Sunday, January 31, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "A Sinner Who Keeps On Trying"

Luke 18:9-14

Jesus told this parable to certain people who had convinced themselves that they were righteous and who looked on everyone else with disgust: 10 “Two people went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself with these words, ‘God, I thank you that I’m not like everyone else—crooks, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of everything I receive.’ 13 But the tax collector stood at a distance. He wouldn’t even lift his eyes to look toward heaven. Rather, he struck his chest and said, ‘God, show mercy to me, a sinner.’ 14 I tell you, this person went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee. All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”  (Common English Bible)

“A Mount Rushmore of the Soul: Who Inspires Your Faith?” Week Four

Seeing freedom be granted to people who should never have had it taken away from them was a formative experience of my childhood.  Being able to meet them, shake their hands, and break bread with them as free people after they were exonerated for crimes they were convicted of but did not in fact commit is something I’ll never forget.  Their names, strong and sturdy souls like Dennis Fritz, Ellen Reasonover, and the late Ron Williamson, will be forever with me.

Through them, and their stories, I learned of others, of other people whose unjust imprisonments completely and utterly changed their lives—and how could they not?  Six of their stories—each of them from death row, from being sentenced to death despite being factually innocent, were made into a play about fifteen years ago by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen called The Exonerated.

The integral figure of the play—the character who combines together every other character—is a soulful, philosophical veteran and minister named Delbert Tibbs.  He both opens and closes the play with a similar monologue, saying at first, about prison:

This is not the place for thought that does not end in concreteness; it is not easy to be open or too curious.

It is dangerous to dwell too much on things: to wonder who or why or when, to wonder how, is dangerous.

How do we, the people, get outta this hole…it is not easy to be a poet here.  Yet I sing.  I sing.

By the end of the play, by the end of hearing all of these stories, Delbert’s refrain has become this:

This is the place for thoughts that do not end in concreteness.  It is necessary to be curious.

And dangerous to dwell here, to wonder why and how and when is dangerous, but *that’s* how we get out of this hole.

It is not easy to be a poet here.  Yet I sing.  We sing.

Do you see the change?  He sings, but no longer sings alone.  Yet I sing.  We sing.  Together.

This is a new sermon series for a new year, although it is in fact wrapping up today in preparation for the transition from post-Epiphany time to the church season of Lent.  And even though the series is being delivered in 2016, the genesis of this series came in the middle of 2015, when I posted on Facebook to ask folks what the Mount Rushmore of their faith would be—which four writers, pastors, theologians, etc. are the ones who have shaped their faith the most?

Once my (genuinely beloved) atheist friends had had their fun, I got an amazing array of responses to that question, with some names that were repeated several times: C.S. Lewis, Paul Tillich, Hildegard of Bingen, and Martin Luther King, Jr., all of whom would have made a great reserve squad if, you know, Mount Rushmore had a bench (I suspect that would have added a number of years to its construction).  But when I limited myself to four, the four that I eventually settled upon were St. Teresa of Avila, Soren Kierkegaard, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Nelson Mandela.

This sermon series, then, will take each of them and offer one sermon each on how they revealed God’s presence, truth, and love to a broken world in sore need of the message they had to offer, beginning three weeks ago with St. Teresa of Avila and continuing with both Soren Kierkegaard and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  And today, we are concluding the series with an appropriately soul-sized, monumentally willed person in Nelson Mandela.

More so than perhaps any of the previous three, Mandela’s inclusion is personal to me.  The three weeks I spent in sub-Saharan Africa in the summer of 2006 with Global Ministries, our international mission arm, was one of the most formative experiences of my twenties, and it was spent primarily in South Africa, where Mandela was famously imprisoned for 27 years, released, elected prime minister, and served as a visible, living beacon of the possible for unity and restoration before his death a little over two years ago, in December 2013.

For me to have been imprisoned for twenty-seven years, I would have had to be sent to the pokey when I was just three.  And while I was undoubtedly a holy terror at age three, they don’t hand out 25+ year sentences for that.  But that’s what Mandela endured in becoming the marbled memory of a man he is now.  He collected his letters and conversations from his time on Robben Island, and compiled them into a book entitled Conversations With Myself.  This is the very first entry, the one that frames all the others, from that book:

The cell is an ideal place to learn to know yourself, to search realistically and regularly the process of your own mind and feelings.  In judging our progress as individuals we tend to concentrate on external factors such as one’s social position, influence, popularity, wealth, and standard of education.  These are, of course, important in measuring one’s success in material matters and it is perfectly understandable if many people exert themselves mainly to achieve all these.  But internal factors may be even more crucial in assessing one’s development as a human being.  Honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, pure generosity, absence of vanity, readiness to serve others—qualities which are within easy reach of every soul—are the foundation of one’s spiritual life.  Development in matters of this nature is inconceivable without serious introspection, without knowing yourself, your weaknesses and mistakes…If for nothing else, the cell gives you the opportunity to look daily into your entire conduct, to overcome the bad and develop whatever is good in you…You may find it difficult at first to pinpoint the negative features in your life, but the 10th attempt may yield rich rewards.  Never forget that a saint is a sinner who keeps on trying. 

