Sermon for Easter Day, 2018

Sermon for Easter Day

April 1, 2018

The Rev. Matthew R. Dutton-Gillett

 This has been a strange year for the church calendar.  Ash Wednesday, which is the day that marks the start of the Lenten season that precedes Easter, fell this year on February 14 – Valentine’s Day – requiring people to figure out how to celebrate love with an ashen cross prominently displayed on their foreheads.  I’m not sure the blend of penitence and romance was really that intoxicating.

And now here we are at Easter Day on April 1 – April Fool’s Day.  The coincidence of these two days conjures up some interesting images: like the stone being rolled away from the tomb of Jesus, only to have our Lord pop out, waving, and say, “April Fool’s!  Don’t worry – I’m fine.”  One can imagine the greeting cards that could be made based on combining Easter and April Fool’s Day.

When the church calendar and the secular calendar collide, there can be some interesting, funny, and sometimes unfortunate results.  But it’s also true, I think, that sometimes these calendar collisions can shed light on something that we had not previously seen or noticed; they can bring out a deeper truth about something.  And, surprisingly, I think combining Easter and April Fool’s Day does just that for us this morning.

We know that on April 1, when somebody tells us something that seems just a little too incredible, we should be on our guard.  That a trick or a prank is afoot, and if we’re not careful, we could fall victim to whatever the hoax is and risk being made to look ridiculous or, of course, like a fool!   If we can put ourselves in touch this morning with that April 1stsort of wariness, then we will perhaps have some idea of the position in which Mary Magdalene found herself on the first Easter morning.

While the gospels disagree when it comes to the details of Jesus’ Resurrection, there is one thing about which they are unanimous:  which is, that Mary Magdalene was there.   In some versions, she is there alone, in others, she is accompanied by another woman or women, as she is in Mark’s version of the story which we heard a moment ago.  But she is the one constant reference point in the story of Easter, aside, of course, from Jesus himself.   It is Mary – sometimes referred to simply as The Magdalene – who becomes the first person to be initiated into the truth of the Risen Christ, and it is she who becomes the bearer of that truth to the remaining 11 of Jesus’ male disciples.

And it was not an easy truth to bear.  Not simply because it was something completely new and unheard of,  but also because Mary was, obviously, a woman, and as such, she must have known that she would not be believed.  Women of Mary’s time were not considered reliable witnesses. Their testimony was not admissible in legal proceedings.  Women were classified as officially unreliable when it came to discerning matters of truth.  And so I cannot imagine what it must have been like for Mary to walk into that circle of Jesus’ male disciples with the news, “Christ is Risen.”  It must have taken incredible courage.

And the men did not believe her.  Some of them ran to the tomb themselves to check, and discovering it empty, they were unsettled and mystified.  But the emptiness of the tomb was not sufficient of itself to convince them that Mary was telling the truth.  They may not have thought she was lying, but rather just carried away by her emotions and her grief over Jesus’ death.  Women, in their minds, were given to emotionality – it was one of the reasons that they were not considered reliable witnesses.  It was not until the Risen Christ appeared to the male disciples themselves that Mary’s story was believed.

In the New Testament, it is the male disciples who become the principal preachers of the Gospel, it is they who bear the truth of the Risen Christ to the rest of the world. They get all the credit planting the seeds of a movement that would become Christianity.

But today, on Easter, we are invited to remember how it all really began:  with Mary Magdalene meeting the Risen Jesus for the very first time in human history, and by that meeting made the bearer of an incredible truth.  It was a truth that was a little too incredible for the disciples, at first.  They thought it was an April Fool’s joke.   And for a while, they believed Mary to be the fool.

Over the centuries, the Christian tradition has been confused when it comes to The Magdalene.

On the one hand, there is a wonderful story about Mary that is probably a combination of legend and fact, but that honors her as the chosen first witness of the Risen Christ and as a courageous preacher of that truth in her own right.

