Monday, April 24, 2017

#KeepThePromise

As I was unlocking the church building yesterday morning for worship and Sunday School, one of the guitarists in our worship band came up to me and, completely unbidden, began raving about a movie that he had seen the day before--The Promise, about a war romance that buds as the First World War rages and as, within its violent confines, the Armenian Genocide snuffs out the lives of 1.5 million men, women, and children in the first genocide of the 20th century.

I told my worship musician that I hadn't yet had a chance to see the entire film, but that I was very glad that he had gone to see it and that I hoped he would take its message and lessons to heart. Because those lessons--that the Armenian Genocide was real, that it really did happen, and that it created an entire diaspora of millions and millions of people who have spent the past century crying out for a crumb of recognition or justice--have yet to really sink in for vast swaths of the world, including here in the United States.

But as The Promise was being released in the United States, over in Jerusalem, something remarkable was happening: in the archives of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, Turkish historian Taner Akcam discovered a document that he called the "smoking gun" for the argument that the Armenian Genocide was indeed perpetrated not by rogue soldiers or civilians, but by the order of the government of the Ottoman Empire (what would become the modern nation of Turkey) itself.

Akcam's smoking gun may not change anything right away, but were it to do so, even over time, it would be a great testament to a historian whose body of work has been genuinely heroic. Imprisoned and threatened for his work (that has largely, but not exclusively, focused on World War I and the Armenian Genocide), Akcam had to seek asylum in Europe and eventually relocated to the States, and at every turn has shown uncommon courage in a field that is perhaps more associated with boredom than hair-raising attempts to silence you.

Even emotionally, there is a great deal of courage in his work. It is difficult to admit that your ancestors were a part of a massive crime against humanity that resulted in millions of deaths--just look at how difficult it remains to come to a full reckoning of the United States' own treatment of its African slaves and its indigenous peoples over the course of our own history.

Moviemaking has a role to play in such recognition--Hotel Rwanda (directed by Terry George, the director of The Promise) seared the Rwandan Genocide into our memories. Edward Zwick's Glory immortalized the heroism and dignity of the black Massachusetts 54th regiment in the face of constant racism from not only Confederates but also Union soldiers. And Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List--which, for my money, is one of the very best films ever made--stands as one of the most compelling memorials to the Holocaust I have ever seen.

All deserve to be remembered. All deserve to be honored. If I do not likewise honor the memory of the souls killed in the Holocaust, or the Rwandan Genocide, or the Trail of Tears, then what good is my memory of my own people? My responsibility as one of millions of landless Armenians around the world is to honor them, and to honor others who have suffered what nobody else should ever have had to suffer.

The Promise, then, even if it does not rise to the all-time greats list that Schindler's List has, represents a sincerely and wonderfully made first wide-scale effort to maintain the memory of what has been done, and what has been left undone, to my people.

I'll be watching The Promise today, on Genocide Remembrance Day. I have my reservations about the film--namely the casting of non-Armenian actors in Armenian roles (with all due respect to Oscar Isaac, who is otherwise a laudable actor)--but the fact remains that this is the most "mainstream" film that includes the Armenian Genocide, and the first film that has been widely available in the United States since Atom Egoyan's 2002 film Ararat (there have been a number of European-made films since 2002, but few, if any, were distributed to any great length in the United States).

The message of The Promise, though, isn't just about the genocide--it is about doing right by others as a general rule to live by, which is why the filmmakers are donating 100% of the film's proceeds to global charities such as the Elton John AIDS Foundation. And to raise awareness--I know its such a cliched term in our era of clicktivism and silly bracelets, but here, it fits--the hashtag #KeepThePromise has been trending on social media.

That awareness is very much necessary, as Christian Bale, one of the actors portraying the three protagonists in The Promise, is quick to note in interviews that he had no notion of the Armenian Genocide before The Promise--and, indeed, often so too are his interviewers quick to admit a similar lack of awareness themselves.

This should not be so.

There are a great many doorsteps at which to lay culpability for this lack of awareness--the absence of a good World War I curriculum in our history classrooms, the despicable effort in pockets of academia ranging from Princeton University to Louisville University to use faux-intellectual disinformation to discredit the scholarly consensus, and just plain old-fashioned lobbying against the truth in the halls of government. It takes time and effort--a great deal of time and effort, in fact--for the work and research of someone like Taner Akcam to erode and chip away at such systemic forces.

But if, as GI Joe says, knowing is half the battle, and if, as Jesus says in John 8, that you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free, then at least seeking an awareness, whether it comes in a classroom or a movie theater, is worthy of our praise.

So if you do go to see The Promise, my sincere and profound thanks to you. All I ask is that you emerge from the darkened theater prepared to keep the promise--to keep in your heart what you have learned, and to share the story with others.

In so doing, we will be set free. Of that, I am certain.

In memory of the 1.5 million men, women, and children murdered in the Armenian Genocide. As of this writing, its status as a genocide has yet to be acknowledged by the United States of America and is officially denied by the republics of both Turkey and Azerbaijan.

