Sunday, September 25, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "The Immovable Ladder"

My apologies for the lack of articles the past couple of weeks. C and I are in the process of buying a home, which has proven to be quite time- and energy-intensive (I think I may have inadvertently signed away my own naming rights at some point...) and has left me little time for writing. I hope to return to writing for all of you soon! Onto this week's message. ~E.A.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18



Brothers and sisters, we want you to know about people who have died so that you won’t mourn like others who don’t have any hope. 14 Since we believe that Jesus died and rose, so we also believe that God will bring with him those who have died in Jesus. 15 What we are saying is a message from the Lord: we who are alive and still around at the Lord’s coming definitely won’t go ahead of those who have died. 16 This is because the Lord himself will come down from heaven with the signal of a shout by the head angel and a blast on God’s trumpet. First, those who are dead in Christ will rise. 17 Then, we who are living and still around will be taken up together with them in the clouds to meet with the Lord in the air. That way we will always be with the Lord. 18 So encourage each other with these words. (Common English Bible)


“Contextual Chaos: How to Stop Taking the Bible Out of Context,” Week Three

In the heart of the old city of Jerusalem stands the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Overseen jointly—and often acrimoniously—by several different Christian denominations, it marks the traditional spot where Jesus is said to have been crucified on Golgotha, as well as the last several stations of the Via Dolorosa—the way of the Cross. It is one of the holiest of sites in all of Christendom, even as its fa├žade looks out over a land that has for millennia been fought over—to this day—in no small part over religion.

The quarrels take place not just between religions, but within religions—the reason the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is overseen so acrimoniously is that the different traditions that govern the joint overseeing of the church simply do not get along and haven’t for centuries, to the extent that the job of keys-and-gatekeeper is held by a Muslim family that reverently passes the position down from generation to generation, ever since that family was entrusted with the job by the Saracen sultan Saladin in 1187.

That’s how deep this discord goes between the various Christian sects that oversee the church.

Perhaps the most iconic symbol of that division is the immovable ladder—a ladder placed against the outside of the church in 1757 by a construction worker, and which hasn’t been moved since, precisely because the Christians could not agree on anything, not even where to put a spare ladder. It has become a symbol of inflexible, utterly rigid ideology and dogma that segments Christendom into chosen-and-unchosen groups—not unlike the immovable spiritual ladder that we call the Rapture.

This is a new sermon series for a new season—summer is at long last giving way to autumn, and after an entire summer devoted to a verse-by-verse series (our exploration of the life and reign of Solomon), we will be returning to three thematic sermon series, one after the other, to get us from here to—believe it or not—Christmas! And the first of these thematic sermon series concerns a habit that I often see, whether in everyday conversation, or on social media, or even by other pastors that I see in the papers or on the telly: taking verses of Scripture out of context.

(The best—and funniest instance—of this I’ve seen is a cartoon of a fellow trying to remove the lid of a pickle jar and in between grunts of effort, recites Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” to which his wife says, “Twist the lid, Tom, not Scripture.”)

It is a mightily tempting vice to engage in—after all, you’re citing Scripture, what could be wrong about that? Well, first of all, Satan cited Scripture to Jesus in the wilderness, so it is possible to use Scripture for ill just as surely as we use it for good. But by taking chapter and verse out of the remaining chapter—or chapters—that surround it, we treat the Bible less like a book (or a collection of books, really) and more like a collection of fortune cookie wisdom: eat a cookie, or a communion wafer for that matter, get a verse.

And that is simply never how Scripture was intended to be used. The original manuscripts of the New Testament do not come with chapter and verse annotated into them—all of that came from later compilers. So let us, if we are to remain true to the original spirit of the authors of our sacred texts, try so far as we are able to set aside the taking of a single verse and instead look at some of the most famous verses from Scripture and (a) actually see from whence they came, and (b) understand how we can move away from taking such verses out of context and start taking such verses to heart!

We began this series two weeks ago with one of the most famous pronouncements of the prophet Jeremiah: that God knows the plans that God has for you, and they are plans for peace, not disaster, and of a future filled with hope. Last week, we moved onto an equally famous pronouncement of Jesus found in John 12: the poor you will always have with you. This week, we move onto a verse that has been used—poorly for decades to justify the existence of the Rapture: 1 Thessalonians 4:17.

The Rapture is one of those things that most of us have heard of, and probably have a passing familiarity with, but don’t really know exactly where it came from, like Sasquatch or jean shorts. The Rapture is the basic belief that before the terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad apocalypse, God will whisk away the chosen few to avoid the trials and tribulations of said apocalypse by beaming them up to heaven, and its roots come from a cadre of 19th century American preachers who cobbled together a series of different verses from Scripture, especially this verse from 1 Thessalonians 4: “Then we who are living and still around will be taken up together with them in the clouds to meet with the Lord in the air.”

And taken out of context, this probably sounds an awful lot like what you understand the Rapture to be. Which is sort of the point. Taking 1 Thessalonians 4:17 out of context turns it into something easily distilled and imagined when the reality is that Paul, while earnestly expecting the return of Jesus to take place within his lifetime, is writing about a completely different concern than whether the current crop of believers will be saved from any sort of dystopian apocalypse. As New Testament scholar Barbara Rossing writes:

…it is not about Rapture, however, but about resurrection from the dead at Christ’s second coming. The Thessalonians apparently feared that some family members who had already died before Christ’s return would be left behind in their graves when he returned—and they were grieving that separation. Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonika to reassure them that those who have died will also be raised to meet Christ, “and so we shall always be with the Lord.” He wrote the letter in order to give comfort and encouragement, using the assurance of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead to give assurance of resurrection also for us.

