Good Friday not explained in a few short words

Good Friday, it’s complicated.  I’ll keep this short.  No matter what you’ve heard from whoever you heard it, Jesus’s crucifixion is not the work of an angry God punishing him for the sins of humanity.  Called the substitutionary doctrine of atonement, and popular in several denominations, it’s not true.  Never was.
Jesus’s crucifixion was the natural and quite predictable outcome of his three years of public ministry that undermined the authority of religious leaders, and subordinated Caesar to the greater authority of God alone.  Moreover, he had the effrontery to claim he was the Son of God, not like the emperors who claimed divinity, but the actual manifestation of God in human flesh.  To show him, and everybody else, that he was really a nobody, they crucified him as a criminal among criminals.

If what he said was true, that he was the source of life, had the power to forgive sins and give life, even to the dead, how could he be dead like this?  What could it mean?  Good Friday never answers that question.  It leaves it hanging.  That’s one reason liturgical traditions begin a three day service on Thursday night that does not end until Sunday morning.  Called the Triduum, these three holy days recall one event that begins with death and ends with life.  In it, the ultimate authority of God as we know God in Christ Jesus is sealed forever. 

A Scene from a Godfather Movie – Thursday in Holy Week

Thursday in Holy Week has taken an odd turn, but then Holy Week is a little odd all they way through.  The reading from Mark recalls what we have come to know as “The Last Supper.”

It’s a scene begging for a place in the Godfather movies.  In it, Jesus invited his twelve closest associates to dinner in a private room.  He knew ahead of time that one of them was a rat who would turn him over to the authorities that very night.  And he knew the other eleven would turn tail and run for their own lives.  His most trusted lieutenant would even deny he ever heard of Jesus when he gets interrogated, not by the cops, but by a girl, a maid minding the rear entrance to the palace.  If Francis Ford Coppola filmed it, there would be tommy guns blazing away.

He didn’t.  There weren’t.  Surrounded by untrustworthy friends, Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them saying it was his body given for them.  He might have added something like, “You’re going to need some of me in you to get through this, so eat.”  Whether he said that or not, his friends had to wonder.  It’s not something that could have made much sense to them.  At the advent of their betrayal, he gave bread as his body for them.  That’s worth some thoughtful reflection.

Then he took the cup of wine (I like to think it was Elijah’s cup, but that’s a story for another time).  Anyway, he took the cup of wine, blessed it, gave it to them for each to take a sip, and said, “This is my blood of the (new) covenant which is poured out for many.”  If the broken bread was a mystery, the cup wasn’t.  Every one of them knew the prophecy in Jeremiah that promised a new covenant between God and creation, and every one of them knew the old covenant had been initiated by the deliverance of the Hebrews from death by the sign of lambs’ blood painted on their doors.  Midway through their journey to the promised land, it was sealed with the blood of sacrificial animals splattered over the altar and the people (Exodus 24).  Nothing was more holy than life giving blood coursing through all creatures, and nothing could seal a covenant with greater authority.  

The cup of wine, now declared to be Jesus’ own blood, the holy blood of Christ himself, announced the new covenant, and they knew it, as much as anyone could at the moment of its happening.  Curiously, it was a covenant for the forgiveness of sin and the promise of new life delivered from death.  In this case, not only sins of the past, but also sins about to be committed.  Whether they knew it or not, it was the holy food and drink of new life yet to be encountered.  

Most of us know what happened next, but sometimes we have to be reminded that the disciples didn’t know, couldn’t know.  Most of us go through our days with intentions about the near future, comfortable that probability is on our side.  The disciples didn’t have even that.  What might lay ahead was a total blank, every moment an unexpected one, dangerous, scary.  They may not have fully understood the meaning of the bread and wine, but through it God was in them and for them, and they needed it.

What about that rat Judas?  My friend Fr. Ernie says he thinks when Judas faces Jesus for judgement, Jesus will say, “Judas, I’m sorry you were the one who had to play that part.  Come, take your rightful place with the others.”  I doubt there is much rock solid theology behind that, but Fr. Ernie is not often wrong in matters of confession, compassion and forgiveness.  

Thursday in Holy Week remembers, in the words of Winston Churchill,  not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning.  So eat up.  Drink up.  You’ll need it for the journey ahead.


