Monday, May 22, 2017

Memorial Day

My Grandfather Robinson fought in WWII. My father served in two branches of the military and served as a Med Tech in a MASH unit in the Korean Conflict. My elder brother retired from the Air Force as a career NCO. He worked with an developed radar and satellite imagery.

Luckily, none of them lost their lives in the course of their military service. Still, though, Memorial Day has special meaning in families that have been as deeply involved in the military as mine has. There are tens of thousands of families who mourn and grieve the loss of loved ones whose lives were sacrificed in the course of military service.

One of the few discussions that my father and I ever had about his military service consisted of me asking why we had American troops in Korea. This being years later, sometime in the 1970's, he explained the basics of Cold War politics, about the roles of North and South Korea, and how the United States saw South Korea as land that was worthy of protection from North Korean aggression. The sides had been drawn between Democracy and Communism, between forces of aggression and peace, between good and bad.

I understand completely the need to protect others from the aggression of some. It is a hallmark of application of the Christian faith. We are called upon to sacrifice ourselves in attempts to protect and defend the rights of those who cannot or will not protect themselves. We stand in solidarity with those who are attacked, maligned, debased, excluded and rejected. As long as this is the motivation for military action, I find it hard to argue against. Military action is less about the abuse of power and technology as it is about the protection of those who are relatively weaker and victimized.

I am currently reading an autobiographical account of a person who lived, as a Jew, through the Holocaust. The events of November, 1938 are particularly painful to read. I am certain that they are even more painful to remember. Why otherwise good people would stand and jeer as the homes of Jewish neighbors were ransacked and burned is utterly and completely beyond my ability to understand. I am proud that my country had a significant role in putting an end to the tyranny that my brothers and sisters suffered. I am sorry that it took so many lives in the process of the war that it required, however. It continues to confuse me, too, how we might so easily fall under the spell of those who claim priority of any one type, kind, type or clan over that of any other. The danger remains real and potential.

On Memorial Day, we set aside a time to remember the sacrifices that are made in order to protect our freedoms and the freedoms of those who need a protective and defending presence. It is a tragic fact of who we have been. Perhaps there may come a time when we, as a global community, grasp the idea that the costs of warfare greatly outweigh its benefits. Maybe war may cease and we may learn to live in peace.

Nevertheless, we remember those who have paid the ultimate price in protecting us and others.


Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Ascension Moved?

The usual pattern of the first half of the Liturgical Church Year, that which represents God's Sacrament in Jesus Christ runs like this: JESUS' BIRTH.....JESUS' BAPTISM.....JESUS' MINISTRY IN GALILEE.....JESUS' TRIP TO JERUSALEM.....JESUS' CRUCIFIXION.....JESUS' RESURRECTION.....JESUS' POST-RESURRECTION APPEARANCES.....JESUS' ASCENSION.

Not all of the accounts follow this formula, and not all of them include the same major events in the same order, but in the Revised Common Lectionary, this is the pattern. For instance, the Gospel According to Mark lacks birth narrative and, in its authentic form, post-Resurrection appearances. John includes no birth narrative, but does include post-Resurrection appearances. Most poignantly, in John's Gospel, the line between Jesus' ministry in Galilee and Jesus in Jerusalem is blurred. In fact, it is this point that leads tradition to conclude that Jesus' earthly ministry lasts three years instead of the one that is suggested in the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke).

I have been a faithful student of the Revised Common Lectionary for thirty years of active ministry, one that works tirelessly in depicting its rhythms, fluid focuses, inner-workings, and particular Gospel interpretations. But there is one thing about the story of Jesus that does not seem to me to make great sense for the first half of the Liturgical Church Year. One particular chapter of the Jesus story seems rather contrary to the Gospel of God in Jesus Christ.