In that story, Mary is given the title of Apostle to the Apostles – a high honor, indeed.  It says that after the Resurrection of Jesus, Mary became an evangelizer, contemplative, and mystic.  Recognized in this story as a wealthy woman of some importance, it is said that she boldly presented herself to the Roman Emperor Tiberius Caesar in Rome to proclaim the Risen Christ.  She had with her an egg, that she used to illustrate her message: just as an egg breaks open to allow a new life to come forth, so did the tomb break open to release the Risen Life of Christ.   Holding the egg out to the Emperor, she uttered the Easter proclamation: “Christ is risen!”

Mocking her, the Emperor said that Jesus had no more risen from the dead than the egg in her hand was red.   No sooner did he finish saying this, however, when the egg in Mary’s hand suddenly turned red as a sign from God to illustrate the truth of her message.  The story says that after this, the Emperor believed her.

As I said, a story that is as much legend as fact, but which is important because it puts Mary in a decisive role – just as the Gospels do.

On the other hand, however, the church also ended up bringing Mary down a few pegs, undermining her reputation.  In the year 591, Pope Gregory I gave an influential homily in which he conflated the figure of Mary Magdalene with an unnamed sinner from Luke’s gospel who anoints the feet of Jesus, and he indicts the Magdalene for a variety of sins, including covetousness, displaying herself, speaking pridefully, and, worst of all, prostitution.   From that day onward, the word “prostitute” has been the one most prominently attached to Mary.  In the imagination of later Christianity, Mary was transformed from a powerful, courageous preacher of the Gospel and faithful disciple of Jesus to a woman of questionable background and reputation whom Jesus had forgiven for her many sins.   She came to be seen as a tainted woman.

Mary’s fate in the gospels – as the first witness to the Risen Christ who is not believed – and her worse fate in the history of the church – from faithful disciple and preacher to repentant sinner and tainted woman – shows us what so often happens to people who are asked to bear the burden of bringing a new truth into the world.

Think, for example, of Martin Luther King, Jr., the great hero of the civil rights movement, the 50thanniversary of whose death is only three days from now.  He dared to speak a new truth, the truth of the equality of all human beings, and people questioned his character, impugned his reputation, and ultimately killed him.  He and so many others who stood up for that truth paid dearly for attempting to bring it to a world in which so many were not ready to hear it.

Think of Harvey Milk, the San Francisco Supervisor who, along with Mayor George Mascone, was assassinated after only 11 months in office, during which time he was responsible for passing a stringent gay rights ordinance for San Francisco.  He was the first openly gay elected official in California history, and was the most pro-LGBT politician in the United States at the time.   His first campaign manager said of him, “What set Harvey apart . . . was that he was a visionary.  He imagined a righteous world inside his head and then he set about to create it for real, for all of us.”   He is one among so many who have paid a high price because they were trying to introduce a new truth:  that gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual people are just like every other human being.

Think of the incredible number of women who have come forward under the hashtag banner MeToo to expose the ways they have been exploited, abused, and diminished as they have sought simply to do the work to which they felt called.  Many of them have been ridiculed and criticized for bringing to light a truth that has too long been kept in the shadows.

Finally, think of the millions of young people who took to the streets of this country just last week, and whose leaders have been vilified and mocked by so many people who ought to know better.  They are struggling to bring a new truth into our world:  a truth that exposes our addiction to and veneration of violence, and our need to do something about it.  It is a truth that so many do not wish to hear, and many of these young people are being made to suffer by adults for being the bearers of this truth.

In these examples (and there are many more besides), we find women, people of color, people with a different sexual identity, and young people, all of whom are like Mary Magdalene, because like her, they are unlikely witnesses.  They are people to whom our society at large has been reluctant to give credibility.  Like Mary, they have not been deemed trustworthy when it comes to matters of truth.

And yet, the truths they speak, the truths into which they seek to initiate the rest of us, matter deeply. In every case, they point us toward new life that is struggling to make itself known among us.  And that new life is always about justice, about peace, about the dignity and respect of every human being.   That new life is always about making our hearts larger and are egos smaller so that we can make room in our lives for the other.  So much room, in fact, that we don’t see the others as “other” anymore, but just as part of the great human family, just like ourselves.

Why is it, do you suppose, that those who are given the burden of bearing new truths into the world are those whom the world has the hardest time seeing and hearing?  Why would God make women the first witnesses to the Risen Christ, when they were among the least likely of their time to be believed?  Why choose the Magdalene?

