Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Ferguson Police Department Directly Shows Up in the Gospels, And Here's Why

There is a gang of well-funded thugs depicted throughout the Gospels.  They pop up every now and again, either directly through their presence or through a (often profoundly negative) reference to them, be it by Jesus or someone else.  Their gains are ill-gotten, their methods are immoral, and their reputation, as a result, is in tatters.

I'm talking about the tax collectors.  Willing, even eager, collaborators with the occupying Roman empire, these unscrupulous chaps would aid in the providing of tribute to Rome by paying directly for the right to collect taxes in a certain section of town or countryside.  They, in turn, went to each of the households to collect cash or in-kind materials as taxes to cover that as much as they could muster for themselves.  Call it a finder's fee, if you feel like being excessively charitable...or, if you're down with calling a spade a spade, call it what it was: extortion.

This is why the tax collectors were almost universally loathed in New Testament Israel.  It had (has) nothing to do with whatever animus we may have today towards the IRS;  Biblical tax collectors were rightly seen as government-sanctioned thieves worthy only of contempt.  They took from families with little to line their own pockets when they already had so very much (because, remember, they had to pay up for the right to collect these "taxes" to begin with).

Why do I tell you this little obscure, albeit informative, tangent?

Well, I imagine by now, you have heard all about the Justice Department's scathing, no-punches-pulled report on the depth and depravity of the systemic racism within the police department of Ferguson, Missouri.  I wanted to write about it at length earlier, but them sermons ain't gonna write themselves (unless I take a page out of Ben Stiller's rabbi character in Keeping the Faith and download them off the Internet, but that's not my jam...also, I think making a 15-year-old movie reference officially makes me "modern" and "contemporary" in mainline Christianity, but that's another can of tuna).

Anyways, yesterday, I posted this to my Facebook page while thinking about how to try to explain the notion of white privilege--in Ferguson, it apparently meant not only being free from this sort of robbery, but free from having to pay for your fair share of government services:

Been thinking about this. If you're white and are wondering how the racism of a police department like Ferguson's somehow directly benefits you, consider that if you enjoy paying lower local taxes, that is because the city makes up for that revenue deficit by levying as many fines as it can. And in Ferguson, those fines were levied on African-Americans, not Caucasians. That's how you directly benefit: they're paying for more of the government services than you are. (Also, aside from you being less likely to be searched, frisked, arrested, have police dogs sic'ed on you, and so on.)

It puts the whole idea of "makers" and "takers" on its head, right?  I mean, if you're paying less for government services than a person of color down the street from you who also happens to have less gross income than you do, well...I think by most interpretations of the term, that makes you the "taker," mate.

But it is way more than just our rhetoric that we use on people whom we perceive as moochers.  WAY more.  Because that is just a symptom of the underlying deadly disease, which is, quite simply, that we are no better than the tax collectors of Jesus's day.  In fact, we may well be worse, because those tax collectors didn't care who you were, whereas if the emails being leaked are any indication, Ferguson police officers gave a mighty large number of f**ks about what color YOUR skin was.

And they parlayed that prejudice into tax collector-like behavior, using government-sanctioned power to extort money from folks who had relatively little of it to fund their government.  Just like the tax collectors of Biblical Israel, the Ferguson police department saw their populace not as constituents to be protected and served, but as cash cows to fund the means of their power.

Which means that the Ferguson PD is every bit as worthy of contempt from us today as tax collectors were from first century Israelites.  But there's a catch in this, too.

Because one of the Twelve, one of those closest to Jesus, one of those traditionally held to be a Gospel writer, even, was, in fact, a tax collector.  Some call him Levi, some call him Matthew, and probably many called him other names that are not printable on a Christian blog.  But when Jesus called him to, like Peter and Andrew and James and John, drop everything and follow Him, Matthew obliged.

And in so doing, he met up with a Zealot, one of the Israelites most violently opposed to Rome's occupation of the nation, Simon.  I can only imagine the kinds of cage fights those two might have had.

Except that they were united by Jesus Christ, and I have to think that this unity came with some sort of forgiveness proffered by Simon to Matthew (and honestly, probably from the rest of the Twelve to Matthew as well).  There is no way that Matthew could have stayed one of the Twelve the entire time if the other eleven did not forgive him his own crimes and excesses as a tax collector.  There's just no way you live day-in, day-out with someone for three years without getting past something that monumentally divisive and horrible.

And if the other disciples were willing and able to reconcile with Matthew, that means that we have to as well.  It means that the Matthews of our day, beginning with the Ferguson police, have to be honest and own up to their own sins and repent of them.  But it also means that we have to recognize that God is willing to extend forgiveness to them, even if we aren't.