Never forget that a saint is a sinner who keeps on trying.  Mandela was a Methodist, but there is a another version (as it were) of this notion in Lutheran thought, simul justus et peccator, which means “simultaneously saint and sinner,” that someone can be both saint and sinner at the same time, that we are not necessarily just one or just the other.  Rather, Mandela says, through our efforts to do good and to better ourselves, to develop the spiritual virtues he lists off here—honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, pure generosity, absence of vanity, readiness to serve—we come closer and closer to sanctification even as we still remain our sinful selves.

Think, then, of this tax collector, hiding in the corner of the temple and flagellating himself out of pure, unadulterated shame over who he is and how he makes his living (the tax collectors in New Testament Israel were not simply the ancient version of the IRS—no matter how much you resent paying taxes.  They were Roman-sanctioned thugs who extorted from their neighbors at a profit).

This tax collector has his eyes cast downward and is begging God, pleading with God, please have mercy on me, for I am a sinner.  He is a prisoner of his own self, judging his progress as a person.

Of course, he judges himself wanting.  But this is in stark contrast to the other sinner present, the Pharisee standing in the very middle of the sanctuary, who cannot possibly see himself as a sinner in the way that the tax collector sees himself—or as he, the Pharisee, sees the tax collector, making sure to point him out in the “prayer” to God he gives thanking God for making him just so durned great.

In truth, the Pharisee could do with more than a bit of the sort of inner introspection that prisoners go through—the tax collector, as I said, as a prisoner of his own psyche, but also physical prisoners like Delbert Tibbs, like Nelson Mandela.  We lose part of our freedom, even our mental freedom, and it puts so many other things in perspective.

That was what made the vestiges of apartheid in South Africa so viscerally disturbing for me to see and begin to grasp, even for just a small dimension of it.  The taking of that freedom from another human being is something so sinful that there is no other way to make a saint of a slaver, their enslavement of fellow people is on face disqualifying for sanctification.  The enslaved, the wrongly imprisoned, the segregated, they lose their freedom and potentially their lives.  The slavers, the imprisoners, the segregationists, they lose their spiritual purity.

We all lose something.  We all become less than whole when we treat others thus.

Maybe you know it, because of how you have treated someone thusly, or had someone or even the world treat you thusly.  In the face of such hurtful treatment, how will you decide to develop yourself as a person and as a Christian?

Seek, then, the metamorphosis of a Mandela, of a Tibbs, of a person who has been to the dark side and back, not because they deserved it, but because they did not deserve it, yet emerged as people still able to inspire others to hear their words and be moved by the fruits of their lives.

Perhaps more than anything else, this is what I have striven to do with this sermon series: to show you how the fruits of the lives of four very different people all impacted me for the better.

I hope and pray the same for you, that there are saints—or simultaneous saints and sinners—who have been called and redeemed and are calling out, singing out, other sinners just like you, just like me, to something far greater than ourselves: a life of service to the One we call God, who came to earth, died, and resurrected in who we know as Jesus the Christ.

Because you sing.  We sing.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
January 31, 2016

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Letters from the Soul: This Month's Newsletter Column + Upcoming Sermon Series!

February 2016:   "Re-Tooling and Re-Fueling"

Dear Church,

When asked (and I get asked this question quite frequently) why bother with going to church instead of living a "spiritual-but-not-religious" life built around finding God only in one's own life, I try to analogize one's spiritual life with a brand-spanking-new car that you've just bought off the showroom floor. It's fantastic, you've just bought your dream car, but then you roll it out onto the road, and then the highway...and you end up never driving it faster than 50 miles per hour.

For me, that is what trying to be spiritual--or religious--without a church community is like: I have decided to get behind the wheel of a car but then not actually use it for what it was made to do, or to even try to get the most out of it. There is this entire other dimension to my dream car's utility and purpose, and I simply do not bother tapping into it.

And really, it's any car, not just your dream car, or my dream car. Whatever you use to get from point A to point B, it probably has more capacity than you are used to using, especially if you're like me and just use your car to commute and run errands. I can enjoy those drives perfectly fine, but it doesn't mean I am getting the most out of the blessing of a vehicle that I have.

Striving to encounter God only on one's own is very much the same way--you can enjoy it, it can be fulfilling, and I would never want to take that away from anyone, ever. But you're also not getting the most out of what God has put before you if you are not sharing it within a community of faith that can support you, uplift you, and hold you accountable to the ways of being and doing good in the world.

