Sunday, May 1, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "Simon, Son of Jonah"

Matthew 16:13-20

Now when Jesus came to the area of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Human One is?” 

14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.” 15 He said, “And what about you? Who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 

17 Then Jesus replied, “Happy are you, Simon son of Jonah, because no human has shown this to you. Rather my Father who is in heaven has shown you. 18 I tell you that you are Peter. And I’ll build my church on this rock. The gates of the underworld won’t be able to stand against it. 19 I’ll give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Anything you fasten on earth will be fastened in heaven. Anything you loosen on earth will be loosened in heaven.” 

20 Then he ordered the disciples not to tell anybody that he was the Christ.  (Common English Bible)

“Help in Unbelief: Reconciling Faith and Belief,” Week Five

It was a simple question.

But simple questions can very easily be the most offensive, most dangerous of questions.

And Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds had just been asked the most loaded question of all.

Are any of you Jewish?

Master Sergeant Edmonds had, along with thousands of other Allied troops, been captured by the German Wehrmacht at the Battle of the Bulge during the Second World War.  At the POW camp in Germany, the camp’s commandant demanded to know which of his new prisoners were Jewish.  Edmonds ordered his entire group to step forward.

Putting a gun to Edmond’s head, the commandant repeated the same order: Jews, step forward.

Again, everyone identified themselves as a Jew.

And the camp commandant backed down.

I do not know how many lives Roddie Edmonds saved with that gesture, but he saved enough that he is one of only five Americans to be named Righteous Among the Nations by the Israeli Holocaust memorial organization Yad Vashem, which he was this past December.

Who do you say that you are?  That question will likely vary depending on the context in which you are asked—and may none of you find yourselves in the circumstances of a genocide to be asked it.  That question cuts to the very root of where our beliefs often come from—our identities and our experiences.  And that identity gets asked of Peter by Jesus, when Jesus asks Peter who He is.

This is a new sermon series for the church season of Easter—that’s right, a season, not just a holiday.  According to the church calendar, Easter lasts for the fifty days between the day the empty tomb is discovered by Mary Magdalene (and, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the other female disciples of Jesus) and the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the assembled followers of Jesus on Pentecost as described in Acts 2.

During the first forty of those fifty days, the newly-resurrected Jesus made several appearances to His followers so that they may know that He was well and truly brought back from the dead, and so that their belief in Him as the Son of God might be made complete.

But their belief was not—is not—enough.  Jesus commissions His followers to, in the words of His brother James in his own letter in the New Testament, to be doers of the Word, not merely hearers.
And to be a doer of the Word, belief is only part of the recipe.  One must have faith as well.  After all, belief at its core is merely an intellectual assent to reality.  I believe that the earth is round.  I believe that milk spoils.  I believe the hokey pokey is what it’s all about.  But that’s all belief does.

That is why, whenever I baptize someone, I do not just ask for a statement of belief—the “Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the Son of God” part, but also for an affirmative action of faith—“and do you accept Him as your Savior?”

Faith is acting on those beliefs, and that is where I think Christianity sometimes misses the forest for the trees.  We care so much about right doctrine that we lose sight of right faith and right action.

Today, we’ll be talking about that difference in light of one of the most famous declarations of belief—or faith, we’ll get to that distinction later—ever made, by Peter in response to Jesus.

The “Son of Man” (or the “Human One” in the CEB translation) is a common term for Jesus to use throughout Matthew to refer to Himself, so it isn’t as though He is springing a brand new moniker on Peter for the hapless fisherman to stumble over.  By this point, sixteen chapters deep into Matthew’s Gospel, we know—and Peter knows—full well that Jesus is asking Peter who Peter says that Jesus is.

Peter, perhaps taking a page out of the book of contemporary politics, artfully tries to dodge the question entirely: “Some say John the Baptist or Elijah, still others say Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

If you’re keeping score at home or in your seat, that’s four different possible answers that Peter threw out in the span of a single sentence, hoping that maybe one of them is in fact correct.  He is like the student who fills in every bubble on their multiple-choice test: at least one of the answers has to be correct, right?  Might as well cover all of my bases!

Except that what Jesus has asked Peter isn’t a multiple-choice question, it is an open-ended question: there are an infinite number of potential answers.  However, there is but one completely correct answer, and fortunately for Peter, he finds it next: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

It is the first part of that baptism recitation I mentioned earlier, and it is at this point that Peter actually begins going as, well, Peter.  His given name is Simon bar Jonah—Simon, son of Jonah.  But he is given a new name in faith by Jesus, a name which means “the rock,” from the Greek “petros.”

On this rock, this sometimes-clueless, sometimes-cowardly fisherman of a rock, Jesus builds His church.  And how sublimely appropriate it is that He should do so.  Peter is not a Herculean person, a symbol of Hegelian perfection.  He does not cut a silhouette of mystique or power, at least not until Acts, when his mere shadow is able to cure people of their ailments, illnesses, and injuries.

He is simply Peter.  He is simply Simon, the son of a fellow named Jonah.  But Peter, in his complete, utter ordinariness, in his you-couldn’t-tell-him-from-Adam anonymity, in that level of sheer humbleness of being unknown to the world to this point, Peter still is able to proclaim truth, even if it is only to an audience of One.

For the One to whom Peter proclaims the truth of his faith is the most important One of all.

The truth of who you are—and of who you believe this Son of Man to be—is a simple question indeed.  Even if it is answered only for an audience of one, the impact of the answer is still great.

Answered for an audience of one, the simple, terrible question, “Who among you is Jewish” was answered in such a way that life was made to go on for prisoners of war at the mercy of their fascist overlords.