Longview, Washington
April 24, 2017

Since I began The Theophilus Project in the autumn of 2011, I write on or around April 24 every year in memory of my own family, whose patriarch Sarkis Mouradian (my great-great grandfather) and his son Madiros, died in the spring of 1915 as the genocide began. You can find more of my work on their behalf and in their memory here:

2016: "Red Sunday"
2015: "100"
2014: "A Voice Was Heard In Ramah"
2013: "Being Ethnic"
2012: "Armenia Remembered"

The Promise promo poster image courtesy of IMDB

Sunday, April 23, 2017

This Week's Sermon: "Ecce Homo: The Man"

John 19:1-7

Then Pilate had Jesus taken and whipped. 2 The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and dressed him in a purple robe. 3 Over and over they went up to him and said, “Greetings, king of the Jews!” And they slapped him in the face. 4 Pilate came out of the palace again and said to the Jewish leaders, “Look! I’m bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no grounds for a charge against him.” 5 When Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe, Pilate said to them, “Here’s the man.” 6 When the chief priests and their deputies saw him, they shouted out, “Crucify, crucify!” Pilate told them, “You take him and crucify him. I don’t find any grounds for a charge against him.” 7 The Jewish leaders replied, “We have a Law, and according to this Law he ought to die because he made himself out to be God’s Son.” (Common English Bible)



“Imago Dei: Images and Titles of the Risen Christ,” Week One

There are a great many things that I remember from my days as an undergrad at my alma mater, Lewis & Clark College in Portland—the gorgeous campus on the old Frank estate that looked like the backdrop for Bambi or Fantasia or somesusch, the late nights working on debate evidence and research papers, and most of all, the people I met along the way—professors, students, and staff.

One particular staffer, Ted Jordan, went by Yogi to all of us. He worked in the dining hall and would come out during meal hours to bounce from table to table—sort of how I do during lunch here at church—and just say hello and, on some days, hand out balloons, because who couldn’t use a balloon in their lives?

But housing in Portland has become a “you-own-the-rights-to-my-firstborn” sort of proposition, and Yogi’s own housing had become prohibitively expensive for him after his landlord raised the rent by quite a lot of money on him, and I’ll let The Oregonian take over the story from here:

Jordan told a student he was facing eviction. The rent in his Southwest Portland apartment increased to $950 in February, he said. And his odds of coming up with enough money to stay in it by April weren’t looking good.

When Miranda Shakes heard about Jordan’s ordeal, she approached him with an idea. Why not set up a crowdfunding campaign to raise the money he needed?

“People would want to do tghat? They’re all college students—you can’t afford to help me,” he told her.

“Well, if everyone at the school gave just $1,” she said, “you’d be set.”

After all, Shakes told The Oregonian/OregonLive, she originally planned to raise $1,500 for Jordan’s rent and maybe a congratulatory trip to San Francisco. And as of fall 2015, Lewis and Clark claimed an undergraduate enrollment of more than 2,000.

Jordan gave Shakes his blessing. And the donations began to pour in. Within 22 hours, the Gofundme to save Jordan from eviction totaled $4,700. When Shakes told him the news, Jordan couldn’t believe it.

“I really don’t need all that money,” he said with a laugh… “I don’t think he understands the impact he’s had on this school,” Shakes said.

As of Wednesday, Yogi’s Gofundme has raised over $7,800. I chipped in a few bucks to get them over that particular milestone.

The article goes on to note many of the notes left by students and alums for Yogi, including one that said the donor remembered Yogi better than many of their classes!

When the memories of the exams and the textbooks begin to fade, what we are often left with from our education is the people. And for this one person, what needed to happen was for he and his circumstances to be beheld by others, others who could then step in and help. So while the abstractions may have faded, the person in my fellow alumni’s minds remained. And that can make all the difference—in doing ministry, in following Christ, and in coexisting together amid the kingdom that we are striving to create through our faith in God.

This is a new sermon series for the church season of Easter, which extends for the forty-nine days between Easter Sunday last week to Pentecost Sunday, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples as described in the second chapter of Acts. Much like Christmas, then, Easter does not actually end on Easter Day, but rather continues for a number of days afterwards so that we may continue our celebration of the good news that each of these two holidays represents and teaches us.

So for the 2017 Easter season, we’ll be using words to explore something visual—the images of the living and risen Jesus Christ that have been handed down from one generation of Christians to another throughout the centuries. Some of these images of Christ are almost as old as the church (the Way, in its Biblical incarnation) itself. All of them are rooted in Scriptural accounts of the Lord. And they each have something different to teach us about how different Christian communities at different points in time saw Jesus as the promised Messiah.

So for this first Sunday of this new sermon series, we’ll begin by rewinding to almost ten days ago, to Good Friday, and the trial at dawn of Jesus before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea. In the Gospel of John’s accounting of the trial, Pilate theatrically hauls Jesus out before the assembled chief priests, scribes, and temple authorities after having Jesus mocked and flogged and proclaims to them, “Here is the man!” In the Latin Vulgate translation of John, that exclamation is translated as ecce homo. And in art, it has become immortalized by a variety of artists, from Caravaggio in 1605 to the Spanish fresco that was famously restored in 2012 by a woman with no background in art restoration and resulted in an image of Jesus so cartoonishly inaccurate that it became an instant internet sensation.

But the image of Jesus as the beaten, bloodied man before the men of power who railroaded him to the cross is far from cartoonish; indeed, it is a compelling, even harrowing image of the sheer extent of the Son of God’s human vulnerability. It is a particularly disturbing image to be coming out of John’s Gospel, because of all the Gospels, John’s is the one that most portrays Jesus as having finally accepted His fate and going to the cross in the security that this is what has to happen for humanity to finally be liberated from sinfulness.