Personally, I'm not, both because I remain thoroughly disgusted but also because mine is not the forgiveness needed.  I was never harassed, bullied, or persecuted by the Ferguson police.  But God was, every time one of His children was harassed, bullied, or persecuted, and if He is still willing to offer the right hand of mercy, means there is hope.

That's the good news.  That's the entire point of THE Good News, of the Gospel.  In the face of despicable evil, God's desire for reconciliation is unshakable.  We might not want it to be, but it is.

If God reconciled with Matthew, then hopefully, one day, we can reconcile with each other.  It will take the powers that be in Ferguson to bravely swallow their pride and confess in full to how horribly they have wronged their own citizens, and if by some miracle that does indeed happen, the broken and unjust world in which we live might have actually changed for the better for once.

It is a hope I have.  Because in God, there is hope.  There is always hope.

Yours in Christ,

Monday, March 2, 2015

One Lesurques is Enough: Karla Faye Tucker, Kelly Gissendaner, and the Theology of Mercy

In 1998, the state of Texas had a decision to make.  Its practice of the death penalty was (and still is) as vaunted a tradition in the state as its style of barbeque or its love of football.  But before the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles was the case of a woman, Karla Faye Tucker, who, in addition to being the first woman executed by the state of Texas since the Civil War, presented a serious dilemma to the  proudly and loudly Christian culture within the state.

Because, you see, Karla Faye Tucker was a born again Christian.  After having brutally murdered Deborah Thornton with a pickaxe while under the influence of drugs, Tucker found herself on her knees in her jail cell, praying to God to forgive her.  She became a Christian and, in the words of everybody who knew her after that point, became a model prisoner.  She seemed to be, in every sense of the term, rehabilitated.

And so when her plea for mercy fell before the Texas Board, Tucker was not alone.  By this point in time, Christians ranging from Pope John Paul II to the eternal crank Pat Robertson had weighed in on her behalf, urging mercy to be exercised by the powers that be with control over her life and her death.  Even the brother of her Deborah Thornton, her muder victim, urged for mercy.  These appeals for mercy from the outside generally followed one of two lines of logic--one being that the death penalty is intrinsically sinful, no matter who is on the guillotine, and the other being, what is the point of killing someone who has wholly reformed themselves?

Now, full disclosure--I belong to the former camp.  As a Christian, I follow and worship a man who was executed unjustly by the state, even though He had hearings before two (three according to Luke's Gospel) of the different relevant authorities: the Israelite high priest Caiaphas, and the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate.  Both pronounced Him guilty (Pilate may have tried to wash his hands of guilt, but he was the most culpable of them all).  You could argue that by the standards of His day, Jesus Christ had received due process, yet to a person, Christians believe that Jesus was executed unjustly.

Ergo, due process is no protection against an unjust execution.  Which means that no earthly protection can exist an unjust execution, which means any execution may be unjust and that I am thus obligated to oppose them all.

The 20th century philosopher Albert Camus, in his work Reflections on the Guillotine, wrote this about an innocent man who was executed by the guillotine, a man named Lesurques: "When...the name of the guillotine is Lesurques, (it) does not mean that all those who are decapitated are Lesurques, but that one Lesurques is enough for the guillotine to be permanently dishonored."

One Lesurques is enough for the guillotine to be permanently dishonored.  I would expand the collection of Lesurques to include not only those factually innocent of the crimes of which they had been accused and convicted (150 people since 1973 have been freed from death row after having proved their innocence, we have no idea how many people were wrongfully convicted and executed before their innocence was proven), but those who are guilty but have, in spite of everything else wrong with our prison system today, managed to rehabilitate themselves into model citizens.

Texas ended up doing precisely that with Karla Faye Tucker because, in spite of the passionate appeals from Christian clergy of all stripes, then-Governor George W. Bush signed the warrant for her execution despite his own prominent (and public) Christian faith, and she expired on February 3, 1998.

Why this history lesson?  Because we are living through the exact same dilemma, only this time in Georgia, and instead of Karla Faye Tucker, the woman whose number is about to be called is Kelly Renee Gissendaner.  Her crime was likewise utterly heartless: she commissioned her lover to murder her husband, which she was convicted for the same year that Karla Faye Tucker died: in 1998.  And like Tucker, in prison Gissendaner began a right relationship with God as revealed through Jesus Christ, going so far as to even complete a theology program specifically designed for prisoners that is run by a consortium of Atlanta-area divinity schools.  Even after she completed the program, she continued studying theology, and one of her prison chaplains, noting that how much 'jailhouse religion' she has seen in her chaplaincy work, said that with Gissendaner, her faith was the genuine article.

