Sunday, April 27, 2014

God Incarnate In us (John 20:19-23)

When Jesus appears to the disciples they are huddled together in a locked room in fear that the Jewish authorities will come for them next. Jesus had said that when the shepherd is smitten the flock will scatter. They had scattered and now they are together again, I suppose, because misery loves company.

Jesus has every right to be angry and confrontational. But Jesus doesn’t scold or rebuke them does he? Jesus speaks a word of peace, a word of acceptance and hope.

Crushed, no doubt, by the weight of their betrayal, full of fear and guilt, it’s what they desperately needed to hear. I’m sure they at first wondered, Could this be true? Is God this forgiving and full of grace? Can we really trust this? He tells them again, a second time: “Peace be with you.” It is true.

Jesus wants his disciples to know that their betrayal, their breach of covenant loyalty, did not dissolve the covenant, did not result in their rejection. They are loved and accepted.

This is where we all have to start or, perhaps, come back to – that we are accepted in spite of all our failures and betrayals, that we are accepted even though we do not deserve to be accepted.

But to claim acceptance for ourselves means that we have to claim acceptance for everyone else. God’s gift of peace is not just for our group, it’s for the cosmos, and we who have heard that word and accepted it, are called by God to spread that word.

Jesus says, “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” And then the text declares that Jesus “breathed on them” and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

The imagery here evokes the description of God breathing on the human creature in Gen. 2:7 where the human creature became a living being.

But here it is Jesus breathing on his disciples. The point here is that the very Spirit that sustains human life is the Spirit that empowered Jesus, and that Spirit is now in us.

The story of Jesus as passed on to us in our sacred tradition is our definitive revelation of God – this is why our Scriptures refer to Jesus as the Word of God and the Wisdom of God and the fullness of God.

The theological term we use to talk about this is incarnation. Jesus reveals in flesh and blood, through his human life what the Divine is like.

But incarnation is not a once-for-all single event; it is ongoing. When Jesus says, “As the Father sent me, so I send you,” he is charging us, his followers, with the responsibility and privilege of carrying forward this process, of continuing this movement of incarnating God tangibly and materially, in human life – in human relationships and interactions. 

In his book, “It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It” Robert Fulghum tells bout the remarkable work done by a remarkable man named Alexander Papaderos. He leads an institute that is devoted to healing the wounds left by war. The institute was built on land where Germans and Cretans killed each other in the conflict that was WWII. At the wars end this man came to believe that the Germans and Cretans had much to give to one another and learn from one another. He believed that if they could forgive each other and construct a creative relationship, then any people could.

Fulghum attended a seminar at that institute led by Dr. Papaderos. At the end of the seminar, Dr. Papaderos invited questions. The seminar, says Fulghum, had generated enough questions for a lifetime, but in the final moments there was only silence. So Fulghum broke the silence, “Dr. Padaderos, what is the meaning of life?”

Laughter followed as the participants stirred to go. But Dr. Papaderos took the question seriously. He held up his hand and stilled the room. He took his wallet out of his pocket and brought out a very small mirror, about the size of quarter.

He explained that when he was a small child, during the war, his family lived in a remote village and they were very poor. One day, on the road, he found the broken pieces of a mirror. A German motorcycle had wrecked in that place.

He tried to find all the pieces and put it together, but that, of course, was not impossible. So he kept the largest piece. By scratching it on a stone, he smoothed the edges and rounded it. He began to play with it as a toy and was fascinated that he could reflect light into dark places where the sun did not shine — in deep holes and crevices and dark closets. It became a game for him to get light into the most inaccessible places he could find.

As he grew up, he realized that the game he played with the mirror as a child was a metaphor for what life was calling him to do. He realized that he was not the light, not the source of light, but the light of truth and understanding would only shine in many of the dark places if he could reflect it.

He said to Fulghum, “I am a fragment of a mirror whose whole design and shape I do not know. Nevertheless, with what I have I can reflect light into the dark places of the world — into the black places in the hearts of people — and change some things in some people. Perhaps others may see and do likewise. This is what I am about.”

There is light and darkness in all of us, and sometimes we have to see the light reflected in others to see the darkness and the light in us.  

God cannot force us to reflect the light; we have to be willing. If we are willing God will reflect grace and truth through us, maybe even in some very dark places. We will each one do that in different ways and in different degrees. But that is what we are about.   

