upper room daily devotions

Friday, July 08, 2016

Racism and White Supremacy are Killers

Two more Black men shot by police. Eleven police and 2 civilians ambushed in Dallas, 4 police and 1 transit officer dead. One shooter killed by police after failed negotiations. He was killed by a remotely triggered "bomb" on a robot. He maintained that he had placed IEDs that will eventually be found. The killings of all of these people are tragic. The situation facing the Dallas Police chief is untenable.

The murders of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling are wounds to the soul of our nation. They reveal the ongoing dehumanization of People of Color in general, and African Americans in particular. Black men and Black women have been dehumanized in different ways, but both continue to live stigmatized in our society, and live at risk of violent treatment by the very system that should protect each individual in a community. Racism is not just the institution of slavery. Racism is not only a set of laws like Jim Crow. Racism is also not only a direct hatred of Black people. Racism also can be a deeply internalized and often latent set of biases that results in heightened suspicion of Black folks' motives, exaggerated fear of Black power, and belief that Black people are somehow "different" from other human beings. These biases dehumanize and make it easier to quickly form conclusions not grounded in fact, decisions that result in the death of Black children, women, and men. Alton Sterling and Philando Castile join a growing list of everyday people who are now dead for no reason other than the color of their skin and the racism of their country.

Racism and white supremacy must be condemned, addressed, and and faced head on every day. They must be dismantled brick by brick. This is real work and it requires with commitment. Platitudes have never been sufficient.  They are especially egregious in the wake of unpunished killings of precious children of God. We must hold leaders accountable for pjustice making for our people and our communities. And we must hold them accountable when they shirk this responsibility.

mourn the losses of Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Rekia Boyd, Jessica Hernandez, Walter Scott, and the many others whose lives were taken from them. I mourn for their families and the infinite grief they will experience every day for the rest of their lives. I stand with Black and Brown folk who worry for their children when they leave the house, drive a car, enter a store, or walk their own neighborhoods. I share in the outrage that this happens again and again seemingly without recourse.

The violence in Dallas is overwhelmingly tragic. It is part of our country's deep woundedness, a woundedness that bleeds untreated. We mourn the loss of the five officers who were killed. I hold in prayer the other officers who were wounded and all of the people walking in peaceful protest who are now traumatized. The families of the officers will mourn for the rest of their lives. All of our hearts break for them. Fellow police will grieve their colleagues. Their pain will follow them all of their days. And, it is important to recognize and honor the difficult work faced by police serving in our communities. It is dangerous work. I am grateful for police who protect and serve. For the Dallas Police chief, whose police force is now devastated, a horror unfolds. For the city of Dallas, the news is staggering. Yet, Dallas is a strong city. It will over days and weeks begin to rebound and heal. 

That said, racial tension and the white supremacy that undergirds it are tearing us apart. White supremacy is in our churches, our schools, and our families. It is bigger, more pernicious, and more persistently insidious than individual hate. It is a disease that has infected and affected the DNA of our country. The wake of pain it leaves behind touches us all. Good people are killed because of it. 

Our communities and our families will continue to mourn. The fabric of our nation will continue to be pulled and frayed and strained. Tensions between White and Black communities will grow more taught. Peace will not come. Until.

Until white supremacy and racism are rooted out again and again. Until. Until we make real changes to our justice system. Until those who kill while carrying a badge go to jail. Until. Until we lay bare the biases that cause us to suspect Black folk of a special form of malevolence. Until. Until our criminal justice system actually becomes a "justice" system. Until. Until a White person and a Black person carrying a gun in public are treated exactly the same. Until. Until we do not look upon one another as enemies, other, different. Until we create communities of trust based on demonstrable acts of good faith. Until...

It is far past time to address the "until." And Until we do, our communities will not know peace.

As the prophets Amos and Isaiah each wrote: 
Amos 5:21-26 
21 I hate, I despise your festivals,
    and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
    I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
    I will not look upon.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
    I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
    and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Isaiah 1:11-17
10 Hear the word of the Lord,
    you rulers of Sodom!
Listen to the teaching of our God,
    you people of Gomorrah!
11 What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
    says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
    and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
    or of lambs, or of goats.
12 When you come to appear before me,[a]
    who asked this from your hand?
    Trample my courts no more;
13 bringing offerings is futile;
    incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—
    I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
14 Your new moons and your appointed festivals
    my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
    I am weary of bearing them.
15 When you stretch out your hands,
    I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
    I will not listen;
    your hands are full of blood.
16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
    remove the evil of your doings
    from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
17     learn to do good;
seek justice,
    rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
    plead for the widow.

