Monday, April 27, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "To Forgive the Thirst"

John 8:1-11

And Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 Early in the morning he returned to the temple. All the people gathered around him, and he sat down and taught them. 3 The legal experts and Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery. Placing her in the center of the group, 4 they said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of committing adultery. 5 In the Law, Moses commanded us to stone women like this. What do you say?” 6 They said this to test him, because they wanted a reason to bring an accusation against him. Jesus bent down and wrote on the ground with his finger. 7 They continued to question him, so he stood up and replied, “Whoever hasn’t sinned should throw the first stone.” 8 Bending down again, he wrote on the ground. 9 Those who heard him went away, one by one, beginning with the elders. Finally, only Jesus and the woman were left in the middle of the crowd. 10 Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Is there no one to condemn you?” 11 She said, “No one, sir.” Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on, don’t sin anymore.” (Common English Bible)


“The Son of Man: When Poetry Testifies to Christ,” Week Two

In her right hand is the power and accuracy to hurl a baseball faster than I could as a grown man, and with much more precision to boot.  In her voice is a story that captured the hearts and attention of an entire nation.  And in her heart is, well, an awful, awful lot of forgiveness.

Back during the Little League World Series, Mo’ne Davis became a household name for her heroic pitching performances in a mostly male-dominated sport.  But she also seriously bucked the meathead-jock stereotype in interviews with her incisive and insightful quotes—to the point that she already has a memoir out.  By contrast, at her age, I was content with beating Ganondorf over and over again in the final level of The Legend of Zelda.

Sadly and perhaps inevitably, Mo’ne Davis also attracted trolls and jerks who wanted nothing more than to make themselves feel taller than by putting this adolescent girl of color back down, calling her “trash” and saying things like, “the real question is, can she cook?”  The worst, though, came from a college baseball player, Joey Casselberry, who, incredulous at the attention Mo’ne was attracting, tweeted, “Disney is making a movie about Mo’ne Davis?  WHAT A JOKE.  That slut got rocked by Nevada.”

This wasn’t a peer of Mo’ne calling her a slut—this was a college man, quite a few years older than her and legally an adult.  The reaction from Casselberry’s college was simple and swift: they kicked him off their baseball team.  But Mo’ne, once again taking the media pedestal with both hands and standing upon it aloft, said this:

Everyone makes mistakes.  Everyone deserves a second chance.  I know he didn’t mean it in that type of way.  I know a lot of people get tired of seeing me on TV, but sometimes you’ve got to think about what you’re doing before you actually do it.  I know right now he’s really hurt, and I know how hard he worked just to get ot hwere he is right now.  I was pretty hurt on my part, but I know he’s hurt.  He’s hurt even more.

Holy fastballs.  Somebody, nominate this kid for a Nobel in something, anything.

And I tell this story not because it is merely one about forgiveness, or advocating for second chances.  I tell it because it is a story of someone who, when publicly shamed with the label “slut,” recognized that it was in fact her harasser who was far more wounded and broken than she would ever be.  As is the case here, in John 8, with the woman caught in adultery and her fervent accusers.

This is a new sermon series for us, to begin a not too terribly new season...it is a few weeks old, at least: Easter.  Just like Christmas and its 12 days, Easter is much more than Easter Sunday itself, and it lasts for much longer: fifty days, in fact.  That’s fifty days of hearing, bearing, and proclaiming the good news of the resurrection, long after the Easter Bunny has come and gone and the egg dye has been put back into the pantry for another year.

As a part of my own work and ministry in proclaiming to the world a risen Savior, this sermon series will take a new tack for me: talking with all of you about Jesus as He is revealed in poetry, of all things.  If you’ll recall my sermon series from a couple of years ago that I centered around several of the writings of C.S. Lewis, well, this series will be structured fairly similarly, except instead of C.S. Lewis’s books, it will be around Khalil Gibran’s poetry about Jesus Christ, of which there is a great amount, in the volume Jesus: Son of Man, from which this series derives its name.  Gibran was a Lebanese poet during the early 20th century who was raised Christian but was also influenced by Sufi mysticism, and that mysticism, much like that of many Christian mystics throughout history, comes through in his poetry about Jesus.  Jesus: Son of Man tells the stories of the gospels, but in Gibran’s often soaring word choice, through the eyes of various supporting characters: the individual disciples, the female followers of Jesus, even some of Jesus’s opponents (although Gibran reserves his best poetry entirely for Jesus’s adherents).

We begin this series, then, two weeks ago with Gibran’s retelling of the Sermon on the Mount made famous in Matthew’s Gospel, and of how Gibran tells the story of Jesus teaching His disciples how to pray.  After skipping a week, we’re back on course, this time with Gibran’s version of the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8, which Gibran assigns to the voice of the apostle Andrew:

And again (Jesus) looked into her eyes, and He said, “You have loved overmuch.  They who brought you here loved but little.  But they brought you here as a snare for my ensnaring.  Now go in peace.  None of them is here to judge you.  And if it is in your desire to be wise even as you are loving, then seek me; for the Son of Man will not judge you.”