The Roman Catholic priest and mystic, Richard Rohr, points out that it is on just such people, who he calls the “little people” of the world, that Jesus himself focused his attention when he began his public ministry.   And Rohr suggests that there is a reason for that:  because only those who have been belittled by the world are really able to hear the Gospel clearly.  Because it is they, who have been made the world’s victims, who are most able to perceive the world’s brokenness, because they are the ones who have been lacerated by the sharp edges of that brokenness.   And so they are the ones whose wounds become the soil in which new life begins to grow, and among them are the ones who dare to bear this new life into the larger world because they have been pushed so far that they have nothing more to lose.

Mary Magdalene was such a person.  Jesus had changed her life in ways we will never know.  She was devastated by Jesus’ death, and the wounds of Mary’s pain and loss and grief became the soil in which the new life of Christ was able to find a home.  The male disciples had gone off and hidden themselves before Jesus had even died. They were mostly just terrified. But Mary, despite what Mark’s Gospel suggests this morning,  had no fear, I think.  Instead, she had the agony of loss.  And so when new life suddenly appeared before her, when the Risen Christ reached out to her and called her by name, she was ready to receive it.  There was no fear to get in between her and the new life being offered to her.  And having been at the end of her rope, this new, risen life was the only thing to grab onto, and she embraced it completely.  She became the unlikely bearer of this truth, because for her, in the absence of this new life, there was nothing.

Over the centuries, the truth that the Magdalene declared to the disciples found its way into the various corners of the earth.  At first, it was mostly those whom Rohr calls the “little people” who grabbed onto it. In its first centuries, Christianity was mainly a religion for those who were at the ends of their ropes, who had nothing else to lose, and gladly grabbed on to the good news of the Risen Christ.  Eventually, Christianity became the religion of almost everyone in the Western world, not just the powerless, but also the powerful.  And the incredible, amazing, April Fools-ish news of the Risen Christ just became part of the atmosphere that people breathed.  It became part of a tradition, and that tradition came to be managed by religious professionals, and a lot of rules got created.  The Magdalene got demoted from a preacher to a prostitute, and Jesus’ radical vision of the inclusive kingdom of God in which everyone had a place of equal dignity got transformed into a blessing of the status quo.

But God always finds a way. The new life that erupted from the tomb on that first Easter morning always finds a way to keep erupting in the life of the world.  The Risen Christ still keeps trying to upend our settled traditions, to call us away from old lives of sin to new lives of grace.   The Risen Christ always finds his way to the belittled ones of the world and manages to make some of them prophets.  And the world calls those prophets fools.   Just as many people would call us fools for being here today, gathered around the story of a man who we claim was raised from the dead.

But you know what?  History is littered with fools – people who stood up and testified about the corrupt things in the world and insisted that a new day was coming.   Fools who bet their lives on the reality of a new life shining in the midst of darkness.  Sometimes they suffered for it greatly. But to paraphrase Dr. King, the arc of history tends toward new life.   And generally speaking, it is the world’s fools who move history forward.

So be a fool for the Risen Christ today, and every day.  Listen to the voices of the powerless and the oppressed, and join your voice with theirs. Insist that there is a new day coming, a day of justice and peace, when the dignity of every human being will be seen and respected.  St. Paul, in his Letter to the Romans, said, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until the present time.”   My, how the world does groan, and shudder. Some people think all that groaning and shuddering is about things winding down and falling apart.   But fools for Christ know what St. Paul knew: that this is the groaning and shuddering of a world about to give birth to new life.   We are called to be the Mary Magdalenes of our time.  We are commissioned to insist that the story is true, to bear witness to new life wherever we find it, to proclaim that God is still up to something in this world, and that the forces of life will overcome the forces of death.

The Resurrection of Jesus is not an April Fool’s joke.  It is the mystery that points us toward the way God always works in our world: taking those whom the world regards as weak and making them powerful, powerful enough to break through the world’s corruption to bring forth the new life of God’s kingdom.  If you look – if you really look – Christ is rising all around us.  If you look – if you really look – Christ is rising in you.