Jesus arrived in the usual way, at birth. At some point in his young adulthood, Jesus was baptized. This Baptism, not a ritual for the forgiveness of sins but a powerful expression of God's power now granted him, Jesus began his human restoration ministry in Galilee. After several meaningful experiences that called him to a ministry of greater scope, Jesus set off to Jerusalem. He encountered there the Temple and Roman authorities and called the hypocrisy of both power structures to accountability beyond their own focus. As a result, Jesus was killed. Three days later, his corpse disappeared from the tomb. The claim was made that Jesus was Resurrected. Jesus appeared to his followers, though the number of appearances, the audience, and the timing of those post-Resurrection appearances differs significantly. This post-Resurrection stage lasted for forty days.

At the end of Jesus' forty day series of post-Resurrection appearances, Jesus ascended to the Father, where, we are told, he sits at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty.

The story begins with Jesus' birth and ends with his ascension. He comes and goes. Therein lies the pivotal problem that I have with the story of God's Sacrament in the first half of the Revised Common Lectionary and the Liturgical Church Year. Why does Jesus leave? Why does he ascend? If his post-Resurrection appearance is a spiritual event in the life of his followers, if it serves as the incubation period of the Church that would be born in his name, why did Jesus have to leave it? The story seems to be in the way of God's ongoing Sacrament.

Perhaps that is the precise point of the ascension. In order to provide for the Church that will be born in his name, perhaps it is vital and necessary that he depart. If Jesus is around, after all, who will labor in his stead? If Jesus remains, the Church to which he is core might simply adore and worship him. The point of the Church is not adoration in worship, however. The point of the Church is to engage in the human reclamation and restoration project that Jesus began in Galilee and perfected in Jerusalem. It is to move from adoration in worship to action that represents him in the world...on the streets.

So, I conclude that Jesus' ascension belongs, theologically, to the second half of the Liturgical Church Year and the Revised Common Lectionary. It is a necessary component of the Church's sacramental work. Without ascension, the followers of Jesus sit in awe of him, but do little in his name. With ascension, the followers of Jesus shape their ministries and missions in his name, according to his example, in his stead. The Church becomes vital to the ongoing spirit of Jesus Christ, and only so far as the Church represents him is Jesus still with us.

Therefore, I move that we organize the Liturgical Church Year and the Revised Common Lectionary with the Ascension of Jesus Christ in the second half instead of the first. All in favor?

Monday, May 08, 2017

Can Progressive Theology Survive?

It was one of those fascinating conversations in which one finds one's self without ever actually intending to do so. I was presenting at a multiple-church gathering on the topic of the theology of the Progressive Church movement. The plenary presentations made up the majority of the morning agenda, with two 45 minute sessions. The first sessions dealt with early church history, particularly the shift that took place in 66/70 c.e. from an imminent understanding of the kingdom to a delayed understanding. The second session dealt with Biblical material, and how the 7 canonical books that were written before the shift represent a far different set of assumptions than the twenty that came about following it.

In the afternoon session, I presented on the cultural shift that has been taking place globally since about 1968, and how that shift can be understood as a call for the Church of Jesus Christ to return to a theological foundation that predates the theological shift of 66/70. (If you want to know more about this theological shift, and its results for Christian history, I encourage you to attend Shiloh's Bible studies on Tuesday evenings at 7:00 and Thursday mornings at 10:00.)

The conversation in question took place after the closing Q & A session. I though that I had laid out a fairly cogent argument for seeing Progressive Theology as a return to the ethical archetype that stood as foundation of the practical theologies of Jesus and Paul. A clergy person approached me as I was gathering my materials and said, "You know that Progressive Theology will never work, right?"

I may have sputtered a bit in my response. "H..Huh?" "W....What?" "What do you mean?"

The person explained that Progressive Theology was doomed to fail because it offered no tangible incentive. No one would follow the ethical archetype of sacrificing one's self in order to go out of her or his way in order to meet the needs of others. The only way that theology works is if there is some reward offered in return for that kind of faithfulness.

It was an intelligent point of view, I thought. The theology that was practiced by Jesus and Paul was doomed to failure because its practice did not offer any personal reward. No one would do it without a measurable advantage to doing so.