What this letter is emphasizing is not that some will be left behind, but rather that we will all be together with our loved ones in our resurrection life. No believer, whether dead or alive, will be separated from Christ or from the community of their love ones when the Lord comes again…Paul’s pastoral concern here is to comfort people by showing that we will all be together in Christ when he comes again. We will not be separated from Christ or from one another.

That is such a different expectation, such a different theology, such a different hope than what we have come to expect from the Rapture. We see the Rapture as a means to divvy up the living, when in reality what Paul is describing to the Thessalonians is the means by which the living are to be reconciled with the dead.

Which is so much of what Jesus’s ministry is about. It’s about Jairus and his daughter. It’s about Mary and Martha and Lazarus. And it’s about Jesus and the rest of us.

Paul gets that. But we, when we try to invent something that isn’t there in the Scriptures in order to fuel our own special snowflake-iness of being a part of God’s crew, we show just how much we don’t get it, and how much further we really do have to go in order to truly understand God’s Word.

The Rapture—the idea that God’s elect are taken up to be spared a divine Armageddon—is Scripturally dubious enough, but predicting when it will happen does even more harm than good. Even Jesus Himself, in Mark’s Gospel, states that even He does not know when God has planned for the End Times, saying that such knowledge is God’s and God’s alone. Peter, in his second letter, says that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night—the implication being that we won’t know when it will happen.

And Paul himself uses that exact same language as Peter, just a couple of verses after this passage, in 1 Thessalonians 5: for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.

Paul and Peter did not always see eye to eye about church matters—but if this they can agree upon, then why must we be so intent on trying to disprove them?

Quite simply, the Rapture has become for us our own immovable ladder—something impregnable to outside reason or logic and immune to appeals to greater good or even to God’s will. We cling to it, like the ladder in Jerusalem, because our faith is too fragile not to.

Which is never how faith was meant to be. Faith was never meant to be fragile, but sturdy, tough enough and durable enough to generously allow room for dialogue and discussion, even doubt.

But the Rapture, a metaphorical ladder to heaven for God’s chosen, has become so immovable a spiritual ladder that it is now a burden rather than a blessing—if it even was a blessing to begin with.

So cast aside such worry and concern about whatever the end of time might look like. I don’t know what it will look like. Neither do you, or Paul, or Peter. Even Jesus may not know entirely.

Instead of worrying, then, about what you know or don’t know, concern yourselves with what you have faith in, for that is what Paul is exhorting us to once we read his gracious words in their entirety: faith enough in God to see us through, and faith enough in the resurrection of Christ to know that it is a resurrection for us as well, and for our loved ones who have predeceased us.

What a tremendous promise that is! It is, and remains, the promise of eternal life.

Let that promise stand, then, on its own merits, in your life and in mine.

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
September 25, 2016

Sunday, September 18, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "Three Hundred Denarii/The Poor You Have"

John 12:1-11

Six days before Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, home of Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 Lazarus and his sisters hosted a dinner for him. Martha served and Lazarus was among those who joined him at the table. 3 Then Mary took an extraordinary amount, almost three-quarters of a pound, of very expensive perfume made of pure nard. She anointed Jesus’ feet with it, then wiped his feet dry with her hair. The house was filled with the aroma of the perfume. 4 Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), complained, 5 “This perfume was worth a year’s wages! Why wasn’t it sold and the money given to the poor?” (6 He said this not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief. He carried the money bag and would take what was in it.) 7 Then Jesus said, “Leave her alone. This perfume was to be used in preparation for my burial, and this is how she has used it. 8 You will always have the poor among you, but you won’t always have me.” 9 Many Jews learned that he was there. They came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10 The chief priests decided that they would kill Lazarus too. 11 It was because of Lazarus that many of the Jews had deserted them and come to believe in Jesus. (Common English Bible)



“Contextual Chaos: How to Stop Taking the Bible Out of Context,” Week Two

How much money would you be willing to give back to the police to find its rightful owner if you found it just sitting on the street, waiting for you? Would you give back all of it, or help yourself to some of it (whilst calling it a "finders fee" to help you sleep at night), or just not bother turning it in at all?

I’m asking you these questions as you sit here, in decent clothes and under a sturdy roof, worshiping God at a million-dollar church campus. I realize many of us are poor, but none of us are as poor as a homeless man in Canada who was faced with that very question when he happenedupon $2,000 (I mean, it’s in Canadian currency, so it’s basically monopoly money, but it is legal tender) in the street.

So now, ask yourself that question again, but this time, imagine that you are homeless. Do you still keep all the money? Do you keep some for yourself? Do you keep all of it for yourself?

The homeless man—who is, to my knowledge, anonymous—returned it all. In gratitude, the community in turn raised $5,000 for him to give him a real home to live in. Families donated together, kids put on lemonade stands, dozens of different households pitched in to raise the cash.