Answered for an audience of one, the simple, but great question, “Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the Son of the living God, and do you accept Him as your Savior?” brings newfound life to the lost and hope to the redeemed.

And answered for an audience of One, the question, “Who do you say that I am?” took an unassuming laborer and made Him into the foundation of faith for billions across time and space.

Peter may well have believed in Jesus long before this point—we have to think that he did, or else he wouldn’t up and leave his home, his family, and his work otherwise—but his willingness to stop hiding behind what others said, and to rely solely on what he thought about Jesus, that’s an act of faith.  It’s a faith in oneself to realize that they made the right decision in following Jesus, and it’s a faith in Jesus in realizing that He is very much worth following in the first place.

Who do you say that *you* are?  Someone who believes, or who has faith, or who wonders, doubts, questions, and all of the above?  Someone who lives out their faith or who struggles at it, who feels they can follow Christ or who is worried about getting lost along the way?

For who you say that you are has an effect on who you might say Christ is as well.  Peter had become sure of who Christ was, but not yet sure of himself—so he relied at first on the opinion of others in answering Jesus’s question to him.

In that way, we are as Peter—potentially unsure of ourselves, even if we have been following Jesus for a long time now.

But sometimes, a more bold answer is required, and we must move from belief into faith as Peter has done.

May the example of Peter, the rock, be a source of strength and foundation for you, even amid the doubts and the worries and the fears of your lives.  Peter had them.  I have them.  We all have them.

Your faith is strong enough to encompass all those things, though.  Let it be that strong and able.  Let it be that redemptive.  And let it be that which gives you hope enough for God’s own grace to remain in your life as it always has.

We may be as small and as ordinary as Peter.  But maybe it is okay for our faith to be that big.  Maybe even more than okay.

Let that soul-sized faith be a rock for you, upon which you can build your life and faith anew.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
May 1, 2016

Friday, April 29, 2016

Letters from the Soul: This Month's Newsletter Column

May 2016: "Camping Out"

Dear Church,

Despite my many attempts to enjoy camping in the Cub Scouts and Boy Scout as a kid, as an adult I have had to accept that I am only a daytime outdoorsman. I enjoy the outdoors a great deal when it involves hiking, grilling or cooking out over a campfire, or even simply walking the Oregon and Washington beaches.

But at night? I really, *really* love a warm bed, a roof, and electricity.

Which means that as much as I may have tried to like the brand of camping people simply more rugged than I enjoy, I really am much more of a creature suited for the type of camp that, say, our Northwest region within the church features up in Lacey, at Gwinwood, where church camp is held every year for our region's children.

I got to attend church camp several times as a kid myself, and each chance was a genuinely life-affirming, joyous occasion for me (even the one time when I leaped into the creek on a dare--and then stuffed my soaked clothes into my can imagine how great it smelled by the time I got home). It is something I long since realized that I would want for every kid raised in whatever congregation I would end up pastoring.

And, this July and August, it is the turn for our own kids here at FCC Longview. We have been able to send a few kids to camp in the past several years and would like to be able to keep that tradition going! There are two different weeks of overnight church camps being held at Gwinwood this year: the week of July 11 for children entering grades 2-6, and the week of July 31 for children entering grades 7-12.

The theme for each camp is "Fearless Faith," which is meant to give our children the courage to be able to say yes to, and live out, their faith within their own lives with their family and friends, whilst making new friends from across the state during their week at church camp--which, I can verify firsthand, has beds, roofs, and electricity!

The early bird rates for camp are $225 for grades 2 and 3, $335 for grades 4-6, and $345 for grades 7-12 (presumably because well all know how much teenagers can eat?!). To be eligible for the early bird rates, children must be registered for camp by May 30 for grades 2-6 and June 17 for grades 7-12.

cholarships *are* available from both the regional office and from a line item in FCC's money market account specifically set aside for education and scholarships. If your kid(s) would like to go to camp this year and cost is an obstacle, please reach out to me as soon as possible so that we can work on arranging a scholarship. You can obtain the necessary registration forms by contacting our secretary, Charlotte, at the church office during her regular office hours.

Church camp is a truly fantastic opportunity for any child in our church community to be able to take part in, and if your child is old enough and interested in attending this year, we would love to be able to make that happen!

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Eric

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Albs, Robes, and Some Other Thoughts on Femininity

My dad--a judge on the Kansas state court of appeals--and I have pretty similar gigs in many ways.

We both interpret law (though the law I interpret is a whole lot older...and less boring, I think, but I'm willing to admit that may simply be a difference of opinion).

We both issue proclamations of what to do on the basis of such laws, and those proclamations are for public consumption (his also have the added bonus of being legally binding--at least, when he is in the majority.  For my sermons...oh, if wishing made it so...)

And we both dress up in impractical regalia for ceremonial events--he dons his black judicial robes for oral arguments and photo ops, and I trot off to Sunday worship in my white monastic alb and multicolored stole.

Personally, I like my alb.  It allows me to wear whatever I want underneath (years ago, Postsecret put up a postcard from a pastor who said that they wear AC/DC shirts underneath their alb, and no fewer than three of my friends messaged me to ask if that was me).  It immediately identifies me to first-time visitors.  And during the cold winter months, it's like wearing a snuggie.  Or, you know, one of these.

But the alb--so called because it comes from the Latin word "albus," meaning "white"--is also commonly the root of critique from fundamentalist Christians who insist on pastors wearing a suit and tie to preach in.  I don't even mention anything about business suits for women, because fundamentalist Christians would never countenance a woman teaching them, and that is sort of the point: believers with such an attitude would likewise not care for a "man in a dress" teaching them jut as they would not care for a woman teaching them (and when you have a website called "Stuff Fundies Like" making fun of this, you *know* it's not an uncommon opinion to hold...also, ironically, these "dresses" were still traditionally made for men, and specially-made robes had to be made for women once they began being ordained).

