Saturday, April 26, 2014

Remembering the just ways of Glen Stassen

Dr. Glen Stassen
Around Advent in 2012, I was working with the familiar refrains of John the Baptist, roaring on the banks of the River Jordan, preaching with fire and ire about repentance and our sore need for it.  As fellow lectionary preachers know, the readings during Advent are a hard-sell, as our congregants are often impatiently wondering, "So, when do we sing "Away in the Manger" and "Silent Night", preacher?"

As I wrote the sermon, I received a new book in the mail, and while playing hooky from sermon writing, I read a few pages.  Lo and behold, I discovered a delightful word about repentance that helped me shape a sermon about repentance that offered more grace than fire and brimstone.

My finished draft included the following thoughts:

By avoiding or denying our need to repent, we continue ways leading to sadness and despair, no matter how we might tell ourselves otherwise.  To repent is to turn things around, to let your life find balance, to welcome grace into your life.  You realize there is a wonderful fullness to life that is not like the illusions we chase after.  As the Baptist ethicist Glen Stassen recently observed, “The Christian life is continuously repenting, continuously learning” (A Thicker Jesus: Incarnational Discipleship in a Secular Age, W/JKP, 2012, p. 7).

Upon hearing Stassen's word, some congregants smiled.  One congregant could be seen writing the quote down hurriedly in her bulletin.  Such good words!  I had some great conversations afterwards about what Glen Stassen said in his new book, and I expressed my gratitude in an email later that week.

Over the weekend, word came of the death of Dr. Stassen, whose career in Baptist theological education and Christian ethics was exemplary.   In his later years, Stassen served as the Lewis B. Smedes Professor of Christian Ethics in Pasedena, CA.   In 2013, the Baptist World Alliance awarded Dr. Stassen with their Human Rights Award, recognizing his work as "the foremost proponent of the globally recognized 'just peacemaking' theory in matters of war and conflict and was hailed as 'arguably the leading Baptist peace theorist-activist of the twentieth century'."

Appropriately, the quote I discovered in what would be his final book summarized a profoundly Christian ethic that Dr. Stassen not only taught, he lived out.  An eager scholarly mind, a pastoral voice and a prophet when it came to calling us away from the "warring madness" (to quote Fosdick's hymn), Glen Stassen lived in the fullness of the gospel and challenged us through his writings and his ministry to be at the radical edges of the gospel.  It's a tall order to take leave of the "eye for an eye" type world we live in, but Dr. Stassen called us back again and again to the Sermon on the Mount and other New Testament core values of peace, love and justice.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

When the Saints Go Marching Out (Matthew 27:50-66 and Matthew 28:1-10)

Have you caught yourself lately wandering through the backyard or some part of town, just staring at the ground or the trees?  After a long, long winter, it’s inescapable, searching for any signs that the cold and snow has departed.  You scan the trees, hoping to spot a bud.  You stand over the tulips, willing them to blossom.  The drab brown lawn cannot green up quick enough.  You yearn for some sign that it’s finally Spring.

Little by little, nature surprises you.  The daffodil that was barely “there” yesterday has grown by leaps and bounds overnight.  The neighbor next-door muses that it’s nearly time to start mowing.  Even out for a drive, you cannot help but notice the calves and lambs starting to bounce across the pastures, giddy with life.

After a winter so interminable, the euphoria of Spring we feel about now is quite understandable.  Spring is beginning, even if it means pollen allergies and weeding awaits, we’ll take it gladly.

The Easter story is likewise a story of joy unfolding.  The Christian listens to the resurrection story gladly, even though we know life to be far more like winter at its bleakest. Here, we are told that the finality of finitude is given its comeuppance, a remarkable word when we feel so hemmed in by the ancient plot of life and death.  The glorious mystery of the Resurrection tears away at the veil of tears we call life.

Such a story shall prompt Paul to mock, “Death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”  Among the four gospels, we hear a chorus singing out:  “Why do you weep?  Why do you linger?  He is not here.  Go and tell the world Jesus is risen from the dead.”

In Matthew’s gospel, we encounter a vision of Easter that refuses to be left to wait until “the third day” comes to pass.  In Matthew’s recounting of the “Passion” (the last week and death of Jesus), we hear what is expected:  Jesus’ “show trial” before his accusers and an impassive Pilate, his sentencing to death, and then his crucifixion. One would expect such a reading to end with Good Friday’s somberness: “and he breathed his last”.  No foretaste of Easter Sunday would be expected.  In short, you’d think that Matthew 27 is about “death’s last word” and Matthew 28 is all “Easter alleluias”.