Which means that we cannot, and should not, see the vulnerability that Jesus displays in this image as exclusive to Him. He was not the only person crucified by the Roman Empire, and certainly not the only one executed inhumanely—after all, among the Romans’ other favorite means of executions were being fed to wild beasts and being burned alive.

Instead, we ought to be able to see Jesus as embodying our own vulnerability, in whatever capacities we are vulnerable before others. I know that for myself, part of that vulnerability is right here, on Sunday mornings, when I share with you sometimes some deeply and profoundly personal aspects of my faith journey and understanding of Scripture, with no such reciprocal expectation asked of any of you. And for you in turn, some of that vulnerability might be in coming to me as your pastor for counsel on something you might not be able to share with just anybody.

But that vulnerability eclipses the personal and the individual, the one-to-one moments in our lives, to also cover the larger systemic and systematic vulnerabilities that we still see every day, including the vulnerability of the people to their own leaders and governments, including the ancient Israelites to the high priests who were now pushing for the crucifixion of Jesus--the high priests had not the interests of ordinary people at heart; rather, they were interested only in their own status and wealth even at the expense of the populace and cannot be seen as representing them.

That phenomenon is as true today as it was then. Take Yogi, for example. I can guarantee you that he was by no means the only person facing hardship in the increasingly expensive Portland housing market, and that even after helping him, that market is probably still going to keep creeping up in price for the foreseeable future because people with the wealth and power to make it so find great profit in creating more homelessness out of the rent they charge. But in beholding this one man, and his predicament, it is possible to see the vulnerability of so many others facing the same fear of eviction, of homelessness, and of all the lack of security that comes with it.

Included in that vulnerability, it must be noted, is also the vulnerability of Jesus Christ the man, who spent portions of his life, including his birth, homeless.

So we behold the man, not only the risen, resurrected man of Easter, but also the beaten and vulnerable man of Good Friday. And in Him, may we behold not just the one man, the God-made-flesh, but all people who have faced down such vulnerability, and will continue to face down such vulnerability. May we see in such souls the true imago dei—the true image of God—that God spoke into existence by saying, in Genesis 1, that in “our image” humankind would be created.

Behold, then, the human. And in so doing, behold the truly wondrous God who created them.

Thanks be to that good and great God. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
April 23, 2017

Silhouette of Christ the Redeemer courtesy of catholicplanet.net

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Such Cute Dogs, Though!, Revisited

If you haven't had a chance to read my one-act "play" of two door-to-door evangelists conversing, erm, forcefully with me about my doctrinal error-addled self, please take a few minutes to do so. It's well worth your time, and I promise to still be here when you're done.

My initial sharing of my one-act play (really, an encounter with door-to-door evangelists from a local church that became intensely uncomfortable almost immediately) garnered some pretty funny-slash-sympathetic reactions when I first shared it, but it is very important to dig beneath the initial funnies at seeing your beloved local pastor get the full Spanish Inquisition treatment by a pair of zealots, because there are attitudes displayed in that "play" that must be unpacked and honestly confronted if Christianity is going to make anything vaguely resembling a recovery from the nadir it currently inhabits in the hearts of many.

Because, look, Christian doctrine is easy. And I say that knowing full well that we have come up with all sorts of complicated words to label it and describe it, from premillennialism to antinomianism to all sorts of -isms. But as Ferris Bueller said, "-ism's in my opinion are not good. A person should not believe in an -ism, he should believe in himself. I quote John Lennon, "I don't believe in Beatles, I just believe in me." Good point there. After all, he was the walrus."

I'd substitute out believing in ourselves with believing in God in that quote. We make belief in God *sound* complicated, when in truth it doesn't have to be or even need to be. Upon love of God and love of neighbor, Jesus says when asked what the most important law is, hangs the entirety of the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 22:37-40).

So if belief in God isn't complicated, why does it matter whether I teach that good works are a part of what God desires for us to do in this life and on this world?

In a word--control.

The church has, at many turns, confused passionate belief with control over belief, and while the latter may certainly overlap or stem from the former, the former can exist without the latter. I am passionate about a number of political and theological beliefs I hold, but I cannot, should not, and must not wedge my congregation into sharing those beliefs, no matter how passionate I am about them.

What is at hand, then, is a fundamental difference in the view of how one sees the function of the clergy: do pastors like me exist to tell you what to believe, or to train you up to determine your own beliefs? Because those are most certainly not the same thing.

In truth, American Christianity, though it trumpets liberty (especially of the religious or armed variety), often seems to have a soft spot for authoritarianism. We like our rules. There is appeal in the black-and-white outlook of fundamentalism, no matter how many shades of gray the world exudes (spoiler alert: it's way more than fifty). And part of that appeal was on full display in the brochure they handed me from the get-go, which laid out, in finely-honed detail, their purely transactional "way to heaven," which involved achieving salvation purely through a set of concrete steps to follow--which is pretty ironic, since reciting the Sinner's Prayer (or otherwise "asking Jesus into your heart") is very much a work...meaning that they, like me, preach salvation at least partially through works.

But what makes me truly grieve this approach is how small and manipulable it makes God--that if you do things just so, God is contractually bound to give you what you ask for (a golden ticket to paradise). That simply isn't how a relationship with God works, or what it ought to be boiled down to. God is far bigger than that, and so our relationships with God can, and should be, much bigger than simply what God can offer us when we die. That's not a deity, that's a cuddlier version of Charon, the boatman from ancient Greek mythology who exchanges boat rides across the River Styx for coins.

