Monday, April 30, 2012

Fight Fire With Water

It has been an eventful few days in here in Pacific Northwest Christian-land. First, an activist group identifying itself as “The Angry Queers” vandalized the Portland campus of Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church, breaking windows and damaging church property.

And, Dan Savage, the visionary behind the anti-bullying “It Gets Better” campaign, delivered a speech in Seattle to high school students in which he said that the Bible contains “bullshit.” This prompted a handful of Christian students to walk out, which Savage then described as a “pansy-assed move.”

Seriously, WTF, people?

I’ll first dispense with the massive irony that a gay-rights advocate is using the term “pansy” as an insult. Dan Savage apologized for it yesterday, but he simply said it was wrong, which to me is wholly inadequate. There’s a reason why calling someone a pansy is wrong, and that reason is because “pansy” is a derogatory slur for a gay man.

This is a grown man whose magnum opus is a campaign against the bullying of gay and lesbian youths, and the first thing he reaches for when describing the youths who walked out on his speech IS A GAY SLUR. And then he doesn’t even acknowledge that in his apology.

I won’t say that Savage’s words are unforgivable, but they are shocking, and his apology feels a bit disingenuous.

That having been said…I’m still trying to figure out this entirely false dichotomy of either the Bible is “bullshit” or I have to be anti-gay as a Christian, because I still believe in the Bible as the Word of God.

And it isn’t that I deny that Levitical law addresses same-sex relations between two men. Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 are in Scripture.  It's that I much prefer to actually tackle those verses head-on than simply pretend like they aren’t there. There’s responsible exegesis involved in understanding why those verses are phrased the way they are (to say nothing of Paul’s own writings on the topic in Romans 1), and we do ourselves a disservice when we either gloss over them entirely or adopt a “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it!” approach. The way we have found around this conundrum, though, I think, is that we each have our own “canon within a canon,” that is, our own favorite verses, stories, passages, and lessons from the Bible (if you think I've sang this song before, it's because I have!).

So, if I agree with one thing in Dan Savage’s apology post, it is that we all do in fact read the Bible selectively. And it’s a valid critique. If we outlaw same-sex marriage, so the critique goes, then we should outlaw the consumption of ostrich, because both same-sex relations and eating ostrich are called abominations in Levitical law, 18:22 and 11:13-16 respectively (yes, we eat ostrich. It is apparently quite tasty). Savage’s critique here centers around Biblical rules regarding slavery and divorce, but still, it is the same basic point.

In other words, we’ve done a pretty good job of making a mountain out of a very small molehill, and in doing so, we commit the sin of the scribes and Pharisees of “neglect(ing) the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.” (Matthew 23:23, NRSV)

I am reminded of the recent crackdown that the Vatican announced on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR, the representative organization of American Catholic nuns) for being more concerned with alleviating poverty than with denouncing abortion and gay marriage. Part of this crackdown will involve a five-year effort to reboot the LCWR’s priorities. Imagine if those five years, the human hours and monetary costs, were used instead on spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ and ministering to the poor instead.

Similarly, imagine if the thousands of dollars the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints spent on passing Proposition 8 in California instead went to their mission efforts and charitable works.

So hopefully, you can see why I feel like the passion for fighting marriage equality that many Christian churches and organizations exhibit is misplaced.

Which brings us to the vandalism perpetrated against Mars Hill Portland. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of Mark Driscoll. But vandalizing his church is just as much a form of bullying as anything else he has done towards women or gays and lesbians. Protest him, publicly criticize him, hope that people stop listening to him, whatever. But taking retribution to this level more than just crosses the line, it pole vaults over it.

No matter how hurt the Angry Queers feel by Mark Driscoll, there’s a saying about turning the other cheek that comes to mind. That hurt is just as misplaced as the passion for fighting marriage equality is that I talked about just a few paragraphs above.  Both are painful.

In a season two episode of the television series The West Wing, President Josiah Bartlet (played by the venerable Martin Sheen) takes an environmentalist group to task for not condemning instances of eco-terrorism, saying that friends are honest with each other, and that moderates should take responsibility for criticizing extremism. In that vein, these two instances are not representative the greater equality community, and they should not in any way be taken as such.

So…this is me trying as humbly as possible to be honest, as an ally and as a Christian, to the same-sex equality community (GLBTQ folks and allies alike): please, remember your humanity. And remember the humanity of the people on the other side.

Because such words and actions do not alienate simply your opponents (or outright endanger them)—they also alienate people like me, someone who feels called to love and welcome gays and lesbians precisely because I am a Christian, not despite me being a Christian.

Name-calling is not the answer.

Violence is not the answer.

Indeed, fighting fire with more fire seldom is the answer. There is a reason why we fight fire with water instead.

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, April 29, 2012

This Week's Sermon: "Shibboleth"

John 11:17-27

 17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18 Bethany was a little less than two miles from Jerusalem. 19 Many Jews had come to comfort Martha and Mary after their brother’s death. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him, while Mary remained in the house. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. 22 Even now I know that whatever you ask God, God will give you.” 23 Jesus told her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha replied, “I know that he will rise in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die. 26 Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She replied, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, God’s Son, the one who is coming into the world.” (CEB)

“The Lazarus Mission: In Search of the Meaning of a Miracle,” Week Three

The pair of New York playwrights could not have been more out of place sitting the counter of the Waffle House that sat on the Georgia-Alabama border. In the Deep South to perform research for a play they were writing, Erik and Jessica were drawn to the southern chain by its inexpensive coffee and abundant carbohydrates—both of which are major food groups for me as well. In their book, entitled Living Justice, they wrote about the first time they stepped into a Waffle House, having just arrived from New York City, and are approached by a waitress:

“You’re not from around here, are you?”

“Nope,” Erik says, “Can’t say that we are.”

“We figured you were from somewhere else…what’s that tattoo mean?”

Jessica replies, “It’s a tree of life. A religious symbol, you know?”


Then Erik jumps in, “That a John Deere out back?”

“You bet your (behind), son.”

“My grandfather was a farmer, you know; taught me how to fix one of those with a ball-peen hammer and a can of WD-40.”

And the waitress, no longer disturbed, but flirting, says, “Oh, really? Buy you a coffee?”

It is as though Erik had said the magic words that unlocked a stranger and turned them into an acquaintance—the password that brings down a person’s guard, and allows you in--which is what exactly happens in the Scripture passage here today.

This Sunday marks the third installment of this sermon series for us that we have been exploring as a celebration of the church season of Easter, as well during as of the earthly season of spring—which means that for both Christians and non-Christians alike, this is a time of growth and renewal and, most importantly, of new life! Having just heard the most famous resurrection story the Bible has to offer on Easter Sunday, we will be spending four weeks going verse-by-verse through the second-most famous resurrection story—the story of the raising of Jesus’s friend Lazarus, a story that is only found in the Gospel of John. It is not the only resurrection miracle that Jesus performs—there is also, in the other three Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), the story of Jairus’s daughter being resurrected by Jesus. But the raising of Lazarus is told in such rich and lavish detail that it has come to occupy a unique place in our collective memory as an exceptionally well-known and well-loved story. The first week, to kick off the story, we began with Jesus first hearing that Lazarus has fallen ill—not that Lazarus has died—but that he is sick. Last week, Jesus pronounces Lazarus dead and finally acts—to return to Judea to raise Lazarus, and this week, He arrives and we see the drama begin to unfold.

And in the midst of this drama, we are given one of the most famous Jesus quotes of all, one that probably ranks right up there with turn the other cheek, do unto others, and love thy neighbor—“I am the Resurrection and the Life, he who believes in me, though he were dead, shall live, and whosoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” And we do this Jesus quote a profound disservice when we forget that it was never meant to stand on its own—it is Jesus’ reply to Martha’s incorrect statement that she would be reunited with Lazarus at the end of time—Jesus says, “Your brother will rise,” and Martha says, “I know. He will rise in the resurrection on the last day.” Now that may sound hopeful to the untrained ear, but it really isn’t—Martha is saying she has no hope of seeing her brother again until the very end of time.