The church serves a dual purpose in this metaphor--not only is it like the shop that re-tools your spiritual life to offer it peak performance, it is also the filling station where you bring your faith when it is running on empty. Here is where I find the whole car metaphor, if the most trite, also the most applicable: *every* car, no matter how shiny, no matter how high-performing, no matter how old or young or how much of a beaten-up wreck it may be, needs refueling in order to function. No matter how good or how bad you feel you may be at being Christian, you still need that re-tooling and re-fueling that we *all* need.

For nearly 90 years, First Christian Church has been a place for literally thousands of seekers to be able to do that. And we want to be able to continue that long and venerable tradition. As we discuss the church and its mission going into the future at our Annual General Meeting on Sunday, January 31, I would also ask your attendance for three important "Congregational Conversations" on alternating Sundays: February 21, March 6, and March 20 as we continue to those discussions that will arise out of the annual general meeting.

We hope to see you there as we continue this amazing, soul-sized task of being church together where both we and complete strangers alike come to be replenished in soul and in mind together. As always, it remains a blessing and a privilege to serve this faith community as your pastor!

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Eric

This Liturgical Season in Worship: Lent 2016

Still keeping up that New Year's resolution? No? I imagine a lot of us probably aren't! They're tough to do--they require lots of discipline, dedication, and attention.

But you get a second chance at exercising those same spiritual muscles in February, when the season of Lent starts. Lent represents the 40 days that Jesus spent being tempted in the wilderness by Satan prior to beginning His public ministry, and in that spirit of sacrifice and fasting, it is traditional to give something up for Lent--which I would encourage you to try doing if you haven't already!

Don't go about giving up worship, though--we've got lots on tap for Lent, starting with the special annual Ash Wednesday worship service at 6:00 pm on Wednesday, February 10 to mark the start of Lent. This service includes a special litany of confession and forgiveness as well as the imposition of ashes for those who would like to receive it. From there, we'll begin a new sermon series for the new church season by going verse-by-verse through the book of the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk, similar to how we went verse-by-verse through the book of the prophet Jonah in Lent for the year 2014.

The genesis for this sermon series came from giving a couple of impromptu lessons on Habakkuk in each of our Tuesday Bible studies; the reception to Habakkuk's words in both classes was profound and meaningful to me, and it encouraged me to craft this new sermon series that to me encapsulates many of the struggles of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness--wondering exactly where God is in the pain and mess, and worrying even further when God gives you an answer you may not want to hear! So come 'round on Sunday mornings to hear Habakkuk's dialogue with God unpacked, and to receive some spiritual nourishment to get you through your own wildernesses!

I'll see you Sunday,
Pastor Eric

February 10 (Ash Wednesday, 6:00 pm): “Wilderness,” Luke 4:1-13

Lent 2016: “Treading on the Heights: A Lent Alongside Habakkuk”

February 14: “Rousing the Chaldeans,” Habakkuk 1:1-11
February 21: “My God, My Holy One,” Habakkuk 1:12-2:1
February 28: “Just Enough Fire,” Habakkuk 2:2-14
March 6: “What Value of Idols,” Habakkuk 2:15-20 
March 13: “God Comes From Teman,” Habakkuk 3:1-4 
March 20 (Palm Sunday): “The Cloud Piercer,” Habakkuk 3:13-19

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Golf is Dumb. That's Why I'm Trying It.

On state road 432, the highway you take off of the interstate to get to Longview, there was a billboard from one of the golf courses in town that said, "When was the last time you tried something for the first time?"

The implication, of course, is that you should try golf.

And Lord have pity, for that is what I am actually doing.

I turned 30 earlier this week, and my midlife crisis must have come a decade early, because as a birthday present to myself, I bought a set of golf clubs off of Craigslist for ninety bucks (that's them in the picture).

Did I mention that I've never actually golfed before?  I've got a pretty good putt-putt game, and it wasn't very long before I was sinking 10 to 12-foot putts in our living room (the poodle makes a pretty good caddie when she waits until after the ball stops moving to fetch it, which is a 50/50 proposition).

The thing is, though, I know myself well and I do not think that this is simply a nonsensical waste of money for me--something that in my family was meant to be avoided at all costs (FFS, my dad's nickname in our family to this day is Scottie McPinch).

I know myself, and I have come to understand just how colossally, monumentally, and irrationally afraid I am of failure.

Failure is something I really haven't had to experience much of outside of high school calculus exams.  I got into a college I wanted, I got into a seminary I wanted, and I was called to minister to a church I wanted.  I even somehow managed (I'm still not sure how) to successfully ask the woman I wanted to marry me.

And in recent conversations with my spiritual director, I've realized just how averse to failure I really am, how out of my way I go to avoid it if at all possible.