I would be remiss if I did not remark upon the fact that the theological aggression, as it were, was almost exclusively one-sided: at no point did I suggest that the two evangelists were heretics, or were condemned to hell, or anything of the sort of invective they repeatedly hurled at me. I know that sounds awfully high-and-mighty of me, but the minimalism of my approach to doctrine necessitates it. Far be it for me to say that someone who professes to be a Christian is not, in fact, a Christian because of their doctrinal, theological, or political differences with me.

Making room for those differences is a crucial part of being church. It is what Jesus did with the twelve disciples, which included among their number a tax collector (Matthew) and a zealot (Simon) who, as a zealot, almost certainly loathed tax collectors like Matthew for the submission to Rome that they represented. But at least as far as Jesus was concerned, none of that mattered. They both were counted. They both were included.

That inclusion represented a surrender of control by Jesus--that He knew that He needed not to homogenize His followers' beliefs to the nth degree, but that if He got them on the same page of expectations concerning who He was and the kingdom He represented, then what God desired of them could still be achieved.

Let that be instructive for us as the current body of Christ. If the flesh-and-blood Christ managed to surrender enough control to make room for a tax collector and a zealot, surely the church can do likewise nearly two thousand years later.

Otherwise, what exactly have we even learned over those two thousand years? And just how much more control over each other do we still need to surrender back to God?

And yes, the dogs are still as cute as ever.

Longview, Washington
April 18, 2017

Sunday, April 16, 2017

This Week's Sermon: "A Resurrection People"

Mark 16:1-8

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they could go and anoint Jesus’ dead body. 2 Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they came to the tomb. 3 They were saying to each other, “Who’s going to roll the stone away from the entrance for us?” 4 When they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away. (And it was a very large stone!) 5 Going into the tomb, they saw a young man in a white robe seated on the right side; and they were startled. 6 But he said to them, “Don’t be alarmed! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised. He isn’t here. Look, here’s the place where they laid him. 7 Go, tell his disciples, especially Peter, that he is going ahead of you into Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told you.” 8 Overcome with terror and dread, they fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid. (Common English Bible)


Easter Sunday 2017

You would have never known that she was competing propped up on painkillers and fighting a blood infection.

You would never have known that she was dying and would not even live to see her work aired.

But Cindy Stowell was a resurrection person.

If you watch the television game show Jeopardy, you may remember her as the contestant who dominated over a week’s worth of shows last December, raking in over $100,000 winnings before she was finally dethroned after six episodes.

And by the time those episodes aired in December, a few months after having been taped in August, she was already dead, having succumbed to stage four colon cancer a week prior.

It turned out that only a select few of the show’s crew even knew about her diagnosis—even her competitors were unaware as she dispatched pair after pair of them over the course of her run.

And her six-figure winnings? They were donated to the Cancer Research Institute per her request in her letter to the Jeopardy producers when she was first being vetted for the show and had only a few months to live. This is an excerpt from what she wrote to the showrunners, per the New York Times:

Do you have any idea how long it typically takes between an in-person interview and the taping date? I ask because I just found out that I don’t have too much longer to live. The doctor’s best guess is about six months. If there is the change that I’d be able to still tape episodes of ‘Jeopardy!’ if I were selected, I’d like to do that and donate any winnings to…charities involved in cancer research. If it is unlikely that the turnaround time would be that quick, then I’d like to give up my tryout spot to someone else.

Cindy Stowell was a resurrection person—in death, she was determined to create new life, to conquer the grave that loomed before her, and to ensure that hers was a legacy that honored something far bigger than herself. She saw an opportunity to do precisely that, to fulfill that determination, and as a result strode forth into the world, and then into death, a resurrection person.

It is what the example of Jesus Christ demands of us as well—to stride forth into ends of our own lives, whenever they may be, with that same resolve to be a resurrection people, to ensure that we give life through our deaths, because that is precisely how Jesus died and resurrected—by giving us eternal life in the process.

You don’t need me to tell you that. You didn’t come to church on Easter Sunday for that. That may be the basis of the resurrection stories in the Scriptures, but that is not the only lesson those stories have to say to us.

So take Mark’s resurrection story as an example. It is the shortest of the Easter narratives, at a mere eight verses long (there are two additional endings to Mark that add on some verses, but very few reputable scholars believe that either of these endings were authored by Mark himself), and unlike Matthew, Luke, and John, Mark does not actually include an appearance from the bodily resurrected Christ—so you can well imagine why the ancient evangelists who followed Mark thought that his accounting of the Easter story was incomplete and required subsequent additions to be up to snuff.

But the truth is, there is already a miracle sitting right in front of us in Mark’s Gospel, and we probably just read right past it—I know that I used to. But it is sitting right there, next to the tomb.

The stone has been rolled away. And, as Mark hastens to point out to us, a mighty big stone it was.

There are two ways to read the empty tomb, and either way, it is a miracle. Assume that the stone had not been rolled away—the fact that Jesus had been able to escape it (and that the angel had been able to enter it) would be a miracle in and of itself, on top of the resurrection. But the stone being rolled away when the grave had not been robbed or otherwise tampered with was also a miracle, because, as we noted, Mark wrote that it was a big stone, and if it fully covered the entrance to the tomb, then moving it from inside the tomb was more easily a two-person job than a one-person job.

So either way, a miracle has occurred. But the fact that the stone has been rolled away matters to the entire Easter story, lesson, and message.