Yet even in the midst of the mournful tale of Christ on trial and then put to death, Matthew 27 interweaves the expected and the unexpected alike.  The familiar story of Empire striking down dissent is shown as the Roman authorities calculate how best to finish driving the last nail in the coffin to ensure Jesus is out of the picture and not lifted up as posthumous martyr.  They go to the extreme of extra security of sending guards to keep watch and sealing the massive stone over the tomb entrance.  As far as Rome considers things, the minor threat of Jesus and his sedition is over.

The gospel of Matthew does not shrink away from the reality of Jesus’ death, yet Matthew counterpoints Pilate’s attempt to silence the story with tales of strange and disruptive events around the death of Jesus.  Even in Matthew 27 (Easter’s still a chapter away), telltale signs, even if fragmentary, start to appear. Pilate’s story is about to come unraveled.  No earthly authority (Empire or Temple) will have the last word, right down to death itself.

As the story of Jesus breathing his last comes about, inexplicable darkness covers the land.  The earth quakes mightily.  The Temple veil tears apart.  And even as Pilate thinks the matter is now resolved, one of his own men confesses a word of belief:  “Truly this man was the Son of God.”

Even in its accounting of the sad end of Jesus’ life, Matthew 27 begins to foreshadow the exuberant witness of Matthew 28. Matthew 27 lays the groundwork for the unexpected and the New about to unfold.  The finality of death begins to lose its grip, even as Jesus lies dead in a well-guarded tomb.

Once, just before Easter, I went to a coffee shop with "what do I say on Easter Sunday?" on my mind.  (Caffeine and preaching have a sometimes collaborative partnership.)  The cafĂ© offers local artists the chance to display and sell their work.  Lately, a photographer set up an exhibit of flowers in extreme close-up.  As I looked around, I noticed one photograph of green leaves just beginning to break through the ground.  Pushing up from the dead grass and fallen leaves, the buds are a riot of sudden color in an otherwise drab, somewhat bleak scene.

As I stood there with coffee in hand, I thought to myself, “This is Matthew’s Easter!”

As the earth quakes and the centurion trembles, as Pilate seals the tomb’s stone into place while the Temple veil is in tatters, a curious greening takes place in the fabric of Creation.  Even as death seems to sweep away any hope, signs of crumbling Creation’s rescue begin to take root.  A new day is on the not so distant horizon, even as the guards settle down for the night.

In the midst of darkness, earthquakes, and political tumult, another extraordinary event takes place.  The tombs of the faithful are stirred, and the occupants are brought back to life.  Saints, Matthew calls them, are at the ready to come forth and testify to God’s at work in the world.

Matthew claims they still wait until Sunday, as Jesus himself is resurrected from the dead. These saints will be summoned to give witness, yet they do so only after the stone is rolled away and the first proclamation of “He is risen” cries out.  Jesus, the first fruit of New Creation, shall be the first to stride forth from the bonds of death.

Among New Testament scholars, this one little scene of the saints at the ready to go marching out baffles interpreters.  Only Matthew tells this story.  Questions abound as to its historical authenticity or its lack of parallel accounts with the other gospels. Did this happen or is Matthew adding something “extra” to the story?

What’s Matthew up to as he shows saints brought to life while the earth and human powers alike tremble?  Why not send down the heavenly host?  Why summon the saints, those who have gone before?

Certainly one imagines the saints are a “who’s who” of the women and men of Israel’s past.  It’s as if all the patriarchs, matriarchs, prophets, priests, and poets of our Sunday school lessons past have gathered in one place, ready to testify to God’s mighty works once more.  These persons of great faith still lived in the midst of the world, knew the pain and suffering that it brings, the hardship of being a witness to God in times of challenge.  They will enter Jerusalem, the city that rejected Jesus, testifying and witnessing to the events of Easter morn.

Another vein of interpretation looks at Matthew’s narrative and wonders if Matthew is foreshadowing events well beyond his gospel’s closing words.  Is this event past tense (happened only around the time of the “first” Easter) or hinting of what is still to come?

What we see at the first Easter in Matthew’s gospel prefigures what Christians are called to anticipate when the End comes.  The New Testament and subsequent Christian belief envision that day when “the old order passes away” and the New Creation is brought about.

On that final yet first day, the multitude of saints shall raise voices together in praise and song to Christ now and forevermore.  The first green leaves, the first buds yearning to flower, shall come into their fullness as Christ honors our faith’s promise and leaves his beloved, his saints not in the dust.  He raises those who wait in the tombs, the seeds of New Creation blossoming into vibrant, verdant new life.

So the gospel writer claims. On the first Easter, the saints go marching out.  They witness to what the authorities desperately try to keep under wraps:  a tomb is empty.