He turned that money down too, asking for it to instead be donated to a local charity that provides food.

That’s $7,000 in total—the equivalent of four months’ wages at the American federal minimum wage of $7.25/hour. So, not quite as much as the three hundred denarii that Mary sacrifices to honor Jesus. But it is in that exact same spirit of utter selflessness from the least of those among us.

This is a new sermon series for a new season—summer is at long last giving way to autumn, and after an entire summer devoted to a verse-by-verse series (our exploration of the life and reign of Solomon), we will be returning to three thematic sermon series, one after the other, to get us from here to—believe it or not—Christmas! And the first of these thematic sermon series concerns a habit that I often see, whether in everyday conversation, or on social media, or even by other pastors that I see in the papers or on the telly: taking verses of Scripture out of context.

(The best—and funniest instance—of this I’ve seen is a cartoon of a fellow trying to remove the lid of a pickle jar and in between grunts of effort, recites Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” to which his wife says, “Twist the lid, Tom, not Scripture.”)

It is a mightily tempting vice to engage in—after all, you’re citing Scripture, what could be wrong about that? Well, first of all, Satan cited Scripture to Jesus in the wilderness, so it is possible to use Scripture for ill just as surely as we use it for good. But by taking chapter and verse out of the remaining chapter—or chapters—that surround it, we treat the Bible less like a book (or a collection of books, really) and more like a collection of fortune cookie wisdom: eat a cookie, or a communion wafer for that matter, get a verse.

And that is simply never how Scripture was intended to be used. The original manuscripts of the New Testament do not come with chapter and verse annotated into them—all of that came from later compilers. So let us, if we are to remain true to the original spirit of the authors of our sacred texts, try so far as we are able to set aside the taking of a single verse and instead look at some of the most famous verses from Scripture and (a) actually see from whence they came, and (b) understand how we can move away from taking such verses out of context and start taking such verses to heart!

We began this series last week with one of the most famous pronouncements of the prophet Jeremiah: that God knows the plans that God has for you, and they are plans for peace, not disaster, and of a future filled with hope. This week, we move onto an equally famous pronouncement of Jesus found in John 12: the poor you will always have with you.

It is a rebuke that Jesus makes to Judas Iscariot, and that is the very first salient detail of this particular teaching. Judas ostensibly object to the spikenard ointment that Mary used to anoint Jesus because of its expense—it cost three hundred denarii, and a denarius was a coin worth one day’s pay for an unskilled manual laborer. In modern terms, it would be worth the equivalent of 8 hours pay at the federal minimum wage.

Mary uses three-quarters of a pound of the nard—if you can imagine being anointed with twelve ounces of perfume, it’s an obscenely lavish amount, but it is meant to be lavish. Not only is it, as Jesus said, an honor done to Him in anticipation of His upcoming crucifixion, death, and burial (and John reports that at that burial, Jesus will be covered in *one hundred* pounds of aloes and spices), it is, I have to imagine, an act of sincere and profound gratitude as well.

Why? Because Mary is not just the sister of Martha, she is also the sister of Lazarus, the man whom Jesus has just raised from the dead one chapter prior. So this monetarily expensive act of devotion by Mary is also likely an act of gratitude as well. So Judas is not just sneering at Mary’s way of expressing her devotion to Jesus, but at her way of expressing her deep thanksgiving that her brother is once more among the living. That is the first crucial part of context that we forget here.

But let’s circle back to Judas. John tells us that Judas’s real motive wasn’t about a concern for the poor, but because those three hundred denarii—or at least some of that sum—might have seen their way into the disciples’ common purse, which Judas both kept and embezzled from. And Jesus says to him, “The poor you will always have with you.”

Well, obviously. If you steal from the poor—and make no mistake, the Twelve, aside from probably Matthew, who, as a tax collector, was likely rather well-off, were all dirt poor—to enrich yourself, then the poor you will indeed always have with you because they are going to remain poor. This statement is not a reflection of Jesus’s obliviousness to the plight of the poor (a cursory reading of Matthew, Mark, or Luke would tell you quite the opposite: Jesus uplifted the poor and the outcast at every turn, sometimes at the direct expense of the wealthy).

Rather, this statement from Jesus is a reflection on how Judas is treating the poor among him—his fellow apostles. Judas will always have the poor, because Judas’s thievery keeps them poor.

There is a dimension of spiritual poverty to this as well—for as long as we sneer at the sacrificial acts of devotion by our fellow believers, we will have the spiritual poor with us because we will have become that spiritual poor. Mary’s anointing of Jesus cost the equivalent of ten months’ wages—this isn’t her posting one of those inane “Click and Share if You Love Jesus” images on Facebook (because everyone knows that memes are what our faith is measured by), this is her making a tremendous sacrifice to show her love for, and gratitude to, her Messiah.

Quite simply, as New Testament scholar Gail R. O’Day puts it, “Mary acts extravagantly towards Jesus in love and devotion, while Judas acts out of greed.” They are total counterexamples of each other. And Judas, in turn, is a counterexample to our anonymous homeless man who turned down first the two thousand dollars he found lying in the street, and then the five thousand dollars that his community raised for him out of gratitude.

You do not need to have the means and wealth of Mary, who can afford a jar of spikenard that costs three hundred days’ wages, to show that extravagant love, devotion, and selfless sacrifice to the other. This anonymous man teaches us that quite plainly.