And yet, there is more. The Way of Christ is nonviolence. Nonviolence is a powerful response to violence. Rooted in love and not vengeance, nonviolence can lead us to the courage needed to face the "until" work ahead of us. He said, "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt...Do to others as you would have them do to you" (Luke 6:27-29, 31). These words lead us to engage one another, and engagement is needed to dismantle white supremacy and rebuild our communities with health, wholeness, and love.

Friday, September 25, 2015

from the New York Times
I write for "Real Spirituality for Real Life," which is the new name for "Process and Faith," a website grounded in process theology.

My latest submission explores the power of looking and seeing the world and its woundedness.

There is something deeply powerful about the act of bearing witness, something we often discount, especially those of us Americans who value action over reflection, repose, discernment, and silence. Doing nothing, even for the sake of discerning what to do, leaves us panicky. And so, if we can't fix, change, or control a person, a situation, a feeling, or an event, our next default is to ignore it, pretend it isn't there, and look away.

Sometimes choosing to look, as hard as it may be, may be the most faithful thing we can do.

*I take up the importance of knowing when to look away in my next outing at Real Spiritual for Real Life."

Friday, May 08, 2015

Using Words to Discuss How Words Fail and the Importance of Narrative

Interfaith Partners for Peace
I just returned from a whirlwind trip to Israel and Palestine. Not only did I take a walk through the past, as so many pilgrims do, but my journey was also rooted in the here and now, and it was focused upon the future. This trip, put together by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs' newly sponsored organization Interfaith Partners for Peace, brought together 28 interfaith religious leaders to study sacred texts, experience worship, tour one another's religious sites, and hear the stories of Palestinians, Jews, and Arab Israelis. These were intense days - long, hot, over scheduled, and deeply holy.

"Narrative" was the operative word of this trip. The land has stories to tell. Remnants of civilizations long gone are found in the dirt, in the landscape, and in the ruins of buildings. The people have stories to tell - stories of collective histories, despairs, and hopes. They have more localized and personal stories about conflict, betrayal, trauma, fear, and sometimes - sometimes - hope. Stories of suffering, struggle, and faith were thematic throughout the week. Moments came when I didn't think I could process another story, honor another narrative, or receive well the life entrusted to me through the precious words that were shared.

Stories were everywhere, even among the group itself. Together we told our stories - our narratives - and in them discovered deep difference and common hopes. There was little, precious little, quiet time. Instead, we were busy writing a collective narrative through shared experience all while hearing stories about the past, the present, and a future that has yet to be charted.

Ali Abu Awwad speaks with Rabbi Dennis Sasso
and Bishop Catherine Maples Waynick
When the words fell to the earth and silence descended in the all too short nights, I was left with a desolate truth - This place, which is holy to billions of human beings, is a crucible of trauma. This land and the legends and tales of our religious identities have always been marked by struggle, violent conflict, and battling narratives. When one person was sharing his story with us, Ali Abu Awwad, of The Roots, he told us that as a child he dreamed of being a pilot, perhaps, he said, because he wanted to fly away. It seems so strange that even as some cling to the hillsides and landscapes littered with religious history, there is also a desire to leave behind the particularities that have left so many dead and keep billions of humans suspicious of one another because of "otherness." The narratives that hold us are also the stories that drive us apart. The same stories that give us meaning and identity can also keep us captive.

We are recipients of narratives. We begin learning them as soon as light touches our eyes for the first time. We learn them in the stories we are told as children, in the songs we sing, the prayers we pray, the games we play, in the neighborhoods we inhabit, in the people we love (and hate). Through our experiences, a narrative of identity begins to form in our core. This narrative tells us who we are (a hero? a villain? victim? a good person? a bad one? a girl, boy, or something else... a race, an ethnicity, a nationality, and so on...). It informs all that we do, and our experiences are filtered through it.

Many of us learn that we have to undo and deconstruct the narratives we learned as children, especially the parts that demonize and dehumanize others. The gift that we have is that with a great deal of work we can actually do this - we can unwrite our narratives and pen new ones. However, this hard and holy work is met with deep resistance. We resist this rewriting of self. (Without this narrative, who are we?) The world we inhabit resists this deconstructive work as well, sometimes violently. The world prefers the status quo - equilibrium. When we begin the disruption of unwriting narratives, we are undoing worlds. We are taking away people's world views. This is deeply disturbing - and for good reason. It undoes reality. Sometimes, though, reality is a damning thing that needs to be undone for the sake of a new and better one. Those who are engaged in deconstructive work understand that a further step will be taken; generative work will follow. New narratives are written. New identities will be formed. But, the liminal space is threatening. It is chaos, and its formless state robs people of power and privilege. Very threatening.