It matters because it means that the route forward has been laid out instead of being blocked off. It means that the obstacle that separates eternal life from death is now set aside—for good. It means that we are out of excuses when coming up against the cold stoniness of death and simply settling for the inevitable reality it proffers to us.

And it means that we are out of excuses for writing off our brothers and sisters to that cold, stony reality of death as well.

We can call ourselves as Christians a resurrection people, but in truth, we are not a resurrection people when we do not strive to move heaven and earth to breathe new life not only into ourselves, but into our world and those who live in it just like us.

We cannot be a resurrection people without moving away the stones that block the way out from death for others, much less ourselves.

We cannot be a resurrection people while putting up a wall in their way when they wish to live among us, to work among us, and to thrive among us.

We cannot be a resurrection people while banning indefinitely a people we are firing missiles towards because their “president”-slash-dictator is using chemical weapons against them.

And we cannot be a resurrection people while cutting others off from life-saving shelter because of our own discomfort with their presence among us.

We have placed these tomb-sized stones in the paths of so many people in the world while claiming ourselves to be a resurrection people.

Yet for the women who came to the tomb, the stone was not in their way. It had been rolled aside. It mean that they were able to hear the Good News of the resurrection from the angel at the tomb.

Are we in a position to hear the Good News for ourselves on this Easter Sunday, or have we placed  a stone in front of ourselves that blocks out this too?

So as we celebrate Easter with our egg hunts and our brunches, our baseball and our bunnies, let us also try to live it. This is a day that is fundamentally about life, about how eternal life has conquered earthly death and how God’s loving grace is the source of that eternal life for each of us. We set ourselves up to be blocked away from that sort of life, but we also set each other up to be walled away in those very same tombs—and in some cases, we’re the ones doing the actual grave-digging and wall-building.

That is what God calls us to cast aside today. The burial shroud is left behind by Jesus as He exited the tomb. The trappings and tools of death are left behind by Jesus. They must be left behind by us too.

It is how Cindy Stowell lived and died—she left the trappings of death behind, determined to create opportunities for life right to the very end.

It is how we too must live and die, and then live again in Christ.

So no more of the stone sealing you off.

No more of you moving that stone to seal somebody else off.

No more of this blockading other children of God off into inevitable death when we know in our bones that this is not what Jesus lived for, taught us for, died for, and resurrected for.

In its place, in the void it leaves behind, may we take to heart the words of the angel to the women who have arrived to see this rolled-away stone and the empty tomb it once sealed off: “Be not afraid! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised. He isn’t here. See, here is the place where they laid Him.”

That place has no power over the Risen Christ. And it need not have power over us either.

When it is truly powerless, the stone will always remain rolled away, and the path forward from death into life will always remain clear.

And we will be, at long last, a people of the resurrection.

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
April 16, 2017

Empty tomb image courtesy of Shutterstock

Monday, April 10, 2017

This Week's Sermon: "Jerusalem, Jerusalem"

Luke 19:29-44

29 As Jesus came to Bethphage and Bethany on the Mount of Olives, he gave two disciples a task. 30 He said, “Go into the village over there. When you enter it, you will find tied up there a colt that no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If someone asks, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say, ‘Its master needs it.’” 32 Those who had been sent found it exactly as he had said. 33 As they were untying the colt, its owners said to them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34 They replied, “Its master needs it.”

35 They brought it to Jesus, threw their clothes on the colt, and lifted Jesus onto it. 36 As Jesus rode along, they spread their clothes on the road. 37 As Jesus approached the road leading down from the Mount of Olives, the whole throng of his disciples began rejoicing. They praised God with a loud voice because of all the mighty things they had seen. 38 They said, “Blessings on the king who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heavens.” 39 Some of the Pharisees from the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, scold your disciples! Tell them to stop!” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if they were silent, the stones would shout.”

41 As Jesus came to the city and observed it, he wept over it. 42 He said, “If only you knew on this of all days the things that lead to peace. But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43 The time will come when your enemies will build fortifications around you, encircle you, and attack you from all sides. 44 They will crush you completely, you and the people within you. They won’t leave one stone on top of another within you, because you didn’t recognize the time of your gracious visit from God.” (Common English Bible)


Palm Sunday 2017

I tried to follow my archaeology professor as he strode through the crowds of people on either side of our group as he searched for several minutes before finding what he was looking for, mere meters from the Western Wall, Dome of the Rock, and al-Aqsa Mosque in the old city of Jerusalem: a falafel restaurant.

No ordinary falafel restaurant was this, if for no other reason than the hallowed ground upon which it stood, but regardless of its surroundings, both the meal and the company of my professor and seminary classmates was unforgettable.

And having just been standing at the Western Wall minutes prior, surrounded by hundreds of praying souls, I came to the first of several moments of realization that day that Jerusalem is a great many things to a great many people, but what it was before it was anything else—all of the other great signifiers and laurels that we have attached to it over the past three thousand years of western religious tradition—was, quite simply, a place to be, to live, to pray with friends and then break bread with them.

But centuries passed, and the city of David and of Solomon became a city of corruptible monarchs and eventually puppet kings. The good ones like Josiah stood out in part because there were so few of them. By the time of Jesus, Jerusalem was at least a seasonal home not just to a corruptible puppet king (or family of puppet kings, in the case of the sons of Herod the Great), but also to a corruptible class of religious teachers that reinforced their own status at the direct expense of the populace and the viceroy of Caesar himself, the Roman governor assigned to oversee this unruly outpost of a territory, Pontius Pilate.