But before he ever came along, before we ever came along, before Christianity ever came along, we would do quite well to remember not only the devotion of a woman in Bethany named Mary, but that her devotion provoked a teaching from that object of her devotion that is not even remotely an excuse for us to remain complacent in the face of poverty.

The poor that you have, and I have, with us is, like with Judas the poor of our own making. Jesus’s teaching is indeed not an excuse.

It is a condemnation.

Let us treat it, then, with the gravity and seriousness that it, like all His teachings, deserves, rather than dismissing it as a trite commentary on the sad state of the world in which He, and we, live. Let us not allow ourselves to be beaten into submission by a world that, like Judas, will always have the poor because of how it treats the poor. We as Christians do not get to submit to such greed and such sin.

Let us live out of the richness of devotion, rather than the bankruptcy of our own selfishness.

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
September 18, 2016

Sunday, September 11, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "Zone Rouge"

Jeremiah 29:4-14

The Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims to all the exiles I have carried off from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and settle down; cultivate gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Get married and have children; then help your sons find wives and your daughters find husbands in order that they too may have children. Increase in number there so that you don’t dwindle away. 7 Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because your future depends on its welfare. 


8 The Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims: Don’t let the prophets and diviners in your midst mislead you. Don’t pay attention to your dreams. 9 They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I didn’t send them, declares the Lord.

10 The Lord proclaims: When Babylon’s seventy years are up, I will come and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place. 11 I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the Lord; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope. 12 When you call me and come and pray to me, I will listen to you. 13 When you search for me, yes, search for me with all your heart, you will find me. 14 I will be present for you, declares the Lord, and I will end your captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have scattered you, and I will bring you home after your long exile, declares the Lord. (Common English Bible)

“Contextual Chaos: How to Stop Taking the Bible Out of Context,” Week One

In most every church I visited in Scotland, there was a monument or memorial of some kind to the Scots from that area who were killed in “the Great War,” or World War I. The big grandpappy of these memorials is the shrine in Edinburgh castle, with the names of all the dead, all the tens of thousands of them, inscribed for eternity in massive tomes along a solemn stone hallway. And cast throughout Scotland, there are memorials in its image, giving honor and dignity to those who died in both world wars in the fights against reactionary ideology and fascism.

But perhaps the most profound, most moving, and, really, most disturbing memorial—of a sort—to the First World War’s western front that I have ever heard of is the front itself, the Zone Rouge, or Red Zone, in France that covers some 460 square miles of battlefield. Those 460 miles got their Red Zone label by having been rendered completely unfit for human habitation as a direct result of the war’s privations and consequences. As the French government documented, verbatim, in its assessment of the Zone Rouge after the war, “Completely devastated. Damage to properties: 100%. Damage to Agriculture: 100%. Impossible to clean. Human life impossible.”

Tens of thousands of pounds of unexploded shells, grenades, and ammunition are recovered from the Zone Rouge annually, but even at that rate, it is estimated that it will be another 700 years before the Zone Rouge is returned to its pre-1914 state.

In four years of war, humanity turned a swath of land larger than from here to Portland and out to Clatskanie and back uninhabitable for a length of time so great that if the war had taken place when Robert the Bruce won Scotland’s independence against Edward II of England at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, the land would only just now be habitable again.

That is the sort of dimensions we are forced to talk about, required to talk about, and need to talk about when we discuss the overcoming of strife on a truly grand scale. It is a dimension that we fail to take into account, I think, when we approach the prophet Jeremiah in the Hebrew Bible, and especially with his famous pronouncement in 29:11 that God has a plan to prosper us, a verse that we take out of its context and, in so doing, completely ignore the dimensions of strife that Jeremiah is prophesying all around that singular verse that we so frequently cite and cherish.

This is a new sermon series for a new season—summer is at long last giving way to autumn, and after an entire summer devoted to a verse-by-verse series (our exploration of the life and reign of Solomon), we will be returning to three thematic sermon series, one after the other, to get us from here to—believe it or not—Christmas! And the first of these thematic sermon series concerns a habit that I often see, whether in everyday conversation, or on social media, or even by other pastors that I see in the papers or on the telly: taking verses of Scripture out of context.

(The best—and funniest instance—of this I’ve seen is a cartoon of a fellow trying to remove the lid of a pickle jar and in between grunts of effort, recites Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” to which his wife says, “Twist the lid, Tom, not Scripture.”)

It is a mightily tempting vice to engage in—after all, you’re citing Scripture, what could be wrong about that? Well, first of all, Satan cited Scripture to Jesus in the wilderness, so it is possible to use Scripture for ill just as surely as we use it for good. But by taking chapter and verse out of the remaining chapter—or chapters—that surround it, we treat the Bible less like a book (or a collection of books, really) and more like a collection of fortune cookie wisdom: eat a cookie, or a communion wafer for that matter, get a verse.

And that is simply never how Scripture was intended to be used. The original manuscripts of the New Testament do not come with chapter and verse annotated into them—all of that came from later compilers. So let us, if we are to remain true to the original spirit of the authors of our sacred texts, try so far as we are able to set aside the taking of a single verse and instead look at some of the most famous verses from Scripture and (a) actually see from whence they came, and (b) understand how we can move away from taking such verses out of context and start taking such verses to heart!

