Friday, March 27, 2015

A Letter from Disciples Clergy in the Northwest

(Despite an exhortation from my denominational leaders--as well as prominent voices in a variety of fields--Governor Pence quietly signed SB 101 (the "Religious Freedom Restoration Act") into law in a private ceremony in his office yesterday.  In response to this, I circulated the following letter among Disciples clergy in my region to send on to our General Minister and President, Rev. Dr. Sharon E. Watkins.  That letter was sent to her electronically this morning.  It is also not too late to add your voice to it--please feel free to do so in the comments section of this post if you are so moved--please include your name, job title, and town/city and state.  God is forever on the side of the persecuted.  ~E.A.)


To Rev. Dr. Sharon Watkins, Rev. Todd Adams, and All Whom It May Concern:

Dear Colleagues:

We, like you, have been following the passage and signature of SB 101 (the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act”) in Indiana with both great attention and great concern.

We were all extremely heartened and encouraged to read your open letter to Governor Pence on the denomination’s disciples.org website, urging a veto of SB 101 on threat of considering moving the 2017 General Assembly out of Indianapolis.  Thank you from all of us for writing it.

Now that SB 101 has been signed, we, the undersigned pastors serving and/or residing in the Northwest Region of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) offer you our spiritual and moral support to make good on that ultimatum.

Some of us identify as gay or lesbian, and all of us minister to—and serve alongside—gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender brothers and sisters in Christ, and we feel we could not in good Christian conscience ask them to attend a General Assembly at a venue where they could be legally discriminated against in such a manner.

Please move the 2017 General Assembly away from Indianapolis to an alternate host city. Thank you.

Blessings,

Eric Atcheson
Senior Pastor, First Christian Church
Longview, WA

Robert Brooks
Senior Pastor, First Christian Church
Kent, WA

Joan Dennehy
Retired
Seattle, WA

Liv Gibbons
Senior Pastor, Northwest United Protestant Church
Richland, WA

Nancy Gowler Johnson
Senior Pastor, First Christian Church
Puyallup, WA

Sandy Messick
Regional Minister and President, Northwest Region, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Federal Way, WA

J.C. Mitchell
Senior Pastor, Open Gathering
Bellevue, WA

Monica Myers Greenberg
Senior Pastor, Northwest Christian Church
Seattle, WA

Rochelle Richards
Senior Pastor, First Christian Church
Sumner, WA

Laurie Rudel
Senior Pastor, Queen Anne Christian Church
Seattle, WA

Gary Shoemaker
Senior Pastor, First Christian Church
Bellingham, WA

Luke & Rebecca Sumner
Pastors, Everett Christian Church
Everett, WA

Kate Sweet
Chaplain, UW Medicine
Seattle, WA

Amy Walters
Senior Pastor, First Christian Church
Olympia, WA

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

To Reject Them is to Reject Me

I am a Christian.

I am an ordained pastor.

I believe in the sufficiency and inspiration of Scripture, salvation through following Jesus Christ, and the eternal life promised to all of God's children.

By those standards, my own beliefs about God are really very orthodox by just about any reasonable standard for, I imagine, most American Christians, mainline and evangelical alike.

Until this: I also believe in equality in all rights, including marriage, for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual, and transgendered people.

I was raised this way since I was a little kid.  The worship pastor in the church plant I grew up in was (is) openly gay.  His lifelong partner was a member of the church and attended frequently.  I went to a historically Presbyterian college with a strong reputation of inclusion for gay and lesbian students.

I then went to a seminary with a huge gay and lesbian demographic, many of whom came to God in spite of the church, not because of it.  Because the church would lead them to doing things like trying to exorcise their homosexuality like a demon.

These are men and women of God and of Christ I served alongside and studied alongside during my formation as a minister.  And their wholeness as believers matters a hell of a lot more to me than your complaining about potentially one day having to make them a floral arrangement or bake them a cake.

Because you have no idea what they have gone through at your hands.  Worse, I'm not even sure you care what they have gone through at your hands.

But it can be accurately and truthfully labeled as persecution.

Real persecution, mind you, not the persecution of not being able to turn away a gay couple because your religious freedom lives and dies by your ability to do that.

And Jesus is pretty clear in Matthew and in Luke about the persecuted being blessed, because your ancestors did the exact same things to the prophets who called them away from their petty greed and selfishness and back to God...and, like our gay and lesbian neighbors, got persecuted for it.