Pilate, like Jesus, would have ridden into Jerusalem at the start of Holy Week, though not to offer himself up as a ransom to liberate us from sin as Christ did, but to ensure that that everything went smoothly from Rome’s perspective as an uncooperative and rebellion-prone territory celebrated a holiday that commemorated the overthrowing of the shackles of bondage to another empire—the ancient Egyptians in the Passover story of Exodus.

Because of the subject matter of the Passover, and especially the fact that celebrating it entailed a massive influx of people into Jerusalem, it was customary for the Roman governor to journey from his usual headquarters in Caesarea to Jerusalem to oversee the festivities. His ostentatious entry into the city of David was, then, a painful and humiliating reminder for patriotic Israelites of their subservient status to the Roman empire, and as someone who continually challenged the imperial cult of Caesar, Jesus took the opportunity on Palm Sunday to essentially mock that triumphant entry while at the same time upholding a Hebrew Bible prophecy from Zechariah 9 that the Savior would come being borne on the back of a donkey or a colt.

So Jesus is really killing two birds with one proverbial stone in the Palm Sunday story—not only is He fulfilling a Scriptural prophecy, but He is also poking Israel’s Roman overlords with a stick in doing so. He is sending a message that neither He nor the Word that He intends to proclaim in Jerusalem will be ignored, dismissed, or silenced by the powers that be.

Of course, those powers that be will, in a few days’ time, try to do precisely that—shut up Jesus for a rebel and a fool, but not before the redemption of humanity is set in motion. Jesus, then, acts as a perfect foil for the leaders not only in life but in death—even dead, Jesus does more to redeem the people than they do.

So, yes, the religious leaders in Jerusalem are worthy of Jesus’s criticisms, and of ours. But they were also only the latest incarnation of this trend away from the ideal that gets presented—however mythologized it has become—of the Jerusalem of Solomon and the unified kingdom. A thousand years of corrupted kings and amoral collaborationists with foreign overlords will have that effect.

What Jesus is mourning at the end of this passage in Luke, then, isn’t simply Jerusalem as it currently exists for Him, but the Jerusalem that once was and that honestly ceased to be decades, if not centuries ago (with the possible exception of Jersualem under the Hasmoneans—the Maccabees of the Hanukkah story).

Even the roots of the city’s name itself have fallen by the wayside, not only in Jesus’s time but in ours—as New Testament scholar Sharon H. Ringe notes in her commentary on Luke, “The city whose name means “Seeing of Peace” does not know its own name and does not recognize its ‘visitation from God.’” The city whose name means “Seeing of Peace” does not know its own name.

That has to be a commentary as true today as it was then, and today we have no Jesus, no God-made-flesh, to mourn over the city and the violent, broken, sinful world that it represents.

Imagine, then, Jesus today not just mourning Jerusalem, but mourning Khan Shaykun, where this week’s chemical weapons attack upon Syrian civilians, including children, took place, killing over seventy and leaving the world with an array of horrifically disturbing images seared in our minds. Imagine Him now mourning the fact that we as a country are apparently moved by such barbarism just enough to launch missiles into a country, but not moved enough to accept any of its refugees.

If only we knew, as Jesus said, the things that lead to peace.

The truth is, though, we do. Violence is a sin and like any sin, it is a temptation. Give up being tempted by violence to instead walk the path of peace, and who knows what the kingdom could look like tomorrow.

But this is something that is incumbent not just upon individuals but upon nations. It was not a lone wolf attack that killed these Syrians with chemical weapons, it was a government that did so at the behest of Bashar al-Assad. And it was not one individual Customs and Border Patrol agent that banned Syrians fleeing being attacked with chemical weapons by their own government from the United States, it was the United States government itself at the behest of our president.

That cannot be world of the true Jerusalem that, in the spirit of its name, enables the seeing of peace. That cannot be what Jesus demands of us and calls us to as He triumphantly enters into that city on Palm Sunday.

That Jerusalem which sees peace is still out there. I know, because I saw it and experienced it in the breaking of bread with friends and classmates surrounded by Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike who were able to worship freely at the holy sites of their traditions in the Old City.

But that breaking of bread in seminary nearly seven years ago was a fleeting moment. And it is not the Jerusalem that is made open to each of us, or to each of its own inhabitants, or to the people who surround it in countries that still fight over land that has been bled for and fought over since the days of Abraham.

Which is precisely why Jesus mourns Jerusalem—He sees in it the violent sins of old, recommitted and repeated in the newest ways. And so must we mourn it as well, repeating His fervent wish that we would indeed “recognize the time of (our) gracious visit from God.”

These were the words of Jesus Christ the day He triumphantly entered into the Old City on a donkey as throngs of people called out hosannas to His name and laid their cloaks out before him in the road. And as the Syrian poet Khalil Gibran said, those words are graven as though with chisels.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
April 9, 2017

Image of Jerusalem skyline courtesy of Wikimedia

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Such Cute Dogs, Though!: A One-Act Play

Setting: An uncommonly sunny early afternoon in the Portland, Oregon area. ERIC, a young pastor in his early thirties, emerges onto the front step of his townhouse with two adorable dogs in tow. Sadly, those dogs, despite said adorableness, are consigned entirely to supporting roles, so the dogs who portray them must be calm and well-trained.