The Prosperity Gospel and the Vengeful God Meet Hurricane Harvey

1Lakewood Church in Houston is the nation’s largest.  Occupying a former basketball arena, it can seat 16,000 people.  And, apparently, on most Sunday mornings, it does just that.  In the midst of the tragedy of Hurricane Harvey unfolding in Houston and East Texas, a lot of people noticed one thing about Lakewood Church:  it wasn’t open.  There has been something of an internet firestorm swirling around Lakewood’s famous pastor, Joel Osteen, who according to some reports has a net worth of about $50 million and lives in a mansion worth about $10.5 million.  Like most pastors.  It seems that, eventually, Lakewood’s pastor and its leadership felt the pressure of their critics and finally decided that they would make the church’s massive facility available as a shelter.  But much of the outrage centers on the fact that opening the church as a shelter was not Lakewood’s first instinct.

That firestorm was followed by another, this one swirling around the controversial and outspoken figure of Ann Coulter.  Ms. Coulter tweeted, “I don’t believe Hurricane Harvey is God’s punishment for Houston electing a lesbian mayor.  But that is more credible than ‘climate change.'”   Many wondered why Ms. Coulter would bother to be so specific about her not believing that the hurricane was the act of a vengeful God — or even to mention it at all — if she wasn’t actually entertaining the notion.  And, to be sure, there are those who are quite happy to believe that Hurricane Harvey is a manifestation of some sort of divine wrath.   It is a well-worn piece of “theology” that always seems to emerge in the aftermath of tragedy.

Lakewood’s initial reluctance to open its doors (when many other faith communities were doing so) and Coulter’s offer of publicity to the idea that the hurricane is related to God’s vengeance are both signs of the way in which so many people have become utterly alienated from the authentic expressions of their own religious traditions, twisting them into faiths that confirm their own tribal sensibilities and give them permission to abandon those who are vulnerable.

In Lakewood’s case, their reluctance is rooted in the theology Mr. Osteen espouses.  He is perhaps the foremost preacher of the “Prosperity Gospel” in the United States, if not the world.   It is an interpretation of the gospel that is hard to reconcile with most of what Jesus actually says and does, and relies heavily on a particular thread of the Judeo-Christian tradition that says that if one is prosperous, it is because God has blessed you.  Which means, of course, that the opposite is also true:  if you please God, God will bless you with prosperity.  I once heard a portion of a sermon Mr. Osteen gave, in which he said you could always tell people who went to Lakewood, because they were just a certain kind of person — the clear implication being that they were somehow better.

The theology that Mr. Osteen and his church espouse is not really Christian in any recognizable way — not when you take the history of the Christian tradition into account. But, beyond that, it is a theology that encourages people to think that if you have pleased God, prosperity will be yours, and bad things will not happen to you.  Hurricane Harvey upsets that fine theological balance.  A number of people of Mr. Osteen’s own very wealthy neighborhood had to be rescued from flood waters.  The hurricane did not discriminate between the prosperous and the poor.  I suspect that part of the reason Lakewood was slow to think about how it could help people was because, according to its theology, such a thing should not have happened.  And the dawning reality of it has, I suspect, created a kind of theological paralysis.   Mr. Osteen’s challenge now will be to somehow reconcile his Prosperity Gospel with recent events.

One can only hope that he does not retreat into the Vengeful God paradigm that Ms. Coulter took the time to advertise in wishing to say she did not believe it.  Drawing again on a particular thread of the biblical tradition, people who are not as generous as Ms. Coulter in denying that they might believe such a thing imagine that any tragedy is the result of divine disfavor.  Their image of God is one in which God freely rains down disaster on those who displease Him.   And they point to any number of passages from the Hebrew Bible that they believe affirm this, and a few from the New Testament.   Though, again, such a view can hardly be reconciled with most of what Jesus says and does.  But perhaps it is more comfortable to tell one’s self that God is punishing your community for the things that you don’t like about it than to admit that perhaps bad things do, indeed, happen to good people.  Sometimes very bad things.