So while we may treat Jesus’ pronouncement here as a standalone sort of statement, it doesn’t quite work like that. Try hearing Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in a total vacuum, devoid of the racism and injustice that he was protesting. Imagine listening to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address without actually knowing about the American Civil War. For a more contemporary example...try watching the television show Family Guy without having ever seen the show it blatantly rips off of, The Simpsons! We cannot afford to do the same to Jesus’ teachings, and so we cannot afford to forget that Jesus is consoling a woman who, for completely understandable reasons, has lost her faith.

Because we have all probably been there at some point in our lives, right? Where our faith was weakened, broken, even shattered completely and had to be carefully and lovingly rebuilt bit by bit, piece by piece. But we are not so lucky as Mary and Martha are in this story, to have their faith in God, and their faith in Christ, restored in one fell swoop with the raising of Lazarus—for a lot of us, it takes time. And Martha thinks it will take time for her as well—enough time to fill eternity until she sees her brother again. And because of that, I think that for the two of them, the reality is that without these two verses, without this simple, fundamental truth, that their faith could not exist as it did. This is the new building block, the new keystone upon which these two women's faiths are being built, that Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life.

The choice of words is not coincidental, for Martha’s new affirmation of faith, “You are the Messiah, the Son of God,” is almost word for word what the new rock, the foundation of our church, the disciple Peter, says to Jesus in Matthew 16—“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” The difference of the word “living,” or of the addition of "who is coming into the world" may seem inconsequential to us in passing, but to me, it actually means a great deal to who Peter was, and who Martha was, as a believer.

We each see and perceive and interpret the world a little bit differently than the person next to us. We each have our own vocabulary and our own dialect, our own ways of expressing ourselves, and that is as true then as it is now—in the book of Judges, there is the story of a rebel faction of Ephraimites, members of one of the tribes, trying to cross over the Jordan into Gilead during the war, and Israel’s judge at the time, Jephthah, he defends Gilead by asking the rogue Ephraimites to say the word, “Shibboleth,” and as the Scripture said, the Ephraimite would say, “Sibboleth,” because he could not pronounce it correctly. It distinguished true Israelites from the rebels. And the slight change in wording from Matthew to John distinguishes Martha’s faith from Peter’s. 

Each of you has your own shibboleth—your own pronouncement of faith that will always likely vary just a little bit from the person sitting next to you. Cast about your own mind, think about what Scripture verse you have built the entirety of your faith upon. I know for many of you, that verse is John 3:16, for God so loved the world that He gave His only Son. For still others of you, it may be Romans 10:9, all who confess with their lips that Jesus Christ is Lord shall be saved, or perhaps Deuteronomy 6:5, you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind. Just as Martha and Peter word their shibboleths differently, so too do each of you have those slight differences that make your faith--that make it unique, like your own spiritual fingerprint. And so, I imagine for some of you out there, it may well be here, that whoever lives and believes in Jesus shall never die. And when you hear the faith of another believer proclaimed, and know in your soul that without that faith, that fundamental truth that belief in Jesus means you shall live, that you could not be a Christian, without that piece of knowledge you could not live out your religion, it reminds you that sometimes, you too are as Martha with only that piece of faith to cling to in a sea of death and loss and grief and despair.

Jesus has found Martha’s own Shibboleth, and after beginning this story in a state of hurt and anger towards her Messiah, she is now prepared to let him in to heal her family once and for all. What an amazing reversal for her! May that be the place we find ourselves, the place we allow Jesus to find us, having just placed our trust and faith in Him to make our wounded selves whole.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
April 29, 2012

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Behold the Man

There are few pastors, living or dead, whom I revere more than the German Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His anti-Nazi activism inspired me as I am a member of a genocide-created diaspora, but once I began to read his works and get to know his mind, I saw a devoted, pietistic faith that both complements and challenges my own more works-centered theology.

On Easter Sunday, I borrowed from him heavily in my message that Easter was not really just about life conquering death, or love conquering hate, but of reconciliation and right relationship conquering estrangement and revenge. That message was as much for the benefit of my own ears as for the benefit of my audience’s—I still, even sixteen years after being baptized, struggle to comprehend the reality that I cannot work my way into salvation, and that it is only by reconciling myself with God that I can find peace.

Because (and especially now, as a pastor), I worry that my relationship with God was and is oftentimes like one with a demanding, love-withholding parent—if I only raise another X amount of dollars or aid for the Emergency Support Shelter, or for Kessler Elementary School, God will finally approve of me. If only I bring another household to Christ and into the church, God will love me more.

Taken to its logical extreme, this mentality is one of the most powerful drawbacks to my own theology that good works are an essential ingredient to creating right relationship with God. It can cause me to doubt the saving power of God’s grace, and of my own capacity to seek the reconciliation with God that I long for. I rely on pastors like Bonhoeffer to talk me down from that extreme.

My daily devotional book since midway through my time in seminary has been I Want to Live These Days With You, a book which separates some of Bonhoeffer’s writings into 365 short reflections. Reading it this morning, the one for today, April 26, is one that I feel needs to be shared:

“Those who look at Jesus Christ in actuality see God and the world in one. From now on, they can no longer see God without seeing the world, nor the world without seeing God. Ecce homo—see what a human being! In him the reconciliation of the world with God took place. The world is conquered not through smashing it but through reconciliation…It is not a general idea of love, but the love of God really lived in Jesus Christ that accomplishes that. This love of God for the world does not withdraw from reality back into noble souls transported away from the world, but rather experiences and suffers the reality of the world in the severest way. The world amuses itself with the body of Jesus Christ, but the martyred One forgives the world this sin. This is how reconciliation takes place. Ecce homo, indeed.” 

"Ecce homo" is Latin for “behold the man,” the exclamation of the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate to the crowd in the Gospel of John, just before Pilate passes sentence upon Jesus. It is a simple but profound statement that is fundamental to my own theology because the ironic thing about Pilate is that as much as he tries to deride Jesus—by mockingly referring to him as either man or king—he still ends up speaking the truth about who Jesus is.

Pilate commands us to behold the broken and shattered man about to be killed by a broken and shattered world.

Grace so powerful that it could reconcile us to one another, and to Heaven, after a tragedy such as this could only come from God.

Even if on some level I know this, it is good to be reminded of it.

Yours in Christ, Eric

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Armenia Remembered

Though this is first and foremost a “Christian” blog, I hope you will permit me this brief moment of advocacy outside any of the usual topics of conversation that we have here.

I am Armenian-American from my mother’s side of the family—my great-grandparents immigrated here from the Ottoman Empire during the First World War as refugees from the Armenian Holocaust that began in 1915. My grandmother was full-blooded Armenian, and I am proud to be a third-generation American from her.

April 24 marks the 97th anniversary of the arrest and deportation of the Armenians in Istanbul that began the Armenian Holocaust, and it today serves for us as Genocide Remembrance Day (or, “Genocide Memorial Day” in Armenian).

As of this writing, 20 different countries and 42 different American states have officially recognized the Armenian Holocaust as genocide, per the recommendations of most genocide historians and scholars.

The Republic of Turkey—the country established from the Ottoman Empire in the wake of the end of WWI—and the United States of America are not among those 20 countries.

Indeed, figures who have argued that the Armenian Holocaust was genocide have been prosecuted as criminals in Turkey under Article 301 of their penal code.

The US Congress has had resolutions made to recognize the Armenian Holocaust as genocide, and they have never made it to the floor for a full vote.

Yet, chronologically, from the Armenian Holocaust we arrive at the Jewish Holocaust (as well as the many non-Jewish victims), and the genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, and Darfur, and ethnic cleansing in places like Kosovo. We say "Never again," but have never followed through with that resolve.

In past years, I have written poetry or told stories to commemorate this day.

But today, I would simply say that memory is one of the most powerful abilities we have—and one of the most fragile. It can inspire and be warped; it can fuel reconciliation as well as animosity; it can create a person’s identity and erase it.

Not many other things can claim to be that powerful.

Love is one.

But they are also dependent on another. Love must be remembered in order to maintain its power. So...remember your love for one another. Remember the power that it has.

May that love one day finally overrule whatever need we feel to inflict violence upon one another.

In memory of the 1.5 million men, women, and children murdered in the Armenian Holocaust.