We engaged one another for quite some time. I explained that what my colleague was pointing out was precisely the thinking that lead to the theological switch of 66/70. Of course, that switch was forced by a number of other historical and practical matters as well, but there was its crux. The incentive of universal human benefit is not adequate motivation for persons to sacrifice their desires, needs, dreams, aspirations, opinions or values. While the ethical archetype of Crucifixion/Resurrection seems good in theory, it will never succeed in practice. It lacks personal and individual incentive. The Church needs to offer the reward of eternal life, salvation beyond death, an immortal human soul, one that is rewarded for doing the right kinds of things in life.

I did not disagree too vehemently, except to say that the theology that underlies the Progressive Church movement is not based in its popularity or practicality. It is based, instead, in its faithfulness to the ethical archetype that is expressed in the historical Jesus and Paul. It is to this that the Church of Jesus Christ is called. In my opinion, it is this to which culture, since 1968, is evolving. Whether or not it is a draw, it is faithful to the primary layers of Christ-like practice.

So, what do you think? Can the Church of Jesus Christ return to a theology that reflects the ethical archetype of Jesus/Paul? Or is the Church of Jesus Christ required to continue on the path of the theological shift of 66/70? How key is the personal and individual incentive of the heaven-rewarded immortal human soul? Is improvement and benefit of the entire human family enough motivation for sacrifice? Can Progressive Church Theology survive or thrive?


Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Dear Generation-Most-Recent

I have intentionally engaged over the past few weeks in serious, albeit brief, religious conversations with persons of the mysterious Generation-Most-Recent. I prefer to not call them Millenials, because it sounds too much like Millenialists, which is another thing altogether. To be honest, I don't find much homogeneity in the generation, except a few obvious characteristics that persons are eager to note. People of this generation claim to be "spiritual instead of religious." Persons say that they are not involved in any religion, but pray to a God and believe in "Him." Despite what we in the Church have been told, persons of this generation seems to appreciate structure and liturgical consistency, Persons seem to want a way to be people of faith, but without all the bureaucratic infighting, focus on meaningless minutiae, orthodoxies, doctrines or labels. These young men and women do not appreciate denominationalism or institutional politics. Many simply want to do what they know to be in everyone's best interest. (One note: Just because these young men and women say that this is what they hold dear does not mean that they are any better at it than previous generations. Most are no better at spending their time, talent and treasure in pursuit of heavenly virtues than any generation before them.)

There is one additional shared characteristic that every young person that I have talked to has mentioned. They say that they are not religious because religion teaches people to reject, exclude, judge, criticize, be superior, condemn and hate.

I spend all of my time attempting to teach people to love. I expend all of my energy in trying to get people to focus on the things that really matter. No matter how much time and energy is put into the important factors of living out our faith, however, people will complain about being hot and cold, many times on the same days. They will say that the sound system is too loud, while others complain that they cannot hear. They will search out conditions of the facility about which to complain. They will make snarky comments about the state of the church when they refuse to embody the very reason behind its existence. People will tie decision-making up in impossible organizationalism and institutionalism, so much so that it is remarkable that the church gets anything done. I get it, dear persons of the Generation-Most-Recent. I share your frustration and your disappointment.

Mostly, I get that the history of religions is full of hate, rejection, exclusion, superiority, and judgment. Just when it seems that we are turning a corner in openness and acceptance, cultural elements pull us back into an old, tired, unreasonable configurations of justified sectarianism, protectionism, fear and fascism. Oh, I get it, persons of the Generation-Most-Recent. It is not right. It is not fair. It in no way reflects the founder of our faith or a faithful practice that is built around his mission and ministry.

Here's the deal, though. You are the ones who can call the Church on its participation in damaging and destructive religious patterns. You are the ones who call the Church to accountability to its founder, to the purpose that lies at the foundation of its existence. Remaining outside the Church and pointing a finger at it achieves nothing. You are its hope, its future, its promise. Without you in it, the Church has scant little future, let alone being religion at its best. We can work together in order to shape a Church that is faithful to Christ Jesus' mission and ministry. We can configure missions and ministries that reflect the ethical archetype of Christ.