Put another way: any vestige or trapping femininity in the pulpit is simply not tolerated by many a Christian.

Which is profoundly unfortunate.  There is an aspect of God--and of Jesus--that identifies as female and especially as a mother (Luke 13:34, Matthew 23:37, Galatians 4:19, among others).  Women were among the most faithful followers of Jesus, journeying with Him all the way to the cross even after His male disciples had fled (Mark 15:40-41).  And women are extraordinarily capable preachers and teachers of the Word--to all ages, not just children.

But I think this is intertwined with the antipathy more fundamentalist Christians are exhibiting towards transgender people--and trans women (that is, who have transitioned from male to female) in particular, castigating them as "repulsive perverts" and potential dangers to young girls in public restrooms.

They cannot countenance dangerous femininity affecting them and their children, and that danger, to them, comes from people who they see as men altering their appearance to appear as women (no matter if they in fact identify as a woman or not).

Never mind that masculine predators have affected our children plenty--many of those same supporters of bathroom laws also just went to bat for former House Speaker and confirmed pedophile Dennis Hastert, asking the judge in his case to exhibit leniency (Hastert was ultimately sentenced to fifteen months in prison, and it wasn't for his acts of sexual abuse--the statue of limitations had run out; rather, he was sentenced for illegal payments made to cover up the abuse).

Tom DeLay, the former House Majority Leader, went so far as to write to the judge, "He (Hastert) is a good man who loves the Lord.  He gets his integrity and values from Him.  He doesn't deserve what he is going through."

Let's review: trans women simply needing a place to relieve themselves when they're outside their homes--dangerous, repulsive perverts.  Predatory heterosexual, cisgender men who actually prey on children?  They're led by God and don't deserve even the slap on the wrist they are getting (it's not just Hastert, either--Josh Duggar has never even been prosecuted for his crimes against his victims).

A confession: I think it took me a little while to get to quite understanding transgender identity because I didn't see initially just how it might fit into my belief of intersectionality: I could see the overlap in treatment of, say, gays/lesbians and people of color.  I could see the overlap in how women are cruelly dismissed in the church and how they are likewise cruelly dismissed on social media.  Transgender rights seemed a bit of an outlier to me--partly because up until seminary I knew very few transgender people, and partly simply because of my own ignorance, privilege, and learning curve.

But honestly, after seeing how straight, cisgender male predators are being spoken for, whilst trans women who are murder victims are often not, I *am* beginning to see a common link in the treatment of cis women and trans women: the ugly, ugly dismissal of femininity in the public sphere.

I still have a very public role in my work.  And, as a part of that public role, I wear what some denigrate, inaccurately, as a "dress."

But I'll take it as a dress this Sunday, though.  Because as a pastor of God's church, I am meant to reflect God.  As William Willimon wrote (admittedly, rather tartly) in his book Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry:

The clergy's representative burden can also be a great blessing, a source of pastoral wisdom and power.  A parishioner emerged from a little church on a Sunday, muttering to her pastor, "You are not even thirty, what could you know?"

Her pastor drew himself up to his full height, clutched the stole around his neck, and said, "Madam, when I wear this and I climb into that pulpit, I am over two thousand years old, and speak from two millennia of experience.

The man may have been somewhat of an ass, but his point was well taken, ecclesiastically I enter into the struggles of my people, I have considerably more to offer than myself.  I have the witness of the saints, the faith of the church, the wisdom of the ages."

When I don my ceremonial "dress," I do so because I am affirming an identity far larger than my own, and that divine identity *includes* a part of the divine that does indeed identify as female.  Even Paul, whose verses get ripped out of context to justify so much of this antipathy towards femininity in the church, famously wrote that in Christ, there is no male and female.

In Christ, there may not be.  In God, there may not be.  But in their church, there sadly most definitely is.  That is why we have these bathroom laws now.  That is why women are still relegated to second-class status.  And that is why even something like my alb, that is meant to reflect the image of God and of Christ, is denigrated...all because we men need our religion to be about us?

I hope not.

So on Sunday, at 10:50 am, as I remove my alb from its closet space as I do almost every Sunday and pull it on over my nonexistent AC/DC shirt, I will do so this time while taking a moment of prayer to remember the women--cis and trans alike--who have served God and humanity with their whole selves.

I will continue to live out my life and my ministry with the attendant privilege that comes with being who I am.  But at least on one hour a week, I can don an unconventional outfit that reflects not me but the One who created me, and proclaim the unimaginable grace that flows forth from that singular act of creation.

What an amazing blessing that is, to imperfectly yet joyfully worship in an appearance that is meant to reflect the reality of God.

Longview, Washington
April 28, 2016

Image courtesy of

Monday, April 25, 2016

I'm an Ex-Debater and a Christian, and I Support the Liberty University Boycott

More than anything else--even more than my life-saving, life-changing four years in high school band, because this impacted my college and graduate school years as well--participating in both high school and college speech and debate molded me into the sort of student that I remain today as a doctoral student at Seattle University.  Speech and debate taught me how to examine evidence critically, weigh the importance of different consequences of action (or inaction), and how to research a given topic effectively and deeply.

It is an activity that I owe a debt of gratitude that I will never be able to fully repay, despite my own brief time spent coaching speech and debate on the high school level in Oregon, and on the college level in California.

In order for a debate to take place at any of the dozens of tournaments I competed at, coached at, and judged at over my decade of involvement in the activity, the debaters themselves had to be in a safe enough place to be able to argue for any perspective they felt, in their judgment, would win them the debate they were engaging in, one round at a time.

