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,

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

This Year's Ash Wednesday Sermon: "Scripture's Power"

Luke 4:1-13

Jesus returned from the Jordan River full of the Holy Spirit, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. 2 There he was tempted for forty days by the devil. He ate nothing during those days and afterward Jesus was starving. 3 The devil said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4 Jesus replied, “It’s written, People won’t live only by bread.”[a] 5 Next the devil led him to a high place and showed him in a single instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 The devil said, “I will give you this whole domain and the glory of all these kingdoms. It’s been entrusted to me and I can give it to anyone I want. 7 Therefore, if you will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8 Jesus answered, “It’s written, You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”[b] 9 The devil brought him into Jerusalem and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down from here; 10 for it’s written: He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you 11 and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.[c]” 12 Jesus answered, “It’s been said, Don’t test the Lord your God.”[d] 13 After finishing every temptation, the devil departed from him until the next opportunity. (Common English Bible)

Ash Wednesday 2015

The British Royal Marine veteran died at only 70 years of age, but he was already in poor enough health that he had had to live in a care home, and because he no longer had any close family, it looked like at first that the only mourners at his graveside funeral would be the care home staff who had taken care of him all that time.

So the pastor performing the funeral put out a plea on Facebook, writing, in part:

In this day and age it is tragic enough that anyone has to leave this world with no one to mourn their passing, but this man was family and I am sure you will agree deserves a better send off.  If you can make it to the graveside for that time to pay your respects to a former brother in arms then please try to be there.

After getting in touch with the Royal Marines Association, when James McConnell’s graveside funeral was scheduled to begin in Hampshire, England, over 200 people—almost all of them strangers—had arrived to mourn the passing of a man whom they had never met.

Far from being inauthentic, though, it was, and it looked, incredibly authentic, the genuine article, and it was a remarkable use of social media—the same social media that is used to bully as well as to connect, to threaten as well as to comfort, it is a double-edged sword, as are most things in life.  What something will be often depends on the hands it is in…and the same holds true for Scripture, even if we may not want to admit that this is so about God’s Word.

I use this story at the beginning of my Ash Wednesday sermon every year here (at least, so far—four Ash Wednesdays and counting).  Because it is such a good story for setting the right balance in mood and in tenor for this type of service, I simply cannot ever pass up a repeating telling of it.  The Reverend Lillian Daniel, a pastor in the United Church of Christ denomination, writes in a book on pastoral ministry that she coauthored, this vignette about her experience as a pastoral intern at a particular parish during her seminary education.  She writes, in part:

I remember sitting at the back of the sanctuary, reviewing my notes for my very first seminary-intern sermon.  It was to be a mighty word from God that would correct all the hypocrisy, greed, and faithlessness of the local church that was, nonetheless, supporting my education as they had supported that of so many others.  As I mustered my courage to sock it to them, I overheard one woman lean across her walker and whisper loudly to her pew mate, “Ah our new intern is preaching.  I see it’s time for our annual scolding.”  Later, I would pastor a church near that very divinity school, and hear for myself a few “annual scoldings.”

Now, you lot have no seminary intern here to deliver unto us our annual scoldings—you are stuck with me!  (Oh dear.)  And it would be all too easy to dismiss Ash Wednesday as the day when the parish pastor administers said annual scolding, but it would be exactly that: easy.  Far too easy.

Ash Wednesday isn’t really about me scolding you so much as it is about taking on a sort of renewed baptism: just as we hold baptism to be an outward sign of the inward reality of a redeemed soul, so too do we hold ashes as an outward sign of the inward reality of a repentant soul.  Today is about taking a day—not even a day, really, just this one hour of the day—of our time to acknowledge our repentance before God.

We don’t necessarily enjoy doing that, though.  Repentance is hard, just think of all the times in your life you have probably said sorry to someone and not meant it (beginning all the way back in preschool or kindergarten when your teachers made you apologize for stuff that you clearly were unashamed for, like stealing play-doh and throwing crackers at Archibald, the class doofus).

But sincerity is an absolute must when it comes to all things spiritual, because God has no appetite for fakery, no patience with facades, and no need to trifle with insincerity.  Far from it, our season of repentance on the church calendar—Lent—commemorates a profoundly authentic and genuine duel between Christ and the Tempter.