We begin this series, then, as I said, with one of the most famous pronouncements of the prophet Jeremiah: that God knows the plans that God has for you, and they are plans for peace, not disaster, and of a future filled with hope. So of course we’re apt to take something like that out of context for the sole reason that it reassures us, it makes us feel good. And that was surely part of the prophet’s original intent as well when he preached those words on behalf of God.

But we are not Jeremiah’s original, or even likely intended, audience. Jeremiah is what we call an “exilic” prophet, meaning that his career coincided at least in part with the exile into Babylon of the Israelites after Nebuchadnezzar II sacks Jerusalem in 586 BCE and, per Babylonian wartime policy, takes Jerusalem’s religious and political leaders into exile in Babylon, and it is to those leaders that Jeremiah writes this passage from chapter 29—it’s a letter to them, written from Jeremiah. Babylon’s exilic policy had the twofold effect of both decapitating a conquered peoples of its leadership while also centralizing the best and brightest of Babylon’s conquered subjects all in one capital city.

And that circumstance is simply not our own. How could it be? This church and this town are our home, we are as far from being exile as we possibly can be. So we have no way of knowing from our experience what Jeremiah is really talking about, instead we have to learn it for ourselves.

This verse and passage from Jeremiah 29 really begins two chapters earlier, in chapter 27, as the themes of a God who is in ultimate control of the peoples’ destiny in spite of the terrible lot they find themselves in really begins to take shape as a driving force of Jeremiah’s theology. For Jeremiah, God is still in charge, even as God’s people face defeat, humiliation, and ruin. His bottom line is that God is still active, still reigning, and still seeks real change from Israel—and from us—towards good.

In chapter 28, this message comes to a head in a back-and-forth with a priestly opponent of Jeremiah, a man named Hananiah. As for the contrast between the two, I’ll borrow here from the Hebrew Bible scholar Louis Stulman, in his Order Amid Chaos commentary on Jeremiah:

Hananiah represents a belief system of a hopeful future without the dissolution of the old world order…His “ideology of continuity” accepts the old ways…(For) Jeremiah, such a view is misinformed and in stark opposition to long-standing prophetic tradition. Hananiah is out of touch with the historical moment and with the sovereign claims of YHWH which demands definitional transformation as prerequisite to new world constructions. Jeremiah sees “transformative discontinuity” as a necessary component for fresh networks of hope.

What does all that mean? It means that a person like Hananiah, who is trying to shut Jeremiah up for a fool, represents the mode of thought in a crisis that if only we could get back to the old way of doing things, everything would be okay. Except, well, a saying about the definition of insanity comes to mind. You don’t do something over and over and rationally expect a different result. But that is precisely what Hananiah does, which is what spurs Jeremiah’s rejoinder, which at least thematically, does carry over from chapter 28 into 29.

And that rejoinder boils down to one simple truth, one immutable reality in which we must live our lives: hope must arise out of an encounter with suffering.

Hope cannot arise out of a vacuum, otherwise, what would you know what to have hope in, or to hope for? No, hope, true hope, can only come once we realize and understand the full scope and scale of just how deep the strife in this world really is. Only until we can grasp the true depth and profundity of the existence of something like the Zone Rouge, a wasteland so deep and so barren that for hundreds of years it can only ever be a wasteland, only when we arrive at that level of knowing, can we even begin to reach for hope.

Because yes, the Zone Rouge is still a wasteland now. But hundreds and hundreds of years from now, the hope is, it may not be.

Yes, Israel is in exile now. But the hope is that decades and decades from this prophecy from Jeremiah, they will no longer be. And that hope is borne out. Only about fifty years after Nebuchadnezzar II sacks Jerusalem, the Persian monarch Cyrus the Great in turn sacks Babylon, liberates the Hebrews, and allows them to return to their homeland to worship God as God has called them to do.

And until we can empathize with the sheer depth of Israel’s desire, of Jeremiah’s desire, to be loosed of the shackles of imprisonment and exile, only then can Jeremiah’s words of God having plans to prosper us, to give us peace and a future filled with hope, only then can those words really mean to us what they were meant to mean when Jeremiah spoke them, and not a microsecond before.

Put a different way: Jeremiah 28 and 29 are written for and to the people who lost a loved one on September 11, 2001. It is written to those experiencing that magnitude of suffering, and are in need of hope equal to their suffering.

We do not get to claim a stricken peoples’ need for hope as our own. We have not earned that right and that privilege. We do not get to push the fast-forward button towards hope when we have not immersed ourselves in the pain and hurt of the people who gave us this verse-long expression of hope that we have co-opted and claimed as our own.

We do not get to treat Scripture, or our own theology, so haphazardly and recklessly.

So rather, let us be patient with ourselves, and with God, that what we need to know, in this life at least, will indeed be revealed to us, whether today, or tomorrow, or years later…in God’s good time.

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
September 11, 2016

Saturday, September 10, 2016

When In Rome: Or, How I Broke Taking Communion With Than 100 Other Scottish Churchgoers

One of the oddities of the sacrament of holy communion (or the Lord's Supper or Eucharist, if you prefer) is that even though it is a near-universal ritual in Christianity, it is done just a tad bit differently from congregation to congregation. Some churches, like mine, celebrate holy communion every single Sunday without fail. Others will only celebrate it monthly or quarterly. At some churches, you come forward to receive communion. In others, it is brought to you at your seat.