Chaya Gilboa from the Shalom Hartman Institute
For the past week or so, I have heard from peace negotiators, politicians, and others involved at the geopolitical level. Real peace, it seemed, will not come from them. They cannot give up on the narratives that have claimed them. And, for each and every one of them the narrative is the same. It can be summarized in six words: It is a victim-villain narrative. The only thing that changed from one person to the other was who the victim and who the villain is in the story. Real peace, it seems, like it so often does, is emerging out of the dirt, from the ground up, by people who have been the most traumatized, who understand the deeply wounding experiences of loss, betrayal, and even death.  Peace, for them, is not about winning or losing or about being right or wrong; it is about life and death.

In Israel and in Palestine, grassroots efforts are unwriting and rewriting narrative. Grassroots leaders understand the folly of narrative that keeps people bound as victims and villains. These courageous individuals are daring to reach across religious and nationalistic lines to form relationships and bonds that are at best considered suspect and at worst traitorous to "the cause." Settlers and Palestinians, Israelis and Palestinians, Arab Christians, Muslims and Jews, religious and secular - all kinds of people are transgressing the boundaries that have been drawn as circles around identity keeping some people in and some people out. These people realize that the words of our narratives sometimes fail us and keep us captive to necrophilic existences. These individuals hope and labor for something more - a biophilic, thriving, vital existence - a neighborly way of life.

I will be processing the particulars of the stories I heard for some time to come. I hope that I honor them and the lives they represent. These stories have been entrusted to me. I don't know that I'm honorable enough to have heard the words that were spoken, but I have received them. Now I have to decide what to do with them. They live in me now. The words - they do not disappear as the sound waves expand and dissipate in the world. The sound itself may have fallen silent, but the words and their meanings remain.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Gaudete Sunday, Contemplative Life, and an Unjust World

This past Lent, The Well, a new ministry in Seattle gathered together a small group of people to begin the experiment of writing, embracing, and living a rule of life. One of the components of our life is a weekly "check-in" (or accountability) email that includes questions that get at "How is it with your soul" as well as a reminder about our shared values and practices, and an offering of an idea or thought for dialogue. Here is the dialogue component from today. I thought I would share it here.

Today is Gaudete Sunday. The Magnificat is the psalm for the day. With the many demonstrations about police brutality; with the passing of an unjust national budget that punishes the environment, gives license to Wall Street to steal from the average person with impunity, and that once again gives the wealthy more ways to influence our political process; and, with the 2nd anniversary of the horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, I am reminded how important the contemplative stance is for me in believing the hope and promise of Mary's Song. It can be difficult to trust that a world of justice and compassion is possible, but the Magnificat reminds us that it is not only possible, it is God's promise. 

Henri Nouwen wrote in his book Creative Ministry, “Christian life is not a life divided between times for action and times for contemplation. No. Real social action is a way of contemplation, and real contemplation is the core of social action. In the final analysis, action and contemplation are two sides of the same reality which makes a man [sic] an agent of change.” He explains this with an image. Imagine a wagon wheel. The center hub is our contemplative center. From there radiate the spokes of energy and action. "Without the center axis, the spokes would lose their anchor and be unable to support the forward motion of the wheel. Without the spokes, the center axis would be deemed extraneous. When we are least connected to our contemplative center, our life is most tense and chaotic. When we are anchored in contemplative spirituality, the active, exterior expression of our life is more peaceful, purposeful, and effective" (Nouwen, CM).

The contemplative center is what holds us together for the work of justice in the world. This center holds us close to God's promise as sung by Mary. Without it, we spin out into the world, unanchored, unmoored, unable to remain the pain and dwell in unjust places without becoming overwhelmed. With a contemplative center, we remain close to God's loving and transformative energy.

This Gaudete Sunday, I give thanks that Mary could find these words to sing. She could have sung about the pains of being an unmarried woman, or pregnant before her time, or poor with a new mouth to feed - all of which would have been understandable laments. Yet, she shows to sing a song about glory - glory rooted in a dream of justice, a glory rooted in justice that will come from the promise growing inside of her.