Jesus and the devil do not bother with trying to hide their agendas, both know exactly what the other is there to do.  Jesus, to fast, pray, and endure trial on God’s behalf, and Satan, to negate all of what I just said.

How Satan does this, though, is what should scare us: he uses Scripture.  He quotes verses out of the Hebrew Bible to tempt Jesus, and Jesus, in turn, quotes Scripture back to him in rebuttal.  It is like when you argue with your kooky relative who believes some real tin-foil hat sort of things about're each citing the same book, with the same authority, but for completely different purposes.

That's what is going on here.  It is basically impossible to find a pair of beings with more diametrically opposed natures and aims, which ought to tell you that Scripture can be as good or as bad as the person interpreting it.  Which might be our biggest problem today as Christians, our biggest sin.  We don’t follow the Word, we follow our interpretation of the Word.  We put our interpretation of it—the interpretation that conveniently ignores all the stuff we don’t like, such as, say, selling everything and giving the proceeds to the poor—ahead of the actual Word itself.

In that way, we are, in essence, breaking the first of the Ten Commandments; we are putting another God—the God of our interpretation of the Bible—ahead of God Himself.  And our having done so is responsible for so much wrong and evil in the world: violence over religious differences, prejudice towards people we have never met, and a misplacement of spiritual priorities in our own personal lives, where we value trivial crap like gossip and jealousy over the weightier matters, Jesus calls them, of justice, mercy, and faith.

That is what some 200-odd strangers in England chose, that day, when they convened together to say farewell to a complete cipher, a man they wouldn’t have known from Adam.  They chose the weightier matters.  They chose mercy and faith.

So what we choose, every day, to use Scripture as matters.  We can use it as a means to tempt with, as the devil does here, or as a hammer to destroy with, or as a tool to build with…which is what Jesus strives for here, to build the kingdom as He always is.  Which is, of course, what we are meant to do as well, always.

But we tend to lean more towards Satan’s line of reasoning, to use Scripture for our ends rather than God’s ends, to use it to hit people over the head with than to save their lives with.

Ash Wednesday is a day…for us, the day, of repentance.  And repentance always begins in God’s presence.  Let us take this moment in time to begin our own repentance for wronging both God and his children in all the ways we  have, in all the ways we know how, by using His Word to justify our wrongdoings.

And in so doing, may that very same Word restore is into life and light everlasting, into the salvations that we were always meant to inherit, and into a world in which the devil, just as it is here in Luke 4, does not get the final word.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington

Ash Wednesday 2015

Sunday, February 15, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "We are His Offspring"

Acts 17:22-34

22 Paul stood up in the middle of the council on Mars Hill and said, “People of Athens, I see that you are very religious in every way. 23 As I was walking through town and carefully observing your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: ‘To an unknown God.’ What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you. 24 God, who made the world and everything in it, is Lord of heaven and earth. He doesn’t live in temples made with human hands. 25 Nor is God served by human hands, as though he needed something, since he is the one who gives life, breath, and everything else. 26 From one person God created every human nation to live on the whole earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God made the nations so they would seek him, perhaps even reach out to him and find him. In fact, God isn’t far away from any of us. 28 In God we live, move, and exist. As some of your own poets said, ‘We are his offspring.’ 

 29 “Therefore, as God’s offspring, we have no need to imagine that the divine being is like a gold, silver, or stone image made by human skill and thought. 30 God overlooks ignorance of these things in times past, but now directs everyone everywhere to change their hearts and lives. 31 This is because God has set a day when he intends to judge the world justly by a man he has appointed. God has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” 

32 When they heard about the resurrection from the dead, some began to ridicule Paul. However, others said, “We’ll hear from you about this again.” 33 At that, Paul left the council. 34 Some people joined him and came to believe, including Dionysius, a member of the council on Mars Hill, a woman named Damaris, and several others. (Common English Bible)

“As One Having Authority: Sermons that Changed the World,” Week Five

I grew up on the Sound of Music.  It didn’t matter that the movie came out a full twenty years before I was born, every year on New Year’s Eve, my family would sit down to watch it together, partly because the film is really long and it got us young’uns to pass the time as we tried valiantly to stay awake until midnight, but mostly because Anderson Cooper and Kathy Griffin on CNN hadn’t become a thing yet.