And in some congregations, you have the little individual thimble-like cups of wine or juice, and in others there is one common cup from which everybody shares. And then, you either dip your bread (or wafer--another difference!) into the cup, or you eat the bread and then drink directly from the cup.

I have always been a bit of a germophobe, so that last method of taking communion has never appealed to me, not even a little. I would almost rather forego taking communion altogether than have to slurp from the same small bit of rim that dozens of other mouths have drank from. We're trying to share faith together, not the flu, you know?

While in Scotland, C and I went to Sunday worship at St. Giles Cathedral in the heart of Edinburgh (that's one of the pictures I took of it on the left), the veritable birthplace of Scottish Presbyterianism (and, since my denomination, the Disciples of Christ, were founded by Scottish Presbyterians, it is my spiritual grandparent of a sort). There was a choir, a sermon, an offering, and then it came time for communion. Row by row, the entire congregation arose to make a circle around the central table. Bread was passed. We were to tear off a piece and eat it.

But then I saw how the wine was being passed. Everyone drank from it without even a token wipe of the rim with a cloth. Mononucleosis ahoy!

So rather than eating the bread, I slid it into my other hand and waited for the cup to eventually arrive to me, where, in full view of God, the pastor, and a particularly dour-looking deacon (whose first name C and I think may be, in fact, "Deacon") scowling, I dipped my piece of Wonderbread into the cup and chomped away.

As a general rule, far be it for me to want to change something about how a sacrament is partaken of. There is something holy and sacred not only in the sacrament itself but in upholding the "When in Rome" ethos of demonstrating humbleness for another congregation's own tradition--especially a tradition as rich as that of St. Giles.

But the other side of that avenue is explaining to visitors what your traditions are--how and why they are done. St. Giles does that in part with their bulletin--explaining in a line on the back that their communion table is open to all. An explanation of how communion is taken, though, is likewise appreciated by a first-time visitor.

That perspective of a first-time visitor, though, is one that is quickly lost within the church. We get so used to how everything is done at our home congregation that we take for granted how someone comes to us on a Sunday morning as a complete blank slate and needs to be told everything as basic as where the bathrooms are to whether you say "debts," "trespasses" or "sins" in the Lord's Prayer.

When in Rome, it's not enough to simply do what the Romans do. You need to know what the Romans do, and, more importantly, *why* they do it the way they do.

Don't take for granted that everyone will pick up exactly on the unwritten rules, expectations, and mores of your congregation--and don't think that your congregation doesn't have any. I'm using a relatively trivial story (C and I otherwise had a perfectly lovely time at St. Giles and felt utterly welcome there) to make a serious point--sometimes, these instances are not so trivial. Someone feels so confused or unwelcome that they fear they could not possibly fit into your church when, in fact, it would be a great spiritual home for them.

So they decide not to come back. And because first-time visitors are rarely the ones to give feedback from their perspective on why they didn't come back. So the regular churchgoers, the members and especially the people with decision-making power in the church, never hear what their visitors have to say.

But they need to. They absolutely need to.

Hopefully, our ability and our willingness to not only listen to, but value, those voices in our midst can grow in time, and bear fruit for the kingdom builders among us.

Vancouver, Washington
September 10, 2016

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Came for the Scotch, Stayed for the Socialized Healthcare

Several months ago, I developed my first inner ear infection as an adult--no idea how, no idea why, except maybe as a demented birthday present from the world for turning thirty. I went to my primary care provider in Longview, got prescribed a course of antibiotic drops, and headed off to Walgreen's to pick them up. I was stunned to find out that a week's worth of ear drops would set me back close to $90--about $12 per dose.

Fast forward to the past week in which C and I were on vacation in Scotland. I somehow managed to develop another ear infection--albeit an outer one this time, but still (are my ears simply allergic to all the Trumpian bigotry of 2016? Before this year, they were happy as clams). And aside from the doctor I was married to--who cannot prescribe me medication, since that's a pretty big ethical no-no in the American Medical Association's book--I had no doctor in Scotland whom I knew I could turn to for help.

As it turns out, I didn't need one. The United Kingdom, sometime closely before their Brexit-induced spiral from sanity, passed a law that allows licensed pharmacists to prescribe certain--not all, but certain--medications if they complete a required course of training, much in the way that nurse practitioners can here in the States. And when you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. The pharmacists know the medications as well as the doctors themselves do, and for basic ailments that don't require an advanced or complicated exam to diagnose--like, say, an outer ear infection--a pharmacist should know exactly what to prescribe as confidently as an M.D. ought to.

This sort of law can make a big difference in a small town where a doctor might not be immediately present or available--a town like, say, Aberlour, where C and I were staying during our sojourn in the Scottish countryside, population 972 (at least, as of the 2011 census). This beautiful small town was just big enough to have a pharmacy, which we stopped at to see if we could at least get something over the counter to help treat my ears. And the pharmacist there was able to do us one better--after a short look at my ears, and a quick discussion of my medical history to avoid any allergic reactions to the medication, was able to prescribe me a course of neomycin and dexamethasone in a small spray that worked perfectly within just a couple of days.