Yours in Christ,

“Do you know what still causes so much pain? It’s not the people we lost, or the land. It’s to know that we could be so hated.” –Charles Aznavour, in the film Ararat

Sunday, April 22, 2012

This Week's Sermon: "Liviu"

John 11:11-16

11 He continued, “Our friend Lazarus is sleeping, but I am going in order to wake him up.”

12 The disciples said, “Lord, if he’s sleeping, he will get well.” 13 They thought Jesus meant that Lazarus was in a deep sleep, but Jesus had spoken about Lazarus’ death.

14 Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died. 15 For your sakes, I’m glad I wasn’t there so that you can believe. Let’s go to him.”

16 Then Thomas (the one called Didymus) said to the other disciples, “Let us go too so that we may die with Jesus.” (CEB)

“The Lazarus Mission: In Search of the Meaning of a Miracle,” Week Two

Five years ago, I was spending a beautiful spring morning on the beautiful campus of Western Oregon University in Monmouth, Oregon, and its bells were ringing.

I checked my watch—it was not yet an hour, or even half past.

I hurried onward—I was there to chaperone five of my students at the state high school speech and debate championships, and I wanted to check in on them.

But bells kept ringing.

Re-checking my watch, I realized exactly what time it was—it was the same time in the morning when, just a few days earlier, Virginia Tech student Seung-Hui Cho, entered Norris Hall on the Virginia Tech campus, armed with a .22-caliber Walther pistol and a 9mm Glock 19.

The bells rang out 32 times—one chime for every victim. I finally stopped what I was doing, and recalling what had happened on that morning, of all the news stories I read about it afterwards, the most heart-rendering story in a day absolutely overflowing with them came from a room in Norris Hall where Tech professor Liviu Librescu’s solid mechanics class was convening on the second floor. As Cho made repeated attempts to enter the classroom, Liviu blockaded the door with his 76-year-old body as he beckoned his students to escape through the windows. He was shot five times through the door and died there, but all of his students save one survived. Had this been his life’s greatest work, it would be enough, but this was also a man who had survived the Holocaust and defected to Israel after refusing to swear allegiance to the Communist regime in his native Romania. And it was this tragedy, not another, that killed him. What I came to realize, listening to the memory of the bells, was that sacrifice is not merely inspirational, it is ironic. Because of one simple reality—it did not have to be this way!

This Sunday marks the second installment of a new sermon series for us that we are beginning as a celebration of the church season of Easter, as well as of the earthly season of spring—which means that for both Christians and non-Christians alike, this is a time of growth and renewal and, most importantly, of new life! Having just heard the most famous resurrection story the Bible has to offer on Easter Sunday, we will be spending four weeks going verse-by-verse through the second-most famous resurrection story—the story of the raising of Jesus’s friend Lazarus, a story that is only found in the Gospel of John. It is not the only resurrection miracle that Jesus performs—there is also, in the other three Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), the story of Jairus’s daughter being resurrected by Jesus. But the raising of Lazarus is told in such rich and lavish detail that it has come to occupy a unique place in our collective memory as an exceptionally well-known and well-loved story.

Last week, to kick off the story, we began with Jesus first hearing that Lazarus has fallen ill—not that Lazarus has died—but that he is sick. This week, Jesus pronounces Lazarus dead and finally acts—to return to Judea to raise Lazarus—even though doing so would put Him in grave danger, because unlike in the other three Gospels, in John, Jesus’s opponents are onto Him from the beginning. The cleansing of the Temple comes at the very beginning of John's Gospel, in chapter 2, not towards the end like Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and for it, the Temple authorities in John hunt Jesus down throughout His entire ministry--and He knows it!

At first glance, the sacrifice involved appeared to be one of Lazarus himself—when we recall last week’s verses, we know, as it does with any senseless death, that it did not have to be this way. Jesus did not have to wait two days to return to Judea, He could have left immediately, heck, He could have healed Lazarus at a distance, which we know he can do because of the story of the centurion’s servant in John 4, where He heals the servant sight unseen. And the pain that Martha and Mary feel isn’t simply the pain of loss, it is the pain of “it didn’t have to be this way,” because as we’ll see next week, they know that Jesus could have acted—Martha will even say to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

But a remarkable thing happens in today’s passage, though—the onus of sacrifice shifts from Lazarus to Jesus, and the “it doesn’t have to be this way” sentiment comes not from Mary and Martha—that will come later—but from the disciples themselves. But, because they are the disciples after all, and thus are none too bright, they don’t quite get it until the very end of this passage—they are instead the comically inept foils to Jesus’ knowing brilliance, until when Thomas steps up and says, “Let us go too so that we may die with Him.”

Of all the candidates to demonstrate this kind of loyalty and courage, Thomas would not be at the top of probably anyone’s list. Simon Peter, maybe, because He is Jesus’ right-hand man. Or James and John—after all, they are nicknamed the Sons of Thunder by Jesus for their own zealousness and intensity. But Thomas? Doubting Thomas? That’s rich. But also poetically amazing and reassuring. See, I think that we have come to expect extraordinary things only from people who we consider to be extraordinary. We expect life-saving expertise from our nurses and doctors, but when an ordinary citizen steps in to save a life, it makes the news. We expect life-saving protection from our cops and firefighters, but when the Liviu Librescus of the world offer their own lives as shields for our own, it is the stuff of memorials and tributes. These stories move us because we have been customized not to expect them. And so too, then, should Thomas’s declaration move us, not simply for what he says, but because it is him saying it.

Because at this very moment, Thomas is each of us. In the Lazarus story, the job of acting as proxy for the audience jumps from character to character—at first, it is arguably Jesus Himself, and next week, it is Mary and Martha, but this week, it is all about Thomas. Because for once, and just a few verses after he and the other disciples painfully demonstrate how unaware they are of Jesus’ true capacity, Thomas gets it. He realizes that it did not have to be this way, it did not have to result in Jesus endangering His own life, and meets that sacrifice with his own willingness to sacrifice himself. He, more than anyone in this story aside from Jesus Himself, has chosen to do what is right, rather than what is easy or convenient.

Because that is what sacrifice ultimately is—it is doing what is right rather than what is easy, it is deviating from the path of least resistance to achieve a far better result than what otherwise could have ever happened. Sometimes those sacrifices are dramatic, and life-taking. Other times, they are nearly invisible to everyone but God. I worry that we have strayed from utilizing the church’s full ability to inspire right action, rather than easy action, because we want church to be easy today. We want being Christian to be easy--get baptized, say a Sinner's Prayer, and it's home free. But it isn’t. It’s work. It's a decision that you make every morning when you wake up deciding to be a good person, a Godly person, or not. From the moment God calls you to the moment you return to Him in Heaven, serving the world, your friends and family and community, as a Christian is work. Just like being a disciple was!

So where has God placed you in the life of someone else where you can be as Thomas to them? To be the person who is willing enough to step up and walk with them, to encourage them, to be there for them even at your own expense? We live in a time and place where self-interest, where respect for the individual is supreme, but where is God asking you to abandon your own self-interest to actually make someone else’s life better, even if it makes your life harder, even if that person never sees it, if nobody ever sees it but you? Would that be enough for you? My hope and prayer is that it would, because even those seemingly small decisions are where we are at our most powerful, with the ability to create for good or for bad in a fellow person’s life. Sometimes, we abuse that power, but in this story, Thomas could not. At Virginia Tech, Liviu Librescu could not.

We may ask ourselves, who are we, to measure up to heroes such as them? But to ask that would be to deny our own goodness.

So, instead, God asks us, who are you not to measure up? You are His children. Imagine what you can do!

By the grace of God, may it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
April 22, 2012

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Word of the Lord: Now in 31 Flavors!

If Martin Luther could see us now.

The strongest catalyst for Scriptural and ecclesiastical reform, Luther (with the help of Gutenburg’s mildly useful invention, the printing press) popularized the idea that the people in the pews could and should be allowed to read the Bible in their own native languages. Luther himself walked the walk by eagerly translating the Latin Vulgate Bible into his native German some 75 or so years before the English church produced the immortal King James Version.

Leave it to us Americans, though, to take English translations of Scripture and cause them to multiply like proverbial rabbits. There are, to my knowledge, at least 36 English translations of the Bible produced during the 20th century, and already in the 12-year-old 21st century, at least 13 more English translations have been undertaken.

We can now add The Voice as the 14th translation to that list—a new, dynamic equivalence (meaning it tries to approximate the tone and feel of Scripture rather than create an exact, word-for-word translation) translation that is being released this month. While I do not know very much about the academics who worked on the translation, I am a fan of a number of folks on their creative team, from Brian McLaren to Phyllis Tickle and from Kristin Swenson to Matthew Paul Turner.