So the story of the von Trapps, the Austrian family portrayed in the film, was a BFD to me as a kid.  I may have been too young to have quite grasped the scope and depth just yet of Nazi Germany’s evil specter in Europe during the 1930s and 40s, but I could understand evil men coming to conscript a family’s patriarch and consigning his children to a terrible life without their home country.  Along with singing.

But that is why it meant much more than just a little bit to me to learn recently that just down in Portland, there is a singing quartet made up of four of Georg Johannes von Trapp’s great-grandchildren: Sofia, Amanda, Melanie, and August von Trapp.  They’re the grandchildren of Werner von Trapp (aka Kurt in the film), and they began performing together by singing the Austrian folk songs as kids that their grandfather had grown up with.

Now, singing together, touring together as their grandfather and siblings once did, they are carrying on a family tradition, much I suppose as we would with, say, a family recipe or cherished vacation destination.  It really is quite a profound tendency of ours to do, carrying on the traditions of our parents, and a lot of it I think has to do with what Paul is saying here, in Acts 17, to the Areopagus in Athens…not about his own parents, but about his ultimate parent, his parent in heaven.  And of that divine lineage, he argues, we are all His offspring.  We are all His offspring.

This is a sermon series that we are wrapping up, now that it is almost Lent (Ash Wednesday is finally almost here!), but we launched it to go along with the new year, and it has taken us up to this point we are at now.  For a while now, I have wanted to talk to all of you about the meaning and significance of preaching, and this series allows me to do exactly that.  The title for this series comes from the assembled crowd’s reaction to Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, where Matthew says that they were astounded that He taught them “as one having authority,” rather than as one of their temple authorities.  So…how do we teach one another as one having authority?  That is what we will be working on together, and each week for the next five weeks, we will be talking about one of the many significant sermons that are presented in the New Testament: the Sermon on the Mount, Stephen’s farewell speech before his martyrdom, Paul’s address to the Areopagus, and last week, Peter’s Pentecost sermon.  We have arrived at this point in the series after a pair of inaugural sermons by Jesus to kick off His own ministry: His sermon on Isaiah from Luke 4, and the previously referenced Sermon on the Mount from Matthew; then, we continue onto another inaugural sermon, this time from chief among Jesus’s disciples, Peter, on the occasion of the arrival of the Holy Spirit.  For a change of pace last week we arrived at an ending sermon, the final words of Stephen’s impassioned defense before the Sanhedrin just prior to being sentenced and stoned to death by them, and this week, we end the series not with an ending sermon, but with an in-between sermon (for lack of a better term): Paul’s message to the Areopagus in Athens.

So Paul finds himself in a bit of an awkward circumstance: it turns out that the Areopagus (the assembly upon Mars Hill in Athens) basically is driven by the gawking and fawning over the newest, latest craze, and that current (forbidden, I might add) craze is Christianity…as opposed to, say, Tickle Me Elmo dolls and pogs when I was a kid, but hey, whether collectible cardboard circles or the Savior of humanity, we all want what other people have and we don’t.  As Luke writes in the verse immediately preceding where today’s passage picks up:

All Athenians as well as the foreigners who live in Athens used to spend their time doing nothing but talking about or listening to the newest thing. (CEB)

Except that instead of camping out in front of Best Buy or Toys R Us overnight for said newest thing, the Athenians do something maybe even more neurotic: they have Paul arrested so that he can be taken to the council at the Areopagus to tell them all about this newfangled fad called The Way.  And really, wouldn’t that make Christmas shopping for your family so much easier, so that instead of having to plan out weeks in advance how to obtain the right Furby, you could just have that Furby arrested and brought to you instead?

So Paul is under arrest when he begins his address, but he leaves afterwards of his own volition, meaning they must have freed him after his message.  Why would they do that?  Well, let’s dig into exactly what Paul is saying to them…and, by extension, to us.

Paul is a master at reaching audiences, even if he doesn’t always seem it by the grumpy and cantankerous prose in some of his letters (“I wish those who unsettled you would castrate themselves,” he writes to the Galatians regarding the debate over circumcision…le sigh).  And even though he has been seized and thus is under no small degree of duress, he does something incredibly respectful, something that I think would serve all of us well when talking to people of differing faiths than ours: he recognizes the devoted nature of the Athenians’ faith to their pagan gods.