What this meant, in functional terms, was judges telling the debaters beforehand, often in detail, what exactly their own worldview is.  Nobody comes into a debate as a blank slate, we all carry our beliefs and our prejudices, our values and our idiosyncracies.  There are few worse feelings as a debater than losing a round and learning after the fact that you never stood a chance because your judge was innately predisposed to chucking your argument out with the wash...and you never knew.

The attitude of judges in speech and debate is partly a top-down phenomenon.  Teams may not be able to provide enough judges of their own to cover their entries, and tournaments must hire judges from the community of the school hosting the tournament.  This, combined with the simple fact that most schools simply cannot afford the costs to travel extensively, has an effect of creating judging pools that can vary greatly based on geography, even within metropolitan areas (for a great case study of that effect, check out Joe Miller's book "Cross-X," in which my high school alma mater's tournament unfortunately features in a chapter entitled "Debate Hell").

Long story short: where a debate tournament is held matters, even if the venue is only providing the space, rather than organizing the tournament outright.

Why am I writing about any of this on a blog that is mostly dedicated to Christian mission, ministry, and social justice?

Well, speech and debate exists in Christian schools and universities as well, and perhaps none so prominently as at Liberty University, whose chancellor, Jerry Falwell Jr., I have already had to take to task a couple of times before for his inexcusable Islamophobia and his inexplicably boneheaded endorsement of Donald Trump.

Because of Falwell Jr.'s conduct, one of the top high school debate partnerships (an all-female partnership, too, which is of particular note in what has traditionally been a male-skewed activity) has elected to boycott Virginia's state high school debate championship this year because it is being hosted at Liberty University.

One of the two women in this debate partnership, Fatima Shahbaz, is Muslim, and she and her family are understandably worried for her well-being in potentially going to a school whose leader has said,
I’ve always thought if more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in and killed us."

Falwell Jr. argued in response that his comments were taken out of context by the media (ah, that ever-reliable bogeyman, the pesky media!), so here is the full context of what he said, verbatim:

Anyway. I’ve always thought if more good people had concealed carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they, before they walk in and kill us, [applause] so I just want to take this opportunity to encourage all of you to get your permit–we offer a free course. And let’s… let’s… let’s teach ’em a lesson if they ever show up here [more applause]. So… Thank you, and you’re dismissed.

I am quoting Falwell Jr. from the point at which he says "Anyway," which most reasonable people would agree generally constitutes the moving from one fully-formed thought (Falwell letting everyone know that he's packing heat) to another (we could end those Muslims), and he is quoted all the way to the end of his remarks (thank you, you're dismissed).

I took the presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz to task in my sermon yesterday for wanting to ban Muslims and/or place them under police surveillance, but even those two mean-spirited cranks manage to make a distinction between "radical Islamic terrorists" as they call them and simply "Muslims."

Falwell Jr., apparently, couldn't be bothered with a similar level of nuance, even as he would later to try to walk back what he said by saying "he couldn't have been more clear" which Muslims he was referring to.

Except he could have been.  Because just as there is a big difference between "Muslim" and "radical Islamic terrorist," there is likewise, I think Falwell Jr. would agree, a big difference between "Christian" and "Robert Lewis Dear" or "Dylann Storm Roof," the white Christian terrorists who shot up Colorado Springs and Charleston (I originally and mistakenly wrote "Columbia" -E.A.), South Carolina, respectively.

Why am I even playing that card, though?  Apparently, one of Liberty's professors, a biology professor named Daniel Howell, had his feelies hurt enough by the boycott by Shahbaz and Boyer to write a letter to the editor of Liberty's student paper, in which he penned--in reference to the debaters' desire to see the state championship moved to a nonsectarian venue--this priceless line, "One might reasonably conclude that her (Shahbaz's) proposition is Christophobic."

Oh sweet wounded Jesus have mercy.  Howell--who at the outset of his letter said that seeing Falwell Jr.'s statement as Islamophobic would be "grossly misinterpreted" and that in doing so, the debate parternship "displays ignorance or a willful disregard for truth"--has apparently no compunctions or qualms about grossly misinterpreting a religious minority's desire to see her state championship hosted at a religiously neutral venue as "Christophobic."

It's the whole Gods-Not-Dead-Persecution-Complex debate all over again, only with Muslims instead of comically obtuse atheists.  Muslims apparently aren't victims of Islamophobia because the leader of the largest Christian university in the country casually lumped them in with jihadist terrorists, but Christians are the victims of Christophobia because it was civilly and thoughtfully suggested that maybe there might be some net-benefit to having a high-profile debate tournament held at a neutral venue.

I don't have a doctorate (yet) like Dr. Howell does, but I've got a couple of degrees in religion plus a lifetime of Sunday School under my belt, and I'm pretty sure there's a certain saying about logs and splinters that ought to come to mind.  Before Dr. Howell concerns himself with Fatima Shahbaz's moral compass, he ought to take a long, prayerful, and introspective look at himself, who he works for, and whether he is in fact living out Jesus's dictum to avoid removing splinters when entire logs still remain.

And I haven't even gotten into the irony of a *biology* professor at a school that insists that young earth creationism somehow constitutes science.  I've no qualms about teaching creationism in school, but I have plenty of qualms about teaching it in the context of a science class rather than in the context of a humanities class.  Creationism is a demonstrable part of Western religion, culture, and thought and should be taught as such.  It is not--so far as I can see--a demonstrable part of *any* credible scientific consensus.