But it is still hard for me, a self-confessed Bible geek, to get especially excited this time around because I am still exploring and wrestling with my newest Bible version, the Common English Bible, which was just released last year (and before that, I was working with the Today's New International Version (TNIV) translation). The translations are coming too quickly for me to do justice to in my treatments of them. I like being able to return to passages and see something new in them, and that sort of exegesis is dependent upon lots of time—which necessarily limits my ability to digest new, cutting-edge translations.

And if it is too much for a pastor—someone who is bizarre enough to want to live and breathe Scripture for a living—I can so relate to the sense of being overwhelmed that other folks may feel at the sheer amount of choice there now is in picking a Bible. How do you keep up with it?

I honestly feel a little bit the same about one of the same things that Martin Luther helped give us—church affiliation. It used to be there were the Reformed churches begun by Luther, Calvin, et al, plus Henry VIII’s Church of England, plus the Roman Catholic Church itself. Then along from the Church of England came the Methodists, and along from the Presbyterians came us (the Disciples of Christ), to say nothing of the many Baptist movements, the United Church of Christ, or the various strands of Lutheranism, Pentecostalism, Mormonism, the Quakers, or the Jehovah’s Witnesses. And this list is by no means exhaustive.

But all of those choices were not enough, so American churches began ministering as denominations unto themselves—non-denominational churches thrived and flourished, and with each one marching to the beat of its own drummer, there are still more choices for the American consumer of Christianity (for, when we commonly throw around terms like “church shopping,” what else could the American Christian be to us as pastors except a consumer? Le sigh).

The funny thing is—Luther did not originally set out to split off from the Catholic Church—he tried to reform it! Similarly, I don’t think he translated Scripture for the sake of it; he did so for a specific purpose—so that people not fluent in Latin could read the Word of God for themselves.

I can only wonder what Luther would think of all the choices that abound today…when it seems like every week another church says, “All my predecessors haven’t gotten it right, but I have!” and splits off, it seems like every year another Bible translation also says, “All my predecessors haven’t gotten it right, but I have!” (I realize that, given that my own church was founded by leaders who felt the Presbyterians hadn’t gotten it right, this criticism is perhaps hypocritical.)

Don’t get me wrong—diversity, choice, these are all good things in Christianity. Necessary things, even. And this is certainly not me trying to be lazy or anti-intellectual, either. And it isn’t The Voice’s fault—I’ll be picking up a copy of The Voice for myself in the not-too-distant future, and I expect it to have a lot of strengths as a translation. But I worry that by the time I am able to get around to it and do The Voice justice, it will have already been rendered obsolete--witness the discontinuation of the TNIV, which was announced in 2009, only four years after it was first released. Oof.

Really, after a certain point, aren’t we all on the same team? Eventually, don’t you reach a level of diminishing returns on the differences between denominations or translations? There are definitely times when a new church, a new translation--a new way of approaching God--is absolutely called for. But are we doing this so frequently that we're overextending ourselves and missing the forest for the trees?

In other words…at what point does, say, choosing between Bible translations basically become the same as choosing between French fries and onion rings?

Yours in Christ,

PS: Speaking of Luther...if you want a good chuckle or two, try having him insult you at your whim here!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Render Unto Caesar: The DIY Edition

Today is everybody’s favorite day: our tax forms are due! Since April 15 fell on a Sunday this year, and April 16 is a holiday in D.C., it means we got a two-day reprieve in 2012.

Because I am an enterprising, vaguely intelligent person (but also because I’m thrifty), I decided to do my own taxes for this year. So in January, I gave myself a birthday present and ordered a clergy tax guidebook to help me create my own do-it-yourself clergy taxes kung fu.

See, not to toot my own horn, but I’m one of those (apparently rare) clergy who is NOT comically inept at math. I actually got pretty good grades in math until high school, by which point I had stopped caring entirely about what x equals if y is equal to 47 bajillion over 6z.

But…I told myself that doing my own taxes would be NOTHING like algebra. I told myself, “Eric! You exercise the verbal parts of your brain every day for work, but you only do heavy mathematical lifting during budget season! It’ll be a good stretch of your mental muscles!” And perhaps most importantly, I told myself that I simply did not want to shell out the money to hire an accountant (see also: I’m thrifty).

Now, I alluded to this reality in a previous entry a few months ago, but…it turns out that clergy taxes are really, really, complicated. As in, algebra-on-steroids complicated.

There are parsonage allowances and costs of ministry, but the biggest tax complication for clergy is that we’re considered employees for income taxes, but self-employed for Social Security and Medicare taxes (why are we considered self-employed when the name portion of the remitter on my paychecks says, “First Christian Church?” I don’t know. I’m just the pastor). Functionally, this means that it is illegal for my parish to withhold taxes from my paycheck for Social Security and Medicare AND for them to pay the 7.65% employer portion of those taxes. Instead, I make quarterly tax payments to the IRS which cover the entire 15.3% myself, using the 1040-ES form.

But I didn’t realize that when I started here back in September—that I was supposed to file a 1040-ES. So, I was thrilled when I saw that my SS/Medicare taxes were due on January 15 of this year and I hadn’t had any paperwork—W-2’s, anything—attesting to my earnings.


And that’s how I spent the first two weeks of 2012 frantically ensuring I didn’t owe any back taxes/wondering if I would get pinched for tax evasion in my first year as a senior pastor.

The funny thing is, now that I have done it all once, and feel like I have some semblance of an idea of what I am doing, it makes me even less willing to pay for an accountant to do my taxes.

Because I’m thrifty. And possibly masochistic.

Please feel free to draw your own conclusions about my mental faculties and my ability to objectively evaluate the limits of said mental faculties based on this story.

Happy Tax Day to all my fellow rendering-unto-Caesar worker bees out there!

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, April 15, 2012

This Week's Sermon: "Easter Hill"

John 11:1-7

A certain man, Lazarus, was ill. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. (2 This was the Mary who anointed the Lord with fragrant oil and wiped his feet with her hair. Her brother Lazarus was ill.) 3 So the sisters sent word to Jesus, saying, “Lord, the one whom you love is ill.”

4 When he heard this, Jesus said, “This illness isn’t fatal. It’s for the glory of God so that God’s Son can be glorified through it.” 5 Jesus loved Martha, her sister, and Lazarus. 6 When he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed where he was. After two days, 7 he said to his disciples, “Let’s return to Judea again.” (CEB)

“The Lazarus Mission: In Search of the Meaning of a Miracle,” Week One

The clouds of dust built up and billowed around our parched and tired bodies. Donning latex gloves, the dozen or so of us on the site began reaching our hands into giant buckets of stucco and plastering that stucco against the walls of the tiny, two-room house being built. It was the suburbs of Tijuana, Mexico, in the middle of June, and in the heat of the early summer, American missionaries from all over had migrated across the border to build houses for Amor Ministries all around Tijuana. After mixing enough cement to form the foundation of the house, wooden frames were erected, along with a roof and proper windows and doors that lock. And the walls? As my senior pastor said afterwards, it used to be we would even paint the walls, if we had time. The family, who usually had previously been living in a shack, would choose the color, and one year, the entire neighborhood, everyone who was receiving a new house, picked varying colors of pastels, yellows and lavenders and baby blues to paint the outside of their houses. After applying the final coats of paint and leaving the mission site, one person remarked that from a distance, the newly-painted homes looked like Easter eggs. And so, that neighborhood was christened “Easter Hill.” And though named that for the beautiful colors, the implications of death and rebirth, of loss and renewal, were not lost on anyone, either.

This Sunday marks the start of a new sermon series for us that we are beginning as a celebration of the church season of Easter, as well as of the earthly season of spring—which means that for both Christians and non-Christians alike, this is a time of growth and renewal and, most importantly, of new life! Having just heard the most famous resurrection story the Bible has to offer on Easter Sunday, we will be spending four weeks going verse-by-verse through the second-most famous resurrection story—the story of the raising of Jesus’s friend Lazarus, a story that is only found in the Gospel of John. It is not the only resurrection miracle that Jesus performs—there is also, in the other three Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), the girl who is dead, and Jesus says that no, she is simply sleeping, before commanding her to awaken. But the raising of Lazarus is told in such rich and lavish detail that it has come to occupy a unique place in our collective memory as an exceptionally well-known and well-loved story. This week, to kick off the story, we begin with Jesus first hearing that Lazarus has fallen ill—not that Lazarus has died—but that he is sick.