In other words, he doesn’t lead off with “You’re wrong, and here’s why,” he leads off with, “I can see you have a great capacity for faith and I affirm that capacity.”  For Paul, having faith is so, so important, and if it is not faith in the God of Judeo-Christian tradition, well, at least Paul can work with that.

Paul can work with it because the Athenians still acknowledge that not all their gods are known, and so Paul tells them about this God that remained heretofore unknown to them: the God who made the earth and the heavens and all that is in them, who does not need a temple or a home built by human hands (where have we heard this before?  Remember Stephen from last week?), who created every nation, every peoples under the sun, all because God isn’t far away from any of us.

Even if your faith is in an unknown god, or a god not the God of Abraham, God still isn’t far away from you or me or anyone else.  There is no asterisk to Paul’s statement, no exceptions proferred.  The Athenians might not have Paul’s specific faith, but the faith they do have is rich and deep and can be oriented towards the God of Scripture.

It may not happen right away for all of the Athenians, though, as some of those present in the Areopagus begin to guffaw at Paul’s kookyboots notion that we are one day raised from the dead, but enough people do begin to believe that the seed has been planted: Dionysus and (this is important), a woman named Damaris.

How many women get named in the Bible?  Not many.  Even in the Gospels, the Samaritan woman at the well is unnamed.  The Syrophoenician woman who is the only person in Scripture to verbally joust with Jesus and not come out looking like a fool, she too is anonymous.  But many of the female believers are not.  There is Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary the mother of James, Mary Magdalene, Salome, Susanna, Phoebe the deacon in Rome, and here, in Athens, Damaris.

In Athens, historically women were as commodified and oppressed as they were in Old Testament marriage laws.  They were treated as property, and Athenian marriages often were not for love but for political or commercial reasons.  But in Jesus Christ, in the message of Paul proclaimed one day in the heart of Athens, a woman named Damaris finds liberation amidst the bondage, freedom amidst the slavery.

And her world is changed.  As is ours.  Because, as Paul says, as the Athenian poets of old said, as we still say, we are all His offspring.

So let us carry that lineage with us, passing it down from generation to generation, just as parents pass down their folk songs and their recipes, their singing and their joy, to us, their children.  I saw that kind of immortality in full display watching the von Trapps perform on Youtube (divine experiences on Youtube?  Really, pastor?  You whippersnapper, you), and I have every reason to believe that this kind of immortality has been promised to, and is possible for, each of you.

Take it.  Accept that gift.  And live in the knowledge that you are, and will forever be, a child of God just as Christ was the son of God; that you were born of God’s breath just as Christ was born of God’s substance.

Now go and live that life and identity out, in all that you do, in all that you say, in all that you are.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
February 15, 2015

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Some Thoughts on Atheism, Christianity, and Islam (By Way of Chapel Hill)

On Tuesday, we had an energetic debate over the proposed use of force against the Islamic State (ISIS) during the morning Bible study class I teach every week.  One of the things I pointed out in our discussion was how forcefully the Qur'an in fact condemns murder.  In sura 5, verse 32, it reads (in part):

If anyone slew a person - unless it be in retaliation for murder or for spreading mischief in the land - it would be as if he slew all mankind: and if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of all humanity.

First things first: I was in fact required to read the Qur'an for one of the classes I took in seminary on Jewish and Islamic holy texts, and I am very glad that I was required to read it.  If I am expected (by others or by myself) to have an opinion about something, it needs to be an informed opinion.  It always stuns me, though it probably shouldn't, how many times I hear someone spout a hurtful opinion about Islam and then when I ask them if they have read the Qur'an, they respond with some version of, "No way I'd read that!"