And I wondered then whether He said this to her because He Himself was not without sin.

Imagine that thought crossing through your mind…you believe in Jesus, you have even felt called to follow Him, but you’re still trying to figure out exactly who He really is.  And honestly, you can’t blame Andrew if he did in fact wonder that.  None of the other eleven apostles had quite figured out who Jesus was and what He really meant, never mind that the crowds that followed Jesus got it just as wrong as well, trying to carry Him off to crown Him as their conquering king to violently overthrow the Romans.

And really, this situation would have been so beyond the norm for anyone who witnessed it, they all would probably be left wondering, “Who the heck is this guy who stands in the way of executions and forgives the condemned of their sins?”  Honestly, it was kind of what I asked myself about Mo’ne Davis…who is this girl stands in front of the people who slut-shame her and forgives them for doing so?

We ask that about people who so greatly challenge our assumptions of what we believe to be true that we often cannot help but do a double-take.  And the assumption in New Testament Israel, ever since the Torah was handed down to Moses up atop Sinai some 1,400 years ago, was that adultery was a capital crime, punishable by death by stoning.

Except that it wasn’t really punishable by death, at least, not for both culprits.  You’ll notice that this anonymous woman’s dance partner, whoever he is, is conspicuously absent.  You’ll also notice that she is treated as a means to an end, and that end is to entrap Jesus, not to actually strive for justice.

Now, let’s be honest with ourselves here: how often have we used a woman as a means to an end?

How many of us have used a woman for our own selfishness or gain, to make ourselves feel better by comparing ourselves to her, or to make ourselves look better by going out with her, or to make ourselves act bigger by talking down to her?

Because that is what is happening here.  The woman isn’t being asked what happened, or what should happen to her.  Jesus is.  The woman isn’t just talked down to or compared against, she is treated as a complete, utter non-entity, worthy only of the role of prop in this ongoing drama that John’s Gospel depicts of the Pharisees and Sadducees scheming against Jesus, a drama that, at least in John, stretches all the way back to the very beginning of Jesus's ministry, which is where, unlike Matthew, Mark, and Luke, John places the cleansing of the temple and its subsequent backlash.

This treatment of the anonymous, adulterous woman then gets played out, again and again, in our own lives, in our own media, and sometimes, by our own voices, simply because that is what we do when we are so thirsty for validation in our lives that the only way we think that we can obtain it is by treating someone else as so unworthy of us that we must cast them away like a used plaything.

But when someone treats you like that?  That’s the key thing—it’s directed at you.  It’s inherently personal.  Maybe we should all be able to be like Taylor Swift and shake it off (I also feel like I might be going to hell for making a Taylor Swift reference, especially if God is, say, a Katy Perry or Lady Gaga fan instead..."That pastor should have known what my musical tastes were, and he made a T-Swift reference!  Smite!"), but we—and I don’t really mean we here, I mean women—shouldn’t have to shake it off: such insulting names shouldn’t be used to begin with.

Yet Mo’ne Davis does, and she forgives Joey Casselberry to boot.  She gets called the slut, but still steps out in front of the stones being thrown at him.  She didn’t have to, and shouldn’t have to, but then again, Jesus didn’t have to stand in front of the woman caught in adultery and keep the temple authorities from stoning her—and He certainly shouldn’t have to, and I’ll let C.S. Lewis explain why:

Though I have had to speak at some length about sex, I want to make it as clear as I possibly can that the center of Christian morality is not here.  If anyone thinks that Christians regard unchastity as the supreme vice, he is quite wrong.  The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins.  All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronizing and spoiling sport, and backbiting; the pleasures of power and of hatred…That is why a cold, self-righteous prick who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than the prostitute.

Writ onto this story from John 8, the men who have brought this adulterous woman to Jesus may well be closer to hell than she is.  And Jesus knows it.  But now, so does the woman.  Her sins are forgiven, and she goes in peace to not sin more.  And here, once more, I pick up where I left off with Khalil Gibran’s words, as spoken by Andrew, about this amazing teacher who even forgives sin and who He might really, truly be:

But since that day I have pondered long, and I know now that only the pure of heart forgive the thirst that leads to dead waters. 

And only the sure of foot can give a hand to him who stumbles. 

And again and yet again I say, the bitterness of death is less bitter than life without Him.

May our own thirsts for sin be forgiven by He who has conquered sin.  And may we too come to embrace the reality that such forgiveness makes even death less bitter than life without Him.  