We are all broken pieces of the mirror. And that, too, is part of what we share. Just as it is the broken bread that is shared in Holy Communion, so it is our broken lives that are shared with one another. Paul said to the Corinthians that God’s wisdom is demonstrated through our weakness, not our strength.

Maybe this is the meaning of Jesus showing them his wounds in his hands and side. God uses broken, wounded vessels who are humble, vulnerable, and honest about their weaknesses and limitations. 

It’s interesting that forgiveness is highlighted in v. 23 after Jesus breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Is this the first and primary work of the Holy Spirit? Maybe so. It was central in the life and teachings of Jesus.

Certainly our capacity to be divine image bearers, to reflect the light and love of God, is directly tied to our capacity to forgive. Jesus modeled this when the first words he said to the disciples who deserted him was, “Peace be with you.” There is no peace without forgiveness, there is no hope, no future together without forgiveness.

But what does it mean to retain sins: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Sin has to be admitted in order for forgiveness to be experienced, even if forgiveness has already been granted. The only sin that can keep us from God is our failure to acknowledge our sin. This is why spiritual blindness is so detrimental to the spiritual life because it keeps us from seeing our faults and shortcomings and engaging in self-judgment.

If we live an incarnational life animated and enlivened by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, we will be known as a forgiven and forgiving people. To live in the breath of the Spirit is to inhale and exhale forgiveness; it’s the atmosphere in which the Divine Life is lived - it’s the air we breathe. 

I love the story of the little girl who woke up during a thunderstorm and was afraid. After a bright flash of lightning and loud roar of thunder she ran to her parents room. Her mother awoke and asked her what was wrong. She told her mother she was afraid. Her mother said, “You don’t have to be afraid, sweetie, God is with you.” Very astutely her daughter responded, “That’s nice, mother, but I want someone with skin on her face.”

Isn’t that what it means to live an incarnational life and to be an incarnational community and to engage in an incarnational mission and ministry? We are called to be the skin on the face of God.

How can we be skin on the face of God in our church, in our workplace, among family and friends? What needs to change, what needs to happen in my life, your life, for us to be skin on the face of God?

Sunday, April 20, 2014

What Does Easter Mean? (A sermon from Acts 10:34-43 and John 20:1-18)

A florist mixed up two orders on a busy day. One was to go to a new business, the other to a funeral. The next day, the guy with the new business stormed into the shop, “What’s the big idea? The flowers that arrived for our reception said, “Rest in peace.” The florist responded, “Well, if you think that’s bad you should have seen the people at the funeral who got the flowers that said, “Good luck in your new location.”

When some people think of Easter and the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection, it means little more than belief in an afterlife. I don’t think any of us here would question that the resurrection of Jesus offers hope that there is “more” after death, that physical death does not have the last word. But of course, one might believe in life after death and not believe in the resurrection of Jesus at all.

Perhaps the first place to start in reflecting on the meaning of the resurrection of Jesus is with the first disciples who claimed to be witnesses to the risen Christ. They were all Jews and in a Jewish context resurrection signified vindication.

Belief in actual resurrection was a fairly late development in the history of Judaism. The origins of this belief are obscure, but almost all scholars of Judaism agree that belief in resurrection emerged in a context of oppression and persecution.

It emerged at a time when conventional wisdom was being questioned. Conventional wisdom taught that the righteous would be blessed and the wicked judged in this life. But at some point in the spiritual evolution of Judaism that basic principle was questioned — this did not seem to be the experience of everyone. Sometimes the good die unjustly and the wicked prosper and live long lives. The book of Job, for example, is a book that challenges this conventional wisdom. So, it was out of this context – a context where conventional wisdom no longer worked and the righteous were being oppressed and killed that belief in resurrection emerged.

* * * * * * * *

In our text in Acts, mention is made in verse 41 that Jesus rose from the dead. But the reason it can be said that Jesus rose from the dead or that “he is risen” (as in other texts) is because in verse 40 we are told that “God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear.” Jesus didn’t raise himself; God raised him. This is God’s vindication and validation of everything Jesus stood for and died for.

We are told in the text that “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power” and that “he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.”

God’s own power and energy inspired, empowered, and filled Jesus throughout his life. God’s power flowed in and through him to heal and liberate those oppressed by anti-human, death-dealing powers. The resurrection of Jesus means that this divine power at work in his earthly life is now at loose in the world, and this power is accessible and available to us, even in the most difficult and life demeaning and diminishing situations.

