who they think He is. I don’t think this is a test, but a check in. Where are they right now?

Peter’s response, as we know, is like the kid who gets the right answer without doing the right work. He doesn’t reason it or know it or prove that he’s smarter or more faithful than the rest. He gets there, as Jesus points out, because GOD reveals it to him. And this is the point here: it isn’t Peter. It isn’t him. It isn’t his being smart or praying right. it isn’t his dedication or because he has listened to Jesus better. This is something that can only come from GOD.

So when Jesus names him Peter, like Petra (rock), calling him the foundation, Jesus is saying this without regard for Peter’s personal talent or skills. We mistake the naming of Peter as reflective of his character, rather than GOD’s.

In all accounts; before this moment and after; reveal that Peter isn’t sturdy or solid. He is the definition of a flimsy and malleable disciple. He may in fact be like the sand Jesus warns us not to build on. But it isn’t that Peter is like a rock as we know it, but a rock as GOD reveals it in Peter! Peter teaches us what a rock can be to GOD!

We get confused and conflicted and troubled and it is OK! The church can handle it! Because this isn’t about human skill or reason, but the subversive love of GOD.

finding/revealing the love of GOD

This passage is one of the most written about in all of the Greek Scriptures. Often it is used to justify the papacy. Peter, the Roman church leader, regarded as first pope. The cornerstone and rock of the church. So like the disciples, who in verse 16:7 hear about the yeast of the Pharisees and think Jesus is talking about bread. Too literal; not revealed.

This rock doubts. He rejects Jesus three times. He struggles to stand up to Roman authorities after Jesus is gone. He isn’t monolithic or hierarchical. Neither is the church as GOD knows it. Neither are we.

We doubt and struggle. We long to make our children love us or impose rules on them rather than freely offer our love. Our faith is chaotic and troubling. But it is supposed to be. From Jacob to Jonah to Jesus, we see wrestling with and running away from and doubting the very existence of GOD’s love. We see struggles and pain and it is from that place that we race to simple solutions and weak authorities to tell us how to make the pain go away. And every time we could stop and listen to the voice who says Don’t be afraid! Over and over. Don’t be afraid! The Messiah who calms the storm and encourages us to feed the multitudes in the midst of scarcity, who says that signs are all around if we would just look at them.

Signs that show us how to love and respect and give and hope that in our darkest time we can live again. Signs that reveal how to reveal love to others so that we both might learn. Signs from the most unlikely of places.

May you know the love that GOD has for you, see the love GOD has for every human being, and may we learn to share that love, respecting every person as a blessed, loved, and cherished child of GOD.

 

What war on faith actually looks like in America

You might be under the impression that there is some kind of war on faith in our country. From the talk of many Christians, one could be easily confused by the annual declaration of a War on Christmas and the recent cries for religious liberty from those seeking to diminish ours. You may think there is some kind of serious conflict going on.

Well, you’d be right. But not from these sources. That’s lunatic posturing.

And not from those easily demonized atheists. Or those frightening teachers with all of their talk of “science” and “literature” and “critical thinking”.

The source would be our militarized police who think they are waging a war.

I cannot think of any reason why a church would be treated the way the St. Louis County police are treating Greater St. Mark Church in Ferguson, Missouri as if it were the second season finale of The Following.

They raided a school full of children armed with assault weapons and stealing medical supplies used to give healing to those residents suffering from the chemical weapons used against them. Now they are raided a third time because, apparently, it is illegal in the county to give shelter to someone. As in, our youth group couldn’t sleep in the nave of the church on a mission trip because it is illegal.

Illegal to give comfort, to heal, to give sanctuary.

This strikes at the very heart of our faith.

From Ferguson to the Washington Football Team

The one thing that can describe everything in my Facebook feed today is this: all of our news right now involves victims of racism. We can call it something else, because we white folks want to feel better about ourselves than we deserve to feel, but systemic racism is the source of everything right now.

Ferguson, MO and the shooting of Michael Brown

5 children we deported to Honduras were murdered.

Gaza

Compton School Board so fears its students, it arms its cops with assault weapons

White people whining that they can’t use the Washington Football Team’s racist nickname

My feed at this very moment is full of examples of systemic racism. And yet virtually none of the conversation is actually about race. It’s about the police or immigration or war or guns or political correctness or militarization or detention centers or zionism or school shootings or football or traditions and all the while we are being told that people deserve it or we need to not be so sensitive.

A boy who was shot 6 times had to deserve it.

Native Americans must love the Washington Football Team.

All of this is just political correctness. Right.

"racist mascots suck"

Photo Credit: SarahDeer via Compfight cc

The favorite pastime for those of us in the privileged white America is to wade into the weeds and talk about the intricacies of each of these things, asking each other “what would you do?” if you were in that situation.

But only from the white guy’s point of view.

We never reflect and carry the burden of being the target of abuse. Or we spend our time complaining how ridiculous it is to be asked not to be racist.

Seriously, considering all of this other stuff; all of these conversations we’re avoiding about our role in some really disturbing things done to minorities; it is objectionable to be told that we should stop being racists? There is a long history of our Native peoples objecting to the Washington Football Team’s nickname. And yet, we can’t be bothered to respect a whole nation of people we massacred centuries ago enough to listen to how they feel?

Our indifference to the very dignity of every human being means many of us consistently break our Baptismal Covenant. We are sinners and must repent. And it is this sin of racism that underlies it all. This isn’t just about a nickname, but the very respect we show to other human beings. Especially the ones left out to bake in the hot, Missouri sun for hours. No ambulance, but caution tape. Don’t help him / keep away from him. And whatever you do, don’t record what we’re doing to other people who look just like Michael Brown. Oh, and tradition!

 

I’ve long appreciated the musical treatment of the subject by Atom & His Package.