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
April 26, 2015

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

100


"Then you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free."  John 8:32

100 years ago

100

years

ago

My great grandfather and great grandmother

My great great grandfathers and great great grandmothers

Brothers and sisters

Aunts and uncles

Friends and beloveds

Reforged Dante's path

Reignited the flaming passions of evil

Recreated the harrowing of hell

Not by choice

Not out of necessity

Because of who they were

A people of a homeland

A tribe of believers

Thrown into violence

Thrown into madness

Thrown into death itself

When an archduke dies

And the world goes to war

Empires remember only how to kill

Kill the enemy

Kill the other

Kill the souls within yourself

Round them up like the Israelites of Jerusalem

When mighty Babylon rears its terrible head

Round them up like the Jews of Nazi Germany

When a fanatic calls himself the Fuhrer

Round them up, like the dissidents

Of Soviet Russia and Cambodia

Of Rwanda and Sudan

Of a world incapable of compassion

Unmoved by mercy and protection

Unable to see that within, without, in, out,

Around and over

Throughout and between

There will be only death

Only the wages of sin

Our great sin

That we dare not name for what it is

Genocide

One and a half million women, men, children

Mothers and fathers

Brothers and daughters

Sisters and sons

Doctors and teachers

Pastors and lawyers

Lovers and leaders

Wiped away, blotted out

Ground up and gone

Like the dusts of yesteryear

Like the rush of the wind

Like the wind we move on

Forget giving them honor

Forget giving them truth

Forget them all

Give us the military bases

Give us the airspace

Give us the strategic convenience

Of forgetting what we have done

And what we have left undone

We bring shame upon ourselves

We bring shame upon our world

We bring shame upon our state

But who cares?

It is only a memory

Of 100 years ago

And yet...

It is so much more

It will always be so much more

In memory of the one and a half million women, men, and children murdered in the Armenian Genocide that began one full century ago on April 24, 1915, with the pogrom against the leaders of the Armenian community in Istanbul.

The Armenian Genocide's status as a genocide, while largely agreed to by historians and scholars, is denied by the governments of both the United States of America and the Republic of Turkey to this day.

Despite referring to the Armenian Genocide as a genocide as a U.S. Senator, President Barack Obama has repeatedly and inexplicably refused to label it as such as President.  That refusal was renewed today.

But, one day, may we know the truth, and the truth shall set us free.

(Image courtesy of armenianchurchwd.com)

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Thunderbolt: Redux

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overpower it.

John 1:5

The voicemail icon on my iPhone was my first indication that something was seriously awry.

I am my father's son, and I inherited a great many things from him, like a proclivity for sporting facial hair and an insatiable appetite for reading.  I also inherited from him a general avoidance of using voicemail: usually, if I call and I don't get picked up, I'll just hang up and send a text message.

So, that there was a voicemail waiting for me after I emerged from the shower was cause for concern by itself.  Dad doesn't leave voicemails for just anything.

True to form, he didn't this time, either.  He had called to tell me that his younger sister, my aunt, had died overnight in her sleep.

She was fifty-eight.  I had last seen her about six weeks ago, at my grandfather's 90th birthday dinner.

And while she had been in bad health for a long time, this was not what I was expecting to start my Monday morning.  So I did what a somewhat sane person might do after receiving this news: I took my dogs for a walk.

Spring in the Pacific Northwest is worth waiting for.  The sun was already shining down early in the morning, and the pooches, despite not normally being morning pooches, took to it great, in part because I think they're beginning to develop that sixth sense that dogs often do of when I need them.

As we walked, the memories came flooding back.  Each corner turned and each patch of pavement trod upon seemed to bring back more and more: the big family reunion my parents hosted 20 years ago for my grandpa's 70th birthday.  Flying down to New Orleans and driving across the deep South to visit her and her son, my cousin, in Pensacola, Florida.

And getting another fateful phone call about her health, when I was still very young, that she had had a stroke.  There are circumstances about that phone call that I still won't write about.  But even that long ago, I began to see in my dad's family an initially unspoken but somber understanding that this would never quite be right again.

When she moved to Oregon to be closer to my grandfather, it wasn't because he needed care--despite having a heart attack about ten years ago, my grampy is still in very robust health and aside from his hearing, still has all of his faculties intact.  It was because she needed the care, so ravaged her body had become by the lingering effects of that stroke.

It was then, when I too also lived close to my grandfather, that I began to see the slow death in person.  It is a terrible thing to see a person you love grow tired of living, especially at so relatively a young age.  And it is a terrible thing to realize that when that person does finally expire, there is a part of you that does rejoice that they have been set free from their living prison.

Such are the ways of death, inspiring both dread and gratitude even in its ceremonial practitioners who are tasked and equipped with sending off those whom it claims.

The thunderbolt had struck me again--coming off of a three-day weekend I desperately needed in order to get back to neutral after a busy Easter and the back-to-back deaths of two beloved congregants, the thunderbolt came like a sucker punch, blindsiding me after I had spent the weekend recuperating from an already trying Lenten season of loss.