And that distinction matters, because at this point in John’s Gospel, Jesus has preached of Himself as a giver of eternal life by being a direct conduit between us and God—He tells the Samaritan woman at the well that He can provide her with living water, rather than simply the water she came to draw, and He has referred to Himself in the feeding of the masses as the bread of life itself. But as far as the miracles that Jesus has performed so far in John’s Gospel, from the turning of water into wine and giving sight to a man born blind, Jesus has performed healings—not resurrections. And while the story of Jairus’s daughter being raised by Jesus comes fairly early in each of the other three Gospels, the raising of Lazarus is the very last miracle that Jesus performs in John’s Gospel before the beginning of the Passion narrative—the raising of Lazarus is Jesus’s grand finale, it is the massive display of fireworks in which He is going to bow out.

Which in turn creates a paradox—it is common for Jesus to use His miracles as tools for teaching, for demonstrating God’s power and grace, and raising someone from the dead would certainly do that. But Jesus’s opening line in this story is, “This illness is not fatal!” It is as though He has downgraded Lazarus’s illness from, say, terminal heart disease to a case of the sniffles. One I would need the help of many dedicated doctors to recover from, but for the other I simply need chicken soup and vitamin C!

So there are two potential ways of resolving this paradox—one is that Jesus is simply in denial. After all, He has just received disastrous news about a very close friend of His, and so naturally, Jesus is taking a page out of the Gospel according to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and is in the first stage of grief. But as we will learn next week, this is not the case, for Jesus is in fact the one to break the news that Lazarus has died, even before He has arrived on the scene.

The other option is to recognize Jesus’s boast for what it is—an assurance that not even death itself can hold a candle to the greatness and glory of God. Recall what I said just a moment ago—that this was supposed to be Jesus’s grand finale. Well, the previous ten chapters of story have been building us up to this, bit by bit, piece by piece—the first miracle doesn’t even involve a healing, it just involves some water at a wedding. Then, two chapters later, Jesus heals a centurion’s servant, but that is done from a distance, we don’t actually get to meet the servant. Then we finally get into the face-to-face healings. And now Jesus is playing His trump card. The challenges have grown in each passing miracle, and Jesus responds gamely each time. In fact, He even ups the degree of difficulty by waiting for two days before saying to His disciples, “Okay, let’s go see Lazarus now.” If you think of Jesus as a doctor—which is probably how a number of people did in fact view Him back then, as a sort of itinerant doctor—what sort of an on-the-job doctor, upon being presented with a terminally ill patient, would say, “Yeah…I think I’m gonna take a long weekend. See you on Monday?” Jesus is so completely courageous, so unafraid of this newest challenge, that He is fine making it more challenging!

We seldom have such a luxury in our own lives, to take challenges as they come at us with such grace, poise, and confidence. If we can find a way to make something less challenging, we often will. We take shortcuts. We use the Cliffs Notes. We download pre-written sermons off the internet. But when it comes to mission, to being a church in today’s world, there are no such shortcuts. There is no neat-and-easy how-to manual. We have to simply take the plunge together and hope and pray that the work we do in our communities and on behalf of others might actually result in a resurrection, in some sort of renewal, in their lives. And that kind of faith does not always come easy, even for a Christian.

But in this story, it does for Jesus. And there’s a reason for this—because He can foresee not only Lazarus’s resurrection, but His own. And a crucial detail about Christ’s resurrection, that we heard read last week on Easter Sunday, was that He had left the shroud, His burial cloth, behind. Quite literally, Jesus knows that the power of God’s love is so great that He is able to leave the trappings of death far behind Him in favor of clothing Himself in life, and in love. That is the sort of resurrection that is still possible. It is the sort of resurrection that the colors of Easter Hill represented—gone were the grays and browns of dirt and urban decay, replaced by the vibrant colors of new life. The burial clothes of abject poverty had begun to be shed by this community in Tijuana in favor of something new.

Here’s the catch, though—new life is precisely that—new. It is a foundation to build upon, not a story to end. And so while this may indeed be the last hurrah of Christ’s pre-Passion ministry, it is not simply the end of ten chapters of buildup and suspense. It is a beginning—for Lazarus, for Mary and for Martha, for the disciples, for all those in the crowd that will soon gather around a tomb that, like Christ’s own, goes from containing a body to being miraculously empty. And in Tijuana, the job wasn’t done, the mission wasn’t completed, simply because the houses were built. The ministry of mission, and of justice, and of love continues—just like the resurrected Christ.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
April 15, 2012

Thursday, April 12, 2012

On Gnats and Camels

I probably shouldn't be blogging about something immediately after said thing has made me upset, but hey, here I am.

The American bishops of the Roman Catholic Church announced today, as CNN terms it, a major campaign to oppose what it views as threats to religious liberty from the federal government as well as various local governments.


This entry is not about the individual policies being protested by the bishops--I agree with the bishops in some cases and I disagree with them in others. This entry is also not about religious freedom--I've already tackled that topic recently. This entry is about the moral authority claimed by someone like a bishop, or like me as a pastor, when protesting something.

Because...and I'll try to say this as delicately as I can...the bishops are simply not very good spokesmen to lead the charge for increased religious freedom and autonomy, especially in regards to sexuality.

Exactly 10 years ago, in 2002, the Boston Globe broke the stories of the criminal prosecutions of five Roman Catholic priests for child molestation. In the ensuing weeks, months, and years, it became readily apparent to the public that the scope and scale of the plague of child molestation within the Roman Catholic Church was enabled by cover-up actions committed by a number of Catholic bishops, ranging from reassigning accused priests rather than defrocking them to failing to report credible accusations to law enforcement.

In response to the scandal, that year the US Conference of Bishops created a "zero-tolerance" policy that required uniform adherence to rules such as use of background checks and the conducting of investigations, which was absolutely the right thing to do.

But with stories like these coming out from Philadelphia and these coming out from my hometown of Kansas City of abusive priests having still been sheltered by their dioceses after the zero-tolerance policy went into effect, it raises serious questions about whether the Roman Catholic hierarchy is even following its own rules and regulations regarding child abuse. When it is estimated that two-thirds of American bishops actively participated in such cover-ups before 2002, there really should have been a zero tolerance policy for bishops covering up abuse as well, because a certain portion of the distrust that many people now feel towards the clergy and the church can be laid directly at their feet. They showed that they could not be trusted with the autonomy they exercised.

So even though I am not Catholic, it is hard not to take those stories personally--as a human being, or as a person who does have a lot of affection for the Roman Catholic Church, but especially as a young male pastor who works with children every week.

I was immensely blessed in college and seminary to receive intellectual guidance and spiritual support from a number of Catholic clergy, but I have to admit that the trust I have in all of them does not really spill over in the direction of the hierarchy. I want it to, but it doesn't.

And it doesn't because it didn't have to be this way. I read these stories of the powerful protests from the bishops, and I think to myself, "What if they had applied this zeal and enthusiasm to keeping their churches' children safe?" Just imagine how much that zeal would have strengthened the church in that world, and made that world a better place!

Instead, exactly one week after a Kansas City judge rules that Bishop Robert Finn should stand trial for failure to report suspected child abuse, the American bishops devote their collective energy to initiating a public campaign not to better enforce their own policies regarding sexual misconduct, but to expand their own religious liberties, including in matters pertaining directly to issues of sexuality.

As Jesus said to the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23:24, "You strain out a gnat but you swallow a camel!"

Yours in Christ,

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Leviticus 19 Question

I alluded to this phenomenon in my recent post on Paul and slavery, but I absolutely, without a doubt, believe that 99.9% of us Christians (myself included) pick and choose from within Scripture to create what is called a "canon within a canon." Essentially, we not only pick certain verses, chapters, passages, and stories to cling to, but in doing so, we sometimes supersize them relative to the verses that surround them.