Evil Tenants, Cornerstones & the Sin of the Church

The liturgical police gave me a summons for incorrect use of the lectionary.  Yesterday’s post was based on a passage from Mark that was used last week, not this week.  Sorry about that.  To get back on track, Wednesday’s gospel reading from Mark records an odd parable Jesus told about a farmer who leased out his land to tenants who refused to pay their rent.  He sent several agents to collect, each of whom they beat up or killed.  Finally he sent his son.  The tenants seized and killed him, figuring, according to the parable, that they would now be the undisputed owners.  
That was the end of the parable.  Then Jesus asked his listeners what they thought the owner would do next.  Send troops, kill the tenants, and lease it out to more honorable people, they said.  Jesus ended the encounter by citing Psalm 118 about the rejected cornerstone, a stone that was God’s own marvelous work, a living stone who would live, not die, no matter what humans tried to do.   The meaning of the parable was not lost on religious and political leaders.  It gave them one more reason to get rid of this trouble maker before he could do real damage.  Who did he think he was, Son of God?
To the shame of the Christian Church, it was this parable, together with other scripture passages used in Holy Week, that appeared to authorize Christians to round up a bunch of local Jews to beat and kill on the grounds that they were the evil tenants, while Christians were the new tenants, the righteous avengers of God, the aggrieved owner, whose son they killed.  It all happened a long time ago in the Dark Ages, the work of ignorant people, and we’re not like that anymore.  Except we are.  The holocaust of WWII didn’t pop out of nowhere.  It was the culmination of centuries of anti-Jewish laws and pogroms that permeated the whole of European Christian culture.  We have not yet learned our lesson.  The resurgence of anti-Jewish fervor is obvious in every place where ultra-nationalism, white supremacy, and neo-Nazi movements gain traction.  And they gain traction where common, ordinary, everyday anti-Jewish prejudice is tolerated without objection, perhaps even with a chuckle.  
It may be that the secularized West is no longer dominated by church going Christians, but the Holy Week sentiment lingers, aided by radical voices with access to radio, t.v. and social media; abetted by disinterested church going Christians who turn the other way.  

If Holy Week is a time for deep examination of self and Church, this lesson, and the history that emanates from it requires truth be told, confession be made, and repentance of life begun again. 

Swim like a salty rock on Tuesday in Holy Week

Tuesday’s gospel from Mark’s 9th chapter records Jesus’s instructions to his dimwitted disciples who had been arguing about which of them was the greatest.

Holy Week continues to make trouble by warning whoever is listening that putting stumbling blocks in the path to believing is not a good idea.  You might as well try swimming with a heavy rock tied around your neck, an amputated foot and hand, and one eye poked out.  On top of that, you’re expected to have salt.  What the heck does that mean?  
Let’s take salt first.  Louis L’Amour, in his many Western novels, explained salt as the intestinal fortitude needed to get through whatever lay ahead regardless of obstacles, danger or personal fear.  The morally righteous must have salt, but so can the immorally unrighteous.  So by itself, salt is neither good nor bad, it is simply necessary.  To not have salt is to fail.  
How much salt do you need?  I have no idea.  We each seem to have different measures of salty courage.  Moreover, the quantity seems to change from event to event.  Some we can handle.  Some we can’t.  Some we once could, but no longer can.  What scripture teaches us is that those with more salt are to help carry the burden of those with less.  When conditions change, the roles may reverse.  It isn’t up to a hero, it’s up to the community working together.
So much for salt.  What about putting obstacles in the way of those who would believe?  We all do it.  Our varying theologies and liturgical practices are fences that, however permeable we think they are, can be seen as impenetrable obstacles by those outside.  It’s one reason why I like the Ionian invitation to Holy Communion, now used in many congregations.  The version I have goes like this:
This is the table, not of the Church, but of God.
It is to be made ready for those who love God
and who want to love God more.
So, come, you who have much faith and you who have little,
you who have been here often and you who have not been for a long time,
you who have tried to follow Jesus and you who have failed.
Come, not because I invite you: it is Jesus, and it is Jesus’s will that you who want him should meet him here.
It neatly sidesteps controversies over baptism and the real presence of Christ by extending the invitation from Christ himself, just as he did for the five thousand, for tax collectors and prostitutes, and for his own disciples at the Last Supper when even Judas was fed.  Yet it sets standards: a desire to have faith (I believe, help my unbelief), a little effort effort (stand up, take your mat and walk), and a desire to be fed by God’s presence in the bread and wine. 
Nevertheless, obstacles abound.  The damage done to children and women through physical and sexual abuse to which the church turned a blind eye has been given wide publicity.  It has destroyed the nascent faith of many.  But there’s more.  I can’t count the number of would be believers who’ve told me their stories of being chased or run out of the church by damning theology, watery theology, preachers who use guilt like a bludgeon, and preachers who have nothing useful to say.  It comes in all shapes and sizes.   
As for me, when I come across Psalm 69 in Morning Prayer (Do not let those who hope in you be put to shame because of me, O Lord God of hosts…), it causes me to pause and consider how my words and actions don’t always present the way of discipleship as they should.  I have caused offense.  I have not loved people I don’t like.  I have demeaned religious practices with which I disagree.  In other words, I’ve been adept at strewing little obstacles in the pathway of faith, almost always without thinking about what I was doing.  That’s me.  I’m sure you’re much better.  God’s not going to shove me off a dock in a bucket of concrete, but the warning gets my attention, reminding me to pay attention to what I say and do.
Maybe Wednesday will be easier.