But, I had to keep moving onward.  I think that is why, really, I went walking with my dogs.  I just couldn't bear to stand still at that moment.

Our walk over, the dogs climbed up the stairs ahead of me and waited for me to let them back into the apartment and into their den in the kitchen.  After I had removed their leashes and refilled their water, I reached for the pullstring on the Venetian blinds of our kitchen windows to pull the blinds open again.

Immediately, the morning light flooded into our previously darkened apartment, and I was reminded of the chorus of an old hymn we still sing at my church a couple times a year:

When I fall on my knees with my face to the rising sun, O Lord have mercy on me.

And I thought as well of my own God experience, that moment when I first felt the Holy Spirit's presence so directly and so powerfully that I plunged forward with my life to commit it to ordained ministry: when, after having lost my childhood friend to an auto accident on the night of my senior prom, I preached the following morning at my childhood congregation and felt the sunlight from the sanctuary's skylights fall down upon me and raise my temperature, my energy level, even my ability to speak.

Illuminated by the light, I had committed myself then, over a decade ago, to this particular path that I remain on to this day.

And bathed in the light now, I continue walking that path forward, towards its ultimate destination, which is the One who is light itself.

For, in the end, it is the light that matters most.  And another day of life for me to serve my guiding light has begun.

Yours in Christ,
Eric

In loving memory of Leanne Atcheson.  Ad vitam aeternam.

The photo is from C's and my honeymoon in New Zealand, of the mountains that surround the mirror lakes near Milford Sound on the South Island, silhouetted by the rising sun with a family of ducklings and their mother swimming in the foreground.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

I Drink My Coffee at Room Temperature

These are the words of the one who holds God's seven spirits and the seven stars: I know your works.  You have the reputation of being alive and you are in fact dead.  Wake up and strengthen whatever you have left, for I've found that your works are far from complete in the eyes of God.

John of Patmos, to the church in Sardis, Revelation 3:1-2

These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God's creation: I know your works.  You are neither cold nor hot.  I wish that you were either cold or hot.  So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I'm about to spit you out of my mouth.  After all, you say, 'I'm rich, and I've grown wealthy, and I don't need a thing.'  You don't realize that you are miserable, pathetic, poor, blind, and naked.

John of Patmos, to the church in Laodicea, Revelation 3:14-17

The mug sits next to me on the table, its once piping hot contents now sitting at room temperature.  I can finally drink it at a rate faster than a tentative, scalding sip--even if I should be able to mow down hot coffee at a much faster clip because, after all, I am a pastor, and pastors are nothing without their trusty church coffee.

Far from me wanting to spit the coffee out from being hot or cold, I greedily gulp it down at this point, desperate for its caffeine to take effect, not merely because I am a hopelessly addicted fiend, but because room-temperature coffee is, some days, all that keeps me from being dead.  Even though I may have the reputation of being alive.

I came to the congregation I serve at only 25 years of age, fresh out of seminary. without really a clue as to how to do my job well.  I mean, I had some semblance of what a strong and vibrant church looked like.  I was raised in one, and I had a truly excellent field education supervisor at the church I worked at before coming here.  But I can also watch World Cup-caliber soccer on television and that doesn't mean I can head out into the yard and replicate the wizardry I just saw being performed.

Now, nearly four years later, at 29 years young (and forever 29 years young, no matter how many birthdays come after this one), I am on the surface a pastor whose ministry looks great.  I've presided over baptisms and weddings of new and old members alike, I've seen new children come and find joy in our congregation by the carload, I've seen new missions and new ways of outreach be born out of nothing but tears and inspiration.  I get told all the time how proud people are of the job I'm doing.

But I am scared--terrified, really--that I am in fact dead, like the church in Sardis.  I am so very, very fearful of my beloved congregation's future.  We grow and grow and still have to pull out of savings to pay our bills.  I'm petrified not just of letting down the church I was given when I arrived, I'm petrified of letting down the church that has formed since then.  And I am worried about how so many other congregations--especially in my denomination--seem to be in identical straits.

It isn't paralysis; I haven't frozen (after all, that wouldn't quite fit the cold/lukewarm/hot verse...plus, coffee ice cream is the s**t).  It's more like treading water.  In the open ocean.  Where the sharks swim.

And that's no place to pastor for the future from.

Even if I, on the surface, represent the future.

Honestly, it is such a heavy burden to bear.  It really is.  If I had a dollar for every time I was told something along the lines of, "You represent the future for the church!" my parish wouldn't have the financial deficits we have.  But when people in my denomination say those exhortations, this is what I hear:

It is up to you to do a better job with this church thing than we have, now please accept this gift of aging facilities, deferred maintenance, and an institution-wide distrust of innovation.