For Christians, it should be clear that we are meant to process the events of the world around us through the lens of the life and teaching of Jesus.  It is that same Jesus who works so hard, as the gospels tell us, to reframe some of the older beliefs that belonged to his tradition and can be found in parts of the Bible.  Jesus was very clear that God does not afflict people.  Jesus was very clear that God does not make people vulnerable, but rather seeks to be near those who are vulnerable and to support them.   Jesus makes it clear that wealth is, in no way, an indication of whether God likes you or not.  If you find that difficult to believe, then I suggest you read the gospels.  Try Mark — it’s short.

Jesus also makes it clear that our human ways of thinking about these things often lead us into trouble.  When our God becomes too much like us — exulting in prosperity and confirming our prejudices by punishing those we don’t like — then we have wandered far from the God who is, and have fallen on our knees before an idol of our own making.  Which is, perhaps, the greatest danger to which people of faith are subject.

So donate to support the people of Houston and East Texas — and stop trying to come up with a theology that will neatly explain why it happened by scapegoating other people.    Science can tell us why it happened.  Theology is meant to teach us how to respond to it, and to break open our hearts (and our doors) to our own vulnerability, and that of others.

Giving Birth to God

mother-of-God-the-sign

Today is set aside in the church’s calendar to celebrate Mary, the Mother of Jesus.  The title by which she is most well-known in the Western world is as the Blessed Virgin Mary, and that has tended to lead to a preoccupation with Mary’s virginal status.  The Roman Catholic tradition followed this road to an interesting set of conclusions unique to that tradition and not shared by the rest of the Christian world:  the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which maintained that Mary was born “without sin”, thereby setting her apart from the rest of humanity, and the doctrine of the Assumption, which says that upon Mary’s death, her body was taken up or “assumed” into heaven.  All of these factors, at least two of which have to do with a desire to maintain Mary is some set of purity, have, I think, obscured what this feast day really calls us to reflect upon:  the courage required to give birth to God in the world.

In the Eastern Christian world, the most well-known title for Mary is the Greek word “theotokos”, which means God-bearer.  It is a title that does not emphasize Mary as a virgin, and the Eastern church deeply disagrees with the Roman Catholic idea of immaculate conception that separates Mary from the rest of the human race.  The title God-bearer emphasizes, instead, what Mary did:  she was the bearer of God incarnate in Christ into the world.   And, in a very real sense, her courage to do so is a model for the courage that all followers of Jesus are called to have, the courage to allow Christ to be born in us, and the courage to be bearers of the Christ into the pain and brokenness of the world.

To me, this seems like a particularly urgent calling in today’s world.  Across the country and around the world there is a rising tide of fear, hatred, prejudice, violence, nationalism, homophobia, and misogyny.   We stand facing environmental crises that are so overwhelming that many people are tempted to deny their existence.  It seems that a world we had thought to have made progress toward a more enlightened way of living is slipping back into darkness.   And, sadly, too many people are using religion as a justification for that slipping backward, and in doing so, are twisting our religious traditions out of shape.

So on this day when we remember the courage of Mary is saying “Yes” to becoming a bearer of God’s light into the world, let us also remember that this same invitation is given to us.  May we, too, have the courage to say yes.  May we have the courage that shines through in every word of Mary’s song:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.

From this day all generations will call me blessed: *
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him *
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers, *
to Abraham and his children for ever.

The Rotten Myth at the Heart of America

John-Birch-Society-American-Flag-hero-EIn the wake of the hatred, bigotry, and violence on display this past weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the wide perception that the President of the United States was slow to clearly condemn the white supremacist movement that lay behind it, the African American CEO of Merck Pharmaceuticals, Kenneth Frazier, resigned from a presidential advisory board related to American industry.  His conscience would not allow him to remain a member, and I respect him deeply for his decision.

In his statement, he included the following:  “America’s leaders must honor our fundamental values by clearly rejecting expressions of hatred, bigotry, and group supremacy, which run counter to the American ideal that all people are created equal (emphasis added).”

While I agree with the point Mr. Frazier is making, and while I fully endorse the idea that all people are created equal, I’m afraid that Mr. Frazier’s statement makes a critical error by saying that this notion that all people are created equal is an American ideal.  The sad truth, I’m afraid, is that it is not, and it really never has been.