Houses of Prayer & Figs out of Season

Houses of prayer and fig trees out of season.  
Holy Week is upon us.  I’m not sure when Holy Week became important to me.  It certainly wasn’t during my youth, nor in the first few decades of my adult life.  Maybe it was in my early forties.  Maybe it started with a changed attitude about Lent.  There was a year when I was in a business meeting on Ash Wednesday and it seemed more important to go to church than lunch.  Maybe a year our two later I quit scheduling travel and avoided unnecessary events during Holy Week.  I even left work early to get home in time for church. Maybe I’m remembering wrong.  Anyway one thing led to another, and here I am, a late vocation priest, retired at that.  Who knew such a thing could happen?
Holy Week has come to be a mixed blessing and curse of ordinary time doing ordinary things combined with daily worship, time for contemplative prayer, and reflections on troubling scripture readings leading toward the cross.  In other words, it’s a week of clashing gears, cognitive dissonance, routines out of place, the normal in hiding.
Consider Monday’s gospel reading.  On his way to the temple, Jesus demanded of a fig tree what it could not produce: figs out of season.  In the temple he proclaimed that this house of prayer for all peoples had been turned into a market place for shops catering to the needs of worshipers through business practices of theft and deception.  You know what happened.  He drove them out.  What a mess.  That’s no way to make friends or converts.  Leaving, he and the disciples passed the now dead fig tree, which led Jesus to say something about the power of prayer.  
Monday in Holy Week might be a good day to reflect on how well our churches live up to their obligation to be houses of prayer for all peoples.  It gets complicated.  More than once I’ve struggled with making the church I served open to people who came to worship, but with expectations that we would become something other than Anglicans worshiping in the way of the Episcopal Church.  Some mega churches and religious media personalities appear to have followed in the footsteps of the thieves and deceivers of gospel notoriety.  Some churches are open to everybody, but as houses of entertainment instead of prayer.  Others are clearly not open to all peoples, but only those stamped with a seal of approval.  The universal objection to observations like these is, yes but.  Yes, but you don’t understand our special needs and intentions.  Yes but, which I have used frequently myself, should always be suspect.  It’s often sleight of hand for avoiding Jesus’ stern eye.  If Lent is a time for disciplined self examination, then Monday in Holy Week is the perfect  time for congregational leaders to engage in church self examination.  
And then there’s the poor innocent fig tree, cursed and killed for no good reason.  How is that an object lesson about prayer?  Think about it.  We’re quick to send thoughts and prayers to victims of violence.  Saying “God bless you” to sneezers is still popular.  When someone asks for our prayers, we almost always say we will.  We clergy offer God’s blessing at every worship service, and on everything from wheat, to boats, to birthdays.  What do we think these blessings and prayers do?  Have they any power?  Jesus says they do, more power than we can imagine.  Not the Hogwarts spells kind, but something far more mysterious and powerful over which we have little control. 
If blessings and prayers for others have such power, what about curses?  Cue the fig tree.  If “God bless you” has power, what might be said about “God damn you/it?”  Is it just a figure of speech?  Pay no attention?  I don’t think so, but let’s lay it aside for the moment and consider the other damning things we (including me) are prone to say when we share damaging gossip, lie and mislead, express dislike of another in threatening, violent ways, or just pick away at the minor faults of one another?  However much we might hate to admit it, they’re all forms of cursing, and they have real power.  What does scripture say,”bless don’t curse,” “let no evil speech come out of your mouth.”  That poor little fig tree is a powerful object lesson.  Pay attention.   Which brings me back to “God damn you/it.”  The word God may be just a place holder for the Holy Name, but it’s to be held holy and honored for the place it holds.  Isn’t that in the Ten Commandments somewhere?  I think so.  To invoke God’s name to damn anything, even excused as a harmless figure of speech, is to curse with the same mysterious and uncontrollable power as a blessing.  It’s to kill an innocent fig tree, and it’s likely to rebound with punishing force on the one who utters it.  Jesus was putting great power into the hands of his disciples.  I think he was warning them to be careful about how they used it.  Some of that power is in our hands too.