When I feel despair about the world - and I do very often - I am grateful that the Magnificat is the closing prayer so many days, if one uses traditional fixed hour prayer practices. In the reading of the Magnificat, I am reminded that God's promise grows in unlikely places (like me) and that God uses people before they are ready and secure and prepared (like me) and that God's promise is bigger and more wonderful than the vessel that may bear it into the world (like me) and that this promise can be born even where it really shouldn't be (like in our world). The Magnificat, to me, is the very soul of the contemplative life. I'm so very glad we pray it daily and that today, on Gaudete Sunday, we pay it special attention.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Words, Violence, and Society

On Thursday, a shooter open fired at Seattle Pacific University, a Free Methodist university just down the hill from the church where I serve. There are students and faculty who have ties to my congregation, and there are members of my congregation who have long and deep connections with the school. I have been deeply impressed by the responses of students and the institution as a whole to this unimaginable horror. They are taking care of each other, rooting their grief in prayer, offering laments, and holding one another in love and tenderness. They are doing what they need to do, so I am not going to write about this particular shooting. Even referencing it here leaves me feeling dirty, as though this real and deep tragedy is fodder for casual conversation. I am also not going to use this space to talk about the politics of specific legislation. That, too, I believe cheapens the real grief of this moment. Rather, this brief reflection is about our culture of violence.

In fact, many people in the country are unaware of the shooting in our sleepy and peaceful neighborhood. Perhaps this is because the next day there was a shooting in Georgia at a courthouse. On Sunday, there was a double murder in Seattle, possibly a hate crime. On Sunday there was also the rampage in Las Vegas in which the shooters prepared for a lengthy battle. Just today, another school, this one in Oregon, also became a school shooting statistic as yet another gunman entered a high school and took the life of a student. In just school settings alone, there have been 74 shootings since the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

There is something deeply insidious about how easily our culture turns to violence, and this trend requires deep examination. The ease with which we kill our children and with which our children kill one another says something truly disturbing about our culture. Many want to say that mental illness is the culprit that needs addressing, and we do need to address the flawed mental health system, but there have always been mentally ill people in our communities, and they have not acted with violence as we have seen in recent decades. Others will say that we need to address the proliferation of guns in society, and we do, but guns have always been part of American culture. Again, the presence of guns does not necessarily equate with violence, much less public acts of violence, especially violence directed toward our young. The increase in indiscriminate violence, especially in public settings, is a symptom of the isolation, despair, and anti-social disposition of our culture at large. And, it is tragic.

As this community begins the long hard process of grieving, I realize that families and communities across the country are sadly dealing with similar feelings of grief, and are struggling to make sense of the ease with which we turn to one another in violence.

It is imperative that we take a bald and unflinching look at ourselves. It is time to peel back the veneer that we have deftly placed over society in order to begin to understand the "why" of violence, especially violence in public places, especially violence perpetrated by and at children and youth. Why are so many young white men loading up and strapping on? This "why" may scare us all, for we may all may be implicated by the answer.

In our public square, politicians routinely demonize one another. They openly refer to one another as unpatriotic, of wanting to inflict harm on the country, of not caring about its citizens, even of being traitors. In the public, media personalities "report news" that is nothing more than innuendo. These, of course, are easy suspects to name, but throughout society a trend of demonization is at work. We say unspeakable things about one another. We think horrible things about "them." We isolate from one another. We live in fragmented communities divided into "us" and "them." Even as we move in greater number into urban areas, we isolate from one another, segregate ourselves, and live in suspicion of our neighbors. It's how we have structured our world. And, it needs to stop.

One of the basic premises of the Judeo-Christian narrative is that words make worlds. In Genesis, God speaks creation into being. While some look to this as a science story, I look to it as "truth story." We speak our worlds into being. If I say that I hate you long enough, I will hate you - with my mind, soul, emotions, and even the chemistry of my body. When Christians say that a group of people will go to hell, it becomes easy for that group to be reviled, marginalized, and preyed upon. When atheists demean people of faith, it becomes easy to think that people of faith are less than human. If someone buys into a philosophy of self-preservation and self-advancement, the natural outcome is that the neighbor doesn't matter, especially the vulnerable neighbor. If someone tells another person that he or she is worthless, over time that untruth is internalized and becomes a dangerous part of a troubled and troubling inner world. The old saying that "sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me" is a lie. It always has been. Words matter. How we talk to and about one another matters. It matters in our interpersonal relationships. It matters in public discourse. And, it affects how we treat one another.

Violence does not begin when a troubled person picks up a gun and shoots another person. It does not begin when the bully hits a victim. It does not begin when a rapist rapes. It begins in our heads. It begins in how we think about one another. It begins in how we understand community. It is made real when we use hurtful and hateful words. And, it transforms into something grotesque when the word is turned into action.

I wish I had an answer to our culture of violence; I don't. The best I can muster as a pastor is that I have been called to be a person of peace amid violence. As a follower of Christ, I am compelled to speak publicly about peace in the face of violence. As a member of society, I have an obligation to atone for the ways in which my thoughts, words, and deeds contribute to violence. Like so many other important things, examining ourselves in light of the violence we create and in which we are immersed is complex and hard fraught, but it is imperative that we rise to the challenge. Another young person was killed today. In a school. The last day before summer. This should be unconscionable. A reasonable society will not allow this to continue. A compassionate people will not stand for this.