In my Tuesday morning Bible Study yesterday, we tackled this issue head-on, and I realized, while teaching, that Leviticus 19 perhaps encapsulates the dangers of proof texting more so than any other chapter in the Bible. We were originally discussing James 4, which includes a strong admonition not to sit in judgment of others, and the curriculum we were using prompted us to ask ourselves what things we were most likely to judge other people on. I used my own notes to frame that as a discussion on why do we consider some sins so much greater than others.

Now, on some level, that's a no-brainer--stealing someone else's car is different on many orders of magnitude from, say, jaywalking. But Levitical law, with its hundreds of negative commands ("Don't do this") and hundreds of positive commands ("Do this") is used in such a way that some of its precepts do get far more attention than others.

Part of this is by design--the Ten Commandments are prominent for a reason, for instance. They are fundamental laws governing decency and right relationship with both God and one another. But what about the 600-some Hebrew Bible laws not a part of the Ten?

One of the most common arguments I hear goes something like this: "The Bible also says to not wear clothing made of multiple fabrics or to eat fruit of a plant that is less the five years old. We don't bother with those, so why follow its other laws?"

What I recognized during that Bible study, though, was that many of the laws that get cited in those exact arguments come from one chapter in particular--Leviticus 19:
-No sowing fields with two kinds of seeds (19:19)
-No wearing garments of two different fabrics (19:19)
-No fruit from young plants (19:23)
-No cutting facial hair (19:27)
-No tattoos (19:28)

BUT...Leviticus 19 also gives us this immortal command: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself, I am the LORD." (19:18)

So...what on earth are we to do with a chapter that contains many rules that few, if any, of us believers follow in any literal sense today, but that also is the source for one of the greatest laws ever handed down?

I conceded at the beginning of this entry that I am, in fact, guilty of picking and choosing within Scripture (it helps that I am not A.J. Jacobs and have no interest in trying to follow each and every law literally and then write a book about it!). For instance, I do not allow my belief in Scripture to equate into a personal belief in the sanctioning of slavery, or the silence of women, or the committing of what today would be considered war crimes. This does not mean that I consider the Bible to be anything less than the inspired Word of God. And my criteria for my "canon within a canon" comes from Jesus's own words in Matthew 22:

"And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" "He said to him, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."" (Matthew 22:35-40, NRSV)

With surgical precision, Jesus lifted from a chapter of often esoteric regulations the heart and soul of what it means live as a Christian--loving others as you love yourself, presumably without condition or abandon.

The interesting thing is, the verse Jesus cites for loving God--Deuteronomy 6:5--receives a preamble of "Hear, O Israel" in the immediately previous verse of Deut. 6:4. So, its importance is already underscored before Jesus's ministry. But out of the depths of Levitical law, another verse is offered up by God's Son to complement it. And in doing so, Jesus gives me a lens with which to view the entirety of Scripture--does it hang upon the commandments to love God and love everyone else the same way that I want to be loved?

Would such an approach to Scripture appeal to you? How would you resolve the question of deciding how to best follow the Bible? How would you answer the question of Leviticus 19...of how to treat a chapter of religious laws that get dismissed for the sake of argument, except for the one law that may be the greatest exception of them all?

Yours in Christ,

Monday, April 9, 2012

This Week's Sermon: "Long Live the Lamb"

John 20:1-10, 21:15-17

1 Early in the morning of the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. 2 She ran to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they’ve put him.” 3 Peter and the other disciple left to go to the tomb. 4 They were running together, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and was the first to arrive at the tomb. 5 Bending down to take a look, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he didn’t go in. 6 Following him, Simon Peter entered the tomb and saw the linen cloths lying there. 7 He also saw the face cloth that had been on Jesus’ head. It wasn’t with the other clothes but was folded up in its own place. 8 Then the other disciple, the one who arrived at the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 9 They didn’t yet understand the scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to the place where they were staying.

15 When they finished eating, Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
Simon replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.”

Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 Jesus asked a second time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

Simon replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.”

Jesus said to him, “Take care of my sheep.” 17 He asked a third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

Peter was sad that Jesus asked him a third time, “Do you love me?” He replied, “Lord, you know everything; you know I love you.”

Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep." (CEB)

Easter Sunday 2012

The dying man’s voice crackled precariously over the background static noise of the cell phone, of the beeps and whirs of the machines that were helping keep him alive, of the other people standing by his bedside. He was saying goodbye to the world, but most particularly to his wife, who years ago had been stricken with Alzheimer’s. He had spent all this time since then trying to care for her as best as he knew how, but he had just turned 90 and had recently fallen, taking him again to the hospital. And so rather than being able to say goodbye in person, his family and friends tried to do the next best thing for him and his bedridden wife with the cell phone and a hearing aid. And even though I visited him then, in the hospital, I had no idea that phone call had taken place until the following Sunday, when my senior minister held up the cell phone before the church, and played that portion of the final phone call where the man was whispering to the love of his life, “Goodbye, my sweetheart. I love you.” But by Sunday, the time when we heard that call, he had already passed away. Out of the depths of death, his voice spoke to all of us who were there that morning, and no longer burdened by his body, all that remained of him were his words…words of love, of compassion, of such warmth of spirit that I knew no words to describe it—only comparisons: like the family member who dies but who had recorded your answering machine greeting, and you keep it because it keeps them alive. I had so much to say in trying to describe to others what I had heard that morning, and absolutely no language in which to say it, until I realized this week: what I had witnessed was a resurrection. Before this week, before reading the Resurrection story in the Gospel of John, where the Beloved Disciple saw the empty tomb and believed, even without seeing the living body of Christ, I had never dared to believe that I would have borne witness to a resurrection. Even though Easter is supposed to be one of those stories that we all know—Jesus is betrayed, tried, convicted, crucified, and three days later is risen. And yet, it is impossible to read it each and every year without taking something at least a little bit different away from the story. And so, on this Easter morning, roughly the 1,982nd anniversary of the Resurrection, here we are, gathered as the Disciples of Christ at the empty tomb.

Like the Beloved Disciple, like Simon Peter, like Mary Magdalene, we too do not yet know the whole story of Easter. At this point, nobody in the Gospel has actually seen the Risen Christ. And we are not so lucky as Thomas, to be able to later place our hands upon Jesus’ wounds, and believe because we have seen and felt the proof of Christ’s Resurrection. So we would well be forgiven for making the exact same mistake as I did, to assume that we simply have never seen the Resurrection in our ordinary lives. But we would be wrong for thinking that.

We do not have the luxury of denying—whether because of our own doubts or because of our own uncertainty that God really does love us so much that He would bring one of His own back to us from the dead. We do not have the luxury of denying because we see what has happened with Peter—the exact same Peter who, three days earlier, denied over and over and over that he ever knew Jesus. Now, our denials are not the same as Peter’s—we may not be actively denying that Jesus has a role in our lives, but we are denying ourselves many, many more opportunities to see Him and hear Him when we tell ourselves that the Resurrection can only happen just this once. I had denied myself a chance to see and understand the risen Christ in not recognizing that dying voice on the phone for what it was—a person’s love outliving the person itself. That, that, at its absolute core, is the Resurrection in a nutshell: God’s love has outlived Christ’s earthly body, and now, that love is so abundant and overflowing that it actually brings Christ back, not to God, but to us. God’s love has brought Christ back to each of us!

And, like Peter, Christ comes back to us despite, or perhaps because of, our ability to deny to ourselves how much God loves us. Remember—earlier, Peter had denied Jesus three times. In this post-Resurrection conversation between Peter and Jesus in John 21, how many times does Peter now affirm his love for Jesus? Three times. The three times Peter says he loves Jesus poetically counteracts the three times he has denied Jesus, and that entire back-and-forth between him and Jesus is living, breathing proof that no matter our own denials, our own ways of shutting ourselves off from the living God, that none of those denials can prevent us from participating in Jesus’ plan for the world, for His plan to feed and tend and care for His lambs. This is a God who loves us so much that He cannot and will not exclude us from His vision.

Originally, in Scripture, Jesus is meant to be God’s lamb—that is why John narrates the Passion story on the day BEFORE the Passover, rather than the first day of the Passover—because the day before was when the Passover lambs were to be sacrificed for the holiday. But in what he says to Peter, Jesus has completely turned this notion on its head though—it is no longer Him who is God’s lamb—it is us. You, me, all of us, we have become His lambs as well.