God’s vindication of Jesus means that God did not abandon Jesus on the cross. Even though he felt forsaken, God was with him and he was not alone. Even when darkness descends and engulfs everything as on Good Friday, even when all seems lost and when the power of death seems strongest, the Power of Life is still present and the challenge we face is learning to trust and rely on that Power.

Barbara Brown Taylor, in a recent Christian Century piece tells about reading Jacques Lusseyran, a blind French resistance fighter who authored a memoir called “And There Was Light.” At the age of seven he had an accident that left him completely and permanently blind. In those days blind people were swept to the margins of society. Lusseyran’s doctors suggested sending him to residential school for the blind in Paris but his parents refused, wanting their son to stay in the local public school where he could learn to function in the seeing world.

His mother learned Braille with him and he learned to use a Braille typewriter. The school provided a special desk to hold all his extra equipment. But the best thing his parents did for him, says Taylor, was never to pity him. They never described him as “unfortunate.” His father told him soon after the accident, “Always tell us when you discover something.” He lived a life of discovery.

He wrote: “I had completely lost the sight of my eyes; I could not see the light of the world anymore. Yet the light was still there.” Listen to his language; it sounds mystical. “It’s source was not obliterated. I felt it gushing forth every moment and brimming over; I felt how it wanted to spread over the world. I had only to receive it.”

He said that he could detect its movements and shades. He wrote: “The source of light is not in the outer world. We believe that it is only because of a common delusion. The light dwells where life also dwells: within ourselves.”

Taylor says that when she first read what I just quoted she thought he was speaking spiritually or theologically, but as she continued to read, she realized he was talking about that which he actually experienced. With practice, he learned to attend so carefully to the world around him that he confounded his friends by describing things he could not see with his eyes, and yet somehow he could see them.

What do we see with our spiritual senses? You and I – Are we in touch with our true selves, with the light within, which is the living Christ? No matter how dark and dismal the situation may seem, the Light is still there.

Jesus, on the cross, when he cried out in the darkness, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” apparently for a time lost his sense of connection to the light, but it was still there. The light—the living presence of God—had not left him, though he apparently, at least in Mark's version of the story, lost his sense of it (Luke and John tell a different story).

The resurrection of Jesus means that the anti-human, death-dealing, life-diminishing powers cannot extinguish the light, for it eludes all attempts to capture and destroy and it bursts forth from all the tombs where it is buried and encased.

* * * * * * * *

This light, says the Gospel of John, is in all people and is there to enlighten every individual. It shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. It is the light that became the living Word, the light that became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth; it is the Power of life, the power of goodness and grace, the power of love and forgiveness, the power that brings healing and liberation to those oppressed by the powers of darkness and death.

The expression “the God who raised Jesus from the dead” that occurs in several NT texts, corresponds with the Hebrew expression, “The God who brought up Israel out of Egypt.” The God who liberated the covenant people from bondage is the God who raised Jesus from the dead. Thus the resurrection is an act of God that has universal importance – for Jesus who was raised, has been, according to our text, appointed by God as Lord and Judge of all.

The power of life that raised Jesus is accessible and available to all people, even those who have not heard of Jesus. The risen Christ, the cosmic Christ who is Lord of all can take many forms and answer to many names. Our text says that God shows no partiality, that anyone who fears God, and that does not mean to be afraid of God, but anyone who respects and honors God, and anyone who does what is right, anyone who does what is just and good and compassionate shares in the life of the risen Christ. 

And just as the apostles were “witnesses” to the risen life of the Christ in that day and time, so we have witnesses today to the power of the resurrection at loose in the world. Just talk, for example, to some of the people who have emerged from AA groups on a path to healing and wholeness. Some of them were completely engulfed in the darkness of addiction, but through their connection to a greater Power of life at work in the midst of death they found hope. These living witnesses will tell you as well that this Divine Power is best accessed through relational and communal connections – that it was in the commitment of community they experienced this healing, liberating power. And all of us here today are in some way living witnesses to this Power - are we not? 

I think one of the theological points made in the story we read from John’s Gospel is that the power and life of the risen Christ cannot be pinned down, cannot be scripted or regulated or controlled by any one group or belief system or religious tradition.