Or to put it more bluntly, this is how I know I need to try something new: one of my friends and colleagues in the region just commented to me on Facebook asking me when we would play a round together, and my immediate, knee-jerk, without thinking reply was, verbatim, "When I am reasonably confident that I won't make a complete ass of myself."

Bear in mind--there is no perfection in golf.  It's not like throwing a perfect game or posting a clean sheet.  There is always one more stroke you could shave off of your score.

I haven't even tried golf, and I'm already putting pressure on myself to be good at it.

That's how badly I need to fail at something.

I have come to think, then, that it is important for someone to always have a venue in their lives that they can feel free to fail at, in order to experience that paradoxical liberation of falling short and having it still be okay afterwards.

In other words--I need to be set free here.  And so my tools of liberation will be fourteen clubs in a bag with tees, balls, and a glove that was a birthday gift from a buddy who was one of the first to learn of how my premature midlife crisis expressed itself--in the form of taking up a sport I had previously only expressed disinterest in or mocking disdain for because of how monotonous it seemed on the telly.

Really, when you get down to it, golf, just like every sport, is dumb.  In baseball, you're trying to whack a ball of leather and packed string with a wooden or aluminum stick, and in golf, you're trying to whack an even smaller ball with an even more difficult to handle metal implement.

It's dumb, and that's why I need something like it in my life.  I need something dumb to help set me free.

It is not a setting free from failure, no, in fact, I am sure that for my first several rounds, it will be a surrender to failure.

But through that surrender, I will be free to move forward, past the initial bumps and hurdles, over the initial inclinations to put a stop to things, and, in a Zen-like way, I think that the vulnerability this surrender will inherently entail will make me more secure.  More secure in myself, more secure in who I am, and more secure in all my inane, sometimes harmful, imperfections.

So...when was the last time you tried something for the first time?

Vancouver, Washington
January 27, 2016

Monday, January 25, 2016

This is Carrie. She Gets Seen Differently as a Woman.

I have a lot of friends who are posting their "This is [Bob].  [Bob] does/does not do [Y].  Be like/don't be like [Bob]" results on Facebook.

Like, a lot.

Maybe you have too.

I have to imagine that poor Dick, Jane, and Spot from that iconic series of 1930s-era readers that gave us such immortal lines of literary genius like "See Spot.  See Spot run.  Run, Spot, run!" feel rather hard done by, both because they did not receive the credit due them for popularizing this sort of writing prose, but also because they have yet to receive their own 21st-century facelift in which, maybe, I don't know, one of them is portrayed as something other than lily-porcelain white.

Personally, I have not indulged in this little Facebook phenomenon, simply because I am just credulous enough of Edward Snowden that I'm unwilling to hand over wholesale my profile's information to an un-vetted third party.

My wife, though, decided to have a little fun with the app, and put herself into it first as a woman, but then also without a gender preference.  Here are the results of both, see if you can "spot" (see what I did there, hur hur) the difference:

So woman-Carrie likes to cook so that she can serve her husband and nonexistent children food, because she cares for her family.  Meanwhile, simply Carrie loves music and listens to what she likes the most, and this makes her smart.

Both times, we are supposed to be like Carrie.  But the not-very-subtle message is that girls and women should want to be more like woman-Carrie who is the very Jane-like model of Leave It To Beaver-esque sexual repression.

Like, I don't even know where to begin with this.  My wife is a very good cook, yes, but I cook for her as often as she cooks for me.  She doesn't identify herself by her cooking, though--she's a board-certified anesthesiologist with degrees in both medicine and public health who has already published a book and is on track to make shareholder status at her practice later this year.  And on top of her expertise in medicine, she actually majored in religious studies as an undergrad, and she knows the academic study of religion as surely as I do.

You wonder how many other girls or women who are in--or interested in--STEM professions who got spit back inane results like these?  Hell, even in my own profession--women are still barred from the Roman Catholic priesthood as well as professional ministry in the Southern Baptist Convention, the Missouri and Wisconsin Lutheran Synods, and a host of other Christian traditions, how many of *them* do you think are secretly wondering whether God may have indeed called them to the ministry of word and sacrament but are instead being shunted into running teas and raffles by default?

Sure, it's a stupid app, but if it only serves to pile on what women have been hearing for decades--that they are more defined by their marriageability and their domesticity than they are by their contributions to the world entire--then, well, screw it.

It's easy for me to say that the results of an inane Facebook app may be innocuous enough; I'm the one who has been told he can do anything he wants with his life.  I've never been told that I really need to learn how to cook or sew, or to change my outward appearance in order to attract a mate (even during my college days with a ponytail).

My smarts are reflected, like my wife's, in my degrees, my education, my life experience, and my expertise.  But unlike my wife's, I've never been told that my smarts are reflected in serving her.