Which means that Christ is indeed able to live on through each of us, in spite of ourselves, in spite of our own ability to deny or doubt or wonder if Christ lives. And He lives in us, in spite of the things we do wrong, the things we wish we could do better, the things that remind us again and again and again that we are nowhere near as perfect as the original lamb who died and rose again. But if you do feel, as Peter surely did during the trial and crucifixion, if you feel cut off from the lamb, cut off from Jesus, because of your own limitations, because of your own hurts and pains and mistakes, know that Easter is the opportunity for you to cast those doubts aside, to say, “Enough with the things in life that are keeping me from becoming closer to God. Enough with the things in life that are keeping me from loving as Jesus loved. Enough with the things in life that are keeping me from trying to create a better world—the kingdom of Heaven itself—in this beaten and broken world. Enough with all of that pain! Long live the lamb!”

Dedicating yourself to loving the Risen Christ, as Peter did in proclaiming his love, as John did in believing that Christ had overcome death, as Mary Magdalene did in exclaiming “Rabbi!” upon recognizing Jesus, it means loving not only Christ simply because He lives, it means loving one another because He lives in each of you. To say, “long live the lamb” is to say “long live the lamb in each of the children of God across the world.”

And that is the wonderful, powerful, awe-inspiring paradox of Easter: to say yes to the Risen Christ is to say yes to the world that crucified Him to begin with. And I know what the Bible says, about how we are not made for this world, but for the next. But so too was Christ Himself, made not just for Heaven, but made from Heaven, yet He returned to us—for us. In spite of everything that had happened, in spite of the agony of the betrayal, and of the hatred in His trial, and of the humiliation in his public, painful death, Christ did not simply return to God—He returned to us. The victory of Easter Sunday is not simply one of life over death, or of love over hate—it is a victory of reconciliation and right relationship over sin and blood revenge. By returning to the world that killed Him, Christ restored the right relationship between us and Him, between earth and heaven, and between you and God.

And if that were not enough, God invites each of us to bear witness to that reconciliation of our relationship with Him in the events of each of our lives: in the forgiveness offered to a person who has hurt another, in the release of a once-ill family member from the hospital, or, in my case, in the hearing the voice of a now-dead man pouring out his love for all to hear, the Resurrection lives and breathes all around us. Christ’s Resurrection is there, and it is up to us to believe in it out of the same faith that called this anonymous Beloved Disciple to believe that life and love had won in an empty tomb outside Jerusalem.

Long live the Lamb! Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
April 8, 2012

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Wan Ong Kuei

Today marks the holy day of Maundy Thursday—the dramatic evening of so much regret for Jesus’ disciples during the Passion. There is Peter’s denial, and the fleeing of the eleven at Gethsemane, but the big regret is of course Judas’s betrayal of Jesus into the hands of the Romans and temple authorities. The common belief—taken from Matthew’s Gospel—is that Judas then committed suicide, but according to Luke (as conveyed in Acts of the Apostles), Judas is killed by divine providence, and Mark and John do not explicitly address Judas’s fate. Still, if Matthew’s version is indeed correct—that Judas hanged himself—it is especially tragic, because it indicates that Judas had given up any and all hope of restoring right relationship with Jesus and, by extension, with God and with the world entire.

That sort of despair is profoundly depressing, not merely for the person feeling it, but for any person witnessing it. The belief that an action of yours is so egregious, so beyond the pale that it cannot be undone or mitigated or apologized or begged pardon for is something we have probably all felt—it is what creates regret, guilt, and shame within each of us.

How we reply to those feelings does, I think, speak volumes as to who we are as people. And so in acknowledgement of that reality, I offer to you, on this sacred day of profound and ultimate regret, a short nonfiction story from my early ministry here last year. To preserve the privacy of the persons involved, no names are used, and some identifying details have been changed.

The catharsis for me to write this story comes from the words of Dr. Pauline Chen, in her poignant and heartfelt book Final Exam: A Surgeon’s Reflections on Mortality, where she appropriated her Taiwanese heritage to explain her own regret over a patient’s death, writing:

“The old-time Taiwanese believed that certain souls haunt the world, searching for mollification for their untimely or dishonorable deaths. These wan ong kuei, “wronged spirits,” are destined to wander among humans for eternity. Without any justification for his manner of death, (my patient) became a wan ong kuei of my mind.”

The woman sitting across from my desk looked older than she probably was—a product of a hard life, undoubtedly—and in her state of grief, was slightly disheveled and, I think, still adjusting to her new reality of loneliness and loss. Her common-law husband had just passed away, and he was for all intents and purposes a John Doe—he had nobody left except for her and their caretaker. She, in turn, was casting about for a place for herself and, by extension, her memory of him. Her grief was framed by the crisp autumn colors I could see outside my office window, and I noticed how poetically saddening it was that she was facing this transition as the seasons were on the verge of changing from growth and sunlight to decline and darkness.

She said they had not been to church in ages—she literally just walked into my parish off the street—but she wanted to say farewell to him in a church before he was cremated and his ashes transported upstate. Upon hearing that the funeral would likely be attended only by her, their caretaker, and myself—maybe one or two other people if the stars and planets aligned—I agreed to plan and officiate the service for free. I took her contact information and promised to be in touch. Put at ease that her husband would be accorded a proper farewell, she gingerly rose from her chair and slowly walked out of my office, her walk betraying a slight limp in the process.

The day before I hoped to perform the funeral, I tried to call the number I taken down from her to let her know that the service was on, and to stop by to go through it together. Receiving an automated error message, I tried again. And again. And again. Realizing I had taken her information incorrectly, I got onto the website of the local paper to begin flipping through the obituaries, looking for her surname, before remembering that he was her common-law husband, and as such they had had different names. I couldn’t find her address on Google maps. I tried that incorrect phone number again, even though I knew in my head that I would receive the same emotionless, robotic reply. Putting down the receiver into the phone’s cradle for the last time, I mentally kicked myself over and over for such a simple, but emotionally devastating, mistake.

I never heard from the woman again. To this day, I have no idea if her husband was ever laid to rest as she had planned, if at all. My memory of her, and of her husband’s need for a lovingly arranged departure, became a wronged spirit, a wan ong kuei, in my own ministry so very soon after I had just begun it. I kept a copy of the order of service I had composed in the bottom drawer of my desk, just in case she walked into my office again, and I tried to banish the failure I felt to the darker recesses of my cerebral cortex.

Some months later, deep in the wintery bluster of the holiday season, I was working from home on an upcoming sermon series while the season one Christmas episode of the television series The West Wing played in the background on my computer. That episode, entitled “In Excelsis Deo,” revolved around a plot concerning the passing of a homeless, faceless military veteran who had died on Christmas from exposure while wearing the donated coat of a White House staffer. The staffer, played by Richard Schiff, found the veteran’s likewise homeless brother and arranged for a funeral with military honors for the deceased veteran at Arlington National Cemetery. The similarities between this fictitious man and my flesh-and-blood John Doe—the sheer poverty, the relative anonymity, the absence of any deep network of friends—were not lost on me.

The episode’s concluding scene of the funeral at Arlington, superimposed with the voices of a boys’ choir singing "Little Drummer Boy," played out across my computer screen as I glanced up from my work to watch. From the small group of only four mourners to the honor guard’s mistaking the White House staffer for the veteran’s brother, I saw depicted on the screen the funeral service that I was supposed to have performed for my John Doe: a small, intensely private and intensely profound farewell to a man whose remaining family I might not have known from Adam, but who still cried out to me for help regardless.

Stopping my work completely, I froze, and, in an uncharacteristic moment of pique, I overturned the colossal stack of books that were, just a moment earlier, sitting precariously upon my desk. Seeing them tumble to the floor, I fell back into my chair, shaking, and immediately, I began to weep.

Yours in Christ,

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Letters From the Soul: This Month's Newsletter Column

"He is Risen"

Dear Church,

One of my favorite television shows currently on the air is the sitcom “Community,” which depicts a group of lovable college misfits. One of those characters—Shirley—is an evangelical Christian whose faith is demonstrated in a variety of ways on the show, sometimes for comedic effect and sometimes for conveying love. My personal favorite expression of her faith, however, is in the apron she wears whenever she is baking something—on the apron is a pair of breadsticks in the shape of the Cross, with the caption “He is Risen.” (Because bread also rises!)