So I'll say this once, and I'll say this plainly: to reject my gay and lesbian friends will be to reject me.  If you turn them away, you turn me, the straight, married, Bible toting man you hold up as your ideal for what stock a pastor should come from, away as well.

I will not cross your threshold, I will not spend my money on your products or services, and I will do everything in my power to encourage others to do likewise.  Because if they aren't welcome, I'm not welcome.

Already, the leadership of my denomination, the Disciples of Christ, has issued an open letter to Governor Pence, urging him to veto SB 101 and notifying him that the church could consider relocating its 2017 General Assembly, which draws thousands of attendees, dozens of vendors, and fills up all of the convention center hotels, from Indianapolis.

And it is, in my sight, godly that they have done this.

Because my relationships with the extraordinary gay and lesbian men and women I have had the blessing to know in this life far exceeds in importance and value your own petty and selfish demands to have your prejudices taken seriously simply because you say they are based on Scripture.

Christianity isn't merely Scriptural, though.  It is relational.  It can be no other way.  Truth means nothing without the people to follow it.

You may think me a heretic, a blasphemer, one of those wolves in sheep's clothing who does not preach the Bible.

And that's fine.  Because, to bastardize Winston Churchill, sometime in heaven, after I am dead and buried, my beliefs about God will be made perfect in God's presence.

But you will still be the jerks who legalized discriminating against your brothers and sisters.

Enjoy the dustbin of history, my brethren.

Yours in Christ,
Eric

Monday, March 23, 2015

Time is Never the Same

From twenty yards away, up by one goal to nil on the opposing club, I see the ball rocket off my opponent's foot like a howitzer.

The ball whips and bends through the air to my right, and I watch its flight the whole way.

I can see where it's going, and my body begins to react the same way it has dozens of times before--I tense my legs, bend at the knees, and launch my body across the frame of the goal (in my mind, I look like a flying squirrel.  In real time, I probably look like a penguin who has slipped on ice).

I cast my hands outward to meet the ball, and even before they make contact, I say to myself, you've got this one.

Goalkeepers will all tell you that there are times when faced with a particularly difficult shot on goal that time itself seems to bend and warp itself, to slow down to give you enough time to make the save.  In reality, is that our positioning and reflexes are in form, but it an amazing, almost mystical, physiological experience to feel the moments tick away far slower than they really ought.

And so slowly, I uncoil into a full stretch, and as the ball thunders against the specialized gloves I wear for both protection and grip, I push the ball wide of its intended destination in the upper corner of the goal.

The one-goal lead is still intact.  We can still win this.

Six days earlier

I rush out from church after Sunday worship like a madman, a whirling dervish with a Bible, rumpled slacks, and a mission.

It isn't an attempt to beat my congregants in the sprint to the parking lot.  Most Sunday afternoons, I'm the last one here.

A 93-year-old matriarch of our congregation has passed away at her daughter's home, while worship was going on, and I'm high-tailing it over there, feeling terrible that I couldn't be there for when she went (something I wrote last week about), but also feeling ready to be there now.

I climb into my car and exhale.  The ignition turns over and I peel out onto the street like a bat out of hell.  I can already imagine the conversation when I get pulled over for speeding:

ME: I'm sorry, officer, but I'm a pastor and one of my congregants just died.

OFFICER WHO HOPEFULLY IS ANDY SAMBERG FROM BROOKLYN NINE-NINE: Hey, no worries, I totally understand, but my boss is a total hardass, so can I see some proof?

ME: Um, well, here's a business card, and my hospital ID badge...

MAKE-BELIEVE ANDY SAMBERG: Sweet, can you get free food at the hospital cafeteria with that?

ME: Yeah...no.

MAKE-BELIEVE ANDY SAMBERG: Okay, that just sucks.  Hey, I'm hungry, want to grab a bite to eat?

ME: My congregant just passed away...

MAKE-BELIEVE ANDY SAMBERG: Right.  On your way, Reverend Reverendness.

It's a brief, fleeting moment of mental joy in a sea of concern as I race against my own clock to make it to the house and see everyone and say a belated farewell to my Florence.

I say "my own clock" because there really is no other clock at work here--the family is expecting me, yes, but when someone has already died (as opposed to actively dying), time is, objectively, less of an issue.  You can wait several hours before asking a funeral home to come for someone's body.

But as I drive across town, I feel the minutes going by faster and faster.  I drive faster and faster in a vain attempt to chase them down.