I've never been told that I should be like someone who cooks in order to serve their family because that, as opposed to, I don't know, higher education or an immersion in literature, or traveling the world, is what would make me smart.

Because this is Eric.  Eric is a man.  Eric doesn't have to deal with this sort of bullshit from a sexist and misogynistic world that celebrates a put-down woman and a front-and-center man.

And this Eric is sick of it.

Be like Eric.  Be sick of it too.

Vancouver, Washington
January 25, 2016

Sunday, January 24, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "Bound to Christ"

John 11:38-44

Jesus was deeply disturbed again when he came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone covered the entrance. 39 Jesus said, “Remove the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said, “Lord, the smell will be awful! He’s been dead four days.” 40 Jesus replied, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe, you will see God’s glory?” 41 So they removed the stone. Jesus looked up and said, “Father, thank you for hearing me. 42 I know you always hear me. I say this for the benefit of the crowd standing here so that they will believe that you sent me.” 43 Having said this, Jesus shouted with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his feet bound and his hands tied, and his face covered with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.” (Common English Bible)

“The Mount Rushmore of My Soul: Who Influences Your Faith?” Week Three

For a great many people, the murder of John Lennon in December 1980 was a watershed event, like those of a great many who were assassinated in the twenty years between 1960 and 1980—Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Harvey Milk, George Moscone, Robert Kennedy and, of course, President John F. Kennedy.  Jay Cocks, writing for TIME, said:

The outpouring of grief, wonder, and shared devastation that followed Lennon’s death had the same breadth or intensity as the reaction to the killing of a world figure: some bold and popular politician, like John or Robert Kennedy, or a spiritual leader, like Martin Luther King Jr.  But Lennon was a creature of poetic political metaphor, and his spiritual consciousness was directed inward, as a way of nurturing and widening his creative force.  That was what made the impact, and the difference—the shock of his imagination, the penetrating and pervasive traces of his genius—and it was the loss of all that, in so abrupt and awful a way, that was mourned…all over the world.

Had I been alive then, in 1980, I have no doubt that I too would have been profoundly affected by the news, not just because of the outsized role Lennon and the Beatles played in my life, and in the lives of millions of others, but because of the single fact that at the very moment that Lennon was pronounced dead on arrival, at 11:15 pm, December 8, 1980, a Beatles song, credited to the famous partnership of Lennon-McCartney, “All My Loving,” started playing on the hospital speaker system.

That is one of those moments when you have to think that there is indeed some manner of communication, no matter how mystical or unexplainable, that manages to convey sentiment from the dead to the living, and the living to the dead.  John Lennon’s music, unlike him, was and is immortal, so he continues to speak to us.

Likewise Jesus, who in both word and substance is immortal, continues to speak to us, even if we cannot, and have not ever heard His earthly voice, because that earthly voice once said to an otherwise undefined man named Lazarus to awaken from the slumber of death and arise to new life.

This is a new sermon series for a new year, although the genesis of this series came in the middle of 2015, when I posted on Facebook to ask folks what the Mount Rushmore of their faith would be—which four writers, pastors, theologians, etc. are the ones who have shaped their faith the most?

Once my (genuinely beloved) atheist friends had had their fun, I got an amazing array of responses to that question, with some names that were repeated several times: C.S. Lewis, Paul Tillich, Hildegard of Bingen, and Martin Luther King, Jr., all of whom would have made a great reserve squad if, you know, Mount Rushmore had a bench (I suspect that would have added a number of years to its construction).  But when I limited myself to four, the four that I eventually settled upon were St. Teresa of Avila, Soren Kierkegaard, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Nelson Mandela.

This sermon series, then, will take each of them and offer one sermon each on how they revealed God’s presence, truth, and love to a broken world in sore need of the message they had to offer, beginning two weeks ago with St. Teresa of Avila and continuing last week with Soren Kierkegaard.  Today, we’ll be talking about the impact of German pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed in a Nazi concentration camp less than a month before Nazi Germany surrendered to the combined Allied forces.  And by the time we finish talk about all four of them, we will be ready to enter February and the church season of Lent, something that Bonhoeffer himself would probably have gravitated towards, considering what lengths he went to in order to not just live out his convictions, but to reflect his discipleship in Jesus Christ.

Bonhoeffer himself was something of an odd duck—his own theology is more poetic than systematic, a quality much revered in contemporary theologians like Karl Barth and Paul Tillich, and he spoke of shedding all of his other identities (national, personal, etc.) in favor of looking towards a solitary divine identity that he hoped could create a Christianity bound together in following Christ:

Discipleship means being bound to Christ.  Because Christ is, there must be discipleship.  An idea of Christ, a doctrinal system, or a general religious knowledge of grace or forgiveness of sins makes discipleship unnecessary, is hostile to it, and, in truth, even excludes it.  With an idea one enters into a relationship of knowledge, enthusiasm, perhaps even realization, but never into personally obedient discipleship.  A Christianity without the living Jesus Christ necessarily remains a Christianity without discipleship, and a Christianity without discipleship is always a Christianity without Jesus Christ.  It is an idea, a myth.