Mr. Frazier is not the only one to make such statements in the aftermath of this weekend’s violence.  There have been many invocations from all sorts of different people extolling the American ideal of equality and its betrayal by the white supremacist movement.  But I think it is important that we not distort our own history, which is closely tied to our current reality.

If one were to ask where this alleged American ideal of universal equality is to be found, most people would point to the Declaration of Independence, which reads, in part, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights….”    At first glance, this statement would seem to support the alleged American ideal of universal equality.  Until one stops to consider what the signers of the Declaration understood the words “all men” to refer to.  First in their definition would have come white men.  And then, perhaps, white women — although, they did not see women as possessing the same rights as men.  For example, when the new republic was set up, women were not given the right to vote.  Their definition of “all men” did not include black men or women — and, indeed, some of the signers of the Declaration were slave owners, who did not see their slaves as really being fully human.

All of this points to one clear truth:   that the men who were most intimately involved in establishing the ideological and philosophical foundations of the American Revolution and of the republic which was born out of it did not believe in universal equality.  They did not believe that all human beings regardless of sex or color were all the same.  And realizing this should cause our mental image of early America as a light to the nations to flicker more than a little.

I do not wish to imply that the founders were not visionaries in their own way.  They imagined a form of government that had never existed before in our world, and they expanded the boundaries of democracy, self-governance, and opportunity further than they had ever been pushed before.  But they did not push them as far as they could have. For all their genius, for all their vision, they stopped short of enshrining any notion of universal human equality into our foundational documents.  And as the American project got underway, the notion that there were those who were not entitled to full equality lingered in American society.

The impact of the limits of human equality in American life erupted in the Civil War, whose conclusion was indeed the elimination of slavery, but not the abolition of the idea that African Americans were somehow less than white Americans. The result of the Civil War was, perhaps, that African Americans began to be seen more as human beings and less as property, but they were certainly seen as second-class human beings.  This legacy erupted again in the Civil Rights movement, whose conclusion convinced many white, liberal Americans that the problem of racism in America had been definitively dealt with — though I suspect non-white Americans could have told us that wasn’t true, and probably tried to do so, though most of us were no longer listening.

Now, in 2017, we see another eruption of the myth of American equality:  that there continue to be, in the heart of our nation, people who do not accept the idea that all people are created equal, and are prepared to loudly proclaim their belief that Native Americans, African Americans, Jews, Mexicans, Muslims, LGBTQ people, and others who do not look or act like themselves have no place among us.  They were not born with these beliefs.  They have been taught to believe these things, and that teaching follows a lineage that moves all the way back to the founding of the country, and of the failure of the American project to truly embrace the full equality of all.

So let us not say that universal equality is an American ideal.  It is not, and it never has been.  But that is not to say that we should not seek to make it an American ideal.  Just as there are many in this country who do not believe all people are equal, there are many who do.   Many more than lived in this country when it was founded.  But this will not be an easy goal to reach.  We must come to terms with our true legacy, which is one of exclusion.  We must come to terms with the limits of the vision on which America was founded.  We must learn to take from that vision what is true and lasting, and reject what needs to be cast aside.  We must begin the American project again, and dedicate ourselves to a proposition that is entirely absent from our founding documents:  that all people are truly created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.

Language Matters — We Shouldn’t Wait Until the Bullets Fly to Know That

Today’s shooting involving Republican members of Congress and some of their aides and friends at a small baseball field in Alexandria, Virginia, is a terrible, detestable action.  All shootings are, and it was refreshing to see people from different places on the political spectrum come together at a human level to console and comfort each other and their families, and to rightfully condemn something for which there is never a legitimate excuse.  I suspect it will not be long before today’s incident will become a political football tossed back and forth in our country’s endless debate about guns.  But perhaps today’s incident, because it appears to be tied to politics, might give us a space to reflect for just a moment on something that probably contributed to what happened today.

For many years, now, we have lived in a climate of increasingly polarized politics.  Politicians and others of all political stripes have increasingly demonized those with whom they do not agree.  People have called their opponents names, they have suggested that their opponents are morally bankrupt, and some have even suggested that their opponents are not really human.    And, there have been suggestions by some — at time veiled, at times quite open — that the world would be better off if their opponents were dead.   And it appears that today, someone took that suggestion seriously.