It feels like I am getting further and further from my congregant's passing, even as geographically, I am in fact getting closer and closer.

And I begin to get that feeling of something slipping away from me, that dread anticipation over the lack of control over time.

So I say to myself again--not out of assurance this time, but out of reassurance--you've got this one.

This time, though, time has changed.  It is no longer the same.  It never was.

More than once, I heard "We're so grateful we got so much time with her."  Florence was 93 and unburdened by the dementia that can turn us into completely different people in our twilight years.  We should all be so lucky to have that length of time to spend with our loved ones.

I was wrong.  Time isn't the same for me, not yet, anyways.  Sure, I can look back on my childhood and think, "Wow, how did become an adult so fast?"  But I cannot yet stretch it out the way I have seen it elongated in other peoples' lives, people who have seen far more and experienced far more than I have.

I'm back on the soccer field now.

The rain has picked back up, and I'm absolutely drenched.  I can't wait to be able to change my jersey, get into my dry car, and return home to my wife and dogs.

But I can't, not yet, anyways.

The game hasn't ended.  Time hasn't gone any faster for me since the last time I was called upon to throw myself into a shot.

It carries me onwards nonetheless.  Rarely at the pace I would like, but always at the pace that is needed...for me to stop a soccer ball in midair, to make it to the bedside of a congregant, or to stop and write about how difficult it genuinely is for me to be in so little control over life even as I am called to surrender it to God each and every day.

It is a divine surrender that is ongoing.  Just like time itself.

Yours in Christ,
Eric

Sunday, March 22, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "Friday"

Mark 15:33-41

33 From noon until three in the afternoon the whole earth was dark. 34 At three, Jesus cried out with a loud shout, “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani,” which means, “My God, my God, why have you left me?” 35 After hearing him, some standing there said, “Look! He’s calling Elijah!” 36 Someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, and put it on a pole. He offered it to Jesus to drink, saying, “Let’s see if Elijah will come to take him down.” 37 But Jesus let out a loud cry and died. 38 The curtain of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom. 39 When the centurion, who stood facing Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “This man was certainly God’s Son.” 40 Some women were watching from a distance, including Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James (the younger one) and Joses, and Salome. 41 When Jesus was in Galilee, these women had followed and supported him, along with many other women who had come to Jerusalem with him. (Common English Bible)


“The Last Week: Mark’s Retelling of the Passion,” Week Five

I remember seeing the giant for the first time on the basketball court, and in the sports magazines.  An oddity in our thoroughly average world, his 7’7” height and 8’6” wingspan defined him in any crowd, even a crowd of basketball players.  He spent enough time in the NBA to retire as one of its best shot blockers in history, and immediately set to work in his post-retirement life of doing something far greater and, sadly, to date, far more futile: bringing peace to Sudan (and what is now South Sudan).

Manute Bol struggled valiantly in this singular effort to bring peace where there was only war and ethnic cleansing, because it was still his homeland.  Even after he received permanent residency in the United States as a religious refugee in 2002 (he is Christian and the Sudanese military dictatorship under Omar al-Bashir is ostensibly Islamic), Bol’s first love was Sudan, and he did anything he could to raise funds to alleviate their poverty, going so far as to donate essentially his entire fortune from his professional basketball days.

That radical generosity did not come back in karma for him, though, after he was the passenger in a car accident with a driver who was under the influence and driving with a suspended license.  After recovering from a broken neck, Bol retired to Olathe, Kansas—right next to my own hometown of Overland Park—while making frequent trips to return to his native Sudan.  It was there that I began to see him as far more than a basketball player, but as an emotional and spiritual giant of a person.

It was there, in Sudan, that he eventually developed Stevens-Johnson syndrome, which in turn eventually led to acute kidney failure, and then to his death at only 47 years of age.

The giant had been felled, and felled by his own greatness of heart, his insistence to keep working, traveling, aiding, even after he got sick, and even as he got sicker and sicker.  Closer and closer he came to death, yet still he stayed the course of caring for other people—his people—first.

And in this way, he died not from illness, but upon the cross, upon the cross that Jesus approached slowly, step by step, not from Pilate’s praetorium but all the way from Nazareth; with every miracle performed, with every sermon given, with every pair of eyes made able to see the fullness of the glory of God, Jesus was one step closer to His eventual crucifixion.  Because, sadly, it is human inevitability that we sever the lives of those who do the greatest good for us.