Contrast that today with how we define ourselves by so many things: who we voted for in the last election, our political party, our level of education (or our distrust of education), even what sports teams we cheer for and which sports teams we necessarily despise as rivals, but not our Christianity.

All of which, believe it or not, brings us right to the threshold of Lazarus’s tomb outside of Bethany, near Jerusalem, as Jesus is about to enter the Holy City in preparation for His third and final Passover.  Before He does so, however, this crucial piece of work of raising Lazarus from the grave must be accomplished.

And it must be accomplished not because of who Lazarus is, really.  Yes, Lazarus was very close to Jesus—so much so that his death causes Jesus famously to weep in mourning for His friend.  But Lazarus really is a stand-in, a cardboard cutout, almost.  We know almost nothing else about the man except that he was close to Jesus, which means that if we too are close to Jesus, we have in common with Lazarus his greatest, most defining characteristic.

It means that Lazarus is a stand-in for us, a cardboard cutout of us.  Lazarus is who humanity could be if it were to shed all of its other identities and roles, hats and labels, and simply choose closeness to Jesus Christ, because as a direct result of that closeness, Lazarus is in a position to hear the voice of Jesus calling out to him, saying, “Lazarus, come out!”

And then, Jesus follows that up by commanding that Lazarus be untied of the clothes of death--the burial shroud--and to be let go.  Lazarus is untied, unshackled from the grave, he no longer bound to death, he is bound only to Christ.

In the deadness of the world, a deadness largely of our own making as we have made one another the targets of our hatred and our violence, our oppressions and our sins, yet a single, solitary divine voice calls out to us from beyond the confines of our own earthen coffins, our own trappings of dying to one another and to God, to say to each of us, “Lazarus, come out!”

God is bigger than the coffins and tombs we make for one another.  God is bigger than the weapons of war or of words we use to slay one another down.  God is greater than Lazarus’s dying.

That is why a precious few German Christians did outwardly protest the policies of the Nazi government.  Pastor Martin Niemoller dared to say from the pulpit that God was his Fuhrer, and for his criticisms he spent eight years in different concentration camps.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer could not abide by the eugenic and genocidal aims of the Holocaust, and as a result, he joined the Abwehr-based resistance, served them as a courier, and increasingly spoke out about the crimes against humanity taking place within his midst, leading to his 1943 arrest and 1945 execution as a martyr.

We bind ourselves to Christ when we first hear His voice, calling us to emerge from the tombs we have made for ourselves, whatever those tombs may be, on a systemic or individual level.  But we must continue to choose to bind ourselves to Christ in discipleship, to answer His call to us when He says to each of us, “Lazarus, come out!”

That is the choice Bonhoeffer made.  It is the choice we can make, or not make.  But much like the choice of any such larger-than-life voices, be they Bonhoeffer’s, be they John Lennon’s, those voices have a capacity and uncanny ability of calling out to us over and across time, even when they themselves have gone the way of Lazarus, so that even in the moment they pass from this world, their voices can still be heard, be it on a hospital’s sound system, or in the pulpit of a historic sanctuary, or in the still beating and enduring hearts of a faithful whose lives still act as a vibrant and vivid witness to all that Christ did and was.

What a great blessing it is, then, to be bound to Christ.  What a soul-sized burden.  What an amazing, awe-inspiring fate that we have chosen for ourselves.

Lazarus, come out!

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
January 24, 2016

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Winter Book Review: The Gospel in Tolstoy

The Gospel in Tolstoy: Selections From His Short Stories, Spiritual Writings, and Novels

With all my soul I longed to be good, but I was young, I had passions, and I was alone, utterly alone, whenever I sought what was good.

So writes legendary author Leo Tolstoy in "My Way to Faith," one of many entries in one of the newest anthologies to be released of the Russian writer's copious volumes of fiction and nonfiction alike: "The Gospel in Tolstoy" (Plough Publishing, 2015), which is currently ten bucks in e-book format, and roughly the same price used.

I had had a passing familiarity with Tolstoy from my time in seminary, when I had to read his The Death of Ivan Ilyich for a class on cultural attitudes towards death that I was taking at UC-Berkeley, but it wasn't until years later, when I was already in the field pastoring, that I began to understand the impact that Tolstoy has had on a number of my friends, both religious and nonreligious, who spoke of being influenced by Tolstoy, including a colleague and friend who spoke of Tolstoy's impact on him, even as a nonbeliever, in a podcast we recorded together on how people talk about religion today.