So it shall be as centuries of Christian belief hold to be true.  On the first day of New Creation, the saints shall rise again.  The saints shall enter the holy city, this time  New Jerusalem, wending their way to the throne of God.

Alleluia!  Amen.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Grieving Hate

This past week, a disturbed individual shot three people in Overland Park, KS, part of the greater Kansas City metro area.  The motivation is being declared a hate crime, which the FBI defines as "criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, ethnic origin or sexual orientation".  Certainly, the story of how Frazier Glenn Cross, Jr., aka F. Glenn Miller, Jr., arrived at the Jewish Community Center and began shooting persons at the Center and at another nearby facility meets this criteria. 

By the end, three persons were dead.  After Cross' arrest, media reports carried reports of his long-time ties to various hate related groups.  Anti-Semitism was among the many issues fueling this man's violence. 

From my time studying and living in the Kansas City area, I know the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City from my own visits for events.  A tranquil place of welcome in the midst of urban sprawl, the Center's mission is "to enrich our diverse community by cultivating an inclusive environment built upon Jewish values, heritage and culture.  We offer programs of excellence that enhance wellness, meaning and joy from generation to generation."  The Center models an alternative to the hate-driven worldview of the shooter: a place where people are treated equitably and common good is shared without precondition or prejudice. 

Such times as this remind of the choices we make about how we live.  While the FBI points out that "hate itself is not a crime—and the FBI is mindful of protecting freedom of speech and other civil liberties", is hate-fueled speech really freeing or liberative for the speaker, let alone the individuals or groups being denigrated by such a speaker?   It seems more likely that language that seeks to explain away or outright advocate the elimination of another is not speech that reflects the fullness and potential of what it means to be human. 

We need more religious communities to embrace the call to be a place where "an inclusive environment" is cultivated.  Our human family needs our efforts to promote "wellness, meaning and joy from generation to generation" rather than encouragement for (or passive response to) the same short-sighted acts and ill-willed speech repetitively inflicted on one another in the guise of purifying humanity on moral, political, or socio-economic grounds.  The Jewish Community Center's decision to re-open shortly after the shootings demonstrates the Center's resolve to keep promoting such a world by building it up, even as the Center and its surrounding community grieve the tragic outcome of hate boiling over into violence.

I am reminded of the phrase "Tikkun olam", which in Hebrew means, "to repair the world".

For your reference:
The Jewish Center of Greater Kansas City:
The FBI's page discussing hate crimes and tracking statistics:

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Lost in a Good Book: Spirituality and spiritual development

As Lent draws to a close, the palm branches are readied for the children's processional and the clergy feel like life's moving at double time (an occupational hazard during the high liturgical season), a few recently published books to consider for spiritual growth now and throughout the year:

Brueggemann, Walter. Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now. (Westminster/John Knox Press, 2014).

Chittister, Joan. For Everything a Season. (Orbis, 2013).

de Waal, Esther. The Way of Simplicity, The Traditions of Christian Spirituality. (Orbis, 1998).

Guenther, Margaret. At Home in the World: A Rule of Life for the Rest of Us. (Seabury Books, 2006).

Hinson, E. Glenn. Baptist Spirituality: A Call for Renewed Attentiveness to God. (Nurturing Faith, 2013).

Isenhower, Valerie K. and Judith A. Todd. Living into the Answers: A Workbook for Personal Spiritual Discernment. (Upper Room, 2008).

Lane, Belden. The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality. (Oxford University Press, 1998).

MacCullouch, Diarmaid. Silence: A Christian History. (Viking, 2013).

Maitland, Sara. A Book of Silence. (Counterpoint, 2010).

Marshall, Molly T. What It Means to Be Human: Made in the Image of God. (Smyth & Helwys, 1995).

Taylor, Barbara Brown. Learning to Walk in the Dark. (HarperOne, 2014).

Thompson, Marjorie. Soul Feast: An Invitation to Christian Spiritual Life. (Westminster/John Knox Press, 2005).

Williams, Rowan. Where God Happens: Discovering Christ in One Another. (New Seeds, 2007).

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Crouching Pontiff, Unhidden Confession

Lent's turning out to be a hum-dinger this year.   Pope Francis continued his tradition of surprising the faithful with his witness as a fellow sinner, even while in papal robes.   As one would expect, the Pope led a penitential Lenten service at St Peter's Basilica in Rome.  When it came time in the service for the priests to head to the confessional to hear confessions, one priest got quite a shock.  The Pope knelt before him to offer his confession!
The Vatican assured the media that the Pope goes to confession regularly, but in private. (I don't think anybody really doubts that for a moment.)  The Vatican still seems thrown by a Pope who stays in a hotel room rather than private quarters, takes to task bishops who like their "bling" and lives a public witness to faith that has the whole world abuzz. Indeed for many, Francis lives up to his papal namesake:  Francis, gentle in spirit and beloved.  Francis also continues the grand tradition of being a disciple just like Simon Peter, one who knows the edges within himself, only after much trial, error and earnest confession.