Mary does not recognize Jesus; she thinks he is the gardener. In fact, this inability to recognize Jesus is a common feature in the diverse, sometimes contradictory, appearance stories. It teaches, I think, that the life and power of the risen Lord is somewhat elusive and mysterious, though present and real. When Jesus tells Mary not to cling to him, because he has not yet ascended, the theological point the story is making, I believe, is that while the life of Jesus is still available to his followers, it is available in a different form and is experienced in new ways.

The language of ascending that the story in John utilizes (Luke uses this imagery as well) is a poetic and theological way of saying that Jesus has been taken into the very life of God, that he was raised by God to share in God’s transcendent life, and now as the cosmic Christ, as Lord and Judge of all, he mediates and communicates this very life to the world.

This life is hidden, concealed, spiritual in nature, but nonetheless real, dynamic, and powerful. Spiritual writer Brother David Steindl-Rast comments that this life is “hidden as the spring is hidden in the stream” and “we can sense the current of his hidden life as it guides all things from within, pulsating as blessing . . . through the universe and through our own innermost being.” The Pauline writer in the letter to the Colossians describes this life as “hidden with Christ in God.” It is a hidden life, but nonetheless real – pulsating with the power of love and forgiveness.

* * * * * * * *

Author and pastor Philip Gulley, in a fairly recent sermon, shared a letter he received from a reader. The reader thanked Gulley for his book, “If the Church Were Christian” and particularly his chapter titled, “Encouraging Personal Exploration Would Be More Important than Communal Uniformity.” This is what he wrote:

“As I read this chapter I was struck as the words ‘Johovah Witnesses’  appeared on the page in front of me. I was raised a Johovah’s Witness, very active as a young person, a teenager, and into my early 20’s, when I came out as a gay man. I knew what the result would be, there was not a doubt in my mind because they practice disfellowshipping as you describe in your book.

“The fear, anguish and worry about what would happen if I came out moved me to almost take my own life. Thankfully I did not. I prayed, I wept, and in that moment of darkness, had the first real spiritual experience of my life, an experience that let me know that God was okay with me exactly as I was.” (Let me interject: Here is what I find amazing about the Power of Life at loose in the world, namely, that it can break through layers of bad teaching, socialization, and tradition. Brother David Stendl-Rast says that we can know the living Christ firsthand, even if we have never heard the story of Jesus).

“I was kicked out of the church. I was disowned by my family. I was shunned by every friend, every person I had ever known. I found myself alone in the world. Truly, completely, utterly alone. I was 23 years old, young, scared and bruised.

“Amazingly I found faith again. Most people who are raised as I am never find faith again after they are shunned. Many become atheists or agnostics, totally rejecting any thoughts of God. I’m thankful I was able to re-form my faith. I had to start from scratch. I asked all the hard questions I had never been encouraged to ask, and now have a more vibrant, joyful and expansive vision of God, the world, and faith.

He concludes by saying: “I thank God for holding me in the light, and keeping me close. I thank God for my life.”

That, sisters and brothers, is the power of the resurrection, the power of love and liberation at loose in the world.

I love the story of the painting that hung in a gallery of Foust playing chess with the Devil for his soul. It appears that the Devil has Foust checkmated. The Devil is hovering over the chess board with a delightful glee, while on the face of Foust there is a look of desperation.

Some people in the gallery would inevitably gravitate toward this  painting. If they were going through a difficult time, a time of disappointment and discouragement, or if, perhaps, they were living on the brink of despair, the painting spoke to them.

One day a chess master entered the gallery and for the longest time simply stared at the painting. Then suddenly, out of the quietness of that place, came a loud shout, “It’s a lie. It’s a lie,” exclaimed the chess master, “the knight and the king still have moves left.”

This is what Easter means for us today. No matter how disappointing, how dark, how desperate the situation may seem, we still have moves left, because the Power of life is at loose in the world. And not only is the Power of Life at loose in the world “out there,” it’s loose “in here.” It resides within every community gathered in the name of Christ, that is, every community committed to the things Christ stands for. This Power resides in every human heart, in our true selves; the light dwells within, and will guide us if we will receive it.