I firmly believe that a good book review does not just summarize the book's contents for you--and the reviewer's impression of them--but that it also tries to place for you the book within the wider context of literature and life.  Anthologies as a genre inherently must make great use of the tools of editing when one is dealing with standalone works, and so an aware reader can glean a great deal of insight about an anthology's purpose based on what is included and where.  To that end, it is important to note that it would be quite easy to compile an anthology of Tolstoy without touching on his overtly religious work, to stick more to excerpts from his famous novels instead.

As you can guess by the title "The Gospel in Tolstoy," as well as by the excerpted quote that begins this review, this is an angle that has not been taken here in favor of plumbing Tolstoy's writings for the many theological themes that inform them--themes of death and resurrection as well as of pacifism, nonviolence, and other progressive ideals he embodied from the influence that Jesus Christ had upon him.

In this, the anthology very much serves its purpose.  It feels a bit disjointed at the outset, as its introductory section entitled "Finding God" really could serve as the theme for the entire anthology rather than just a section of it, and quite a few separate themes of journey, death, and renewal all take place within its confines, but once you settle in, the selections peel off in an accessible, readable manner that can keep an interested reader engaged for hours.

Perhaps most importantly, though, the selections which made the cut do justice to the vivid prose of a man whose faith was informed by this profound depth of passion as well as solitary loneliness that comes through in Tolstoy's reminiscence of his youth.  This is an author who has mastered the need and art of introspection, and that he was able to extract the resulting fruit from those many years of introspection and formulate it into a body of writing that appeals to this day is a testament to the voice he gives to the inner questions and existential angsts that we all at times may feel.  If you seek a companion for your own introspective paths into the soul, you may find a knowing guide in Leo Tolstoy.

Disclaimer: My copy of The Gospel in Tolstoy came at no charge from the publisher; however, all opinions here are entirely my own.

Image of Leo Tolstoy courtesy of Wikipedia

Sunday, January 17, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "Love is the Fundamental Revolution"

Matthew 22:34-40

When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had left the Sadducees speechless, they met together. 35 One of them, a legal expert, tested him. 36 “Teacher, what is the greatest commandment in the Law?” 37 He replied, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind. 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself. 40 All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.”

“A Mount Rushmore of My Soul: Who Influences Your Faith?” Week Two

Two months ago to the day, the story appeared in American media, after having lit the airwaves in a France that was absolutely reeling in shock over the ISIS terrorist attacks in Paris that killed hundreds of people.  As the City of Light strove to continue flickering, journalists from the world over flocked to Paris to interview just about anyone they could find…including a young boy, who was with his father at one of the many memorials that had sprung up in the wake of the attacks.

The journalist decides to interview the boy—because, why not, apparently, it's not like grown adults have struggled with the question of why Paris happened—and the boy, who could not have been more than five or six, understandably tries to articulate the deep-seated insecurity and fear that comes with being a child and worrying about massive consequences for things entirely out of your tiny little hands.

So the father interjects to allay his son’s fears, and…well, here is the whole transcript:

Journalist: Do you understand what’s happened?  Do you understand why these people have done this?
Boy: Yes, because they are very, very, very bad.  Bad people aren’t very nice.  And you have to be very careful because you need to move house.
Father: No, don’t worry, we don’t have to move.  France is our home.
Boy: But what about the baddies, Dad?
Father: There are baddies everywhere.  There are bad guys everywhere.
Boy: They’ve got guns.  They can shoot us because they’re very, very bad, Daddy.
Father: They’ve got guns but we have flowers.
Boy: But flowers don’t do anything.  They’re for…they’re for…they’re for…
Father: Look, everyone is laying flowers here.
Boy: Yes.
Father: It’s to fight against the guns.
Boy: Is it for protection?
Father: That’s right.
Boy: And the candles too?
Father: They’re so we don’t forget the people who have gone.
Boy: Oh.  The flowers and candles are there to protect us?
Father: Yes.
Journalist: Do you feel better now?
Boy: Yes, I feel better.

Believe it or not, the father’s name is Angel—Angel Le.  And of course that is what his name would be; for someone heralding, proclaiming, and championing love as a form of protection, as a fundamental safeguard against evil, that is an angel’s job.  And as Christians, it is our job as well.

This is a new sermon series for a new year, although the genesis of this series came in the middle of 2015, when I posted on Facebook to ask folks what the Mount Rushmore of their faith would be—which four writers, pastors, theologians, etc. are the ones who have shaped their faith the most?

Once my (genuinely beloved) atheist friends had had their fun, I got an amazing array of responses to that question, with some names that were repeated several times: C.S. Lewis, Paul Tillich, Hildegard of Bingen, and Martin Luther King, Jr., all of whom would have made a great reserve squad if, you know, Mount Rushmore had a bench (I suspect that would have added a number of years to its construction).  But when I limited myself to four, the four that I eventually settled upon were St. Teresa of Avila, Soren Kierkegaard, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Nelson Mandela.