Jumping to such unsound conclusions has the same effect of stifling the debate and dialogue that Falwell Jr. and Howell purport to uphold, but no matter.  We have taken poor Kierkegaard's brilliant leap of faith concept and turned it into something utterly vulgar when we say that imagination ought to trump human experience in how we meet people in faith.

Dr. Howell needs to stick to his lane of teaching fake science on behalf of a chancellor who shows little regard for science, sound Biblical exegesis, and plenty in between.  Jerry Falwell Jr. needs to spend some very real time in prayer to seek the humility to simply be able to say "I was wrong about Muslims" instead of continuing to excuse his appalling remarks.  All of us Christians need to be able to take a step back and consider whether we really are the oppressed ones in America, or the ones still doing the oppressing.

And I'm going to get back to doing the work that such teachers and leaders would likely see as heresy: studying, teaching, and proclaiming Scripture in such a way that the marginalized and oppressed peoples of today might hear at least a crumb of comfort, solidarity, and welcome as the marginalized and oppressed peoples of Jesus's time heard in His teachings.

While I do so, I will continue to give thanks for all that speech and debate has given me, because those skills aid me in my ministry now.  My prayer for Fatima Shahbaz and Jessica Boyer is that debate likewise empowers them as it did me.  To that end, I support their decision to boycott their state championship, and if I were still coaching and my debaters approached me with the same decision, I would support them too.

This advocacy matters to me.  I hope you see why, and that it may matter to you as well.

Vancouver, Washington
April 25, 2016

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Today's Sermon: "Red Sunday"

Matthew 16:1-4

1 The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus. In order to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. 

2 But he replied, “At evening you say, ‘It will be nice weather because the sky is bright red.’ 

3 And in the morning you say, ‘There will be bad weather today because the sky is cloudy.’ You know how to make sense of the sky’s appearance. But you are unable to recognize the signs that point to what the time is. 

4 An evil and unfaithful generation searches for a sign. But it won’t receive any sign except Jonah’s sign.” Then he left them and went away.

(Common English Bible)

“Help in Unbelief: Reconciling Faith and Belief,” Week Four

The deep brown eyes remain seared forever on my mind.  The dark, squarely-set eyes out of which they saw their lives as they knew them crumble, topple, and fall all around them one hundred years ago as they, their families, friends, acquaintances, all who were now seen as enemies were hunted down like animals, herded across the desert like animals, and eventually slaughtered like animals.

Escape such a fate they ultimately did, first by fleeing to Russia, then all the way across Russia, from east to west across Siberia, to Vladivostok and then across the Bering Strait into Alaska, and eventually down to the lower forty-eight states of the US.  The fake passports they used to manage such an escape survived.

My family has them.  Because that is how my great-grandparents, Krikor and Satenig Mouradian, with their brown eyes, black hair, and Armenian features came to settle in the United States.  It is how I came to one day be.

Because on this day in 1915 the authorities of the Ottoman Empire—what is now Turkey—rounded up the Armenian community of Istanbul in build-up for what would become the largest holocaust prior to *the* Holocaust—the Jewish Holocaust in Nazi Germany.

My great-grandparents survived.  Not all of their family did.  Krikor’s father Sarkis and his older brother Madiros both died in 1915.  Krikor's sister Emily we have no death date for in our family--I don't know what happened to her.

But Sarkis and Madiros were two of the 1.5 million Armenian men, women, and children were killed in a series of genocides committed by the Ottoman Empire against its populations of Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks before the Ottoman Empire fell at the end of World War One.

That first day of the Armenian Genocide, April 24, was also a Sunday that year.  It became known as “Red Sunday” for reasons that should be self-evident.  And you may well not have walked in this morning expecting this part of my story to be my leadoff hitter for today’s sermon.  But when Jesus speaks of us being unable to recognize the signs around us, as He does to the Pharisees and Sadducees in Matthew 16, how my family came to be here is a very, very important story to tell.

This is a new sermon series for the church season of Easter—that’s right, a season, not just a holiday.  According to the church calendar, Easter lasts for the fifty days between the day the empty tomb is discovered by Mary Magdalene (and, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the other female disciples of Jesus) and the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the assembled followers of Jesus on Pentecost as described in Acts 2.

During the first forty of those fifty days, the newly-resurrected Jesus made several appearances to His followers so that they may know that He was well and truly brought back from the dead, and so that their belief in Him as the Son of God might be made complete.

But their belief was not—is not—enough.  Jesus commissions His followers to, in the words of His brother James in his own letter in the New Testament, to be doers of the Word, not merely hearers.
And to be a doer of the Word, belief is only part of the recipe.  One must have faith as well.  After all, belief at its core is merely an intellectual assent to reality.  I believe that grass is green.  I believe that my eyes are brown, the same dark brown of my ancestors.  But that's just the first part of things.

That is why, whenever I baptize someone, I do not just ask for a statement of belief—the “Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the Son of God” part, but also for an affirmative action of faith—“and do you accept Him as your Savior?”

Faith is acting on those beliefs, and that is where I think Christianity sometimes misses the forest for the trees.  We care so much about right doctrine that we lose sight of right faith and right action.

All doctrine is a form of interpretation, and that is what is on display here in Matthew 16: Jesus is asked once more for a sign from the hostile Pharisees and Sadducees, and He basically tells them that it wouldn’t matter even if He did provide a sign, because they can take a singular reality—the redness of the sun in the sky—and make it mean one thing one day and a completely opposite thing the next day.  They have no fidelity to reality, only to their own selfishness.