So, once more, Christian clergy of all stripes are calling for mercy on Gissendaner's behalf, because why cut off the fruit of our corrections system, especially when sadly such fruit is far too rare a sight to behold?  Why even bother trying to rehabilitate or reform people into loving neighbors of faith and goodwill?  Are our hearts truly that hardened?  Are we as incapable of mercy as these women were when they were themselves murderers?  What does that say about our own desperate, crushing need for salvation, about our need to experience and understand a true theology of mercy?

One Lesurques is enough for the guillotine to be permanently dishonored.  Our machinery of death was already permanently dishonored when Karla Faye Tucker perished at its emotionless hands, and it is about to double down on that disgrace should Kelly Renee Gissendaner face the same fate only hours from now.  Whether you believe that all execution is sinful, or that the execution of a model citizen is sinful, you as a person whom the state claims to speak for have a duty to stand up and say that you will bear no such dishonor, that you will shoulder no such disgrace, that you are still capable of saying to those who claim to be men of power, "NOT IN MY NAME."

The execution of another Lesurques, even by another name, be it Karla Faye or Kelly Renee?  Not in my name.  Never in my name.

And never, dare I say it, in the name of a far earlier Lesurques, whose death disgraced the empire that had tried Him and crucified Him.

Never in the name of Jesus Christ.  And never in the name of the God Almighty who sent Him.

Not in my name,

You can sign the petition for mercy for Kelly Renee Gissendaner here.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "Tuesday"

Mark 12:28-34

28 One of the legal experts heard their dispute and saw how well Jesus answered them. He came over and asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” 29 Jesus replied, “The most important one is Israel, listen! Our God is the one Lord, 30 and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength.[d] 31 The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself.[e] No other commandment is greater than these.” 32 The legal expert said to him, “Well said, Teacher. You have truthfully said that God is one and there is no other besides him. 33 And to love God with all of the heart, a full understanding, and all of one’s strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself is much more important than all kinds of entirely burned offerings and sacrifices.” 34 When Jesus saw that he had answered with wisdom, he said to him, “You aren’t far from God’s kingdom.” After that, no one dared to ask him any more questions.  (Common English Bible)

“The Last Week: Mark’s Retelling of the Passion,” Week Two

As a kid, a Christmas tradition was my mom getting out my favorite holiday picture book retelling of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.  (Does our pastor know what month it is?  Does he need a vacation?)  She would sit me on her lap, open up the picture book, and proceed to tell me how Scrooge was visited late one night and told to share his toys and riches with other people…by one Bob Marley.

Not Jacob Marley.  My mom would mix the two up, and all of the sudden, Scrooge’s late business partner was transformed into a Christian/Rasta king of reggae who died far too young.  But it was only recently that I learned how remarkable some of Marley’s (Bob, not Jacob) work really was—not just the music, but the humanitarian work that Marley (Jacob, not Bob) exhorted Ebenezer Scrooge to lend more of an ear to.

In 1976, two days before being scheduled to perform at a concert to ease tensions between warring factions in Jamaica (and some of you, erm, more senior citizens may remember this), Bob Marley was, along with his wife and his manager, shot in his home.  He still went through with performing at this concert in name of peace and when asked why on earth he would do that so soon after an attempt on his life was made, he said, “The people who are trying to make the world worse aren’t taking a day off.  How can I?”

How can I, indeed.   The highwaymen that beat and robbed the man whom the Good Samaritan found weren’t taking that day off, so how could the Samaritan?  The scribes and temple authorities that eventually framed Jesus Christ and handed Him over to Pontius Pilate weren’t taking the day off, so how could this lone legal expert here in Mark 12 who understood Him?  And when devils of all stripes today, from ISIS to Westboro Baptist Church, aren’t taking personal days, how can we as people of faith and Christians of goodwill?  Because were we to do nothing in the face of evil, we would be failing in every sense at doing the most fundamental thing Christ asks of us, the command that He says upon which any and all other commands are hung: love God, and love each other.

Now that Lent, that 40-day fast in the wilderness alongside Jesus as He is tempted by the devil, has begun, so too does a new sermon series begin for us as well.  And we’ll be stretching out Holy Week—that seven-day span of time from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday—by talking about each day in turn, starting with Monday (that way we can discuss Palm Sunday on, you know, Palm Sunday) before wrapping up with Easter Sunday itself on April 5.  For this sermon series, I am using as a template the book “The Last Week,” a commentary on the Gospel of Mark’s telling of Holy Week, co-written by Bible scholars John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg.  Professor Borg just passed away a few weeks ago, plus this book is one of a precious few on my list of “it truly changed my life” books, so this series has a lot of added meaning for me as well as, I hope, eventually for you too.

Today’s message is centered on Tuesday of Holy Week, and Tuesday is a jam-packed day by Mark’s account, with lots of different stories to tell.  It is the day when Jesus famously pronounces, when asked whether one should pay taxes to the occupying Roman empire, says, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and render unto God that which is God’s.”  I could have done a really fun message on that one…but then remembered that it is currently tax season, and maybe I can let sleeping dogs lie for now!