Christians, how would you feel about someone criticizing our religion if they have never read the Bible, or if they have only read a few verses such as these completely out of context:

"If the city does not negotiate peacefully with you but makes war against you, you may attack it. 13 The Lord your God will hand it over to you; you must kill all the city’s males with the sword. 14 However, you can take for yourselves the women, the children, the animals, and all that is in the city—all its plunder. You can then enjoy your enemies’ plunder, which the Lord your God has given you. 15 That’s what you must do to all the cities that are located far away from you—specifically, those cities that don’t belong to these nations here. 16 But in the case of any of the cities of these peoples—the ones the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance—you must not spare any living thing."  -Deuteronomy 20:12-15

You know how the Qur'an says at one point to slay infidels?  Well, the Bible--the same Bible that says 'thou shalt not murder'--also says to kill everything in a city that God has given us.

How would you feel if someone decided the Bible was an abomination based on that one passage, never mind all the times it says to love your neighbor and to give to those in need?  If you'd feel pretty chaffed at that, well, think about how it must be being a Muslim today.

That's the difference between Christianity and Islam in the public sphere today.  We Christians have a much easier time excusing or--more frequently--ignoring the awful verses in our sacred Scriptures, while Muslims are made to apologize for theirs on a constant basis.

I don't believe in the Qur'an as the word of God, but that doesn't mean it is the source of evil that so many Americans seem to think that it is.  And if Christians think that our God is calling them to do sins like this in harassing and bullying American Muslims, they are both sorely mistaken and likely divinely condemned.

But it isn't just Christians.  I do plenty of disowning and apologizing for the crackpots in my own faith, and it is high time that atheists started doing so as well, especially after the murder of three Muslims in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where my wife went to both college and medical school as a student at UNC, by an avowed atheist.

Richard Dawkins, the patron saint of the anti-theist strain of atheism, took to Twitter to say "How could any decent person NOT condemn the vile murder of three young US Muslims in Chapel Hill?"

Well...any decent person likewise condemns religious violence of all sorts, whether they are religious or not.  But when we religious people condemn religious violence, we get met with rude and cruel replies of how we are perpetuating a violent system through our faith and that if we were really sorry, we'd quit religion and become good little atheists like, say, Dawkins, who, among other things, trivializes the trauma of being date raped, so clearly not all atheists are capable of producing a moral compass purely on their own.

But that's low hanging fruit, and Dawkins has rightly been torn apart by critics far smarter and more eloquent than I for that particular bit of egregiousness.  But after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, when Muslim gunmen slaughtered members of the Charlie Hebdo magazine staff, Dawkins helpfully chirped, "Some useful idiot will claim it had nothing to do with religion."

I now await Dawkins serving his role as a useful idiot in claiming that the murder of these three young Muslims had nothing to do with religion either.

For Christians, though, this needs to be a wake-up call as well: we are throwing in our lot with amoral, ungodly jerks like Dawkins whenever we criticize Islam, and we ought to know better.  Atheism isn't the universal bogeyman of all evil any more than Christianity or Islam is, and the prejudices Americans seem to have against atheism (see the New Republic article linked above) are surely misplaced, but at least our faith teaches us to be (in theory) humble enough to examine ourselves and admit when we're wrong.

And if atheism isn't prepared to do likewise, it can dispense with any and all pretense of being morally rich enough to compete on the same plane of ideas and dialogue as any of the world's major religions that it either dismisses or derides.

Your move, Richard.

Yours in Christ,

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

When We Let The "Religious Freedom" Exemption Run Amok, This Is What Happens

The common refrain I have heard from a lot of my (mostly evangelical) Christian brethren regarding debates over marriage equality and access to contraception has been that the religious freedom of Christians to refuse these services needs to be protected by the government.

And, okay, fine.  The pastor of a not-for-profit congregation should be able to choose whose weddings they officiate (as long as those weddings are of consenting, monogamous adults).  But if a pastor is running a wedding chapel for profit, that's a different kettle of fish because now we're talking about regulating commerce, and the Supreme Court has typically (until very recently) taken a pretty wide interpretation of what constitutes commerce.  Same goes for a pharmacy employee who objects to the use of birth control.  You don't like dispensing particular prescribed medications, either don't go into that field or do your job, all of it.

And if we're talking about a county officiant denying a couple a marriage license because that couple is made up of an agnostic and an atheist, then let's have a serious conversation about doing your job.

Because that is exactly what has happened over in Franklin County, Virginia, where a couple of that description was told they had no right to be married by a court-appointed officiant.  And once again, I'm left smacking my palm to my forehead out of what another mean-spirited, legalistic jerk has done in the name of Jesus Christ.