It’s clever in its own way, perhaps a bit cheesy, but it represents the creativity that folks now have in how they express their faith. For many people, if you didn’t catch them in church, you might never know they were practicing Christians. For us, I hope our faith is a bit more visible.

Because the Easter story, at its core, is one of visible faith. Without the Resurrection, the story of Christ would likely never have been told the way it has been. Jesus would have been remembered, but more as a moral teacher and rabbi than as who He also was—the Messiah, Son of the living God. It was the Resurrection that sealed the deal—it guaranteed that Jesus would be written about, talked about, and followed for years. And because of it, we are Christians today.

So, this Easter season, I invite you to ask yourself, how does the empty tomb inspire your own expressions of faith? How can you bring your own creativity and gifts to bear in proclaiming the love of the Risen Christ in your life today?

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Eric

Sunday, April 1, 2012

This Week's Sermon: "Hosanna in Excelsis"

Mark 11:1-10

1 When Jesus and his followers approached Jerusalem, they came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives. Jesus gave two disciples a task, 2 saying to them, “Go into the village over there. As soon as you enter it, you will find tied up there a colt that no one has ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 3 If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘Its master needs it, and he will send it back right away.’”
4 They went and found a colt tied to a gate outside on the street, and they untied it. 5 Some people standing around said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” 6 They told them just what Jesus said, and they left them alone. 7 They brought the colt to Jesus and threw their clothes upon it, and he sat on it. 8 Many people spread out their clothes on the road while others spread branches cut from the fields. 9 Those in front of him and those following were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord![a] 10 Blessings on the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest!” (CEB)

Palm Sunday 2012

There was no way around it for me-aside from the amazing hole-in-the-wall falafel restaurant my Bible professor took me to, Jerusalem was bound to disappoint me somehow. It is nearly impossible to hold something worldly in such high esteem, and then finally get to see it, and not be disappointed. Just ask the kid who didn't get to go to Disney World until he was in high school. The Via Dolorosa, the route that tradition tells us Jesus took to Golgotha, has become a veritable bazaar of purveyors of mystical Holy Land junk, nearly all of which most people could easily do without. The Western Wall is now surrounded at all entryways by airport-style security, making entrance to one of the holiest sites in the world a stressful and invasive experience. The awe-inspiring Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built over the traditional site of the Crucifixion, is run jointly by a myriad of Eastern and Western denominations, which may or may not always get along with one another. And the gates of the Old City of Jerusalem overlook more than simply the path that Christ took into the city of David on Palm Sunday, they also overlook the once-armed border between Israel and Jordan, a stark reminder that the land the Prince of Peace once trod upon has yet to actually enjoy any semblance of real peace. It was, in a word, sacred and profound and holy, yes, but also disappointing.

So, I’ll just come out and say it—I used to dislike Palm Sunday with a passion. It isn’t the story itself, or the cast of characters, or even the fact that Scripture actually puts more emphasis on the cloaks as a path for Jesus’ colt than the palms themselves—as Mark, my college chaplain, was fond of saying, “They should rename Palm Sunday as ‘Cloak Sunday!’” No, it wasn’t any of those things. It was that I would be pressed into service every year, without fail, to run up and down the aisles of the sanctuary waving palms with all the children of the church, like I was an overgrown young adult still being forced to sit at the kids table, where your knees come up to the table itself. Next thing you knew, I’d have to re-enact Jesus’ baptism with water wings.

I loathed having to do the whole dancing-with-the-palms ritual. It’s not because I dislike seeing others do it, or that I think dancing is wrong—although I have it on good authority from that ‘80’s movie starring Kevin Bacon that dancing leads to hand-holding—it is that I was, (a) hideously self-conscious, almost to a fault, and (b) convinced that whatever it was we were doing, it probably had zero resemblance what actually happened when Jesus actually rode triumphantly into Jerusalem so many years ago. I felt the same way about those churches back in my hometown in Kansas whose members would, on Good Friday, walk up and down the streets carrying fabricated crosses to re-enact the Via Dolorosa. I would see them and think to myself, “Yep, totally looks like The Passion of the Christ out there. Jesus definitely wore an AC/DC tank top to his Crucifixion.” That’s harsh, I realize. But I really worried that, say, Jesus would come back at that exact moment, see what we were doing, and just say, “What the heck? I never did it like that! Is this some kind of spoof that’s going on Youtube as soon as this is over?” I tend to worry that when we try to re-enact the Bible today, we sometimes come so far from the mark that what we end up creating isn’t an homage, it’s a parody.

And, in some respects, it is a parody of a parody. The triumphal entry of a hero into a city would have been nothing new to Jerusalem in the time of Jesus—Alexander the Great held one when he conquered Babylon, for instance. But such spectacles were reserved for the emperors or their proxies—the people who represented imperial power to the masses, certainly not for a humble Jewish carpenter. But those emperors, governors, and soldiers, they would have entered the city on their finest horse, not on a donkey or a poor little colt—it would be as though the President of the United States pulled up in a motorcade made up entirely of clown cars! And so while scholars argue that Jesus riding in on the animal that He did was meant to fulfill Scripture, to fulfill prophesy, there is a certain amount of theatrics that Jesus is employing here, it is a spoof of the Roman powers-that-be whom Jesus, or the Jewish rank-and-file population of Judea, probably didn’t much care for. If Jon Stewart and The Daily Show were around back then, this would have been something they might have concocted!

The irony cuts both ways, however—we know, as the New Testament scholar Douglas Hare puts it, “that the man who is here hailed as Messiah by a throng of joyful pilgrims will soon be condemned by his nation’s leaders and suffer an excruciating and shameful execution. Explicit joy is thus overshadowed by implicit sorrow.” And in response to this, God pulls the only card He has left to play, the only ace left up His sleeve—He turns Christ’s imminent death into a resurrection and declares love’s victory over the sin that led Jesus to be condemned to death. Just as we begin Holy Week with a sense of joy at Christ’s arrival in Jerusalem, so too do we end Holy Week with a sense of joy at Christ’s arrival in the world as the risen Son.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves just a tad, aren’t we? The problem is, so are the crowds of pilgrims themselves—what they are shouting, “Hosanna,” literally means, “Save us now!” Hosanna in the highest heaven—hosanna in excelsis—in turn means, “save us now, God who lives in heaven!” It is that beautiful line from the Robert Browning poem—God is in His heaven, and all is right in the world. Except that deep down, we know that it isn’t. Christ has come, Christ has gone, Christ will return again, and our world still bleeds. Our world still bleeds because we are waiting for Christ to come again, but we are shouting, as the crowds did nearly 2,000 years ago, “save us now!” Not, “save us tomorrow,” but “save us now!”

It’s a pretty common refrain, isn’t it? There is usually something in our lives that we want to be saved from—a substance we use too much of, or a job we find unrewarding, or a home life that does not nourish us. And that’s much more what we need saving from than the things that we usually try. Last Friday, the Mega Millions lottery jackpot hit $650 million. It made the national news, even people who never, ever played the lottery were snapping up tickets. One of the three winning tickets was bought in my home state of Kansas, but since my phone has NOT as of yet been ringing off the hook, I can just as soon assume that my family and friends are no more materially wealthier now than they were on March 29. But think of what our expectations had become—we paid attention to this lottery, to the money it would promise, as though it would deliver us, like the materialistic Messiah that money is, from the dreary duldrums of our status quo life and into the Paradise of wealth and riches. In buying Mega Millions tickets, we were saying to that jackpot, “Save us now!”

But here’s the thing—this is Palm Sunday. The Resurrection is still a week away. The people who are calling out for Christ’s saving power must still wait another week before God’s victory over death is complete. And so, too, must we also await our ultimate salvation. It is tempting to put our faith into money, or power or prestige, or material possessions, because of what they can deliver to us in the here and now, but when we do so, we are creating yet another parody, this time of our own faith, and what—or who—we choose to put that faith in.

Palm Sunday is a day for rejoicing, yes, but mostly, it is a day for rejoicing of what is to come. When we lose sight of that patience that is required, we run the risk of disappointing God and disappointing ourselves. So when we shout our own praises to Heaven, simply remember that salvation arrives on God’s timetable, not ours.

Hosanna, hosanna in excelsis! Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
April 1, 2012