So, here instead is an excerpt from what Borg and Crossan have to say about the passage for today, from the Tuesday of Holy Week as documented in Mark’s Gospel, on the greatest commandments:

The twofold great commandment—to love God and love our neighbor—is so familiar to us that it has become a Christian cliché.  But behind the familiarity is their radical meaning as Jesus’s summary of His message.  To love God above all else means giving to God what belongs to God: our heart, soul, mind, and strength.  These belong to God, and (to refer to a previous passage), not to Caesar.  This is radical monotheism: if God is Lord, then the lords of this world—Caesar and his incarnations throughout history—are not.  And to love one’s neighbor as oneself means to refuse to accept the divisions rendered by the normalcy of civilization, those divisions between the respected and the marginalized, righteous and sinners, rich and poor, friends and enemies, Jews and Gentiles.

Now, in fairness, Tuesday is also the day when Jesus similarly famously stated that God is God not of the dead, but of the living, and I *almost* wound up preaching on that…but then, I weighed it compared to this passage here, when Jesus is asked what the most important of the 613 laws in the Old Testament is (or are).  And I had to preach on this one.

Why?  Because in all of those other stories from Tuesday, Jesus is debating—he is either confronting, or being confronted by, the Pharisees, Sadducees, and other temple authorities.  This passage, though, isn’t a debate, it’s a conversation, a conversation between, by the by, one of those temple authorities (a “legal expert who had overheard” the previous disputes).  So right off the bat, Jesus proves a willingness to engage his opponents not merely as one-dimensional opponents, but as actual people, and if this sermon were about nothing else, that would be a good enough lesson for us to take home with ourselves.

But in treating this legal expert with respect—just as this unknown lawyer similarly treats Jesus with respect whilst his other temple colleagues patently are not—Jesus is exhibiting that which He says is one of the two most important laws in the Hebrew Bible, Leviticus 19:18: love your neighbor as yourself.  (For, contrary to popular belief, this saying did not originate with Jesus.)

And in case we have forgotten the moral of the parable of the Good Samaritan, our neighbor is not whoever lives on the other side of that white picket fence; no, our neighbor is the one who shows us mercy.  And in offering to Jesus a respite from the hours and hours of public quarrelling, this lawyer is offering Jesus a sort of mercy; he is being the neighbor whom Jesus in turn loves as Himself.

And far more than any of his other dunderheaded colleagues, this guy gets it.  In Matthew’s version of this story, in Matthew 22, Jesus declares that love of God and love of neighbor are the two most important laws and that upon them hang the rest of the laws and the prophets, and that is more or less the end of the story.  In so doing, Matthew omits a key utterance of Jesus’s anonymous conversation partner: that following these two laws is “much more important than all kinds of burned offerings and sacrifices.”

Now…considering what we know from last week’s lesson, on Monday’s cleansing of the temple and its criminal cohort of price-gouging purveyors of sacrificial animals and temple-approved shekels, doesn’t this sound like an encouraging bit of understanding?  Like someone besides Jesus is finally starting to get it?  That’s why it is so important that we followed up Monday with this particular story of all the stories that take place on Tuesday.  It is a natural continuation of the issue at hand.

And that issue, pure and simple, is, are we doing what is right by God and by each other?  Because if we already were, then there is no point in God sending Jesus—after all, if it ain’t broke, right?

But we know that there is something wrong—many somethings, in fact.  But I have to believe that those many somethings, all of the things that are wrong with the world today, ranging from addiction to abuse to violence to poverty, so much of it boils down to our failure to follow these two commands.  Love God, love each other.  I’ve been repeating that on my blog a lot lately: that it isn’t rocket science, we just act like it is.

God has grown to detest the animal sacrifices we have come to offer Him because He knows that unlike the animal sacrifices made by, say, Abel or Noah, that our worship of Him has come with a generous dose of duplicitousness sprinkled on top.  We are not single-minded in our pursuit of God’s love and mercy, we at best treat it as one of several things we chase after, none of which are ever as, or ever will be, as important.  So us making those sacrifices, even today, is not us doing right by God.  God sees through hollow actions, God sees through meaningless words.  God craves our authenticity, for us to be authentically and genuinely interested in being in right relationship with Him and—by extension—with one another.

I imagine all of you probably know this already, that I am not telling you anything particularly new or anything that you did not already realize.  But here is where Jesus’s rejoinder to this legal expert comes in: Jesus sees that this thoughtful person is not far from the kingdom of God.  Which in one sense is encouraging—he has found the fairway.  But he hasn’t sunk the putt yet.  He isn’t there yet.