I suppose I am left wondering if there is any reason left in us. Is there any compassion?

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

"Earthrise/Christrise" a Christmas Eve Sermon"

"Earthrise" Seattle Times
Forty-five years ago today, astronaut William Anders took the first color photograph of earth from space. It changed everything; 1968 was a year known by violence and war and assassinations, by change and chaos and the loss of trust in institutions, and this one photo gave a new, larger vision of what it means to be - to exist at all. Now known as "Earthrise," Anders' photo stood, and still stands, as a symbol of humility and wonder, of vulnerability and strength. For the first time, human beings could see our place in relation to the deep darkness of space. Our "little blue ball" shining in the midst of pin pricks of light surrounded by incalculable darkness, Earthrise shows both the vibrancy and the vulnerability of what it means to call Earth home.

Our Judeo-Christian narrative says that a God of sufficiency desired more - desired relationship - and by imagination and articulation brought creation in to being. The Christian story goes on to say that to poor parents in an occupied land, God's articulation became flesh and entered into the fullness of the human condition. In one person we find the fullness of God's grace and mercy, compassion and justice. Here, again, like in Earthrise, we find humility and wonder, vulnerability and strength.

Christmas is an invitation to a new perspective and the new experiences that perspectives brings. It takes us on a journey to see the world more fully and wholly and to engage in it without reserve. What does it mean to share this blue ball with one another? Christmas asks of us to do something almost impossible - to see and not be afraid, to confront the overwhelming aloneness of darkness and to not be overwhelmed, to see the joy and wonder and glory in that one little blue dot rather than the imposing emptiness that surrounds it as vast as it is. Christmas is about relationship - God's relationship with us and our relationship with one another. We live on a small floating ball together - Muslims and Buddhists, straight and gay, Easterners and Westerners, capitalists and socialists. We are immigrants, migrants, refugees, and travelers. Here we are. We live along rivers and in valleys, in deserts and on mountains. We speak hundreds and hundreds of different languages. We worship different gods. We sing different songs. We tell different fables. But we are neighbors. We are here in the ocean of space together.

When we as Christians arrive at the manger, we find not a king with power and armies and a palace. We find the brokenness of humanity in poverty. We also find the limitless joy and possibility of new life and the uncertainty that accompanies new parenthood. We find the earthiness of animals - their smell, their waste, their warmth. We find nomads and shepherds. And there are angels proclaiming to us over and over that we might not be overwhelmed by the smallness and the poverty and the uncertainty. They are the color in our story that punctuates the darkness of everything by saying "Do not be afraid for I bring you glad tidings of great joy." They sing what we should feel, "Glory in the highest." The manger is a new world without domination or violence. It is a the feeding trough for the world. It is where all come and find room and hospitality and warmth, and no one is turned away. The manger is like our Earth floating amidst space; it is one small place of respite in a conflicted hurting world.

May Christmas offer you a new perspective. May it change everything for you. In the midst of war and violence and grief and the loss of trust, may this day serve as a reminder of the wonder of life. In it, God's holy light pricks through the darkness. This evening, we welcome the Christ-child. May we nurture him with love by treating one another with gentleness and sacredness. As we live on the earth, may we treat it with reverence. It is God's breath shaped into our home. May we not look upon one another with suspicion but with love knowing we share a vulnerable experience with each other and that we need each other for our very existence. May Christmas be for us "Christrise," a new picture of reality that challenges everything and gives us hope. Amen.

*Ironically, William Anders left his home religion of Roman Catholicism after this experience, asking, "Are we that special? I don't think so."

Thursday, November 21, 2013

A plea to liberal Christians: Utilize better biblical exegesis. Stop decrying "Pharisees"

Oh, friends. I really don't want to write this post. It is difficult to challenge those with whom one mostly agrees, but I've come to a point at which silence has become untenable.

"Liberal Christians" (whatever that means), in your attempts to "correct" the theology of those you deem "conservative," please use better biblical exegesis. Have a better historical understanding of the scriptures you quote. For the love of God, don't be lazy when referring to scripture to uphold a theological point.

In the wake of the verdict against Frank Schaefer, a United Methodist clergy convicted in a church trial for conducting a same-sex union, liberal commentators have rightfully taken to social media, blogs, and other forums to express disappointment and anger. I, of course, share their pain for this decision and for the church's continued stance relative to LGBTQI people. However, I feel compelled to challenge my friends and colleagues on their lazy exegesis. So, here I go...