If the church were hot or cold, maybe we could do something with that.  We could embrace our place on the margins of the spectrum and go from there.  But being lukewarm feels better going down, and we're interested in maintaining what status and power we still have, so room temperature we shall remain.

What scares me is that after nearly four years out of seminary and in the trenches, I continue to trend more and more towards the lukewarm and the room temperature.  I make myself more palatable than the Hebrew Bible prophets of old who went to all lengths to speak truth to those who needed to hear it.

Because treading water feels the safer option than swimming, especially if you're uncertain which direction to swim in.

So, may I offer you a deal...please stop saying that I and my millennial-aged colleagues represent the future of the church, and I'll keep swimming.

Yes, like Dory in Finding Nemo, I'll just keep swimming.

Because I think that will honestly keep me finding my way forward.  It might even make me a little less scared, and, in so doing, push me a little further away from being room temperature.

And to all the pastors out there who struggle with feeling lukewarm, I hope I have given at least a bit of a voice to your own struggles, and that my voice has validated them.  And please, come have coffee with me sometime.  After all, I hope to start drinking mine at a temperature a touch hotter or colder than room temperature very soon again.

Yours in Christ,
Eric

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

F*** Your Breath, F*** Your Mockery, F*** Your Reserve Deputies Having Guns

Those who were walking by insulted Jesus, shaking their heads and saying, “So you were going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, were you? Save yourself! If you are God’s Son, come down from the cross.” In the same way, the chief priests, along with the legal experts and the elders, were making fun of him, saying,“He saved others, but he can’t save himself. He’s the king of Israel, so let him come down from the cross now. Then we’ll believe in him. He trusts in God, so let God deliver him now if he wants to. He said, ‘I’m God’s Son.’” The outlaws who were crucified with him insulted him in the same way.

Matthew 27:39-44 (Common English Bible)

On the heels of Walter Scott, whose death came on the heels of Tamir Rice and Eric Garner, whose deaths came on the heels of Michael Brown, whose death came on the heels of Oscar Grant, Amadou Diallo, and so many others...

Comes Eric Harris.

Harris was approached for arrest after selling guns and ammunition under the table to an undercover cop.  And then a 73-year-old insurance executive shot him to death.

You read that right.

The news came out yesterday afternoon that Robert Charles Bates will be charged with second-degree manslaughter (basically, unlawful death by gross negligence), and honestly, I feel bad for the guy.  He clearly wanted to play cop after having been a cop for a solitary year fifty years ago, but the city of Tulsa really should have known better and not ever put a service weapon in his (or another civilian's) hands.  And so he got put into a truly awful situation by a Tulsa police force that really should have known better than to issue a Taser and a lethal-force service weapon to, basically, a part-time volunteer.

You read that right as well.  Bates, though an insurance executive by day, was a major and longtime donor to the police department, and like many other large donors, he became a "reserve deputy," and after 800 hours of instruction through two different programs, achieved "advanced" status, which allowed him to basically function with the authority of a regular, full-time, professional deputy whenever he was on duty.

800 hours may sound like a lot, but really, it isn't.  My master's degree for the job I currently hold required 1,200 classroom hours, to say nothing of all the homework, papers, and field education time I put into the degree.  So even in terms of just classroom teaching, that's a 50% increase in instruction right there.

And my gig doesn't come with a gun.

Why does this matter?  Why am I harping on this?  Because in the video of Eric Harris's death, Bates very clearly thinks he is going to use his Taser on Harris, and instead ends up shooting him--essentially, the same defense Johannnes Mehserle made in his trial for shooting and killing Oscar Grant on the Fruitvale BART platform in the East Bay.

If a fully trained, full time professional police officer makes the same mistake with similarly fatal results, what on earth is a police department of quite a large city (a population of nearly 400,000 people according to Wikipedia...which, I know, is Wikipedia, but still, for basic stuff like this, it's pretty reliable) handing out guns to armchair cops who only have to put in 40 hours over six months to keep their reserve deputy status?

That'd be like giving some guy who really, really enjoys Microsoft Flight Simulator the proverbial keys to a Boeing 737 on the condition that he take it out for a spin at least a couple times a year.

As a red-blooded, patriotic, tax-paying American (TEAM MURICA), I'd much rather see my police departments funded at the levels they need to be so that they don't have to use these sorts of reserve deputy programs to fully fund their departments (and, similarly, so that they don't have to use awful mechanisms like civil forfeiture either).

I haven't talked about race yet (gulp), but I would be remiss if I did not also say that Eric Harris was both unarmed and African-American, and Bates is Caucasian.  And just like Eric Garner, Eric Harris complained as he died that he couldn't breathe.

A (as yet unnamed) law enforcement officer's response?  Fuck your breath.

That's right.  Fuck your ability to continue living.  Fuck the literal act of God to put life into man's nostrils (Genesis 2:7).

That parallel between the homicides of two black men, Eric Garner and Eric Harris, should be chilling.