Monday in Holy Week.  It’s not an easy day.  It demands self examination I’d rather not do.  Maybe Tuesday will be easier.  Nope, just looked ahead.  

Sometimes there is no room. Nor should there be.

Along with many other religious leaders, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church signed a pledge to work for social justice in a variety of areas consistent with the Church’s understanding of the gospel.  Called the “Campaign to Reclaim Jesus in U.S. Culture,” it rejects as contrary to Jesus’ teaching the resurgence of white nationalism, racism and misogyny in all of its forms.  It rejects political language and policies that debase and abandon the most vulnerable.  It rejects the pervasive lying that has become normal in public discourse.  It rejects movement toward authoritarian rule, and it rejects “America First” as the theological heresy.  It calls for following Jesus first in all the ways that the gospel proclaims. 
The electronic news release about it invited comments, and the first two decried that there was now no place for conservatives in the Episcopal Church.  The majority that followed were enthusiastically supportive, but a significant number complained, in increasingly strident tones, that dragging the Episcopal Church into politics was wrong, especially because it left no place for conservatives.
In related news, articles about the March for Life events held across the country on Saturday, March 24 have generated letters to the editor, and columns from some commentators, complaining that conservative minded students have been left out, their voices muted, and that’s not right.
Indeed, there may be no place in the Church for voices that are willing to tolerate racism, misogyny, policies that hurt the most vulnerable, habitual lying by public leaders, authoritarian rule, and nationalism that displaces discipleship.  Satisfied with liturgy, music and preaching that remains sufficiently aloof from real life struggles for society to become more just, they’ve effectively muffled many, perhaps most, Episcopal clergy from making Christ’s voice heard in the public arena.  It has allowed other voices claiming Christ’s authority to form powerful political movements promoting stands on issues that sometimes appear antithetical to all that Jesus taught.  And if not antithetical, then leaving no room for other views, faithfully held, and firmly grounded in scripture.  
Indeed, there may be no room for conservative minded students to join in the March for Life events, if conservative minded means advocacy of unrestricted gun rights, or a desire to highjack the Marches with some other agenda.  
Voices that claim to represent conservatism, something about which  I have strong doubts, have long complained that they were the forgotten ones, the downtrodden ones, the left behind ones.  Nothing proved it to them more than the decline in well paid factory jobs for marginally educated persons, and the enormous turnout for Obama in his two elections.  Yet backed by the earlier Moral Majority, then the tea partiers, NRA, talk radio, propagandizing t.v., and finally the election of a morally corrupt president backed by self proclaimed Christian evangelicals, they have been heard loud and clear for their endorsement of positions and policies threatening democracy, social justice, and economic well being for all.  
No, there is no room for those voices in the Campaign to Reclaim Jesus in U.S. Culture, nor in the Marches for Life.
There are rooms for them, and they are free to make use of them, as they have already done with great effect.  They are even free to claim they speak for Jesus, and the right to own carry all the guns they want.  They are free to condemn homosexuality.  They are free to demand that their religious freedom allows them to discriminate in public business.  They are free to demand that the coercive power of the state be used to ban all abortions.  They are free to demand that the coercive power of the state be banned from interfering in their private and public lives.  They are free to claim they are conservatives.
They are not free to inject that into rooms where other voices are being raised.  