Total out-of-pocket cost to us for this medication? Six pounds and change--the equivalent of a little over eight bucks, or one Good Burger. Less than one-tenth of what I paid for a similar course of antibiotics for a similar malady at the start of this year back here in the States.

Say what you will about the mean-spirited short-sightedness of the Brexit vote, but (a) Scotland voted to remain anyways, and by quite a large margin, and (b) we Yanks don't have much of a pedestal from which to criticize the Brits over the Brexit vote, considering we're just several polling points away from electing a vulgar, loudmouthed, womanizing, race-baiting, wealth-glorifying bigot to be the leader of the free world.

Which is indicative of the problem we find ourselves in to begin with: much more so than in Scotland, we Yanks live in a system that elevates money over people, and perhaps nowhere is that phenomenon more blatantly on display than the differences in our respective nations' healthcare. Brits can complain all they want about their NHS (and some of those complaints are justified), but here in America, I'm stuck paying ten times as much for ear drops. Ear drops.

And that's only the trivial tip of a far less trivial iceberg. The EpiPen, which is now costing some $600 per two-pack, probably only costs a tenth of that to make--about $30 each, or $60 per pair. There's that ugly 10x markup again. Whether it's ear drops or life-saving epinephrine, profit comes first in American medicine. And it's not just limited to relatively routine, everyday medications like those.

I have colleagues who have lost congregants to strokes and heart attacks that could have potentially been prevented but for insurance companies declining to pay for expensive, but life-saving, medications prescribed by doctors. Procedures that cost tens of thousands of dollars here may cost a fraction of that in other industrialized countries. And medical expenses continue to be leading cause of Chapter Seven personal bankruptcies in the United States.

According to the WHO, we spend more per capita on healthcare than any other country except Norway and Switzerland, both of whom beat us badly in life expectancy and other quality of life metrics, to the point that it isn't even close.

Believe me--that difference in cost isn't simply going to the doctors. I'm married to one, and this trip to Scotland aside, we live modestly out of necessity because becoming a doctor in the US--compared to in Europe, where university education costs a fraction of what it does here--is obscenely expensive.

This is why I'm not really convinced of a Medicare-for-all model here in the States--Medicare pays such a pittance that some doctors have simply given up and refused Medicare patients altogether, because the costs associated with becoming (and remaining) a doctor who relies on Medicare for revenue here in America simply make a Medicare-for-all scheme a losing proposition for attracting and keeping doctors.

(One poignant excerpt from the conclusion of the letter in that link:

I wonder if I will be able to afford to care for Medicare patients as a solo physician, not knowing if or when I will be paid, while my expenses remain fixed or increase with inflation. On the other hand, I do not want to return to a large group, losing the freedom to run my own practice in the way that I feel is best for me, my patients, and my staff.

I understand that whoever pays the bills makes the rules. The only recourse a player has is to choose whether or not to play the game, especially when the deck is stacked against them.)

But I am absolutely convinced of the need to see a change in healthcare. My experience in Scotland reinforced it for me. The work stories of both my colleagues and my wife's colleagues reinforces it for me. And the fact that I follow and worship a Messiah who healed a multitude of people, free of charge, no questions asked, reinforces it for me.

Which means that the cost of healthcare absolutely is a Christian issue. It has to be. The provision of miraculous healthcare is how our namesake made His divinity known the world. But the provision of healthcare now is how we have come to make our greed and love of profit known to the world.

How far we have fallen, and how far we have yet to come, in our pursuit not of profit, not of money, not of wealth, but of the Christ who healed those who asked it of Him, and gave new life to those long since written off as dead.

Longview, Washington
September 7, 2016

Friday, August 26, 2016

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

September 2016: "When There's a Will"

Dear Church,

When my first childhood pet, a little danio fish named Junior, died, I wrote a will for him, entitling me to some obscenely large amount of money (I think I just wrote a one and a bunch of zeros after it...I was just a kid!), and presented the will to my parents, expecting to get paid off.

My parents, as many of you know, are attorneys by trade. They were touched, but knew much more than I did about how wills worked. I got a hug, but no cash.

And I know now that the hug was far more important in the end. Because I must confess to you--this has been a tough year for me, emotionally and spiritually, as your pastor. Having Agnes Staggs and Doc Davenport pass away on the same week earlier this year, followed by Rosier Keller over the summer, has left me at times in an ongoing process of grieving for whom we as a church community have lost, and whom I personally have lost in the people whom I counted as friends and congregants. 

This is on top of the other people whom we have lost over my five years here as your pastor--I have mourned each and every one of them, as I know you have as well. We have lost some truly kindred souls, and while we take reassurance in the knowledge that they are all now with the Lord, it still falls to us to remember them with great fondness and affection here in their stead.

Many of them in fact took it upon themselves to make sure that their memory and legacy would speak volumes as to their priorities and values as Christians by crafting a last will and testament to ensure that the people and organizations that they valued most would continue to be valued by them even after they were gone. Several who chose to do so in this way elected to specifically remember First Christian Church in their wills, and the gifts that they left to our faith family have gone so very far indeed in helping to sustain the important, life-giving presence that we provide to one another and, even more importantly, to the wider community in the form of our mission work with organizations like Kessler Elementary School and the Emergency Support Shelter.