Or you can just let us pass into irrelevance, hoisted upon our own petard of self-concern, institutionalization, member entitlement, and narrow-mindedness. Won't you please save us from ourselves, dear persons of the Generation-Most Recent? Won't you please prove that you are a generation of more than empty words and antagonistic cynicism? Won't you please reach out a saving hand to the drowning potential of the Church of Jesus Christ...or the Synagogue...or the Mosque...or the Temple...or the Sacred Spaces and Sacred Practices? We need you!      

Monday, April 24, 2017

Easter Spirituality

The Church of Jesus Christ is in the season of Easter. That's right, ladies and gentlemen, Easter is a season. It is not just a day. In fact, Easter is a point of view. It is a perspective, a way of life, a spirituality unto itself.

The Spirituality of Easter is all-too-often taken for granted. While it has stood as a hallmark of Spring, an omen that portends the end of the school year, the coming of warmer weather and a return to outdoor living, Easter is actually much more inclusive and encompassing than we have often imagined. Easter is new life. It cannot be had unless it comes from a dying, the closing of a door, moving on from what had been and moving toward that which shall be.

Easter is an opportunity to move toward a healthier version of what it means to be fully human, fully spiritual, fully incarnational.

Let's see if I can articulate this in an understandable manner. Jesus was Crucified. His lifeless body was placed in a borrowed tomb. On the third day following his death, women (or a woman) of the community around Jesus go to the tomb in order to: 1. Be certain that Jesus is really quite sincerely dead instead of being just merely dead; 2. Treat his body with caustic spices that are meant to hasten the decomposition process; 3. Wrap his corpse in linen cloths that, together with the spices, allow the entire process to take place in the length of one calendar year. Shock of all shocks, Jesus' body is not there. The angels declare that he has been raised from the dead. The women share the news and the disciples finally receive affirmation, in a series of post-resurrection appearances.

If this completes our telling of the story, we miss its power, however. Jesus' body is a vessel in which the animating spirit of God dwells, at least as human life was understood in the Middle Platonism of Jesus' day. The corporeal, physical flesh was little more than a vehicle for the animating spirit. It was an opportunity for that which lives to articulate the heavenly virtues in which the spirit existed apart from animating the flesh. The core of Jesus' life was therefore spiritual. It was in the Spirit that Jesus defined himself, understood himself, determined his behavior and shaped his life. It is in and from the Spirit that Jesus ministered and served.

To be fully human in Jesus' understanding meant to be fully spiritual. The point to which Jesus represented that spiritual reality of his humanness set him apart from those who live only in corporeal, physical, carnal reality. To put it bluntly, spiritual reality lives in order to makes the lives of others healthier, happier and more productive while the physical reality seeks to make one's self healthier, happier and more productive.

Easter Spirituality suggests that the new life of Christ is incarnational only insofar as we live as the body of Christ. It matters only insofar as we live spiritually, as empowered, enabled, called and sent ones, who dedicate our lives to the practice of those same heavenly virtues that Jesus so faithfully demonstrated. In this spirituality, we can cease our search for the body of Jesus Christ. In the spirituality of Easter, we are the lost body of Christ. His Spirit dwells in us, each of us and all of us. We represent him when we live in that spirituality.

We can be Easter together, then, in the incarnational reality that Jesus so vitally expressed. We are the body of Christ!  

Monday, April 10, 2017

Not Easter Week!

Contrary to popular opinion, this is not Easter Week! Starting on the first day of the week, Easter Week is next week, Sunday April 16 and following.

This week is Crucifixion Week.

Crucifixion Week begins with Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, at what we call Palm/Passion Sunday. It is no Triumphant Entry, however. Jesus arrives at Jerusalem and decides to enter the city in the symbolic form of an alternative king who comes for coronation. This is great news for those who beg at the Temple Gate. The population exists there as a gathering of lepers, the blind, the lame, the deaf, the poor, the Mudblood, the menstruating, the ugly, the broken and the damned. Unable to work, they sit and beg. There is no social safety net for the rejected and excluded masses of Bethany and Bethphage. They see Jesus as new hope, the possibility of social systems that will consider them, attend to their needs, see them and care for them. As Jesus rides past them, as a new king for coronation, these suffering masses applaud, yell, bow down, genuflect. chant and honor the new king who comes to deliver them from their miserable state.