Enter stage *far* right: two door-to-door EVANGELISTS, young women roughly ERIC's age. No further identifiers will be given, as this what follows wasn't taken personally; indeed, the point of sharing this now is to highlight more universal experiences of people in similar situations. Both evangelists are carrying Bibles and brochures. The script is not a word-for-word rendition of the true story this play is based on--some sections have been condensed, and others have been recreated from memory, as the playwright was still caffeinating at this point in the day.

EVANGELIST ONE (hereafter E1): Oh my gosh, such cute dogs, are they friendly?!

ERIC: The friendliest.

Dogs scamper delightfully towards the EVANGELISTS, then back to ERIC.

EVANGELIST TWO (hereafter E2): Here, we'd like for you to take one of these *hands ERIC one of the brochures* and we wanted to ask you if you know whether you're going to be going to heaven or not when you die.

ERIC: I'm going to nip you in the bud right there--thank you for asking and for wanting to spread the Word, but I'm already a pastor of another church, so I'm probably not the best candidate for the whole spiel. (Stage direction: ERIC usually leads off with this line when put in this situation, as it automatically crosses him off just about any church's list. It has worked to great effect in conversing with evangelists, whether Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Seventh-Day Adventists--all of whom were unfailingly polite and probably could teach ERIC a thing or two about that level of unconditional politeness.)

E2: Well, that's great that you are, though! So, what would you tell someone that they had to do to get into heaven?

ERIC: I mean, that's about the context and the person really.

E2: But what if it was me? What if I needed to know how to go to heaven, what would you say to me?

ERIC: I'd probably say that I've come to understand Jesus Christ to be the Messiah, my Lord and Savior, that by having faith in Him I now do a ministry of good works, and I hope that when I die, that I will get to go be with the Lord.

E2: Well, that's fine, but you know we don't need good works to be saved, right? *Proof-texts random verse from Paul--and let's be honest, there's so many of them to proof text, so just pick one.* 

ERIC: I believe that my faith must be reflected in the works I do, because James wrote that faith without works is dead.

E2: But what about *insert another proof-texted verse from Paul*?

ERIC: I'm not saying faith isn't a part of the equation. But faith has to be outward, it has to be shown by our deeds. By your works, James says, God knows your faith.

E1: So you have to be baptized to go to heaven?

ERIC: I didn't say that. That's confusing mission with baptism.

E1: Because the repentant thief on the cross, Jesus said to him, "Truly, you will be with me in Paradise." And he wasn't baptized.

ERIC (seeing where this is going): No he wasn't. But he didn't recite the Sinner's Prayer, either.

E2: So you think that if someone is just a good person, they'll go to heaven?

ERIC: That isn't what I said, either.

E2: So how can you teach that you need good works to be saved?

ERIC: Because that's what James says. If you believe that faith is necessary for salvation, James says that good deeds are a part of that faith.

E2: Well, just so you know, what you're preaching is a heresy.

ERIC: Okay.

E2: You're sending people to hell with you're teaching, and you're going to go to hell yourself if you keep teaching that.

ERIC: Okay.

E2: Is that what you want to happen?

ERIC: Obviously not, which is why I teach what I teach.

E2: That doing good works is a part of having faith?

ERIC: Yup.

E2: I just can't believe you would do that when Paul says *insert yet another proof-texted verse from Paul here*. Can't you see that the world is ending around us?

ERIC: Look, I do that because that is how I've come to understand Scripture. Scripture says that the day of the Lord comes like a thief in the night, and even Jesus said that He doesn't know when God will return.

E2: But we're meant to be vigilant! Which means that you will know and should know!

ERIC: Are we meant to know if Jesus didn't know?

E2: God says that we will know, though.

ERIC: But why the immediacy? In John 12, Jesus says that the Word He has spoken acts as the judge, but that judgement doesn't occur until the end of time itself. So why does this saving have to be in one person's life, or yours, or mine?

E2: You think people can be saved even after they die?

ERIC: In so many words? Yup.

E2: What is even the point of that?

ERIC: I mean, that's part of the premise of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke...

E2 (cutting off): You need to stop teaching this heresy. I am rebuking you in the name of the Lord!

ERIC: Um...okay.

E2: How can you be a pastor and teach these things?

ERIC: *shrugs*

E2: You need to repent and live by faith alone.

ERIC (sighing): Look, that's just not how the Bible reads. The apostles didn't just live by faith alone, they shared *all* their possessions and gave to everyone as each had need. They lived their faith by their deeds. And when Ananias and Sapphira held back from sharing in those deeds, Peter condemned them. They died.

E1: No, they died because they lied to the Holy Spirit!

ERIC: ...yes, through their actions. That's what Peter said.

E1: But they were never saved.

ERIC: Sure, okay.

E2: It means that they never had faith.

ERIC: But that's not what James premises himself on. His premise is that there are people like Ananias and Sapphira who purport to have faith but don't show their faith by their actions.

E2: So that just crosses out Ephesians and Galatians and *insert different letters of Paul, since we're at the point that we're proof-texting entire books of Scripture now.*

ERIC: No, it doesn't. Scripture contains Paul's and James' interpretations of God, they're allowed to differ.

E2: Scripture doesn't have interpretation, it's God's Word!

ERIC: ...God's Word revealed to limited and imperfect people like us. Which matters to me. I have to be humble enough to admit that I may not have gotten this right, and that I may have even gotten it all wrong.

E2: How can you even be a pastor if you don't think you got it right?