Now that Lent, that 40-day fast in the wilderness alongside Jesus as He is tempted by the devil, has not just begun but can officially be considered to be in full swing, so too does a new sermon series really begin digging in for us as well.  And we’ll continue stretching out Holy Week—that seven-day span of time from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday—by talking about each day in turn, starting with Monday (that way we can discuss Palm Sunday on, you know, Palm Sunday) before wrapping up with Easter Sunday itself on April 5.  For this sermon series, I am using as a template the book “The Last Week,” a commentary on the Gospel of Mark’s telling of Holy Week, co-written by Bible scholars John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg.  Professor Borg just passed away a few weeks ago, plus this book is one of a precious few on my list of “it truly changed my life” books, so this series has a lot of added meaning for me as well as, I hope, eventually for you too.

We finally arrive, after beginning this sermon series on Monday, the day after Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, at Good Friday.  The day of the cross.  The day when the Messiah was forsaken and left to die by God and humanity alike.  And it had to happen that way.  It could happen no other way.  From Borg and Crossan:

Was the death of Jesus the will of God?  No.  It is never the will of God that a righteous man be crucified.  Did it have to happen?  It might have turned out differently.  Judas might not have betrayed Jesus.  The temple authorities might have decided on a course of action other than recommending execution.  Pilate might have let Jesus go or decided on a punishment other than death.  But it did happen this way…

(It is) for another reason the execution of Jesus was virtually inevitable.  Not because of divine necessity, but because of human inevitability—this is what domination systems did to people who publicly and vigorously challenged them….it had happened to John the Baptizer, arrested and executed by Herod Antipas not long before.  Now it has happened to Jesus.  Within a few more decades, it would happen to Paul, Peter, and James...

But Jesus was not simply an unfortunate victim of a domination system’s brutality.  He was also a protagonist filled with passion.  His passion, His message, was about the kingdom of God, (and)… Jesus’s passion got Him killed.

Did Good Friday have to happen?  As divine necessity?  No.  As human inevitability?  Virtually.

In other words, did Jesus die because God rigged the game so, or did He die because our own sinfulness and commitment to that sin leave us with no other alternative?  It has to be the latter.

But why?  Don’t we talk about God sacrificing His only Son so that He could forgive us?  Well…yeah.  Just because it is commonly held does not mean it is good theology, though.  God is God, He could forgive us whenever He wanted.  To condition His forgiveness on the blood and life of His Son doesn’t make God good, it makes God barbaric and despotic.  What other sovereign kills off their own progeny and expects to be universally adored for it?  Certainly not a divine one.

No, Jesus’s execution had to happen, just like the deaths of giants like Manute Bol, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or Oscar Romero, because we are so sinful that we cannot deign to tolerate such goodness in our midst for too terribly long.  We prefer to cast such goodness as a threat that can be done away with rather than a beacon of help and hope to cast our eyes upwards at.

There is a world in which such saints would not have died the way they had.  Omar al-Bashir could not have begun over a decade of ethnic bloodshed in Sudan.  Hitler could not have created the machinery of death that Bonhoeffer felt compelled to act against.  And we could have not created the ways and means of doing harm to one another that necessitated God’s arrival to His creation in the flesh.

But when God did come to us, in the flesh and with a refresher course of His original message that we have hardly or entirely heeded since Eden, it all could have only ended this way.

Which, when you consider that reality, makes it all the more remarkable that God sent Christ to begin with.  God could have written us off as beyond hope, utterly irredeemable, and begun the process of spiritual triage and moved on to saving the souls of, I don’t know, the kangaroos.

But God didn’t.  God never would.  God could see that possibility, but He didn’t take it.

Believe it or not, that is why the centurion’s proclamation—even if only to himself—is so important.  If the woman who anointed Jesus on Wednesday in preparation for His death and burial is the first Jewish believer according to Mark, then this centurion is the first Gentile believer according to Mark.

Why?

Because the centurion would never have been raised to believe either that Jesus was the Son of God or that this God of the Hebrew Bible who had sent Jesus even existed or was worth worshipping.  The Romans had their own pantheon of deities—mostly plagiarized from the Greek mythological tradition with new names slapped on—and even more importantly, they worshipped their emperor, the Caesar, as the son of a god, because every time an emperor died, he was deified—made into a god in their mythology.