That is a dangerous world to live in, one in which your leaders actively warp reality to suit their own purposes, rather than to serve and protect their own people.  It is a foreshadowing of what will eventually happen to Jesus Himself—the factuality of His words about who He is will get twisted by the chief priests and Pontius Pilate alike at trial—and it is a foreshadowing of we have done to one another, to those not like us, for the past one hundred years from Armenia to Nazi Germany to Cambodia to Rwanda to Darfur to Syria.

Because the truth is, reality only somewhat drives at our motivations for doing anything that we do.  What we choose to do comes down to our decision-making, and that calculus is fundamentally predicated upon how we see and interpret the reality around us.  That is why a liar is so dangerous—a lie is told enough times, and not only does the liar begin to believe it, but so do those who hear it.

Which takes us back to the First World War—a war that broke out largely because of erroneous interpretations of a reality, rather than of that reality itself.  In December 1914, Enver Pasha, the Ottoman Minister of War, fought the Battle of Sarikamish against the Russian army, which was aided by a number of Armenian volunteers.  It was a disaster for the Ottomans—Enver Pasha had failed to both keep an adequate operational reserve force and accurately predict how the Russians would react to being attacked.

But such reality often does not suit men of power and of egos.  Enver Pasha blamed the defeat on the Armenian soliders who had fought alongside the Russians, because many of the Armenian soldiers were themselves Russian citizens, but also partly because the Ottoman Empire had initiated a series of pogroms and massacres of its Armenian populations in the 1890s (which had led to more Armenians immigrating elsewhere, including to Russia, to begin with).

This was only a part of the Armenian community, though, and in fact many were still enlisted in the Ottoman armed forces—until Directive 8682 was issued in February 1915, which ejected all ethnic Armenians from the Ottoman military, under the pretense of community-wide disloyalty.

These two actions, along with others, provided the pretext for the execution of 1.5 million Armenians throughout the remaining duration of the First World War.

Now think, for a moment, about what was said about the Ottoman Armenians—they were blamed for strategic international setbacks, and domestically were accused of disloyalty, or of holding loyalty to their group over loyalty to the country in which they lived.

Does that sound at all similar to what is being said, by many Americans, some with substantial political or cultural influence, about groups of people like Muslims, or Mexican immigrants?  It isn’t our fault that our country has made strategic errors in how we ally with hated regimes in the Middle East, or how we enable the exploitation of migrant laborers and workers, no, it couldn’t be our fault!  It has to be the fault of the outsiders, of the people who are not us, who are making America worse! 

Mexico isn’t sending good people to us, they’re sending us rapists, remember? 

Any Muslim is a potentially disloyal terrorist; that is why we have to ban them from entering the country and put the ones who are here under police surveillance, remember?

And we have somehow said yes to that delusional, diabolical, devilish interpretation of reality.

We are in an election cycle, and ordinarily, I never comment on the candidates put before us.  If you remember during the 2012 election, I never uttered the names “Barack Obama” or “Mitt Romney” within a sermon.  According to IRS regulations, I cannot tell you who to vote for, and that is as it should be.

But we are in a cycle in which one party’s two frontrunners for the most powerful job in the world have said that they would ban an entire religion or put its practitioners under unique scrutiny from law enforcement, all the while also saying that the rest of us—we Christians, not all those *other* people—should have our liberties protected, because we, after all, are the righteous ones.

This is the *exact* same sort of language that was used to sinfully and unlawfully imprison Japanese-Americans during the Second World War.  This is the *exact* same sort of language that was used to justify the Nuremburg laws against German Jews during the 1930s.  And this is the *exact* same sort of language that was used as a pretext to eliminate the Armenians from their homeland in 1915.

Washington’s Republican primary is scheduled for one month from today—May 24.  When you vote, please, I beg you, take a moment of prayer and reflection between now and then and ask yourself if the candidate you are planning to vote for really and truly reflects the values of Jesus Christ, of goodness and care and empathy, even towards—especially towards—those not like Him.

That is our reality as Christians—we follow, worship, and trust in Jesus Christ.  If we are to take that reality seriously, then His example has to matter.  His ministry has to matter.  His entire purpose has to matter—not just for the salvation of our individual souls, but for the salvation of the world, of a kingdom made not according to human design but divine design.

We do not get to interpret Christ’s reality with our own selfishness.  That may be what we have done in past days, but it cannot be on the table now.  We must live and trust in Him, not ourselves.

Jesus has said His piece.  His teachings are here to stay.  The next move is ours.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
April 24, 2016

Friday, April 22, 2016

The Total Lack of Sexiness in Church Revitalizing

On our apartment balcony, C and I keep a miniature Japanese maple tree that we have nicknamed Ishiguro (as in, the Japanese-British writer).  It is a beautiful bit of verdant greenery that we have for ourselves in a paradise of green spaces here in the Pacific Northwest, and it makes our rented digs feel a little more like a home.  Even the dogs love Ishiguro--more than once, they've tried to help themselves to some salad from the poor tree's branches.

A far greater danger than my little pooches' chompers, though, was the deadening of almost half the tree--partly due to weather, but mostly due to the fact that, as it turns out, I am a downright awful babysitter of plant life whenever my wife is out of town.  Of Ishiguro's two main branches from the center trunk, one died, and it had to be sacrificed in order to give the living branch a real chance.

What remains of Ishiguro, though, is flourishing now: the leaves, branches, and trunk are all as brightly green as ever.  A part of the dead branch remains, though, and it stands in stark contrast: it is a dark brick red, unable to regrow, renew, or revitalize itself.

But shedding that branch's leaves and auxiliary branches is precisely what had to happen.  The medicine--an amputation, really--was bitter, but the tree itself was better off for us having done so.

Of course, I could have been better at providing for the tree to begin with--which is sort of the point.  Ishiguro could not have ended up as a better metaphor for the job I had signed up for--revitalizing a lovely, and beloved, local congregation that had, like so many other mainline churches, been battered down by decades of decline.