This sermon series, then, will take each of them and offer one sermon each on how they revealed God’s presence, truth, and love to a broken world in sore need of the message they had to offer, beginning last week with St. Teresa of Avila and continuing today with Soren Kierkegaard.  By the time we finish talk about all four of them, we will be ready to enter February and the church season of Lent, which is amazing to think since we just finished celebrating Christmas!

When you think of the saccharine sweetness of Christmas, though, with the egg nog and gingerbread and candy canes, Soren Kierkegaard would have none of it.  If Oscar the Grouch were a theologian, he’d be Soren Kierkegaard, a 19th-century Danish theologian and philosopher, widely credited with the invention of existentialism, who famously said that because we enter the world crying and leave it groaning, life could not possibly be meant to be enjoyed.  Except that even Kierkegaard’s perpetual grumpiness cannot throw shade upon his absolute faith in God’s love, as he writes:

Love is a change, the most remarkable of all.  Love is a revolution, the most profound of all but the most blessed!  With love, too, there comes confusion.  But in this life-giving confusion there is no distinction between mine and yours.  Remarkable!  There are a “you” and an “I” and yet no “mine” and “yours!”  For without you and I there is no love, and with mine and yours there is no love.  This is why love is the fundamental revolution.  The deeper the revolution, the most the distinction between mine and yours disappears, and the more perfect is the love.

Love is the fundamental revolution, Kierkegaard says, and he so says because his Messiah, and ours, so said all the way back in Roman-occupied Israel.  And Jesus says this in response to something quite unloving: the continued testing of Him and His authority by His opponents within the Jewish temple leadership: the Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, and other teachers of the law.

They ask Jesus what the most important of the laws are—and keep in mind, there are 613 such laws in the Hebrew Bible.  The idea is, how can Jesus pick just one?  If He does, His opponents can say, “Well, what about this law or that law, how can it not be as important?”  It was a way for His opponents who were increasingly desperate to discredit Him to finally be able to do so.

But Jesus doesn’t accept the premise of their question.  He says there is not one most important law, but two: to love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind (Deuteronomy 6:5), and to love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18).

But then Jesus completely erases the premise of the question posed to Him.  He says, “All of the Law and the Prophets (basically, the entire Hebrew Bible) depend on these two commands.”

Nothing like that had been taught by the temple teachers before.  At all.  The Sadducees didn’t even take anything beyond the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (the Torah) as Scripture, in no small part because the prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah were constantly taking the people in power to task for not looking out for the interests of the people they led—essentially, what the Sadducees themselves were guilty of—and the Pharisees were likewise interested more in keeping their hands on the levers of power rather than serving the interests of Israel.  Neither represented their people.

So in one sentence, Jesus completely revolutionized the way we are meant to interpret and live out that same Hebrew Bible.  Basically, if we are not both loving God and loving other people, it does not matter whether we are adhering to the other 611 laws in the Old Testament, because those 611 laws are rendered moot by our inability to follow the other two, the most important and fundamental of the two.  In this way, Jesus does for us what Kierkegaard would later proclaim: Jesus made love a fundamental revolution for humanity.

That revolution, though, is something we have to experience, must experience for ourselves before we can pass it along to others, to our children, as this one father in Paris, Angel, did for his little boy after the terrorist attacks there.  It is not enough to simply read it in a book or to hear it said on Sunday mornings.  It must be lived, and lived thoroughly.

This is what mattered for someone like Kierkegaard, and, I think, why it matters for someone like me as well: faith is something that must be lived.  That’s a simple notion, but such a profoundly important one.  Faith must be experienced.  It cannot simply be said, or taught, or worse, taught disingenuously.  It must be, has to be, lived out.

When it is lived out, Kierkegaard says, there will indeed be confusion.  And I imagine there well was for some who saw this clip of Angel comforting his son.  What on earth is a candle and its light good for against terrorists arrayed with firearms and explosives?  How could flowers possibly help us in a circumstance such as this?

But they help because they remind us that there is no revolution greater, no revolution more fundamental, no revolution more divine in either mandate or origin, than the revolution of love.

That is why Jesus had to answer His opponents the way He did on that day in Jerusalem, so close to the ultimate expression of His love for us: His crucifixion and resurrection.

And because of that resurrection, millions, billions more would hear and then live the story.  They would live that revolution of love for themselves.  People like the others in this series—like Teresa of Avila, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Nelson Mandela.  People like Martin Luther King, Jr., whose day tomorrow honors not just him but the fundamental equality he stood for, strove for, and longed for.

People, I pray, like each of us as well.  May we be so blessed, so incredibly, inexplicably, and undeservedly fortunate, to join them in their life’s work of making this creation a more lovely, and loving, place.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
January 17, 2016