But unlike Officer Daniel Pantaleo in Eric Garner's homicide, Bates still ended up charged.  And even though I may feel bad for him, it is so very, very important that he was charged.

Because unlike Officer Slager after he shot Walter Scott to death, Bates's law enforcement colleagues rushed to defend him, with one officer even saying that Bates was the victim in all of this kerkuffle, because he was stressed, and he made a mistake under stress and did one thing whilst intending to do another, and excusing the mocking behavior of the officers (since they claimed to not know Harris had been shot, even though Bates can clearly be heard on the tape saying, "I'm sorry, I shot him").

All of which kind of just proves my point.  That kind of stress isn't what you put a weekend warrior copper into with a gun in one hand and a taser in another, only for him to mix them up at the moment of truth, and to end up with a man bleeding out to death as those who should have been administering first aid mocked his pain, suffering, and dying instead.

The Gospels are unanimous that Christ, as He died on the cross, was mocked by those who put him there--the passersby and the centurions, the temple authorities and even at least one of the terrorists crucified alongside Him.

As Eric Harris began to die on the Tulsa sidewalk, he was mocked mercilessly by those in similar positions of authority as the centurions and the temple leaders.

In 2,000 years, our exercise of power over each other's lives has scarcely changed one bit.

Even though the God who gave us life came to us, in the flesh, to tell us to be different, live different, love different.

We can do better.  In the name of that life-giving God, we must do better.

And for fuck's sake, stop giving guns to donors for them to be cops for funsies.

Yours in Christ,
Eric

Monday, April 13, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "Words Wrought as Iron"

Matthew 6:5-15

“When you pray, don’t be like hypocrites. They love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners so that people will see them. I assure you, that’s the only reward they’ll get. 6 But when you pray, go to your room, shut the door, and pray to your Father who is present in that secret place. Your Father who sees what you do in secret will reward you. 7 “When you pray, don’t pour out a flood of empty words, as the Gentiles do. They think that by saying many words they’ll be heard. 8 Don’t be like them, because your Father knows what you need before you ask. 


9 Pray like this: Our Father who is in heaven, uphold the holiness of your name. 10 Bring in your kingdom so that your will is done on earth as it’s done in heaven. 11 Give us the bread we need for today. 12 Forgive us for the ways we have wronged you, just as we also forgive those who have wronged us. 13 And don’t lead us into temptation, but rescue us from the evil one. 14 “If you forgive others their sins, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you don’t forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your sins.  (Common English Bible)

“The Son of Man: When Poetry Testifies to Christ,” Week One

Back in December of last year, just a few days before Christmas, I told a most remarkable story, a story many of you may remember.  It was a story about a young woman of only 19 years of age who, though being diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor, had managed to still play basketball for at least a few games for the college she had committed to, Mount Saint Mary’s in Ohio.  Mount Saint Mary’s even received a special dispensation from the NCAA to move up their season opener in order to give her more opportunities to get into a game before the tumor became too debilitating (the opener, by the by, was against the Disciples affiliated school Hiram College, who enthusiastically agreed in order to give her a chance to play).  She even relearned how to shoot the basketball with her left hand because of the tumor’s effect on her control of her previously dominant right hand.

And in so doing, young Lauren Hill became a powerful inspiration for many, many people.  LeBron James raved about her on Twitter.  Athletes and journalists across the country wrote to her.  And she managed to raise literally hundreds of thousands of dollars for brain cancer research.

And then, just two days ago, early on the morning of Friday, the 10th of April, five months and a week after that monumental season opener against Hiram College, Lauren Hill died.

But I, at least, cannot forget her.  Nor, I reckon, could or will a great many other people.  And that is a testament to the profound power that comes from the unadulterated force of personality and will, something that we have found so utterly compelling in others for, really, as long as we have existed.  And that sheer force of personality, even in one long gone, is so compelling to us that their words and deeds remain in the most potent data storage unit ever made: our memories.

And out of that memory comes, in one man from Lebanon’s life, a vast store of poetry testifying to the teaching, healing, dying, and rising Christ.

This is a new sermon series for us, to begin a not too terribly new season...it is a week old, at least: Easter.  Just like Christmas and its 12 days, Easter is much more than Easter Sunday itself, and it lasts for much longer: fifty days, in fact.  That’s fifty days of hearing, bearing, and proclaiming the good news of the resurrection, long after the Easter Bunny has come and gone and the egg dye has been put back into the pantry for another year.