In particular, please refrain from comparing an unjust church and its practices to "Pharisees," which today is known as rabbinic Judaism, or, just Judaism. Even worse is the way the word "Pharisaism" is used in a sneering way as though it sounds like a disease for which a round of antibiotics might be in order. Yes, "Pharisaism" appears in Merriam-Webster's Dictionary. Its first definition is "the doctrines or practices of Pharisees." The second, and problematic definition reads, " pharisaical character, spirit, or attitude :  hypocrisy." In the New Testament, Pharisees serve a prominent role, but that role is not what Christianity has made it out to be. Pharisees were biblical experts, interpreters of law. They were not the bogeymen of the Bible. Pharisees were one sect of Judaism. In fact, Jesus shares much of their theology; this is what makes them a relevant partner in arguing texts, law, and Jewish life. Moreover, within Judaism, the use of argument does not signify enemy status. Rather, arguing is part of the spiritual practice of arriving at new understanding.  Jesus speaks about resurrection, like Pharisees. He is well versed in Torah, like Pharisees. He wears tzittzit, worships in synagogues, and adheres to Jewish law (more on that in a moment), like Pharisees.

One of the main missteps that Christians take in putting Jesus over and against Pharisees is that they contrast purity with compassion. Pharisees champion purity; Jesus champions compassion. This practice has to stop. In the book "The Historical Jesus in Context," Amy-Jill Levine writes:

...complicating the discussion is a popular view that Jesus sought to replace the Jewish purity system -- seen as creating class-based distinctions, filtering funds to the Temple (itself seen as a corrupt institution), marginalizing women (who would be in states of impurity because of menstruation and parturition), and concentrating piety and so [sic] power in the hands of the Pharisees -- with a system of compassion. This false distinction (the opposite of purity is impurity, and of compassion, the lack of compassion) is based on a variety of factors: the equally false distinction sometimes drawn between Law and Grace, the reductive equation of ritual impurity with sin, a presumption that first-century Jews followed the Mosaic Torah fully, literally, and uniformly, ignorance of purity's import to Gentiles, the false assumption that men were not concerned with or subject to ritual impurity, the equating of purity and class (the high priest can become ritually impure; a peasant widow can be in a state of purity), basic misunderstandings of the ancient sources...and, occasionally, Christian apologetic (31-32).

In doing this, Christians miss a deeper understanding of Jesus and his historical and theological contexts. Levine goes on to say:

Both the Jesus of the Gospels and the Rabbis of Mishnah and Talmud...alleviate any hardship created by following the more literal sense [of law]. Exemplifying this process in the Gospels are the "Antitheses" of Matthew that follow the formulaic structure, "You have heard that it was said...But I tell you..." While the interpretation of Matthew 5:44, "But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you," is novel...the means by which the Gospel derives this interpretation are not:...the word "neighbor" can be stretched to include "enemy" because the terms in Hebrew share the same consonants; only the pronunciation differs.

That is, Jesus uses word play to show that the difference between neighbor and enemy is one of emphasis. Or, to be clear, there is no actual distinction.

I am not going to go as far as some scholars and posit that Jesus was a Pharisee. If one reviews social constructs of many movements, one will find that Jesus shares traits with many without fully subscribing to any (Levine, 12). However, the biblical reference to Jesus as Rabbi is the first reference to any man as a rabbi. Uttered by Mary, the first one to encounter the risen Christ, Jesus becomes the first person in literature referred to as "Rabbouni," or "teacher," "rabbi." Interesting for someone who is "obviously" opposed to rabbis, teachers, i.e., Pharisees.

The other argument that repeats itself when liberal Christians talk about Jesus and social change is that Jesus "broke the law" and so we can to. Frequently, they point to Jesus "breaking Sabbath law." In order to make this claim, Christians might refer to Mark 2:23-28 or Mark 3:1-3. In the Mark 2 story, Jesus' disciples pluck grain on the Sabbath. Questioned by Pharisees (why were they out in the field with Jesus and his disciples???), Jesus refers to a story about David who entered the house of God to get consecrated food for his hungry men. In the next story in Mark 3, which immediately follows the story in the field, Jesus, in a synagogue on Sabbath, heals a man with a withered hand. This time Jesus is the one who challenges the Pharisees by asking them which is more lawful, to do good or to do evil. There is a story in Luke where Jesus heals the "bent over woman" (Luke 13:10-17). Again, challenged by "the leader of the synagogue," Jesus replies that all people work on the Sabbath in taking care of their animals. Isn't, he asks, this woman worth as much? In all three of these "Sabbath law breaking" stories, Jesus is broadening people's ability to participate in Sabbath. With food, with healing. In none of them can those who challenge Jesus bring any kind of charge or apply any kind of punishment. This reveals that first century Judaism, even first century Pharisaic Judaism in particular, was fluid and open to interpretation. Indeed, the process of debate and argument rests at the heart of Pharisaic Judaism; it is used to wrangle an idea forward. Debate often ends with disparate opinions; this remains is true today. Moreover, in the story from Luke, even though the synagogue leader (never identified as a Pharisee) challenges Jesus, the assembly "rejoiced at the wonderful things he had done" (Luke 13:17).