ERIC: Look...that's not my point. It's about humility. I'm not God. I don't get to judge life and death. And I don't get to say that I have gotten it all figured out when even Jesus said there are things God keeps even from Him.

E2: So you've decided that you need good works to make up for this lack of faith of yours?

ERIC: Again, no. That's not it at all.

E2: So you have faith in your works?

ERIC: I have faith in them in that they come from my own faith in God

E2: Well isn't that humble of you! Putting that importance on your works while kicking out God's grace!

ERIC: I have faith in God because of the grace that was freely offered to me and that I accepted. There's enough room in faith for both grace and works.

E2: No, there isn't. You need to stop spreading this heresy now, because you are sending people to hell, and you're going to be sent to hell yourself. You're going to die and get to heaven and God is going to say to you, "Get away from me, I never knew you."

ERIC: You know, if you arrived at my door to try to sell me on your church, you're doing a really bad job of it.

E2: That isn't what I'm trying to do at all. I'm trying to get you to stop spreading heresy.

ERIC: You're doing a really bad job of that, too.

E2: Well, you need to realize that what you're teaching is heresy and that if you died tomorrow you'd go to hell.

ERIC: It really isn't heresy, though. I know what the Bible does and doesn't say.

E2: Then stop ignoring it.

ERIC: I'm wasn't.

E2 (finally beginning to walk away): Well, reconsider yourself before God.

E1: Such cute dogs, though!

E1 and E2 exit stage *far* right.

ERIC looks at the brochure that has been in his hands the entire time. It outlines a purely transactional "way to Heaven" that doesn't even mention God's love. ERIC tears it up, exhales deeply, and gathers up the dogs who have been sitting patiently throughout the entire play. He takes his cell phone to do what he had wanted to be doing this whole time--open up Pokemon GO. He and the dogs exit.

*Curtain*

(While I have some commentary on this episode--which really did happen today, largely as written (again, I had to recreate some portions from memory in places where I couldn't quite get it word-for-word)--I'm going to save that commentary for sometime next week and just let this story stand on its own in the meanwhile. ~E.A.)

Vancouver, Washington
April 8, 2017

Friday, April 7, 2017

The Wrath of Sky and Sea Comes from on High

I sit here on my living room couch with my dogs curled up on my lap, watching the winds howl from on high as they rack and buffet the blossoming tree in my tiny front yard. The National Weather Service has issued a wind advisory through the end of today for gusts of wind at over fifty miles per hour, and I can already see the damage those winds are doing, just as they did when a part of the remnants of Typhoon Songda last year.

Meanwhile, half a world away, fifty-nine Tomahawk cruise missiles were unleashed upon Syria in retaliation for Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons against his own citizenry in Khan Shaykun that killed over seventy people, some of them children.

I watched the videos of the Tomahawks launching towards their targets this morning. I couldn't bring myself to do so last night. MSNBC's Brian Williams called the whole display "beautiful," but I don't think I ever could.

Tomahawk missiles are considered low-altitude, meaning they may only cruise at an altitude of one hundred feet or so, but here in the second story of my house, even a low-altitude Tomahawk would be crashing down upon me from on high, much like the winds that are screaming and howling at great length outside my windows right now.

Except, I know that there isn't a chance of a Tomahawk headed my way anytime soon. I cannot say the same for the Syrian people, who have to be terrified of what will be next--being bombed by their own government, or being bombed by us in the name of opposing that selfsame homicidal government.

How barbarically and horrifically appropriate, then, that our response to airborne chemical weapons and barrel bombs wielded by Assad against his own people should also come from the sky. In the creation story of Genesis 1, the sky is created by means of separating it from the sea. And the sea was seen by the ancients as a source of chaos, horribleness, and death. Untold monstrous animals lived within its depths. Its waters carried the ships of invading peoples. Even the water itself--moving, life-supporting water--was seen as covering the earth in chaos and darkness as the world was still yet without form and void.

So God said let there be light, and the darkness ceased. And then God separated the sky from the sea.

I realize that as a matter of course, this is not necessarily exactly how creation went--the days of creation are not literal twenty-four hour days, and not all creatures and critters were created in one fell swoop.

But re-reading that story today, in the wake of a week of chemical weapons attacks and retaliatory airstrikes, I begin to see anew why the ancients saw the sky as an offshoot of that source of chaos and horribleness of the seas.

Indeed, those Tomahawks were launched from US Navy destroyers stationed in the Mediterranean Sea. The wrath of the skies was inextricably intertwined with the wrath of the seas.

Just as it was at the time of the creation.

We have come up with new means for the oldest of ways.

But one week from today, we Christians commemorate a new way, the via dolorosa, the way to Golgotha--the way to the cross. It is there that the redemption of humanity, and its liberation from its own sinfulness, begins.

Through yet another act of violence by the state upon a civilian, a resurrection can then take place...first of one man (or God-made-man). But later...all of us.

As a Christian pastor, then, my heart aches for and is with not only the Syrian Christians whom have been championed by American Christians seeking a more exclusionary refugee policy, but also my Muslim brothers and sisters in Syria who similarly long and ache for peace. A peace that comes from what God has placed in our hearts and so too, in a manner, comes from on high.

In the meanwhile, the winds ratchet up once more. And I fear what the winds will carry next to the people in Syria desperate for peace.

What a blessed relief it will one day be, then, for that peace to be what we remember our world for rather than the wrath that we deliver from both the seas and skies of God's good creation.

Vancouver, Washington
April 7, 2017