And so, as is often the case with stories about Jesus in each of the Gospels, the proxy for us, for the audience, is the anonymous person whom Jesus interacts with.  We are the anonymous lawyer who knows deep down what we must do, but who struggles mightily at times to actually do it.  We might chicken out at the eleventh hour, or change our minds at the final instant, or, in Marley’s case, cancel a goodwill unity concert on the day of.

But that isn’t how this week will go for Jesus.  He doesn’t eighty-six his destiny for the cross.  He sees it through to the bitter, painful end.  And because of that, our ends need not be so bitter or so painful.  So what is holding us back?  What is holding you back from living out these two great, simple, profound commandments?

Because this thing we call faith means far more than just knowing the right answers.  One of my favorite and most moving  movies of all time is American History X, and in it Edward Furlong’s character says about his brother (played by Edward Norton), “Derek always says it’s best to end a paper with a quote.  He says that someone else has already said it best, so if you can’t top it, steal from them and go out strong.”

So, to return to Borg and Crossan one last time for today’s message:

To return to the scribe of Mark’s story…he is not far from it because he knows its heart, but he is not in it.  To be in it means more than knowing this.  It means living it.

Amen.  A thousand times, amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
March 1, 2015

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Letters from the Soul: This Month's Newsletter Column

(Also, in case you are following along at home with our new "The Last Week" sermon series that just started last Sunday for Lent that goes day by day through Holy Week as told by the Gospel of Mark, I'll repost the entire outline of the series at the end of my column.  E.A.)

March 2015:   "For the Dogs" 

Dear Church,

As many of you know, Carrie and I became the proud humans of two lovely rescue dogs from a no-kill shelter up in Olympia. Having Freida and Henry around as the two newest members of our little household has taught me a lot about companionship and caring, but they have also taught me, oddly enough a lot of things that are pretty true about church life, such as:

You can always try to keep someone from doing something that is harmful to them--like, say, engaging in substance abuse, or in trying to chase down that giant German Shepherd that is four million times your size--but that isn't always going to keep them from trying to harm themselves. Love them anyways.

You can provide something amazing for someone in their life--like your constant presence, or an endless supply of sausage treats--but there is still such a thing as too much of a good thing. Sometimes we have to hold back for the betterment of those whom we love the most, lest they get sick, either of us or from too many sausage treats.

You can do everything in your power to look out for someone, but they still might end up hurting you, whether through an especially painful word, or a fight, or a nipped finger while putting on their harness for an early morning walk. Forgive them those trespasses, painful though they might feel in the moment.

And sometimes, all you really need is a hug and some attention. Both people and dogs are great for that.

I continue to be amazed at where and how I learn about lessons that are applicable to so much of my life. God works in many and mysterious ways, it's true, but it also seems those ways in which He works are constant, unending, and forever finding ways to grab my attention, no matter how distracted I can make myself at any given moment. In that way, I suppose I am (and, really, we all are) like Moses, preoccupied with the task at hand of doing his job and not even noticing the burning bush until God calls out to him by name.

Where in your life have you found God calling out to you by your name lately? And what can you do to help yourself be more attuned to God so that perhaps next time, God does not have to yell to get your attention, but merely has to whisper?

I am ready and available to help you tackle either or both of those questions!

(So are Freida and Henry, but you might have to bribe them with tummy rubs first.)

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Eric

Lent 2015 sermon series: “The Last Week: Mark’s Retelling of the Passion Story,”

February 22: "Monday," Mark 11:12-19
March 1: “Tuesday,” Mark 12:28-34
March 8: “Wednesday,” Mark 14:1-11
March 15: “Thursday,” Mark 14:17-25
March 22: “Friday,” Mark 15:33-41
March 29: “Palm Sunday,” Mark 11:1-10

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Lenten Book Review: Bread and Wine

(Prior to my going into full-time parish ministry, I wrote the occasional book review for other online writing projects, and I will be returning to that writing every now and again here, as I have kept my childhood passion of not only reading, but sharing with other people what I am reading.  I hope you enjoy these occasional reviews of books I have received and read, and I likewise hope that they may provide for you a slightly wider view of the work I do and the context within which I do it--a context created by writers, preachers, and wordsmiths of every stripe.  -E.A.)

"It is well known that Christ consistently used the expression "follower."  He never asks for admirers, worshipers, or adherents.  No, he calls disciples.  It is not adherents of a teaching but followers of a life Christ is looking for."

So begins the entry written by Soren Kierkegaard in Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter (Plough Publishing House, 2003).

Personally, the idea of a Lenten devotional book combines two things I am terrible at: keeping a consistent devotional practice, and giving up stuff for Lent (what can I say, my deadly sin of the seven is definitely gluttony).  And in this respect, I am very much the person Kierkegaard is writing to here.  I still try to keep myself at arm's length from the Resurrected Christ, to merely be a worshiper of His, or an adherent of His.  I may follow His teachings, but I do not always fully follow Him.