Earlier this month, this congregation that I have now served for nearly five years voted almost unanimously to put its secondary building (which houses education classrooms as well as the church offices--including mine) on the real estate market.  It was not an easy decision--after months of deliberation by our board of directors, they came to a consensus that this step was necessary, so I floated it at our annual general meeting in January.

During Lent, we had a series of congregational town hall meetings to discuss this as well as other possible steps, such as selling the entire church property and re-planting elsewhere in town or cutting back on personnel (including moving to a part-time pastorate) and seeking more opportunities to rent our buildings out to other organizations in town.

We took a straw poll and then a formal vote, and each time, it was overwhelmingly to put the education building--where I am sitting, typing out these words--up for sale.

And it made perfect sense.  This building has just turned sixty, and like the main sanctuary building--and the church buildings of the same longstanding, long-suffering churches whose assets, memberships, and hopes have all dwindled since their midcentury heydays--it has a lot of deferred maintenance, and the immediate maintenance and repairs that did have to be done were increasingly expensive.

Meanwhile, while part of this building is rented out to a local preschool that does fantastic work with our commnity's youngest children, the classrooms in the rest of the building were used either for storage or for our daytime and evening Bible studies one day a week (Tuesdays).

That's it.  And that's simply no way to make the most use out of a valuable resource that you have been blessed with from previous generations.

So, like Ishiguro's one branch, we had to acknowledge that this particular part of our church had been dying off, and that in order to allow the church itself to flourish, we had to pull that one dying branch apart.

That isn't the image you usually think of when you hear about 'church planting,' and for good reason.  The idea of planting, or re-planting, a church is that you are trying something fresh and new, straight from seed or seedling form.  It implies growth and nurture, and while sometimes there really is such a thing as addition by subtraction--be it a plant's branch or an entire building--that isn't quite so attractive to lift up or even talk about.

Yet lift it up and talk about it we did, and I believe that we have come out better for having done so.

It was not sexy, or attractive, or fashionable ministry.  There is no enticing, trendy word for it, like "missional" or "relevant."

But it was important.  It was meaningful.  And by the grace of God, we did it.

Now, we move onto the next step.  Searching for a buyer for our humble little branch of our church property.

I remain hopeful, prayerful, and mindful of God's providence.

Ishiguro taught me how to be better at that.

Longview & Vancouver, Washington
April 22, 2016

Our poodle-bichon Dame Frida Koala graciously insisted on posing in front of Ishiguro (complete with the remnant of the dead branch, which you can see behind the live branches) for this picture.  She says, "You're welcome."

Sunday, April 17, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "Jantelagen"

Luke 7:36-50

One of the Pharisees invited Jesus to eat with him. After he entered the Pharisee’s home, he took his place at the table. 37 Meanwhile, a woman from the city, a sinner, discovered that Jesus was dining in the Pharisee’s house. She brought perfumed oil in a vase made of alabaster. 38 Standing behind him at his feet and crying, she began to wet his feet with her tears. She wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and poured the oil on them. 

39 When the Pharisee who had invited Jesus saw what was happening, he said to himself, If this man were a prophet, he would know what kind of woman is touching him. He would know that she is a sinner. 40 Jesus replied, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher, speak,” he said. 41 “A certain lender had two debtors. One owed enough money to pay five hundred people for a day’s work. The other owed enough money for fifty. 42 When they couldn’t pay, the lender forgave the debts of them both. Which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the largest debt canceled.” Jesus said, “You have judged correctly.” 

44 Jesus turned to the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? When I entered your home, you didn’t give me water for my feet, but she wet my feet with tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You didn’t greet me with a kiss, but she hasn’t stopped kissing my feet since I came in. 46 You didn’t anoint my head with oil, but she has poured perfumed oil on my feet. 47 This is why I tell you that her many sins have been forgiven; so she has shown great love. The one who is forgiven little loves little.” 48 Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 The other table guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this person that even forgives sins?” 50 Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”  (Common English Bible)

“Help in Unbelief: Reconciling Faith and Belief,” Week Three

I still remember my doctoral classmate’s words in explaining what seemed a completely bizarre concept to me as a corn-fed American raised on the reverence we have for civil liberty and individual rights: “It’s a social law that basically says, ‘Who do you think you are?’”

She was describing to us what is called in Sweden, where she makes her living as a spiritual director, Jantelagen, or the Law of Jante, which, as European sportswriter Simon Kuper put it, is summed up basically by the sentiment of “Don’t think you’re better than us.”  It is a set of mores meant to keep anyone from getting too big for their proverbial britches, of thinking that they are too special of a snowflake, that they are better or more important than anyone else.

Again—totally unlike how we are in America, where we are absolutely persuaded that our child is a genius even as they gleefully eat their own boogers, or where we (okay, me) are utterly convinced that their dogs are the best little dogs ever to grace God’s green earth.

But I like my classmate’s description of jantelagen the best: the question, “Who do you think you are,” because it communicates a sort of disdain for the person that we do still see, that is universal, and that is on full display today in this story from Luke 7—we just need to know where to look for it, because Luke simply assumes that we will know.

Yet now, nearly 2,000 years later and halfway around the world, we need it pointed out to us.  Perhaps we are snowflakes after all, in need of a wind to send us in the right direction—the direction towards an understanding of the sort of faith Jesus sees in this woman that He does not see in Simon.  It is the same sort of faith that Jesus expects of us.