But to this anonymous centurion, whose name, like the woman who anointed Jesus, remains forever unknown to us, declares that this man hung high on the cross to die, who has just died, is the son of God.  Not Caesar.  Never Caesar.

This man who was at best complicit in Christ’s death and at worst actively aided and abetted in it has declared a faith in the man he just helped kill.  A person whose job description includes putting rebels to death--he may well have literally had Christ's blood on his hands--has made that leap of faith that God asks of us.  A representative of this sin that made the death of Christ a virtual inevitability has just recognized what has happened, and who this man truly was.  Quite simply, as Borg and Crossan put it, “empire testifies against itself.”

Centuries, millennia even, of deprivation of basic human dignity, of violence towards the downtrodden and indifference towards the oppressed, have testified against themselves.

It is where our redemption begins, because it proves that there is hope, hope enough even for the most hardened of hearts, that of a Gentile legionnaire who probably was raised to despise the pesky Israelites and their irksome, meddlesome God.

Whatever our sins, we cannot be as far from God as this centurion who finds God at the foot of the cross.

And so, like the centurion, we too can turn away from the world and its ways of turning saints into threats and good people into dangers to what we are used to and what we believe must be the norm; a world in which those who are far too good often end up giving their lives for their goodness because this world cannot bear their presence any longer.

We can turn from the inevitability of sinfulness, though, and as soon as we do so, it is by definition no longer inevitable.

That is the power of the cross.  That is the power of our reconciling with God.  And a great and mighty power it is.  

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
March 22, 2015

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Let's Be Honest. The Mainline Church Doesn't Want Young Families.

Yesterday, several folks (including my mum) circulated on Facebook an article by Jan Edmiston, a Presbyterian minister and fellow blogger, entitled "When Churches Want a Pastor Who Can Bring In Young Families."  The crux of her article was this: "Let's be honest about the 'why.'"

Why do we want to bring in young families?  She lists several reasons: young people bring energy, resources, and the like, but really, she says, we need to seek pastors not who specialize in bringing in young families, but pastors who can change a church's entire culture.

That's all well and good, but after several years in ministry, and having seen how a lot of churchpeople from different congregations and denominations act around young families, I have come to the realization that I disagree entirely with the premise of the article:

We just plain don't want young families here in the mainline church.  We don't want the noises and messes their infants and toddlers inevitably bring (and Edmiston says this with her fifth point on her list of how to genuinely welcome young families).  We don't want their casual approach to church dress or their taste in Christian music.  And we definitely don't want the change that they inevitably bring.

I say all of this based on oh so many offhanded and whispered murmurs, passed judgments, and disapproving glares.  I say this based on oh so many titters, unfounded expectations, and patronizing comments.  And I say this based on the belief we seem to have that young families should be grateful for our openness and hospitality towards them in spite of their many and obvious flaws.

And I say all of that whilst being one of those pastors who was (is) meant, in part, to bring in young families--which has happened here at FCC, some truly wonderful and amazing parents and children have joined our growing ranks of Jesus followers who treat one another as family.

But no, what we often want instead are clones of ourselves, who act like they are in the same phase of life as us and share all our interests in church activities, but who just happen to be 40 or 50 years biologically younger than us.  Then we look over at the bigger (and often more evangelical) with patently un-Christian envy and wonder why the young families there want nothing to do with us.

That's not church, though.  That's a fantasy.  That's an ideal that will never happen.

This past Sunday, the inaugural meeting for our first new Christian Women's Fellowship small group took place--the first new small group to be planted here in a long time.  And while remaining under the umbrella of our larger CWF setup, they are very much striking their own course in terms of mission, fellowship, and spiritual enrichment.

And I love it.  I absolutely love it.  That's the way it needs to be for this church thing to work now--we have to let the future be unleashed, much as we may in fact fear that very same future in the face of what remember from the past.

After all, the past we know.  The past we have experienced.  The past we can tangibly relate to.

But the future?  Wow.

And yet, even the past still isn't related to, not entirely.  I see and hear a lot of talk about the nostalgia that folks have for the mainline church that once was--the great, venerable congregations of the 1950s and 60s, that overflowed with members and that always had some sort of women's circle or men's workday that was going on.

I wouldn't call it nostalgia, though.  I'd call it selective memory.  Sure, we may remember the masses of people, but do we remember the noise that came with them?  Sure, we remember our kids coming to church, but do we remember just how much they squirmed while being subjected to a sermon far longer than how long our preachers might go on for today?  And sure, we remember our children dutifully attending church through confirmation, but do we remember them not wanting anything to do with church afterwards, or after they left the nest?