But the act of being devotional helps me to move past that.  And so there is very much a place for books like Bread and Wine in even my faith life.

This is a book that is very much a part of a particular genre: the compilation of writings from a variety of authors around a particular theme (or, in this case, five main themes: invitation, temptation, passion, crucifixion, and resurrection).  These sorts of books serve a very particular purpose: they achieve great breadth at the expense of depth.  Rather than read the entirety of someone's work, you read an excerpt from them centered around a relevant topic, then move on to the next excerpt by another author.  It exposes you to a variety of perspectives, but at the expense of plumbing the depths of what any one of those perspectives might have to say; for that, you are on your own...but at least you have been given something to whet your appetite first.

This variety, though, is a key strength to Bread & Wine.  The authors curated for this collection range from patron saints of Protestant orthodoxy like C.S. Lewis and Oswald Chambers to people who have spent their entire lives working for the folks in the margins, like John Dear and Mother Teresa.  Chronologically, the writings likewise span almost the proverbial gamut of Christianity, from Saint Augustine to present day writers like Dear and Barbara Brown Taylor.  And while these writers may well know more than you or I about the "appalling strangeness of the mercy of God" (thank you, Graham Greene!), they don't act like it.  To a person, the authors chosen for this book write in entirely accessible prose (or poetry, in the cases of Khalil Gibran, Christina Rossetti, and others), making this volume a valuable resource for clergy and laity alike.

We're now one full week into Lent, with Ash Wednesday having been precisely one Wednesday in the past.  If you are still looking for a Lenten practice to pick up not only for Lent but for Easter as well, so that you may find richness not only in the forty days of fasting but in the forty days of resurrection that follow, Bread and Wine is a good start.  It costs twenty bucks new on Amazon, and fourteen bucks or so used.

Yours in Christ,

Disclaimer: My copy of Bread and Wine came at no charge from the publisher; however, all opinions expressed here are entirely my own.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "Monday"

Mark 11:12-19

12 The next day, after leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. 13 From far away, he noticed a fig tree in leaf, so he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing except leaves, since it wasn’t the season for figs. 14 So he said to it, “No one will ever again eat your fruit!” His disciples heard this. 15 They came into Jerusalem. After entering the temple, he threw out those who were selling and buying there. He pushed over the tables used for currency exchange and the chairs of those who sold doves. 16 He didn’t allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. 17 He taught them, “Hasn’t it been written, My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations?[b] But you’ve turned it into a hideout for crooks.”[c] 18 The chief priests and legal experts heard this and tried to find a way to destroy him. They regarded him as dangerous because the whole crowd was enthralled at his teaching. 19 When it was evening, Jesus and his disciples went outside the city. (Common English Bible)

“The Last Week: Mark’s Retelling of the Passion,” Week One

Two hundred thousand dollars.

More than that, even.  Two hundred-ten to be precise.  At least.  All to game a book onto the New York Times bestseller list by using tricks of the trade to fool the safeties the NYT system has in place to prevent authors from simply buying their way onto bestseller lists.

And that money came from a church’s coffers, a church that, it was also found, did not distribute tithes meant for global missions to those missions, but instead kept those tithes for itself.

But no, this story is not from the 1980s and the heyday of Christian con men like Jim Bakker or Peter Popoff, this is from last year—2014—and from quite nearby, our Emerald City neighbor to the north: Seattle.

Mars Hill Church, planted in Seattle but with many satellite locations, shelled out that sum of money in order to get their pastor Mark Driscoll’s latest book onto said NYT bestseller list.  And, I know, it sounds like small church envy of a megachurch, but think about what that $210,000 could have done.  It is about 140% of our annual budget, and that kind of money really can and does change lives of people in need.

Yet we use our money for this.  And in Mars Hill’s case, it is no more; after this and a series of other scandals, Mark Driscoll resigned from the pulpit, and Mars Hill promptly announced it was shutting its doors on January 1 of this year.  To which I can only repeat what someone far wiser than me said on Twitter: if a church announces just weeks after its founding pastor resigns that it is shutting down, you can be reasonably confident that what was being worshipped there was not really Jesus.

And it is deeds like these, works like these, works that, as the letter of James says, God shall know our faith, that others outside the church associate the church with.  We have become, to them, the den of robbers that Jesus is trying to cleanse.  And they are 100% rooting for Jesus in this scenario.