* * * * * * * *

Our gracious God, we celebrate the power of life and love at work in our world, in our church, and in our personal lives this Easter Sunday. The death dealing, life diminishing forces at work in the domination systems of society and in the tragic events that destroy human life and tear at our humanity will not have the final word. For the power that raised Jesus from the dead, is the very power at work among us and in us to bring to completion the good work you began. Help us to tap into this healing, liberating power each day as we pray and serve and work to see your kingdom realized and your will done on earth as it is in heaven. In the name of Christ our Lord we pray. Amen.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Did God forsake Jesus on the cross?

When Mother Teresa’s private journals were published after her death, the surprising revelation was that she spoke of long periods where the sense of the absence of God was more real to her than God’s presence.

In Mark’s version of the passion narrative Jesus utters a single saying from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The cry echoes the feelings of the Psalmist (Ps. 22:1). It’s a question, not a declaration and it reflects the sense of God’s absence that overtook Jesus in his humiliating death.

Did God actually depart? Was Jesus really forsaken by God? Was this in reality the eclipse of God?

In subtle ways throughout the passion story Mark’s Gospel proclaims Jesus to be God’s agent of redemption. Before the high priest, Jesus is asked, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” (14:61). Jesus responded, “I am” (14:62). Jesus also affirmed Pilate’s question, “Are you the King of the Jews?” (15:2), which, obviously, Pilate did not believe. The soldiers mocked Jesus as “King,” dressing him in the color of royalty and placing a crown of thorns on his head (15:16-18). The inscription on the cross read, “The King of the Jews” (15:26). As he hung on the cross, passersby, along with the priests and scribes, mocked him as “Messiah and “King of Israel” (15:29-32). 

Herein is the irony and paradox. The final confession made by the Roman centurion that Jesus was God's Son (15:39) affirms that in Mark's view God was indeed present in this horrific event, acting in Jesus to redeem. Though Jesus is somewhat passive, bearing all the hate and animosity of the religious and political powers, God is active, reaching out to the world in and through Jesus’ death. God is active in the passivity of Jesus, absorbing the hate and animosity.

I believe that what Jesus experienced, God experienced. I do not believe in a distant, removed Almighty—an “Unmoved Mover.” I believe in a God who is deeply moved and engaged in the life of the creation. God, I believe, is not almighty in the use of power, but in the expression (though often hidden) of his magnanimous, wasteful love.

In his novel, “Jayber Crow,” Wendell Berry observes that Christ did not descend from the cross except into the grave—that is, he didn’t overcome his killers by violent power. If he had, says Berry, then everyone would be coerced to believe in him, and “from that moment the possibility that we might be bound to him and he to us and us to one another by love forever would be ended.”

Berry observes that God is present “only in the ordinary miracle of the existence of God’s creatures,” in “the poor, the hungry, the hurt, the wordless creatures . . . this groaning and travailing beautiful world.”

Berry cuts against the grain of our privatized, dualistic way of seeing life, reflecting a more universal and inclusive worldview. He writes, “We are all involved in all and any good, and in all and any evil. For any sin, we all suffer. That is why our suffering is endless. It is why God grieves and Christ’s wounds are still bleeding.”

Berry declares poetically what I believe the cross represents and symbolizes. God participates with us in our suffering. God is not “out there,” but in us and with us, sharing our pain and loss. In the ever present bleeding wounds of the living Christ we find a brother, comrade, and friend.

Theologian Jurgen Moltmann says, “Good Friday is the most comprehensive and most profound expression of Christ’s fellowship with every human being.” He stands in union and solidarity with every suffering soul. 

Christ descended into our “hell” and suffered it, in order to empty it of its malevolent power. Our failures and defeats, our feelings of abandonment and rejection, do not separate us from God, but draw us into communion and cooperation with God who shares in the suffering of this beautiful, yet groaning and travailing world.

God did not abandon Jesus, nor does God abandon us on whatever “cross” we may be stretched out upon. In our suffering, God suffers and is for us and with us, regardless of what we may feel or not feel.

Brother David Steindl-Rast has made the point that the affirmation that Jesus was not actually abandoned by God when he cried out in agony on the cross speaks above all about God. It presupposes a view of God that says God is concerned with justice and does set things right, though not necessarily on the level of history. 

The faithfulness of Jesus is highlighted in Jesus’ cry. While Jesus felt forsaken on the cross, he did not forsake God. “My God, my God” is a cry of faith. It is an affirmation of his persistence that the God of justice and peace, judgment and grace, the God who inspires visions of a world healed and made right, is, indeed, his God.