There is a way for you too to remember First Christian Church--and/or our denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)--in your own will. If you do not have a will, you can speak to a legal expert (not me--the laws I interpret only come from the Bible!) about crafting one. If you already have a will, you can speak to a lawyer about adding a codicil to your existing will in order to remember either FCC or the CC (DOC), in addition to any other number of charities or organizations you wish to make an estate gift to!

Our denomination is able to help as well--the Christian Church Foundation, which for many years very ably oversaw our church's humble investment fund, has experts on staff who can point you in the right direction to make sure your estate gift is properly documented and executed. You can call them toll-free at 1-800-668-8016, or you can find them online at christianchurchfoundation.org. 

Estate planning is something that is prudent to do in general in order to ensure that any provisions for your children and/or family are protected, but it can also be something to reflect your values and priorities even after you are gone. I would humbly ask you to consider it as a means for ensuring that your voice continues to express your esteem, whether it is for FCC, or the Disciples of Christ denomination, or the Emergency Support Shelter, or anyone and anything else that is near and dear to your heart.

 I have been in a position now for several years to see just how big a difference such gifts can make. And that difference can truly be life-changing.

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Eric

Wow, it's almost autumn already! After a full summer of going verse-by-verse through the life and reign of King Solomon in 1 Kings, we'll be returning to some more thematic preaching in the fall with two sermon series, the first of which is centered around famous verses from Scripture that we have a tendency to take out of context--verses like John 3:16 ("For God so loved the world...") or Philippians 4:13 ("I can do all things..."). We'll begin that sermon series with one passage from the Hebrew Bible--Jeremiah 29 specifically--before moving into several weeks of New Testament lessons and Scriptures. If ever you wondered how it has gotten to be so tempted to taking Bible verses out of context, or how you can try to break yourself of that habit (or to prevent yourself from picking up that habit!), this is a sermon series you won't want to miss! Once I'm back in the saddle though, I'll be running into this new sermon series full-speed, and I hope you'll share in my enthusiasm for unpacking these Scriptures together!

New sermon series: “Contextual Chaos: How to Stop Taking the Bible Out of Context”

September 11: “Zone Rouge,” Jeremiah 29:4-15
September 18: “Three Hundred Denarii,” John 12:1-11
September 25: “The Immovable Ladder,” 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
October 2: “The Croix de Guerre,” Philippians 4:10-20
October 9: “Earthly and Heavenly Things,” John 3:10-21

Thursday, August 25, 2016

My Dogs Write Again

Every once in a while, I awaken to find a newly-penned missive from the two four-legged furchildren C and I share our humble apartment with. Here is their latest letter, which they have asked me to share in its entirety...misconceptions about my role in their lives included.

Dear Apelike Manservant Who Lives to Spoil Us,

It's us again. Even though we lack the opposable thumbs with which to actually, you know, write, we have things on our minds that we want to say, and you humans have a saying about when there's a will, there's a way.

We have some questions for you.

Why do you insist on feeding us this gruel you put in our bowls when we *know* you feast on morsels of delicious goodness everyday at a table that for some inexplicable reason we are not allowed on?

Why do you keep trying to get us to "share" bones and toys with each other? This is clearly not an optimal system, and we each demand to have all the bones. Make of that ultimatum what you will.

And why do you humans so extensively justify every single thing that you do? Like, we don't need more than one reason: our ears are itchy, so we scratch them. Some other dog's butt smells enticing, so we sniff it. That's it. That's all the justification we need.

Why do you lot turn somersaults over trying to justify how mean and cruel you are to your fellow servants-who-should-live-to-spoil-us? Why do you keep telling yourselves "Well, all they'll learn is dependency?" Hello...y'all came into this world the same way we perpetually exist in it: needing attention, food, and potty breaks pretty much around the clock.

Dependence--at least some of it--is in your blood. Just like it's in ours. But we're okay being dependent on you and Carrie, because you're nice to us and let us sunbathe on the couch.

Is it really so hard that everyone be as nice to each other as they are to their own pets? I know we're terrible to each other--hold on, one of us has to lick the other's eyeball in order to steal a bone--but you're supposed to be smarter at living us. That's why we wear the leashes instead of you.

You use those smarts, though, to not always make peoples' lives better, or more loving, but to justify *you* making *your* life better at the expense of someone else.

What, you're asking if *we* do that? Of course we do. But we're dogs. We don't know any better.

You do. You all do.

So why not, you know, try doing better, and being better, to each other? Don't just turn the other way when you see suffering, don't just excuse your inaction away, but actually do something, even if it's just sitting up and barking at a fly?

Far be it for us to question you, our butlers. But this is our world, and you just live here (to serve us). So, we're laying down the law: embrace your dependence on each other. Stop acting like you're on a freaking island. And if you are on an island, take us with you. It's probably sunny there, and did we mention that we love the sun?

With love, face licks, and utterly noxious gas,
Dame Frida Koala and Sir Henry Wiggly

Dame Frida Koala (the fluffy white one) and Sir Henry Wiggly (the perked-up cinnamon-and-white one) are the bestest dogs in the whole wide world except for Rowlf from the Muppets. C and I love them very, very much.