Now that Lent, that 40-day fast in the wilderness alongside Jesus as He is tempted by the devil, has begun, so too does a new sermon series begin for us as well.  And we’ll be stretching out Holy Week—that seven-day span of time from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday—by talking about each day in turn, starting with Monday (that way we can discuss Palm Sunday on, you know, Palm Sunday) before wrapping up with Easter Sunday itself on April 5.  For this sermon series, I am using as a template the book “The Last Week,” a commentary on the Gospel of Mark’s telling of Holy Week, co-written by Bible scholars John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg.  Professor Borg just passed away a few weeks ago, plus this book is one of a precious few on my list of “it truly changed my life” books, so this series has a lot of added meaning for me as well as, I hope, eventually for you too.

We begin with Monday, the day after Palm Sunday, after Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and here is part of what Borg and Crossan have to say about Monday’s events (of which only two Mark conveys to us, the fig tree incident and the cleansing of the temple):

What does it mean that Jesus has interrupted the temple’s perfectly legitimate sacrificial and fiscal activities?  It means that Jesus has shut down the temple.  But it is a symbolic rather than a literal “shutdown.”  It is a prophetic action that intends in macrocosm what it effects in microcosm…At this point, the Markan frames of fig tree and temple coalesce.  The tree was “shut down” for lack of the fruit Jesus demanded—and so was the temple.  In the case of the temple, it is not a cleansing, but a symbolic destruction, and the fig tree’s fate emphasizes that meaning.  But what is wrong with the temple to warrant such a symbolic destruction?  The answer must come from the word that follows the deed in this prophetic action…there is nothing wrong with prayer and sacrifice—they are commanded in the Torah.  That is not the problem.  But God is a God of justice and righteousness and when worship substitutes for justice, God rejects God’s temple—or, for us today, God’s church.

Now, I do strongly disagree with Borg and Crossan on one part of their interpretation: that any of this business in the temple was remotely legitimate.  Some of y’all may have heard this spiel from me before in Bible studies or Sunday School classes, so bear with me as I explain it for folks who haven’t had the distinct pleasure of hearing me drone on about this.

Old Testament law mandates the religious sacrifice of certain animals consecrated for that purpose; it is a practice that stretches all the way back to Cain and Abel, when Abel sacrifices to God his prized sheep.  Now, if you’re, say, making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem from one of the outer reaches of Israel, your animals may not make the journey as easy as you will, and in any case it makes you an attractive target for highwaymen, robbers, and thieves.  Or, like many, many common people, you may not be able to afford to raise an animal solely for the purpose of religious slaughter, even if your sacred text commands it.

So, there is a serious market for the buying of sacrificial animals right on location, at the temple.  Except there is a hitch (isn’t there always when it comes to organized religion?); the law also prohibited the use of any currency other than the Israelite shekel, meaning that the Roman denarius, which was the coin of the realm because, well, New Testament Israel was a part of Rome’s empire.

So if people are being paid in denarii and spending on necessities in denarii, what happens when suddenly they are confronted with the need to buy something with shekels?  They have to go to a money exchange service, just like we do upon entering a foreign country.  And just like money exchange services today, the moneychangers of the Jerusalem temple charged a commission for this service.  Unlike our exchange services of today, though, the rates charged by the moneychangers back then were downright criminal, because they basically had a sanctioned monopoly over a reliably sizable clientele, thanks to those very same religious laws and mandates.  Think about it—if people are mandated by their religious law to sacrifice animals and they can’t use their money to buy the animals—they can only use your money, the shekel—then you can basically charge whatever you want and make quite a living ripping off well-meaning pilgrims and devout Israelites.

THAT is why Jesus says that the temple has become a “den of robbers.”  It quite literally has, in the purest sense of the term.  And so the time-honored ritual of the frocked fleecing their flocks for their precious earnings continued earnestly in Jerusalem.

Until—and even if it was just for a moment—this day, Monday, the day that Jesus does something that absolutely gets him on the Sanhedrin’s radar.  If yesterday’s Palm Sunday processional didn’t do it, you can bet your bottom shekel this definitely did.

But what does all of this have to do with the fig tree that Jesus condemns to fruitlessness?  Well…have you known many religious organizations that take advantage of their members to produce much in the way of true fruits of the spirit?  No, me neither.  Instead, what is often produced is—and it is a sad testament upon us that this term even exists—spiritual abuse.  And a great many people suffer from it; I have even heard stories of it from some of you about your previous churches.

Instead of uplifting and empowering believers as we ought, as we are called to do, we abuse and take advantage of them.  We use them up instead of building them up, and we spit them out instead of sending them out.

And that devastates me.  So let’s work on changing that.  Instead of having a new person walk into our building for the first time and feel put upon or judged, let’s make sure they leave having been impacted by being in the presence of God.  Let’s work on correcting the injustices we see when they happen, rather than helping cause them.