Incredibly, this officiant, Bud Roth, refused to marry Tamar Courtney and Morgan Strong at the county courthouse, even though he is a court-appointed official.  He insisted on marrying them at his church.  Even though that in and of itself constitutes a completely out-of-bounds condition (he's appointed by the court, not by the church.  By the same token, I am ordained by the church, not by the court, so I would never insist on a courthouse wedding to any couple who approached me), but despite the egregious nature of this request, Tamar and Morgan agreed.

But that wasn't enough.  After asking Tamar and Morgan about their religious affiliation, Bud Roth refused to perform the ceremony altogether.  Even though there is nothing in Virginia statutory law that requires a particular profession of religious faith in order to be married in the commonwealth.  Even though any such insistence by a government-appointed officiant (ie, Roth) would constitute a violation of the Establishment Clause prohibiting government preference for a particular exercise of religion (in this case, professing a faith in the Abrahamic God).

And even more incredibly, the judge responsible for appointing Roth, Judge William Alexander (who has since apparently retired), saw nothing wrong with Roth's conduct, even though Roth committed, in my mind as a professional pastor, two extraordinary instances of professional misconduct: insisting on an inappropriate venue and then refusing service on inappropriate grounds.  Judge Alexander's rationale was that there was another court-appointed officiant, and that officiant could have performed the marriage.

Fortunately, this other officiant has indeed married them (reports are the couple was legally married yesterday and will be having a larger ceremony with family and friends in June).  But what if this other officiant had also objected?  What if this other officiant had a family crisis or health emergency or was otherwise indisposed?  Tamar and Morgan would have been denied their rights by their county government on the basis of their religious faith, which is in my mind no different--and equally reprehensible--as denying them rights on the basis of their gender or their race.

That is why--and I do not say this lightly--Franklin County needs to revoke Bud Roth's credentials as a wedding officiant.  He has no business presiding over weddings on behalf of the state if he is going to bring his own agenda to what should be one of the happiest days of any person's life.  His job is to perform weddings for any couples in Franklin County who meet the relevant legal requirements to be married.  And he has communicated via this couple that he is unwilling to perform the entirety of what his job entails.

I don't care what line of work you're in, being unwilling to do your job is a fireable offense for ridiculously, blatantly, painfully obvious reasons.

In 1 Thessalonians 4, Paul exhorts the congregation in Thessaly to "aim to live quietly, mind your own business, and and earn your living...That way, you'll behave appropriately toward outsiders and you won't be in need." (CEB)

Bud Roth would do well to heed Paul's instructions, because right now, he is doing exactly zero of those things: he didn't mind his own business in demanding to know a couple's religious affiliation as a condition for marriage, he wasn't living quietly in insisting on the venue of the ceremony, and he wasn't earning his living by refusing a couple a right they had the legal entitlement to receive.

And as this couple was not Christians themselves, Bud Roth wasn't behaving appropriately toward outsiders, either.  Which means to me that he is in fact in need, in a deep spiritual need to understand exactly what God and the state are requiring of him.

And with that, I can drop this off as the latest entry in the sadly always-thickening file of "legalistic, gnat-straining-but-camel-swallowing jerks I've had to disown."

Love God and love people as you want to be loved, y'all.  On these hang the entirety of the law and the prophets.

It's not freaking rocket science.  We just act like it is.

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, February 8, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "The Prophet's Lifespan"

Acts 7:48-53

48 However, the Most High doesn’t live in houses built by human hands. As the prophet says, 49 Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. ‘What kind of house will you build for me,’ says the Lord, ‘or where is my resting place? 50 Didn’t I make all these things with my own hand?’[l] 51 “You stubborn people! In your thoughts and hearing, you are like those who have had no part in God’s covenant! You continuously set yourself against the Holy Spirit, just like your ancestors did. 52 Was there a single prophet your ancestors didn’t harass? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the righteous one, and you’ve betrayed and murdered him! 53 You received the Law given by angels, but you haven’t kept it.” (Common English Bible)

“The Prophet’s Lifespan," Acts 7:48-53

“As One Having Authority: Sermons that Changed the World,” Week Four

The flight attendant had just about had it.  He had personal problems in the background he was dealing with, and he had unresolved mental health concerns to begin with, and an experience with preparing his airplane for departure ended up being the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.  And so instead of continuing to prepare his outbound flight for takeoff, Steven Slater took the .A. phone, announced that he was completely over this almighty BS he was being subjected to, told JetBlue to go…you know…and then, in the words of what is apparently my favorite cultural reference for sermons, Office Space, he decided to take this job and shove it.  Popping the inflatable emergency slides that you and I are always briefed on at the start of any flight just in case that flight turns into a cruise, he grabbed a couple of beers, slid down the slide, and strode towards his freedom…and notoriety.