What we learn about stories relative to Sabbath is that Jesus was in synagogue on Sabbath "as was his custom." He read scripture. He wore tzitzit. And, he performed acts that would open people to a more full and expansive experience of Sabbath. He was, indeed, challenged, but those challenges do not imply that Jesus per se "broke the Sabbath law." Rather, they point to differences of opinion regarding law, important differences that helped the early Christian community better identify how it would relate to Jewish law and better understand Jesus' role as an entry point into Sabbath, an entry into God's gift of law and grace.

So, in the same way that I implore you to stop comparing unjust church actions with "Pharisaism," I implore you to stop molding Jesus into something you want him to be. Stop saying that he "broke the law." Unless, of course, you want to talk about Roman law...

Where did the Christian conflation of hypocrisy and the Pharisees originate? Anti-Jewishness quickly arose within the Christian movement. As Jews expelled Christians from their synagogues, a family fight escalated. By the Protestant Reformation, acrimony was strong between Jews and Christians (the Crusades did not help!). In his invective against the Roman Catholic Church, its abuses and excesses, Martin Luther compared the church to Pharisees, and the practice stuck.

Good biblical exegesis can be used to further the efforts to widen the church doors, to move us as a people into work that rights wrongs, creates justice, and helps to usher in God's holy realm. Let's not be lazy. Let's not caricature certain groups in order to bolster the esteem of our own. Let's not create bogeymen and further divide one from another.

Jesus was a healer. Let's talk about that. He restored communities. Let's lift up those stories. He did indeed challenge religious leaders; we can say that. In fact, I think that using the stories that highlight debates between Jesus and other Jews regarding their own laws of identity can be instructive for us in our own debates about identity and communion. Jesus was a provocateur. It's fine for us to show that. He went to the heart of the place of power to speak a different word. He indeed claimed, or at least his community claimed for him, titles and authority that were supposed to lay elsewhere. All of these are ways which we can look to scripture for wisdom and guidance.

Good anthropology is important. So is good sociology. Good theology is imperative within a theological movement. So is good biblical exegesis. "Three out of four ain't bad" just won't work here. Christians insisting on change must embrace a rigorous exegetical practice if we are to be different from those with whom we disagree. We cannot castigate others for poor biblical literacy and then utilize poor exegesis in the composition of our own positions.

God's Holy Creation: a Sermon on Isaiah 65:17-25 (Nov. 17, 2013)

Recently, there has been an increased presence of homeless people coming to the church seeking shelter, warmth, access to electricity and other things we take for granted, and the basic necessities of food and water. While Wall Street has rebounded since the economic downturn, many people are feeling the effects of the sequestration that has left vulnerable women and children with less money for food and health care, seniors who depend upon meals on wheels with decreased funds, and cuts in most of the programs that feed, clothe, house, and care for the most vulnerable in our society. This quiet desperation is largely ignored in the press, which focuses primarily on stocks, GDP, and the housing market, all of which are important but largely divorced from the suffering of those at the margins of our society.

This is true, even in Seattle, which has rebounded faster and more robustly than much of the rest of the nation. A man came to the church this past week and wanted an hour alone in the sanctuary. He told me that as a homeless person, his access to warmth, to fresh water, and to bathrooms is always predicated on being in someone else's company. Shelters provide no privacy. Feeding programs are done in groups. Bathrooms are public. And so on. He said to me that he missed the dignity that comes with the simple luxury of being able sit in a warm place all alone, to be in the bathroom alone, to sleep alone, to eat in quiet, and to have access to these things without a thousand questions from social service providers. And so, he sat in our sanctuary alone for an hour. Without the noise of other people talking to him, around him, at him. He sat out of the cold and wet. In this room, he found something sacred - actual sanctuary.

Interestingly, some of the most poetic and moving words in the Bible were written by people who, like our visitor this week, existed in the midst of struggle. Comfort is a powerful soporific lulling our senses so that the world comes to us just as we expect without high highs or low lows. Discomfort, however, puts us on edge and awakens us to every curse and every blessing. That is why change is rarely sought by those in power, living in ease with money, support systems, and privilege. Change is sought and pushed for by those who are left out, left alone, and left defenseless.