Human beings are profoundly linguistic creatures.   Language fundamentally shapes and orders our reality.  And when the language of politics and public discourse becomes characterized by hatred and violence, then that discourse helps to shape a reality in which hatred and violence are seen as somehow acceptable.  That old saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me,” is wrong on a number of levels.  Violent, hateful names and words do hurt — and when we hear them so often that they begin to shape our reality, those words can be translated into actions.

Human beings have always had disagreements, and always will.  The American political landscape will always include disagreement and debate.  But it is one thing to disagree with someone, and another thing to cease to value them as human beings.  We live today in a culture that has been shaped too much by language that undermines the humanity of those with whom we disagree, and when we are able to stop seeing someone’s humanity, we can more easily decide to do them harm.

There have certainly been much worse shooting incidents in this country than the one we saw today.  But perhaps the fact that this particular incident was directed against members of Congress will cause our political establishment to take notice, and to realize that today’s incident is a symptom — a symptom of a culture of political discourse that gives permission to hate, to demonize, and, ultimately, to do violence.  Politicians bear a lot of responsibility in changing that political discourse.  But all of us, as citizens, share that responsibility, as well.

Ultimately, the heart of Christianity — and all religious traditions — is to bring about a transformation of the human person.  Whatever one’s religion or non-religion, the great spiritual task of every human being is to face the darker parts of ourselves and to bring them into the light.   When we become trapped in hateful, demonizing language, we not only impact the culture around us, but we also impact our own spiritual condition.  Often, we like to begin by trying to change others — something that we cannot easily do, if at all.  But we can change ourselves, we can recognize the negativity in us that spills out of us, and we can work on transforming that into something that shapes ourselves and the culture around us in positive ways.  The need to take that spiritual work seriously has never been more evident.

Paris, Climate Change, and the Elevation of Selfishness

‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’   — Matthew 22:36-40

In Matthew 7:21, Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”   To understand the full implications of this teaching, we must recognize that the ‘kingdom of heaven’ is not a place where we go when we die, but rather, it is a state of being into which we are drawn through our following of Jesus, a state of being which alters all of our relationships — with ourselves, with others, with our world — in a Christ-like direction.   We must also appreciate that, in this teaching, Jesus elevates doing over believing.  One does not, he says, enter the state of being referred to by the kingdom of heaven just by calling Jesus “Lord” — which signifies adherence to a set of beliefs that make that title meaningful.   Rather, it is putting into action the values of the kingdom of heaven as one follows Jesus as Lord that brings one into the new set of transformative relationships that constitute entry into the kingdom.

It is important, I think, that we appreciate the full depth of this particular teaching of Jesus on this day when the President has withdrawn the United States from the landmark Paris Climate Treaty that was concluded among 195 countries two years ago.  Because many of those who have brought about that decision call Jesus “Lord.”  And yet, the justification provided for this decision would indicate that they are very far from the kingdom of heaven.

The justification given for withdrawing from the Paris Treaty is, in the end, about selfishness — which, of course, was the very argument that brought the current administration to power.  It all comes down to “America First” — and so it does not matter what the rest of the world thinks, nor does the health of our planet matter, nor does the well-being of the whole human community.  It only matters whether it serves our own narrow interests as Americans.   Putting aside the fact that, in the long run, the provisions of the Paris Treaty will aid the health of the planet and, thereby, serve our interest as human beings who live here, to put forth such an argument as the basis of exiting an international treaty is the very definition of selfishness, and caters to the basest of national instincts.  All of this is the culmination of years of skepticism about the science of climate change on the part of large parts of the American population, most of whom also accept a narrative which places science and religion in opposition to each other, which venerates ignorance above learning, and, as one politician proclaimed early this week, believes that if climate change is really happening, God will save us from it.

Has it not occurred to anyone that the gift of human intellect upon which science, and so much else, depends, is God’s way of saving us?