So let's be honest about ourselves, yeah?  The Bible is pretty big on honesty.  Let's be honest about what we really want and who we really want in our churches: we want ourselves.  Not the next generation of believers and disciples.

And that's fine, but we can't expect our younger brethren to want to be a part of that church.  We cannot act surprised and shocked and hurt when they want to create their own thing.  Because in the end, we were the ones who drove them away.

The first part of confessing and repenting is to own your sin.  We need to own--and own up to--this particular one, the sin of us, deep down, not wanting people who aren't ourselves to grace the doors of our church.

Then and only then, I firmly believe, can the new thing we are meant to behold be created, in God's good time.

Yours in Christ,
Eric

Monday, March 16, 2015

I Struggle Against the Thunderbolt's Ways

Vajrayana Buddhism, one of the major schools of Buddhism, literally translates into English as "the Way of the Thunderbolt."  It derives its name from the vajra, the thunderbolt that in Sanskrit refers to the toughness or even indestructibility of the spirit.

I don't claim to even remotely be an expert on Buddhism (far from it--something that my total crank of a Buddhist professor in college could confirm), but that is really a pretty amazing thing to name your religion after--the resilience of spirit itself.  It is something that English doesn't really have a word for, but it should.

We don't have a word for it, I think, because of how differently we think of the thunderbolt in the West.  Going all the way back to ancient Greek mythology, Zeus would hurl them from the sky as his weapon of choice, and even today, to be struck by lightning is often the result of freak chance, and we even refer to a complete rarity as the equivalent of lightning striking in the same place twice.

Yet the bolts still strike us, and just like in a literal thunderstorm, when National Weather Service warnings go out and we retreat for shelter, we might see the specter of their possibility coming, but it does not diminish the shock of standing there as the full force of heaven seems to strike you into full stop.

Two weeks ago, I got an email from the senior pastor of my former church in California that Ryan, a 21-year-old who was a youth when I was there, died from a brain tumor.  And yesterday, just as my current church's praise band was getting our morning worship service into full swing, a message was being left on our drummer's voicemail that her mom, Florence (who was also our lead singer's grandmother) had just died from metastatic pancreatic cancer.

They got that voicemail right as my sermon was starting, and what they did afterwards amazed me: they stayed through the sermon, and despite the tears, they went up and performed their remaining songs to close out our worship with a poise I had not yet known existed in humanity.  There are no words for how impressed I was (and am) with them.

The thunderbolt had struck, and my fellow servants put forth an indestructible resilience.  They showed their own toughness, their thunderbolt of spirit.

In both of these vivid deaths, the lightning struck, once because the person was by almost any standard far, far, too young to go, and once because the person was not young, but went when her family was not by her side and couldn't be for another hour.  Both times, I felt an immense pang of pain over the circumstances, like I had just been kicked full force in the gut.

And that was before the flood of memories had even started: memories of his drum playing, of her Bible study prayers, of his love of competitive swimming and her cardplaying prowess.  Those pangs would continue on and on.

I don't know, maybe the "so-and-so hung on until everyone could be there" stories are hokum.  People die when they are going to die, and we try to make ourselves feel better about their dying because of how they went.  I felt--feel--horrible that my church matriarch's family wasn't there, and that my one-time youth's family will now have to live out their lives without his physical presence.  There isn't timeliness in that, there just isn't.  Families should be present and want to be present, but we all know that doesn't always happen.

And make no mistake--it is incredibly important for someone to be able to go from this life to the next in a state of comfort and in an absence of pain.  We're people, humans, and children of God deserve to die with their dignity intact.

But we cannot control our time of death, not really.  We like the stories about how someone hung on, or how a spouse died just hours after their spouse did, because those stories imply, however subtly but still dangerously, that we do have some measure of control over our deaths.

And boy, do we hate a lack of control.  We need control, we crave it, it's our fix, our Cocoa Puffs that we're absolutely cuckoo for.

Yet...isn't religion all about that giving up of control?  Aren't we exhorted to "let go and let God?"  (And for *bleep*'s sake, I absolutely LOATHE that saying because it is so tritely bandied about, but that doesn't mean there isn't at least a germ truth in it.)  Isn't religion supposed to proffer hope that this life is not our last life, that death does not have the final word, and that God is indeed in His heaven, prepared to roll out the welcome mat to us when our number is called?