Now, today, that act got Steven Slater indicted for criminal mischief and reckless endangerment because, well, flight attendants are there for passenger safety and jumping ship, much by blowing one of the evacuation slides, is rather antithetical to that goal.  But all the way back in 33 or so CE, that act got a particularly devout Christian, also named Stephen, the death penalty.  Yet even if Stephen was going out of his way to piss off his listeners, it did not diminish the vital and sacred truth that he was proclaiming.

This is a sermon series that we are now in the middle of, now that it is February, but we launched it to go along with the new year, and it will take us up to Ash Wednesday a couple of weeks from now.  For a while now, I have wanted to talk to all of you about the meaning and significance of preaching, and this series allows me to do exactly that.  The title for this series comes from the assembled crowd’s reaction to Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, where Matthew says that they were astounded that He taught them “as one having authority,” rather than as one of their temple authorities.  So…how do we teach one another as one having authority?  That is what we will be working on together, and each week for the next five weeks, we will be talking about one of the many significant sermons that are presented in the New Testament: the Sermon on the Mount, Stephen’s farewell speech before his martyrdom, Paul’s address to the Areopagus, and last week, Peter’s Pentecost sermon.  We have arrived at this point in the series after a pair of inaugural sermons by Jesus to kick off His own ministry: His sermon on Isaiah from Luke 4, and the previously referenced Sermon on the Mount from Matthew; then, we continue onto another inaugural sermon, this time from chief among Jesus’s disciples, Peter, on the occasion of the arrival of the Holy Spirit.  Today, though, we arrive at an ending sermon, the final words of Stephen’s impassioned defense before the Sanhedrin just prior to being sentenced and stoned to death by them.

And really, considering the penalty for heresy was death by anything ranging from being stretched upon the rack to being burned at the stake for 1,700 years or so of Christian history, maybe we shouldn’t be one to point fingers (I’m trying not to use the “throw stones” idiom here, for obvious reasons.  I do have a modicum of restraint, y’all).  Because at least in this singular respect, Stephen’s own execution is simply, brutally, and barbarically par for the course in the great fabric of human history: we tend to kill off those who disagree most profoundly with us.

Except that Stephen does everything short of demand the Sanhedrin to kill him.  His energetic soliloquy ends here with a series of insults that might not sound like insults to our modern ears, but that would have been extremely offensive to the first century Pharisaic ears of the Sanhedrin.

Stiff necked?  Uncircumcised?  Them’s fightin’ words, bucko.  Circumcision was what physically marked Israelite men as Israelites; it was a part of the covenant with God that stretched all the way back to Joshua and to Moses.  Israel spent its entire history fighting against “the uncircumcised,” be they Philistines or Assyrians, Edomites or Moabites.  By calling his accusers “uncircumcised,” Stephen is calling them enemies of Israel and, ultimately, of God.

But really, though, why shouldn’t they be called that?  A spade is a spade after all, and Stephen is quite right when he asks of the Sanhedrin, “Was there a single prophet your ancestors didn’t harass?”  They even killed many of the prophets, like Isaiah, whom tradition says King Manasseh had sawed in half, or Amos, whom one source says was killed by the son of one of his chief opponents, Amaziah.  In this singular way, Stephen is fulfilling one of the great traditions of the Israelite and Judean prophets, namely, having a horrifically short lifespan.

But we cannot focus only on Stephen’s invective, lest we miss the true message he is striving with every ounce of his being to convey here to the Sanhedrin and to us (which makes us a part of the Sanhedrin for the purposes of us being Stephen’s audience, but that frankly is rather appropriate, considering our own tendencies to be legalistic and high and mighty ourselves, each in our own ways).