But, not only do those on the margins push for change, they are also the ones who help us to see with new eyes the simple beauty of this world. They are the ones who can bestow hope because they are the ones who understand, in their marrow and spirit, the transformative power of hope. They are the ones who know the life-giving power of joy. Because they are truly alive.

The reading from Isaiah comes about two generations after the Israelites had returned home from exile, somewhere around the year 475 BCE. Jerusalem had been largely destroyed, and while hope spread before them, the former glory of their city no longer existed. They were in the midst of rebuilding their city. There were those who wanted to rebuild things as they once had been. There were those, like our poet and prophet, who understood that streets, homes, and marketplaces in ruins could serve as an invitation to build things differently, to reimagine society and its systems differently. He offered words of hope that, despite their wait and struggle, God is at work "to create a new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind." Through the prophet God says, "Be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight." Such beautiful words for a people hungering for a future they could almost but not quite see or even hope for.

And then, the prophet gives us new creation that is freed from the curses of Genesis 3, the curse of the banishment from the Garden of Eden, in which woman's childbirth becomes painful, human labor becomes toil, and the serpent strikes the heel of humankind. In this new creation, the sorrow of the past will disappear; work on the land becomes a joy; exile (or banishment) will be no longer; children will not be born for calamity; offspring will be blessed.  In this new creation, natural enemies (or unnatural enemies, as animals did not devour one another in the original creation) comfort for one another. Here the prophets gives us one of the most enduring hopes of our faith - the hope and vision of the peaceable kingdom.

God speaks to the broken city and calls forth newness. God has not stopped holy creation. God is still at work in and among us coaxing this forth. This dream is not only a utopian vision, but it is a promise that God is laboring here among us in our world in the midst of our brokenness. God does not send us someplace different to find newness. God pulls newness out of our despair, out of our ruins. This is so very difficult for us to see or to trust because all we see is the devastation. Whether we are talking about violence in the world, empty pews in our churches, or sorrow in our hearts, trusting God's holy creative acts is hard. It is so much easier to think or hope or imagine that God will create something new in a different world, the world after we die, another city, someplace else. But that is not the word the prophet gives us. It is not the vision that God extends to us. God not only creates newness here; God creates newness in the heavens as well. God is making all things new. As the great Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann puts it: "This poet...knows that Yahweh's coming newness is not contained within our present notions of the possible. And although the work of urbanization is hard and daily and concrete, that work is situation in a vision unscarred. What this poet imagines for his treasured city, the subsequent people of faith have regularly entertained as a promise over every failed city. Here the old city is submitted to the wonder of the creator, who makes all things new."

I invite us to lean in to the difficult work of trusting that God - in our city, in our church, in our lives - is molding and shaping us in the joy and delight that we were made to be. I know it's hard. It's hard when the evidence around us is so very contrary to this vision. But God is down in the ruins of this world and the ruins of our lives. God is right here making all things new. God finds ways to use our ruins to help us look beyond the constructs we would erect. God provides sanctuary, sometimes just for a little while, and in the sanctuary moment of rest, trust, and safety, God's holy creative work can be found making all things new. Right now. Today. Beautiful. A delight. As it - we -were intended to be. Amen.

Peace: Back to our roots

As many within the United Methodist Church sort through reactions and responses to the recent trial, conviction, and punishment of the Rev. Frank Schaefer, I return to a prayer from our Anglican Methodist roots. The second Collect in the Morning Prayer is the collect for peace, which reads:

"O GOD, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom: Defend us thy humble servants in all assaults of our enemies; that we, surely trusting in thy defence, may not fear the power of any adversaries; through the might of Jesus Christ our Lord.Amen." (Book of Common Prayer)

Sometimes, in order to see our way forward, we look back; we look back for wisdom that is ageless, hopeful, profound, grounding, and true. We need peace. We need it every day. Some need it especially this day. 

I find this prayer especially meaningful because its language is not part of our vernacular. The words do not come easily or naturally. They stand as reminders that peace may require a different language, different thinking, a different approach. This linguistic interruption, by its very awkwardness, ties us to our past, awakens us to the "difference-ness" that prayer introduces in our lives, and helps us distance ourselves from the "normal" of our world.

Of particular meaning for me in this prayer is the word "concord." I defy you to recall a moment when you wrote or spoke it without alluding to a plane, a comedy group, or a grape. "Concord," hosever, refers to harmony among people or groups of people, something many may believe is beyond the power of us all, even (perhaps) God. 

And so we pray. We plead with one another, with God, with our own souls to make the awkwardly unimaginable real. Right here. In our broken covenant. Within broken relationships. In a broken world. We pray. We pray for the wisdom of our heritage to move us into an harmonious future. And, for those times when concord eludes us, we pray for perseverance and protection. For all of this, and so much more, we pray.


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