The oft quoted (and ecumenically contested) text for the papal office comes from Matthew's gospel as Christ says, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church”.  It appears to be such a simple little text, yet when you consider the history of the Church (pick a tradition, any tradition--Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox), even the most ardent of believer will admit the Church has lived through times of challenge and sometimes not been the better for it all.   This text alone has been part of the historic division of the Christian tradition. 
Obviously, the Catholic tradition traces in part its claim to papal authority citing this text, claiming the Bishop of Rome, aka “the Pope”, as the successor of this humble fisherman turned apostle.  Some interpreters beg to differ, claiming this text lifts up Peter no more than any other disciple who evidences great faith with no special privilege presumed.
Over the centuries, Christians have fought more about “who” can follow Jesus than just sticking to the script and following Jesus.  You need not go back to the Reformation era when the Protestant traditions emerged or five hundred years before that when the Orthodox and the Catholic traditions parted ways.  Just take a look at the headlines of any newspaper and you’ll find the great divides between Christian fundamentalists and progressives often capture the headline far more than a word about believers gone good!  More often than not, the teachings of Jesus get eclipsed by the search for dogma and orthodoxy, being right and ensuring what is deemed right is well regulated.
What takes the gospel just about a minute to communicate becomes centuries of convolutions and rifts, schisms and battles.  Some have suggested the Church was the worst thing to happen to the teachings of Jesus, becoming an institution rather than keeping it simple.  You look around and think, “Really? Upon this (you mean ‘this’….) rock?  Oh dear….”
More usual, the gospel is far clever than the stories the Church sometimes hopes that are told about itself.  Instead of splitting hairs over theological matters, Jesus offers a way of discipleship that asks us to open up to the possibilities of what the Kingdom/Reign of Heaven is all about.  Read the gospel as told by Matthew and discover a discipleship that considers the Sermon on the Mount a way of life or the parables of Jesus far more subversive than many a Sunday morning sermon is able to recount.  Jesus is near parabolic in his affirmation of Simon, the one he calls “Rock” (as translated by Clarence Jordan's "Cotton Patch Translation").   This disciple may be saying words of glowing faith and affirmation right now, but read on as Jesus has to rebuke Simon just a few verses later for good cause.  Simon Peter is a disciple not meant for fine marble statuary.  He’s just as rough around the edges, hewn from the same world we live in.  Here, he gleams as if polished fine stone.  In a few verses, he’s back to meandering around.  “Upon this rock” works well on some days.  Other times, Simon Peter’s just as much a blockhead as the rest of us.
Jesus has high hopes (and indeed a good deal of trust) that his followers will follow after he has left the scene.  The church has been “on its own” now for two millennia, sometimes “stumbling in the light” (cf. Robert Kysar, Chalice Press, 1999).  While he is calling a mere mortal capable of being a mighty foundation, Jesus is calling his gathered disciples, women and men just like you and me, this curious word translated as “church” in English.  He calls the gathered the “ekklesia” (the New Testament Greek's term for the assembled faithful, or, as early English Baptists termed it, "the gathered people" who live under "the rule of Christ").
So, as we get ready for the Holy Week cycle, the challenge is upon us.  The world has seen the remarkable and I believe indelible image of Pope Francis kneeling before a fellow priest, unmistakably communicating his awareness he is in need of confession and seeking the fruitfulness of an abiding faith in the teachings of Jesus.  The trappings of office surround him, yet he offers himself truthfully in that moment in a way that should really prod us to up our game. 
Will the Easter message be proclaimed with smug artifice by a priest or minister more worried about "how did I do today with a larger than normal crowd?"  (I confess my sin in thinking this on too many Easter mornings and Christmas Eves.)   Is the Easter resurrection being proclaimed to a world sore in need of liberation from humanity's varying ways of going astray or exploiting one another socially, politically or economically?  How does Easter culminate more than just this year's cycle of 40 days (and for some, a steady diet of fish on Fridays)?
How will our Holy Week observances be more than rote tradition (i.e. wave palms, shout Alleluia, and then go the rest of the week without a thought to the heaviness within the Liturgies of the Palms or the Passion)?  Will we see these as old tradition or part of our way of learning to walk with Jesus through the midst of the world, even at its most frightening and forlorn? 
Can we join our brother Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now known as Francis I, in kneeling the midst of Lent and knowing exactly where we are and to whom we answer?