And before the most frequent objection is made: it is wrong for protesters to boo down and drown out invited speakers they don’t like.  Listen first, then boo; listen in stony silence with no response; don’t go at all; demonstrate outside without blocking others from attending.  But never shut down an invited speaker no matter how repulsive the message may be.

Wounded Knee and the 2nd Amendment

This article began as a FB post that generated more response than anticipated.  While the comments represented widely divergent views, they  were mostly respectful of each other, which is quite a change from most streams of commentary on FB.  In any case, let us begin again.

A well meaning friend reposted a piece on FB that used the Wounded Knee Massacre as an object lesson for why the 2nd amendment right to bear arms is so important.  The point being that a well armed citizenry is needed and could withstand the assault of a tyrannical government’s army.  

I doubt he had any idea how offensive that was in the context of American Indian history.  It was toward the end of the so called Indian Wars.  Their lands seized, their buffalo gone, and their treaties violated with impunity, the December 29, 1890 slaughter was orchestrated against a forced encampment of a small group of Lakota Indians who didn’t want to stay on the reservation.  Fifty-eight rifles were said to have been recovered from among the 150 or so killed: old men, women, children, a few warriors.  It was an act of terror fully endorsed by the white residents of the region, many of whom believed it was either kill or be killed.  

If there is an object lesson in that, it is that white men cannot be trusted by those who are neither white nor citizens.  And that brings us to the 2nd amendment.  Using 18th century reasoning to dictate answers to 21st century questions doesn’t work.  It can inform, but not dictate.  As it is, the founders, working from various, sometimes conflicting points of view, desired to assure the constitutional legitimacy of well regulated citizen militias.  An individual’s right to own a gun was not something that crossed their minds.  Why would it?  A musket was an everyday tool to hunt for food, and for frontier protection.  The right to own one was never a question anyone asked.  

Our founding fathers were interested in well regulated  state militias to take the place of a standing army.  Standing armies were expensive, and the British army of recent occupation led them to suspect they could not be trusted to back the nascent republic.  As it turned out, some of the not so well regulated militias couldn’t be trusted either.  You may remember Shay’s rebellion during the Articles of Confederation era, and the Whiskey rebellion in the early 1790s.  

The founders had different expectations for what well regulated militias could do.  Some expected them to protect slave owners, putting down any slave uprising.  The Haitian slave rebellion of 1791 had not yet begun, but they were not unaware the rising tensions and the possibility of it happening in the U.S.  There had been colonial slave uprisings, and their fears were justified by several others in the 1800s.  Others expected militias to forcefully “pacify” Indians displaced by westward white settlement.  Pacify would not have been a word back then, but it fits.  Still others intended them to protect the interests of land and business owners.    They didn’t want another Shay to organize another rebellion.  For good or ill, it was all about well regulated militias. 

Is that still true?

A local friend, an attorney and advocate of unrestricted gun rights, noted that the question was settled by the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Heller decision of 2008.  It doesn’t matter what the founders thought or wanted, the Heller decision established the right of individuals to be armed for “traditional lawful purposes,” including self defense.  Justice Scalia wrote for the majority, while Justice Stevens wrote for the dissent.  Dissent or no, the right for individuals to bear arms is now the law of the land.  Who am I to argue?  I’m no lawyer.

But I do know it’s the law of the land until it isn’t.  Most students of history have heard of the 1896  Plessy v. Ferguson case.  In it the Supreme Court held that segregation was legal as long as accommodations were “separate but equal.”  Plessy was never overturned by the court.  It just died an ignominious death as other decisions, and the civil rights laws of the 1960s, remanded it to the court of lousy decisions for reconsideration by high school history classes.

My hope and expectation is that the Heller decision will meet the same fate, but in less time than the seventy years it took Plessy to die.