Our fear of death remains, though.  And after seeing these two deaths, on the polar extremes of life, I have come to believe that fear of death is really another manifestation of our fear of a lack of control.  I wish like hell my praise leaders could have been at their mother and grandmother's bedside when she went, even if it meant we had to wing it and sing a cappella yesterday.  I would have wanted to do that for them--that's my own need for control rearing its own head.

But I can't.  I couldn't.  The lightning had struck, the future had been uprooted from the present, and a new future was written.

In the face of the bolts that strike us, then, I know only to display just enough toughness to endure it.  I learned how, for I have seen it on display, from grieving parents and grieving children alike.

I reckon it is better to embrace that toughness, that inner thunderbolt way, when the thunderbolt's ways come crashing into your little bubble.  Because they do so for other people constantly, around the world, by the second.

Which I do not say to be all doom-and-gloom.  Nothing I have said here should be heard in Eeyore's voice.  Quite simply, I struggle with how unpredictable death can be.  Even though it is part of my job to bury people, and to commit their souls to paradise.

But I'm working on it.  Maybe that's the best I can do right now.

Yours in Christ,
Eric

In memory of Ryan Morgan and Florence Latham.  Ad vitam aeternam.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "Thursday"

Mark 14:17-25

17 That evening, Jesus arrived with the Twelve. 18 During the meal, Jesus said, “I assure you that one of you will betray me—someone eating with me.” 19 Deeply saddened, they asked him, one by one, “It’s not me, is it?” 20 Jesus answered, “It’s one of the Twelve, one who is dipping bread with me into this bowl. 21 The Human One goes to his death just as it is written about him. But how terrible it is for that person who betrays the Human One! It would have been better for him if he had never been born.” 22 While they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” 23 He took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, and they all drank from it. 24 He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. 25 I assure you that I won’t drink wine again until that day when I drink it in a new way in God’s kingdom.” (Common English Bible)


“The Last Week: Mark’s Retelling of the Passion,” Week Four

The congregation’s stance had made headlines—this brand new church in Portland, less than a year old, put a welcome statement on their website.  That in and of itself isn’t headline-worthy, and especially not in a generally GLBTQ-friendly city like Portland.  What happened afterwards, though, was what made the news.

This church’s denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church, caught wind of this crazy thing their church plant in Portland had done, daring to actually something as crazy and out-of-bounds that all people were welcome in their church, and they ordered their pastor, Rev. Adam Phillips, to take the statement down.

He refused.  So the congregation was expelled from the denomination, their funding was cut off, and Pastor Adam was defrocked of his ministry credentials.

For a church that was less than a year old, this could have killed them in the cradle.  But another older, venerable church stepped in to open their home to this newer sibling, to give them sanctuary and space to worship as they were originally called to when their church was planted last year.

That older, venerable church?  First Christian Church of Portland (and we’re First Christian Church too…yeah, our predecessors were real creative with our church names).  A church in our own denomination, the Disciples of Christ.

I felt exceptionally proud in hearing this news to be a Disciple pastor, because rather than see this new upstart church as competition, they were welcomed in as family around the table.  And despite the competition that the original disciples, the Twelve, have had throughout their time with Jesus, and despite the consternation caused by Jesus’s pronouncement that one of them would soon betray Him and that it would have been better had that betrayer never been born, they too still gathered around the table in that tiny upper room in Jerusalem to celebrate God’s goodness in liberating His people from slavery in Egypt.

This is a story about how God continues to liberate us from our own forms of slavery, in order to one day bring us together as one whole and unified chosen people around His table to be blessed.

Now that Lent, that 40-day fast in the wilderness alongside Jesus as He is tempted by the devil, has not just begun but can officially be considered to be in full swing, so too does a new sermon series really begin digging in for us as well.  And we’ll continue stretching out Holy Week—that seven-day span of time from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday—by talking about each day in turn, starting with Monday (that way we can discuss Palm Sunday on, you know, Palm Sunday) before wrapping up with Easter Sunday itself on April 5.  For this sermon series, I am using as a template the book “The Last Week,” a commentary on the Gospel of Mark’s telling of Holy Week, co-written by Bible scholars John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg.  Professor Borg just passed away a few weeks ago, plus this book is one of a precious few on my list of “it truly changed my life” books, so this series has a lot of added meaning for me as well as, I hope, eventually for you too.