If we believe that God “gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless” (Isa. 40:29), then we, too, can overcome when the pain and darkness surround us and God is conspicuous by God’s absence. As with Jesus, the challenge before us is to keep trusting.

We have the benefit of knowing that the dawn of Easter morning follows the dark night of Good Friday

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Scapegoats and Lightning Rods (A Sermon on Matthew 27:27-44 for Passion Sunday or Good Friday)

The year was 2003 and the place was Wrigley Field in Chicago. It was the sixth game in a 4 out of 7 series with the Florida Marlins for the National League Championship. The Cubs were leading 3 – 0, just five outs away from going to the World Series. Then it happened.

With one out, Marlin second baseman Luis Castillo fouled one into the first row of seats off of the third base line. Several spectators reached for the ball as left fielder Moises Alou made a play on it. Just as Alou was about to make the catch, the ball deflected off the hands of a Cubs fan. That fan’s name was Steve Bartman. Alou visibly displayed his displeasure.

After that failed attempt to make an out, the inning broke open in favor of the Marlins. They scored eight runs, defeating the Cubs 8 – 3.

Because there were no replay boards in Wrigley Field, no one in the crowd knew of Bartman until friends and family members who were watching the game on TV started calling them on their cell phones. Bartman had to be led away from the park under security escort. As he and his friends who were with him were led out of the stadium, fans pelted him with drinks and other debris. Bartman’s name and personal information about him appeared on Major League Baseball’s online message boards minutes after the game ended. As many as six police cars gathered outside his home to protect Bartman and his family.

The Cubs went on to lose game 7 and Bartman issued a public apology saying he was truly sorry, that it happened so fast he didn’t even see Alou trying to catch the ball. He simply reacted. Indeed, everyone around Bartman had reacted the same way, but it was Bartman’s hands that actually touched the ball. Bartman became the scapegoat for all their frustration and anger.  

Since then, Bartman has kept a low profile. He has never given an interview and declined numerous endorsement deals. ESPN did a full length documentary on the incident in 2011 and Bartman again refused to be interviewed or appear on the program. Bartman also declined a six-figure offer to appear in a Super Bowl commercial. One can only imagine how his life has been impacted by this incident; perhaps he still fears physical harm.

Of course, there were a number of reasons why the Cubs lost that game and the final game to the Marlins that year. So why all this focus on Bartman? Why is it that we seek out scapegoats?

The image of a scapegoat recalls a ritual performed by ancient Israel on their holiest day of the year—Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement. A goat was chosen by means of casting lots. Actually there were two goats chosen, one was killed as a sin offering to make atonement for the holy place, the other was allowed to live to make atonement for the sins of the people.

This is how the book of Leviticus describes the ritual: “Then Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and sending it away into the wilderness . . . The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region” (16:21-22).

This ritual functioned, I suppose, as a symbolical representation of the collective cleansing and forgiveness of the covenant people by God. Whether it was a healthy or toxic ritual for ancient Israel I cannot say. If it served as an expression of confession and repentance it may indeed have been redemptive. If, however, it was carried out as an act of projection and refusal to own one’s own culpability as so often happens today, then it was toxic.

We all know how Hitler made scapegoats of the Jews and how today gays have become scapegoats in Uganda and Russia. Think of how in our own country particular groups have been demonized and blamed: the poor are blamed for poverty, immigrants are blamed for the demographic changes happening all around us, and LGBT folks are blamed for the breakdown of the family. The scapegoat, whether an individual or a group, becomes the object of pent-up frustration and repressed anger, taking the form of subtle, malicious, verbal attacks or even outright venomous rage.

This scene from the passion story in Matthew’s Gospel pictures Jesus as a scapegoat. It begins with the soldiers stripping, humiliating, and mocking him by stringing a robe around him, putting a reed in his right hand, and pressing a crown of thorns on his head. They spit on him and beat him and cry out, “Hail, King of the Jews.”

The scorning continues when he is lifted up on the cross. The crowd derides him as do the religious leaders—the chief priests, scribes, and elders. Even the bandits crucified with Jesus taunt and ridicule him.

The political and religious powers mock him as Israel’s King and Messiah and as God’s Son—echoing both the imperial claims of Caesar and Hebrew designations for those who function as God’s special messengers and agents.