It isn’t enough to simply say that this is what Jesus would have done—it is, ultimately, in the end, what He died for as well, for it is this act before the temple that causes the Pharisees, scribes, and men of power to sit up and take notice of this carpenter from Galilee with a radical message from God.  That’s why I’m so over the WWJD stuff—what would Jesus do?  WWJD is incomplete, it needs an F at the end: what would Jesus die for?

Jesus died for this.  He died to fight injustice.  May our faith be such, then, that similarly others would be shaken from their own doldrums when they hear our words and see our deeds from our own faith as well.  Let us be just a bit dangerous to them as Jesus was.  Let us, in doing so, advance the latter’s kingdom, which, as we prayer, is forever and ever.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
February 22, 2015

Thursday, February 19, 2015

When "Personal Freedom" for Religious Objections Run Amok, Part II: You Set the Leg

If you hadn't seen my post from last week about a county marriage officiant refusing to marry an agnostic/atheist couple because they did not share his Christian beliefs, feel free to do so before diving into this latest big, steaming helping of jerkishness in the name of one Jesus of Nazareth.

A pediatrician in Michigan declined to treat the baby of a lesbian couple, sent some other hapless doctor out to deliver that awful news, and didn't even bother apologizing in any way (even verbally) until she got called out on it.

There is so much wrong with that scenario, I don't even know where to begin...

How about the fact that Dr. Vesna Roi didn't even have the guts to tell this couple, Krista and Jami, that she didn't feel she could be their baby's doctor, instead sending someone else to deliver the news?  That's just cowardice, plain and simple.  If you're going to be homophobic, the very least you can do to an increasingly tolerant and diverse world is own it.  Don't foist it on some poor, bystanding schlub to do the dirty work of telling a loving couple why their newborn won't be receiving medical care from the doctor who was recommended to them, that's not fair to the messenger.

Nor is it fair (painfully obviously) to the baby.  Even if you believe that same-sex relations are sinful (which I don't, or, at least, not any more sinful than heterosexual relations are), the kid is completely innocent in all this.  You're denying care to a person not because of who they are but because of who their parents are, but guess what?  Who cares.  As Abby Bartlet put it to her husband in The West Wing (season 4's episode "Swiss Diplomacy), "Samuel Mudd set (John Wilkes) Booth's leg after he shot Lincoln.  Doctors are liable in this country if they don't treat the patient in front of them."

And when reminded that Mudd was tried and convicted for treason for setting the leg, she simply said, "That's the way it goes.  You set the leg."

Now, as the Fox Detroit article notes, doctors "can refuse treatment if it's incompatible with their personal, religious, or moral beliefs," per the American Medical Association.

I'm not a grammar expert, but it sure seems as though the pronoun "it" in that sentence is serving as a stand-in for treatment being refused, not a patient being refused.

In other words, if Krista and Jami had come to Dr. Roi and, say, wanted an abortion, Dr. Roi could, with every justification, decline to provide that service based on a personal religious belief that abortion is immoral.  What she should not be able to do is decline a medical service because she holds a personal religious belief that the patient (or the patient's parents, in this case) is immoral.

Because think of the standard that sets--any patient who does not meet an individual doctor's whimsical and arbitrary moral code can be denied treatment by that doctor.

Raise your hands if you think that actually serves the "first, do no harm" ethos of the Hippocratic oath.

What gets me in all of this is that if the roles were reversed here--if a gay or lesbian pediatrician refused treatment for a baby born to Christian parents--I am roughly 110% sure the sizeable Christian blogosphere would erupt in moral outrage on behalf of the parents.  As well they should, because I can't imagine how mortified I might feel were I in Krista and Jami's shoes and denied medical service for my (hypothetical) kid because I'm, say, a Christian, by a doctor who was recommended to me by a trusted source--in this case, the family's midwife.

But that means our moral outrage that we are so quick to reach for (I know, I'm like that too...) needs to be proffered to all victims of discrimination, not just Christian victims.  Because discrimination is Pharisaic in the purest sense of the term: it is using arbitrary legalism to define who is and who isn't a part of the chosen.

And in this case, discrimination runs afoul of the exact same passage from 1 Thessalonians I wrote about in the post about the marriage officiant in Virginia--this doctor in Michigan is likewise not doing her job, and in so doing being inhospitable to strangers.

In thinking we are upholding Scripture, we end up violating its commands in often profound ways.  Just like this.

So, I'm left saying the same thing again to another legalistic jerk of a Christian: do your effing job.  And if you can't, get into another line of work.  Because you're making it worse for the rest of us who are just trying to actually love as we ourselves would want to be loved.  Which is why I always feel the need to write these posts after reading about the hurt that GLBTQ people receive at the hands of Christians--I want to be able to say YOU ARE LOVED.

Because--again, I cannot stress this enough--it isn't rocket science.  We just act like it is.

Love God, love each other.


Full stop.

Got it?  Good.  Live it.

Yours in Christ,