As a part of my own work and ministry in proclaiming to the world a risen Savior, this sermon series will take a new tack for me: talking with all of you about Jesus as He is revealed in poetry, of all things.  If you’ll recall my sermon series from a couple of years ago that I centered around several of the writings of C.S. Lewis, well, this series will be structured fairly similarly, except instead of C.S. Lewis’s books, it will be around Khalil Gibran’s poetry about Jesus Christ, of which there is a great amount, in the volume Jesus: Son of Man, from which this series derives its name.  Gibran was a Lebanese poet during the early 20th century who was raised Christian but was also influenced by Sufi mysticism, and that mysticism, much like that of many Christian mystics throughout history, comes through in his poetry about Jesus.  Jesus: Son of Man tells the stories of the gospels, but in Gibran’s often soaring word choice, through the eyes of various supporting characters: the individual disciples, the female followers of Jesus, even some of Jesus’s opponents (although Gibran reserves his best poetry entirely for Jesus’s adherents).

We begin this series, then, with Gibran’s retelling of the Sermon on the Mount made famous in Matthew’s Gospel, and of how Gibran tells the story of Jesus teaching His disciples how to pray:

Thus spake Jesus, and it was in my desire to kneel down and worship Him, yet in my shyness, I could not move nor speak a word.

But at last I spoke, and I said, “I would pray this moment, yet my tongue is heavy.  Teach me to pray.”

And Jesus said, “When you would pray, let your longing pronounce the words.  It is in my longing now to pray thus:

Our Father, in earth and heaven, sacred is Thy name.  Thy will be done with us, even as in space. Give us of Thy bread sufficient for the day.  In Thy compassion forgive us and enlarge us to forgive one another.  Guide us towards Thee and stretch down Thy hand to us in darkness.  For Thine is the kingdom, and in Thee is our power and our fulfillment.

It is the Lord’s Prayer, as rewritten and remembered by a poet.  One of the greatest contributions by one of the most powerful and compelling personalities ever to grace this globe, put into words that are not merely the ones we can recite, rote, from memory, about guiding us from temptation, as though we were filling out the prayer on a triplicate form for God’s heavenly bureaucracy; no, there is an added dimension to this.

And that is maybe a bit weird for me to say…after all, this isn’t the first time I have preached on the Lord’s Prayer with you, so it makes it feel like I have maybe left something out the first time around.

But the truth is, that is really just a part of preaching and teaching.  I can’t cram everything I feel and believe and know about God into one 20-minute sermon, I have to, as Russ, my senior pastor in California always strove to emphasize to me, break this Bible thing up into bite-sized pieces.

Which is what the Lord’s Prayer does.  It breaks all our many needs up into bite-sized pieces that we can understand, so that we can pray for them properly.  We recognize God’s wonder and power, we recognize our own need for even the most fundamental of necessities, and we recognize our own inherent limitations and weaknesses in the twin faces of temptation and evil.

The Lord’s Prayer is a prayer, but it also interprets the practice of prayer itself.  Jesus says not to be showy about our prayer, to come up with all manner of empty, fluffer-nutter sayings the way He says the hypocrites do.

And of course He is right to admonish us to not do that.  But it similarly is as easy and tempting for us to bolt for the other end of the spectrum, where our prayers contain no passion or profoundness at all, but instead carry a rote style akin to reading out of the telephone books that none of us even use anymore.  Kevin Roose, a writer who, during his time in college at Brown University spent a semester at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University and wrote a book about it, recalls in it his memory of his grandfather saying grace around the dinner table, which “he rattled off so quickly that it sounded like one long word:  BlessolordthisfoodtoouruseandustothyserviceinJesusnameamen.”

God doesn’t ask for long and flowery phrases, but God does ask for meaning in our prayers.

Because a prayer that is short and said without emotion is as empty as a long and flowery prayer.

Emptiness isn’t what our faith is supposed to be about, and I know you all know this.  But if our faith is meant to endure, and our practices of prayer are meant to be remembered, well, our memories are pretty self-selecting in that way.  We don’t waste our limited hard drive space between our ears on any ordinary thing.

So let’s approach our praying to God with similar care and selection—which isn’t to say we should be selective about praying in general, but selective in ourselves about how we pray.  We should hold our praying to higher standards than we used to, because in truth we know better.  We—and that includes me—have all uttered up the silly sort of prayers on occasion for Russell Wilson to not throw a goal-line interception, or for whichever mediocre Mariner to get a base hit and score a run, because, God, if they win that game, we won’t ask you for anything ever again!  We’ve all done that.

The kicker in all of this is that this is really for our benefit—yours and mine—and not for God’s or for Jesus’s.  Jesus says as much in this passage: God knows what you need before you even ask for it.  But I also quote Soren Kierkegaard on this: “Prayer does not change God, it changes the person praying.”  I mean, if we could change God via prayer…well, God would be quite schizophrenic, especially during every Super Bowl, World Series, and NCAA tournament!