Of course the irony in all this is that Jesus is indeed Israel’s Messiah and God’s Son—God’s messenger and mediator of salvation. The early followers of Jesus, in retrospect, after being convinced that God raised, vindicated, and exalted Jesus, looked back at this horrific event and found saving significance in it.

So the question we need to ask—the question that is so important to our faith—is “How?” How is it possible that saving significance can be attached to the brutal, humiliating execution of a good man? How can this vicious, dehumanizing event be redemptive?

I think there are several ways, though today I want to mention two in connection with the ritual of scapegoating.

First, the scene Matthew pictures for us in the passion story exposes the evil of scapegoating much the same way images of African Americans being attacked and beaten in Selma Alabama exposed the evil of racism. Jesus became a scapegoat to end all scapegoating.

We are given an opportunity to see and judge. The key to change, however, is judging ourselves not others. We unjustly judge the other when we make the other a scapegoat. We justly judge ourselves when we are honest enough to see the many subtle ways we blame others and project our angst and anger on them. 

In the remake of the movie, “The Bad News Bears,” there is a scene where Coach Buttermaker sees and judges himself. In the championship game the opposing team’s coach demeans his son who is pitching. Because his son refuses to throw at a batter, the coach walks to the mound, verbally assaults him, and then pushes him down, humiliating him in front of everyone.

As Coach Buttermaker watches this scene unfold, something clicks—he sees himself and doesn’t like what he sees. It gives him pause and he decides to change. He decides that that is not who he wants to be. His moment of recognition sets him on a path of conversion. He decides to become a different human being.

This is what can happen when the absurdity and evil of scapegoating is exposed, and we are honest and courageous enough to see and judge ourselves.

A second way the crucifixion of Jesus can be liberating is when we decide to trust and emulate the costly forgiveness Jesus embodied in his death.

The late Clarence Jordan, the American Baptist who founded Koinonia Farm, asks, “Did God put our sins on the back of his son on the cross? No. He made him available and we put our sins on his back.”

He tells about getting a phone call at 1:30 in the morning. The guy on the other end said, “Mr. Jordan, I just wanted to let you know that within seventeen minutes there’s going to be a green pickup truck pull out of that dirt road there just below the bridge and it’s going to be loaded with dynamite. We’re going to blow your place off the face of the map. I just wanted to let you know so you would have time to get the people out of the buildings.”

Jordan tried to keep the guy on the phone by asking questions but the man who called was evidently in no mood to be conversational. He said in a huff, “Now, you have sixteen minutes,” and hung up the phone.  

With telephone in hand, his son walks in and wants to know who it was and what he wanted. Jordan tells his son that somebody wants to blow up the place. His son says, “Oh” and goes back to bed. 

Back in the bedroom, his wife asks what’s going on and he says, “Some guy called to say that he’s going to blow the place up in sixteen minutes.” She says, “Really?” and rolls over. Jordan thinks, “What am I to do? My own family doesn’t take this seriously.” So he, too, went back to bed.

Jordan writes, “I must confess the thoughts in my head were not conducive to sound slumber. I watched the clock tick off those minutes . . . and when it did headlights came up the road near that bridge and I thought, ‘Well, this is it.’ But we weren’t going to be out there under that light, running around in our pajamas like a bunch of scared nitwits. We were going to be in our beds. And if the world wanted to have a little blowing-up party, they could have a little blowing-up party . . .

“The pick up came and slowed down, and I thought he was coming in.  But he didn’t. We felt this taunt that they threw at Jesus’ face—“Let him save himself.” He couldn’t. He was the one that he couldn’t save.  He hadn’t come in the first place to save himself. He’d come to save mankind. He was the only one who couldn’t save himself . . . The taunt was true. For the world had to have a lightning rod to discharge its static, spiritual energy. And God made himself available in his son. And I think God needs in this world, available people who will bear the sins of the world.”

Jesus did not die because God required it. Jesus did not die in order to satisfy divine honor, or propitiate God’s justice, or appease God’s wrath, or pay off a sin debt, or bear sin’s punishment as our substitute. God did not make Jesus a scapegoat. The political, social, and religious powers came together to make Jesus a scapegoat.

And Jesus bears it all, without hate, without any wish of vengeance or desire for retaliation. He absorbs it in order to exhaust it, and thus makes a way for forgiveness and redemption. Luke’s version of the passion story especially highlights this theme when he has Jesus say from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

The scornful taunt is true: Jesus could not save himself if he wanted to save others from the evils of scapegoating and the life diminishing and death-dealing consequences that come when we deny our sin and project our fears, insecurities, prejudices, and anxieties on others.