That hope is especially true for this day: Thursday, Maundy Thursday, when the open table is born.

Why is it open?  Simply because that one whom it would have been better if they had never been born, the betrayer, Judas Iscariot, still takes his place at the table alongside the others.

Borg and Crossan highlight four particularly “rich meanings” of the last supper, the first of which is “a continuation of the meal practice of Jesus.”  By that, they mean:

He often taught at meals, banquets were topics of His parables, and His meal practice was often criticized by His opponents.  Scribes and Pharisees aggressively ask, “Why does He eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Mark 2:16; see also Matt. 11:19; Luke 7:34; 15:1-2).

The issue is that Jesus eats with “undesirables,” the marginalized and outcast, in a society in which the people with whom one shared a meal was hugely significant.  Jesus’s meal practice was about inclusion in a society with sharp social boundaries.  It had both religious and political significance: religious because it was done in the name of the kingdom of God; political because it affirmed a very different vision of society.  An analogy close to our own time would be a religious leader in the American South prior to the antisegregation legislation of the 1960s holding public integrated meals and declaring, “This is the kingdom of God—and the divided world that you see around you is not.”

…The Last Supper continues and culminates in Jesus’s emphasis upon meals and food as God’s justice.

In the end, the table is a place for everyone, even Judas.  Even tax collectors.  Even, basically, sinners.  Sinners like you and me.  Saints who have already been perfected have no need for what is offered here, because what is offered is, as Jesus says, offered “for many for the forgiveness of sins.”  If you have no sins to be forgiven, you require no seat at this meal.

That is why I could never, for the life of me, understand why we required a certain moral standard (arbitrary and determined by us, naturally) in order to partake of communion.  Why would we deprive the people most in need of this meal from receiving it?  It would be like doctors saying that they would only take care of people who were already healthy, or lawyers saying they would only represent people who required no legal advice.  If we deign to limit who gets to taste and see the grace of God, then what on God’s green earth are we doing here?

Not kingdom building, that’s for certain.  But we often think that we are, which might be even more dangerous.

Some years ago, I worshiped one Sunday at a Lutheran Church: Missouri Synod congregation.  It is the denomination that my mom grew up in before she converted to the Disciples of Christ.  They had communion the Sunday I visited, except that instead of the servers going out into the congregation like how we perform communion, the congregation would go up row by row to form a circle around the altar to take communion.  Which sounds lovely in the abstract…unless you have a visitor like me who ends up at the very end sitting all by his awkward lonesome in his seat while the entire church is up on stage in a circle without him. 

Really, at that point, I wanted to stand up, sing, “The cheese stands alone!” and leave.  But even I have a (repressed) sense of decorum.  But it was a humiliating experience to have as a first-time visitor in a church—I was instantly made to feel like I did not belong there.

I never went back for a second Sunday.

Because what kind of a church tells someone that Judas sat at the table with Christ, but you can’t?

The entire point of church is to get someone regardless of how much of a Judas they are to sit down at the same table as Christ, because it is, in the end, none other than Christ Himself who has invited them.

Maybe that is what offends us about this whole business.  We’re still exactly like the scribes and Pharisees who turn their noses up at the company Jesus keeps.  We don’t like the way they are dressed, or the way they talk, or…if you’re, say, the Evangelical Covenant Church, what sexual orientation a person has, and so maybe we keep our distance, we edge away from them, we tell them—in a variety of subtle and not-so-subtle ways—that we are far from thrilled at their presence amongst us.

And if so, Jesus would have strong words for us.  Welcoming the least of us is the same as welcoming Him, remember?  So what does it mean when we do not welcome the least among us?

Let us never get to the point of finding out.  Let us never have to wonder or worry about that particular fate, because we have instead striven, and continue to strive, to invite all manner of disciples to our supper table, from the Peters who will deny Jesus to the Judases who will outright betray Him, and to all manner of fellow sinners in between.

Because such grace was extended to us too once upon a time, and we cannot ever, ever forget that, lest we lose sight of what our salvation is ever really about to begin with: being in a right relationship with God, as His child who has gotten to finally, at long last, sit at the adults’ table on holidays.  I mean, we all know the kids’ table is still more fun, but we long for that acceptance, that being able to belong where we didn’t think we ever would or could belong.

And, as it turns out, miraculously, we do.  We all do.

What a welcome table that can be, if we let it.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
March 15, 2015