This is a new sermon series for the church season of Easter—that’s right, a season, not just a holiday.  According to the church calendar, Easter lasts for the fifty days between the day the empty tomb is discovered by Mary Magdalene (and, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the other female disciples of Jesus) and the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the assembled followers of Jesus on Pentecost as described in Acts 2.

During the first forty of those fifty days, the newly-resurrected Jesus made several appearances to His followers so that they may know that He was well and truly brought back from the dead, and so that their belief in Him as the Son of God might be made complete.

But their belief was not—is not—enough.  Jesus commissions His followers to, in the words of His brother James in his own letter in the New Testament, to be doers of the Word, not merely hearers.
And to be a doer of the Word, belief is only part of the recipe.  One must have faith as well.  After all, belief at its core is merely an intellectual assent to reality.  I believe that fire burns, or that the 49ers won’t ever win another Super Bowl (my pandering knows no bounds).

That is why, whenever I baptize someone, I do not just ask for a statement of belief—the “Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the Son of God” part, but also for an affirmative action of faith—“and do you accept Him as your Savior?”

Faith is acting on those beliefs, and that is where I think Christianity sometimes misses the forest for the trees.  We care so much about right doctrine that we lose sight of right faith and right action.

We began the series with the creation of right faith within the apostle Thomas, and last week, we looked at another story from John, of Jesus responding to the accusation that He has a demon, and what He has to say illuminates something very important about the nature of faith: its longevity.

This week, we turn to a very well-known, well-loved (and for good reason) story of the anonymous woman who approaches Jesus while He is dining at the house of a Pharisee named Simon.

Simon probably thinks that he is showing Jesus a tremendous amount of respect and deference, allowing this bumpkin carpenter from the boondocks of Galilee to dine with him, a Pharisee, but in fact Jesus puts that notion to lie with the analogy that he presents to Simon: one debtor owed a lender five hundred denarii—the income for an employee after five hundred days of work at minimum wage in ancient Israel (so the equivalent of $29,000 at our current $7.25 federal minimum wage)—while another debtor owed *only* fifty denarii—still a large sum of money at $2,900, but a much more manageable sum.

The lender cancels the debts of both.  Who, Jesus asks Simon, would love the lender more as a result of the lender’s generosity?  “I suppose the one who had the larger debt canceled,” replies Simon.  And Jesus says to Simon, “You have judged correctly.”

It is easy for us to perhaps want to see ourselves in the woman who spurs this dialogue between Simon and Jesus, and I will get to why it may well be right for us to do so.  But I would be committing the equivalent of pastoral malpractice by not first telling you that we likely ought to see some of ourselves in Simon as well.

Because the simple truth is, grace offends Simon.  It has to.  He has built up a life for himself doing exactly what he believes he ought to be doing, and her comes this woman who is, to his way of thinking, a far worse person than he, and Jesus responds much more favorably to her.  What the eff?

Now, we do not know at all who this woman is.  Luke, as is his patriarchal custom (and the patriarchal custom of the other Gospel writers) does not give us her name, just as the names of many of the women Jesus encounters in His ministry go unnamed, largely because of the lack of human regard women were viewed with then.  All we know about her is that she is a sinner.

But what sort of sinner?  After all, jaywalking isn’t quite the same in terms of magnitude as drinking the tears of baby seals.  But the simple truth is that just as we do not know this woman’s name, we also do not know her sins.  As New Testament scholar Sharon Ringe puts it, “A woman would have been called a sinner if she were known as a liar, a thief, a cheat, or any other type of sinner in her own right, or she might simply have been the wife of a man who was known to be immoral or the practitioner of any one of a number of professions looked down upon as the breeding ground of dishonesty.”

So we do not know this woman’s sins.  But perhaps that is as it should be.  It allows her to more fully represent us and our own diversity of sins, our nickel and dime peccadilloes and our mightily immoral wrongs alike.

She then humbles herself profoundly before Jesus.  She doesn’t just wash His feet—a task seen as so degrading that only the lowest ranking of slaves would be instructed to perform it for a visitor—she does so with her own tears and hair before kissing them and anointing them.  Even if her sins were only of the nickel-and-dime variety, she is asking for forgiveness as though they were far worse.

This is how we ought to ask for forgiveness when we have sinned—with humility this deep and vivid.  But so often we do not; we either half-heartedly apologize with a simple “sorry,” or we don’t bother at all.  Or, worse still, we are more like Simon than we first felt, as he is scandalized by this whole display, asking, “Who does this Jesus think He is, allowing this sinful woman to touch Him?”

And therein is the jantelagen question.  The question of, “Who do you think you are?”  That question gets put to Jesus doubly, not only by Simon but, by the end of this story, by all assembled, who are openly asking themselves, “Who does this man think He is, who even forgives sins?”

But it is a question that is posed not only to Jesus.  We ought to see ourselves in this anonymous woman, for she represents not only our wide array of sins but also the reaction we may meet when we finally, at long last, seek forgiveness for our sins. 

Who do we think we are, that we might throw all manner of arbitrary and oppressive social rules out the window in order to receive reconciliation from our God and God’s Son? 

Who do we think we are, that we believe that God’s Son can indeed forgive us our sins?

Who do we think we are, that we have faith, and act on that faith, that God does indeed crave reconciliation with humanity, including even us?

From Luke’s perspective, and from Jesus, those questions need not even be asked, entirely because of who Jesus is, and because of who this woman was.

Who did this woman think she is, that she might throw herself at the mercy of the Son of God for the forgiveness of her sins?

She is us.  And we are her.

In her faith, may we find faith.  In her belief, may we find belief.  And in her example, may we be able to at long last traverse from one to the other in wholeness and in truth.

For as Christ said in the end, her faith saved her.

May it save us as well.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, WA
April 17, 2016