No, prayer is meant to change us, and change us it shall.  Not because we want it to, but because we desperately need it to.  And this, ultimately, is how it can change us: it changes us in the way that Gibran writes as he closes out this poem from Matthew’s vantage point, as the famed Sermon on the Mount is now over, and he is stuck trying to put Jesus’s command to pray into practice.  And Gibran’s Matthew does so, and in the process realizes this:

…and all of us followed Him.  And as I followed I was repeating His prayer, and remembering all that He had said; for I knew that the words that had fallen like flakes that day must set and grow firm like crystals, and that the wings that had fluttered above our heads were to beat the earth like iron hoofs.

Jesus’s words can flutter over our heads and beat the earth like iron, because like wings they make us soar, and like iron, they can endure forever so long as we allow them to.

Which, in the end, is likely precisely as it should be.  We end up remembering those words, and how they changed everything.

Do we remember a young woman and how she died of brain cancer?  Sure.  But do we also remember how she set the world on fire for her cause?  Absolutely.

And do we remember how the homeless carpenter from Galilee was crucified and died?  Yes.

But do we also remember how His words and deeds changed the world forever?  Without a doubt.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
April 12, 2015

Thursday, April 9, 2015

An Open Letter to My Dogs

Dear Sir Henry and Dame Frida,

I know C and I gave you names of nobility and knighthood, even if you do plop down onto our laps and proceed to vigorously clean your genitals as we're trying to share a drink.  You are nothing if not noble-looking, though, as you stand perched on our furniture or at the door, muscles tensed and barking instincts ready should an unwelcome intruder (like, say, the UPS deliveryperson or the garbagepeople) dare to grace our stoop with their clearly unwanted presence.

And I haven't even gotten to how you'll eat anything, even if it makes you violently ill, and then happily try to go back for seconds as though you have completely forgotten the experience of emptying your stomach contents onto our kitchen floor.

You're kind of dumb, pooches.  I love you dearly, and you have stolen my heart completely, but you're a few kibbles short of a full dinner bowl, if you catch my drift.

Yet you manage to be pretty smart, too.  You've gotten me to give you treats for only partly doing when I'm trying to train you to do, be it to sit or to come when called.  You've outsmarted one another in the quest for bones, chews, and tummy rubs.  And you clearly have the mental and emotional strength to return to happiness and joy in life after what was clearly a traumatizing sojourn for the both of you as strays before being rescued by your shelter.

And that is what I admire the most about you--not how affectionate you are (although I love that about you), or how devoted you are to keeping your butts clean (although I am amused by that too).  It's that you clearly have an appetite for life and for loving people even after being left out in the world to die by people who should have done better by you.

Here's a confession to you, though, on behalf of humanity: we didn't just do it to you, or to other dogs...lots of other dogs, in fact.  In truth, we do it to one another as well.  We do it to ourselves.  We hang each other out to dry, we leave them to live off the crumbs of our table, we leave them homeless and exposed to the elements without any of the sort of empathy that both of you doofus-y dogs are clearly capable of showing.

The image of the two of you being forced into living as strays makes my insides churn out of grief, but the knowledge that we force other people to live and die that way too makes my insides churn out of anger.

Maybe it is because you're literally colorblind, but you don't see color in other people.  You don't care that I'm Armenian, or that C is a ginger (ew), or that we have neighbors who are African-American, Asian-American, Latino/a, or gay or lesbian.  All you care about is if they will give you treats and head scratches.

And, admittedly, that is something we have to work on with you furballs, that idea that everyone in your world exists to give you gifts.  But it's still probably better mentality than the one we have constructed for ourselves in which we judge others and deny them services and treat them with higher degrees of suspicion because of their race or sexual orientation.

When you guys display aggression, there's a reason for it.  But when we display it towards others--sometimes in ways that kill them in cold blood--honestly, it is so effing senseless.  There's just no reason why so many of our black men have to die at the hands of our cops or our gay and lesbian brethren have to be discriminated against at the hands of our Christians.  But we do it anyways.

I don't know when all of that will change for us.  We've been changing it over time, but in terms of dog years, we're talking about an awful lot of calendars you'd have to flip through.  You may not be around to see a changed humanity.

Really, I may well not, either.  I want to be, really, really badly.  But it might be too long coming.

I hope it isn't, though.  Because us humans could stand to be a little bit more like you.  Not the chewing through the wires of my massage-cushion-that-was-a-gift-part, but the other part, the part where what you deem to be a threat to you is based on your own physical safety and not on what the person looks like or who the person loves.

I mean, aside from people who try to bathe you.  We all know they represent the greatest threat to you and all that you hold dear.

Love,
Your human, Eric

(Sir Henry Wiggly is a Jack Russell terrier/chihuahua mix who enjoys begging for table scraps, eviscerating the stuffing out of his toys, and hiding bones.  Dame Frida Koala is a poodle/Shih Tzu mix who enjoys stealing Henry's bones, receiving long and extravagant tummy rubs, and chewing on her humans' socks.  They are the best dogs in the world.  Except for Rowlf from the Muppets, because of his kickass piano playing.)