This should never be used as a tool of oppression to keep victims from protesting their victimization, but it does show us the way forward. Only such costly demonstrations of forgiveness can break the cycles of hate and violence by unmasking and exposing the powers of evil for what they are, pricking our conscience, jarring us awake, leading us to repentance.

As we eat the bread and drink the cup of Holy Communion, let us not only remember the love, courage, and moral fortitude of Jesus bearing the sins of the world—the hate, prejudice, malice, all of it, but let us also decide to follow our Lord. Let us pray that we might experience and express a greater capacity to forgive and absorb the angst and anger of others, knowing that a magnanimous love covers a multitude of sins.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

What Do You See?

In the story of the blind man healed by Jesus in John 9, the story is introduced by the statement: “As he (Jesus) walked along, he saw a man blind from birth.” Jesus saw a man who elicited compassion and understanding.

On the other hand, his disciples saw a man rejected and condemned by God. “Who sinned,” they ask Jesus, “this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

The disciples are the ones who are blind. In the course of the conversations and interrogations that follow we also learn that the man’s neighbors, parents, and the religious leaders who investigate this Sabbath healing are also blind. 

In May of 1968 two Roman Catholic priests, Daniel and Philip Berrigan (brothers), and seven of their Christian friends—two missionaries, a midwife, a nurse, a worker in race relations, and two others—walked into the draft board office in Catonsville, Maryland at the height of the Vietnam War. As an act of nonviolent protest and witness for peace, they took some draft files out of a filing cabinet, carried them out into the street, and burned them. They were, of course, arrested and charged with a federal crime.

In October of that year, they were placed on trial in federal court in Baltimore. “Why did you do this?” said the prosecutor to Daniel Berrigan. “I did it,” he said, “because I began to see the cost of being a Christian. When I saw the napalm kill children, my senses were invaded; and I saw the power of death in the modern world.”

At this point the judge interrupted: “Father Berrigan. This testimony is irrelevant. The war is not on trial, you are.” “Your Honor,” replied Daniel Berrigan, “I can only tell you what I see, and what I see is that right now we are standing before the living God.”

One of the attorneys said, “Mr. Berrigan, are you saying your religious convictions had something to do with this?” “Yes, yes, of course,” responded Berrigan, “my religious convictions had something to do with this. If it were not for my religious convictions, this would be eviscerated of meaning; and I should be committed for insanity.”

Another defendant, Mary Marlin, a nurse, stood up and said, “I did this because I have begun to see things as they are. This is what a Christian does when you see things.”

What do you see? And what do you do, when you begin to see things as they are?

Once we see Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God, a vision of a world of grace and goodness, of peace and equality, of mutual sharing and caring, we can never again settle for a selfish religion of personal prosperity and success, or for politics that cater to the powerful and wealthy, or for a Christian faith that settles for the status quo and conforms to conventional wisdom.
The more we are drawn into the light of Christ, the more we see how our false attachments and group idolatries, our biases and prejudices blind us and bind us, and how often, in our captivity to blindness, we have been complicit in injustice.

While the capacity to see is a gift—the work of the Spirit—it is always a struggle that requires courage, faith, and risk on our part.

Thomas Merton said that whenever a new monk came to the monastery they held an entrance ritual. It had nothing to do with patting the new monk on the back and saying, “Welcome, brother. We are so glad to have you.”

Instead, they would form a circle around the new monk and the Abbot would say, “What are you seeking?” And the answer was not, “I seek a happy life, or I seek a fulfilled life, or freedom from my anxieties, or even union with God.” The answer was, “I seek mercy, mercy, mercy.”

Merton writes, “All of the monks would know that this mercy was to be achieved only in a struggle. In a struggle with blindness, the blindness in the world as it is, and the blindness in us. Those who give up the struggle,” says Merton, “are those who are truly blind.”

As the story of the blind man unfolds, the religious leaders grow in their hostility, while the man healed of his blindness grows in spiritual illumination and understanding.

Jesus’ commentary on the story is significant: “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”

Our testimony is never: “I once was blind, but now I see clearly.” No one sees clearly. We always see through a glass dimly. And it’s always a struggle.