It seems necessary to offer a reminder that selfishness is not a Christian virtue.  The whole of Jesus’ life and teaching points to the exact opposite of selfishness, embracing the virtue of self-giving, and of putting others’ needs before our own.  In no way is there any justifiable Christian theology that supports this idea of “America First”,  no authentic Christianity that justifies putting the perceived, short-term self-interest of a few million people ahead of the well-being of an entire planet of billions.

To love God with one’s whole being, and to love one’s neighbor as one’s self, is the basic ethical stance of the authentic Christian tradition.  It is the ethic that Jesus taught and on which he based his life.  It is the putting of that ethic into action that opens the doors of the kingdom of heaven, that brings us into the state of being that Jesus calls us to.  That ethic does not give us permission to love ourselves more than our neighbors, nor does it give us permission to adopt a narrow definition of “neighbor” that begins and ends at the American border.

I am not proud today to now be part of one of the few countries in the world that has turned its back on the biggest crisis to face humanity, choosing to hide behind the tribal wall of an increasingly ugly nationalism.  And I am angry to be connected with those who use the name of Jesus and the Christian tradition to defend the selfishness that nationalism promotes.

Jesus also said we must love our enemies — and that is hard to do on a day like today.  And I wonder how much love we will get from the rest of the world, when the United States has today become an enemy of the planet.

Let no one dare to say that what has been done today is somehow consistent with the Christian faith.  It is not.  It is simply being selfish.

Ashes, Tough Language, Hardened Exteriors

Ash Wed Heart“Lamenting our sins”, “acknowledging our wretchedness”, “contrite hearts”, “I have been wicked from my birth”, “turn from wickedness…and live”.   These are just some of the phrases that are a part of The Episcopal Church’s liturgy for today, Ash Wednesday.  These, and many others in today’s liturgy, don’t sit all that comfortably in my theological perspective.  Heard in a certain way, they seem to point people toward feelings of shame and unworthiness — something that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, have often been accused of nurturing in unhealthy ways.  And, in my own explorations and reflections, I have concluded that God is not a God of shame (click here to see an earlier post on this topic).

But, this language also does serve a purpose — part of which is, indeed, to make us uncomfortable.    I think that often, when we encounter a day like Ash Wednesday that offers us this kind of tough language, we are not encountering language that is meant to shame us but, rather, language that is meant to wake us up, to get through our hardened exteriors in order to get our attention.   The language of Ash Wednesday is meant to do just this, I think:  to wake us up, to get our attention, and to shift our focus.

This year, Ash Wednesday comes in the midst of a cultural period in which we Americans are hearing a lot of triumphalist language.  We are being called to be “great again”, we are being called to put ourselves first, we are being offered a vision of our lives in which Americans are the ultimate “in” people, and everyone else is “out.”   Including Americans who don’t measure up to the triumphalist image.    Americans have long had a lingering superiority issue, and it has been brought to the forefront in a big way.

But this is also a manifestation of something that is not uncommon among human beings.  We are quick to put each other into categories, we are swift to make judgements, and very often, rather than dealing with the person who is actually in front of us, we end up dealing with the image of what we have judged that person to be.   Many people have superiority issues — they want to be seen as better than others in some way.  Some people have the opposite problem:  they constantly see themselves as worse than everyone else.  Life is conceived of as a great competition in which there are always winners and losers.

The language of Ash Wednesday seeks to break all of this apart by reminding us that, in the end, we are each and all just human beings, trying to make our way in the world, and that each of us faces limits — the ultimate limit being, of course, our lifespan on this earth.  “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  These words, given as ashes are ‘imposed’ upon the forehead, are the central words around which Ash Wednesday, and the whole Lenten season it inaugurates, turn.   They are words that are meant to equalize:  regardless of how better or worse than others we think we are, in the end, we are all the same:  we are all human, we are all given the same regard by God, and we are each just trying to do the best we can.

There is a great freedom in realizing this truth.  There is a great freedom and relief in having a space opened before us in which we are no longer competing, no longer measuring ourselves against others.   It is the space into which God always invites us, the space of belovedness.     That unconditional belovedness of God that makes it safe to be who we are.  And whether the world regards us as successes or failures becomes irrelevant.

Sometimes it takes tough language to make us realize this.   Ash Wednesday offers us both that challenge and that opportunity.