These are tense times. Passover is pending. It starts Friday at sundown. Passover is the ancient recognition and celebration of emancipation from the slave pits of Egypt. It honors liberation from the oppressive power of the Empire. It is dangerous to be Empire in a season of celebration of liberation.

Of course, the Temple had reached accommodation with Rome. As long as Judaism remained a benign family and spiritual religious practice, it would be allowed to exist within the boundaries of the Roman Empire. As long as religious sentiments were held behind closed doors and out of public discourse, then the Temple remained safe. The moment that Judaism became a public display, however, the second it stepped from the realm of personally held beliefs, it became a threat to the Pax Romana.

On Sunday, the Temple authorities heard the stirrings. It threw the ruling classes of the Temple into turmoil. Some would-be prophet from Galilee, named Jesus, had caused a riot at the Gate. He arrived at Jerusalem in full public demonstration, as a new king for coronation, riding on an animal (or two, in Matthew's case) that had never before been ridden. The people at the Gate were all roiled up, chanting that their new king had come to deliver them. No matter what the Temple authority said or did, they could not hide the purely political statements that were inherent in this symbolic Jerusalem entry. The Pax Romana was in danger, and the very existence of the Temple was at stake.

Jesus marches on through the Gate to the Temple. The people of the Gate imagine that they might follow, but doing so would simply be too dangerous, too risky. Perhaps this "Jesus of Nazareth" would work for them, do miracles on their behalf, free them from their malaise, deliver them from their suffering. While they refused to accompany him to the Temple, their hope rode in with him on his pack animal. The Temple authorities were waiting with a less-then-warm-welcome. Jesus had endangered the already tenuous relationship between the Temple and Rome. One can only imagine Jesus, leading the Gate people to the Temple, meeting with a harsh arrival, turning to what he hopes is a throng, only to discover that Jesus stands utterly alone.

Jesus exits Jerusalem. He returns to the Temple on Monday, seeing for himself the economic and social injustice that is connected to the Temple. Jesus throws over the tables on the money changers, who charge a premium for the transfer of currency for the Temple-tax shekel. He sees, too, the many and varied animals that had been brought to the Temple for would-be sacrifices. Jesus knows that those animals would be sold instead, that only one animal would be sacrificed and the rest simply collected as additional revenue. Jesus sets loose the animals from their pens and cages. That is Monday. On Tuesday and Wednesday, Jesus returns to the Temple, where he teaches God's will as opposed to Temple injustice. The people of the Gate remain at the Gate, however. The people of the Temple remain at the temple. Nothing changes.

On Thursday, Jesus gathers with his disciples for a traditional Passover celebration. They dine. During the meal, Jesus alters the traditional liturgy with a new act that involved bread and wine. After they eat, Jesus leads his disciples (and others) our to the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus prays while his closest associates sleep. Finally, after waking them, Jesus is betrayed and arrested. He faces several sham trials, one before the High Priest and another before Proconsul, Pilate. Pilate offers to release Jesus. The Roman bureaucrat even pits his release against a notorious outlaw, named Barabbas. But the crowd wants Jesus' blood. They chant for his crucifixion. They demand his death. Pilate is powerless before them and washes his hands of the affair, saying, "His blood is on your heads."

They taunt Jesus. They beat him. They spit at and on him. They tear his skin with a crown of thorns and flog him repeatedly. The guard is allowed its fun. Finally, they lead Jesus out of the city to Golgatha, a high hill from which all will see those who oppose Roman authority hoisted on crosses. This is the hill upon which Jesus is lifted high on the Cross of Crucifixion. Hour later, thinking that God had abandoned him, seeing in the small crowd not a single one of his followers, Jesus breathes his last. Utterly alone, Jesus dies. The hope of those at the Gate dies with him. The Temple is safe.
The week ends with Jesus dead in a borrowed tomb. He is simply dead.

This is not Easter week! But next week is!  

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Standing with Jesus in Dangerous Times

Jesus approaches Jerusalem. It is the capital of power and authority, the seat of religious tradition and a symbol of institutional compromise with Rome. Yet, Jerusalem stands, opulent and extravagant, amidst the suffering of its own people. Worse, the city stands in cooperation with the forces that have given rise to the suffering. The Temple exists as proof of the collusion. It dare not speak up. It dare not act out. It dare not express its opposition to empirical power, lest it be utterly and eternally destroyed. The Temple must be protected above all, even if it means silence in the face of oppression and injustice.

This fact is especially sentient during Passover. Now, Passover was an ancient recognition of Israel's emancipation from nearly three centuries of Egyptian slavery. You know the story. Moses, the one-time pretender to the throne of Egypt, had been found guilty of murdering an Egyptian guard who was abusing a Hebrew slave. Moses' unintentional subterfuge was revealed. Before he was sentenced to flogging or death, Moses escaped to the land of Midian, where he married into the High Priest's family. There he became heir to the high priesthood of Midian, following his father-in-law, Jethro. One day, Moses saw, on the side of the great mountain, a bush that was afire but not consumed. He went up on the mountain and was directed, by a cloud-voice, to return to Egypt and emancipate the Hebrew slaves. Moses went. After a series of plagues, the spirit of death killed all the first-born of Egypt, including the son of Pharaoh. The Hebrews were spared only by painting their doorposts withe the blood of a lamb. The spirit of death "passed over" them.

From the time the Hebrews settled in the "Promised Land," to the time when they returned to the land from Babylonian exile, Passover remained the core celebration. Within the celebration, Jews recognize the bitterness of their slavery, the oppression of the Egyptians, the emancipating power of God's outstretched arm, and the responsibility to which God's benevolence called them in the land.

In the time of Jesus, Jerusalem stood in allegiance with the forces of oppression, violence and fear. Jerusalem stood with Rome. In fact, many of the policies and practices of Judaism were, at worst, amended and, at best, accentuated, in order to fit the Roman agenda. While the Pharisees and Sadducees protected the Temple system in compromise with the Romans, the Zealots and Essenes separated themselves from the collusion of the Temple.

Jesus was likely an Essene who followed his mentor and Rabbi, John, who we know as "the Baptist." Jesus stood against the Temple authority. A year earlier, John  had been arrested and martyred. Jesus had taken over the mantle of leadership and was distinguishing himself as "The One."

It was Passover. Jesus returned to Jerusalem from Galilee, where he had created a movement of his own, based on inclusion, the Spirit of God and the potential in each person to represent God's power on Earth. He was going there to state his case, to argue his point, to speak up for those who had been victimized by the Roman way of life, and to work the kind of emancipation that Moses had accomplished centuries earlier.That the Temple had become the enemy of God's people was meaningful for Jesus. After a "triumphant" entry, he went there. The town was abuzz, in turmoil, the Gospel of Matthew reads, because Jesus entered in the symbolic manner of an ancient king on the day of coronation. (He also entered miraculously in Matthews account, on two animals.) He went to the Temple and found exactly the kind of economic and spiritual corruption that he anticipated. Jesus reacted violently, clearly challenging the Temple authorities.

It is perhaps ironic, during Passover, that an attack on the Temple authorities is also seen as an attack on Rome. The Temple authorities react. They get Rome to react. Jesus ends up dead, on the Cross of social revolution and political dissidence, as the sun sets to begin the recognition of Passover.

Who stands today for those who are victimized by the systems under which we live? Who will march on our Jerusalems? Who will speak up? Who will act out? Who will dare to put themselves at risk? Who will place themselves, with Jesus, on the Cross? Or will we simply remain silent, abandoning him, like his own disciples, waiting for some divine miracle to deliver the oppressed? This is a dangerous age, my friends. These are challenging times. Let's stop concerning ourselves with the unpopularity of the church in our culture and act for those who are rejected and excluded by it. You know, following Jesus.