And that message is, God doesn’t need us to live, God doesn’t need us to build a home; God loves us but God doesn’t need us.  Maybe that sounds a bit harsh on the ears; after all, we all long to be needed, but God was God long before we were created, and God will continue to be God long after we are all gone.  We are the ones dependent on God, not the other way around, which is sometimes how I think we try to frame things or act like things are.

Certainly that was the case for the temple authorities, who presented themselves as God’s mouthpieces, God’s necessary intermediaries to go between the unwashed masses (us) and a silent, invisible God cordoned off in the Holy of Holies deep within the Jerusalem temple.  The Sanhedrin may think God needs them, but the reality is, and will always be, the total opposite.

It is a job hazard endemic and perhaps innate to the clergy: we think that our insights and pronouncements about the divine are indispensable and that clearly, everybody should listen to us.  I’m not like that at all, no sir, but you may know a pastor who is like that.  Like me.  (Yes, I know I just said that I wasn’t like that, I tell myself that to sleep at night.)

But I also think it is something that unfortunately spills over into the laity, the non clergy, as well, where maybe you find yourself in situations or with people where you may act just a tad more right or righteous than you actually are in that moment.  It has the unfortunate tendency of closing off your ears to the voice of another person who maybe is saying something that you really need to hear right then, even if they are saying it while calling you “stiff necked” and “uncircumcised.”  (Unfortunately, I fear the 21st century equivalents of these words would garner a solid R rating, and so I won’t use them here.  Use your imagination.)  It eventually becomes a question of what you are willing to value more highly: your pride or the betterment of God’s kingdom?

The Baptist pastor, evangelist, and Christian professor Tony Campolo had an interesting way of going about this sort of thing.  According to a 2003 profile of him in Christianity Today, Campolo used to begin his speeches in the 1980s by saying something like this: “I have three things I’d like to say today.  First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or of diseases related to malnutrition.  Second, most of you don’t give a shit.  What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.”

Sometimes we need a little shit talk in our lives.  Sometimes we need a little shock value, even if (as we should) care that overnight, every night, 30,000 children of God leave us permanently for lack of daily bread.  We need a little bit of shock value to get us to care again.

And the church, well, we don't always do that.  Us preachers don't always do that.  Our sermons become tame, then  safe, then, dare I say it, boring.  We've ALL sat through a ridiculously boring sermon, right?  (Maybe it's this sermon.)

Stephen, shit talker that he is, tends to be remembered more for how he died: being the first in a long line of Christian martyrs.  But maybe, just maybe, he should be remembered even more for what he said en route to his death, in speaking truth to power, justice to oppression, and, in the end, forgiveness to evil.  As he died, he cried out, “Father, do not hold this sin against them.”

It is a prayer we long for for ourselves.  May God not hold our sins against us, whether we are the Stephen of Scripture who pissed off the Sanhedrin, or whether we are Stephen of JetBlue who pissed off the five oh.

Thankfully, through the divine mercy revealed through Jesus Christ, we know that God chooses not to.  God has chosen grace.  Time and again, God has chosen grace for us.

Let us choose grace, then, in return.  Grace enough for us, and grace enough for all. 

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
February 8, 2015

Thursday, February 5, 2015

A Movement of Infinity Within Itself: Faith for John's Community and for Today

I presented this paper to the annual gathering of the Northwest Association for Theological Discussion this past Tuesday as a part of a two hour long consideration of faith as it is presented in the Gospel of John, based on a treatise written by a Disciples professor at Northwest Christian University in Eugene, Oregon, Dr. Dennis Lindsay.  Hopefully it makes some modicum of sense to non academia readers as well.  Ever since I took a class in seminary solely on the Gospel and letters of John taught by my favorite professor there, a Dominican priest named Father Albert, I have found great meaning in John's unique take on the significance of Jesus as the Christ, and as such, this paper was (is) largely a labor of love.  I hope you find meaning in it as I have.  E.A.

“A Movement of Infinity within Itself: Faith for Both the Johannine Community & Today”

By Rev. Eric Atcheson

Respectfully submitted to the Northwest Association for Theological Discussion in response to “Believing in Jesus: A Johannine Theology of Faith” by Dr. Dennis Lindsay, February 2015

On the bookshelf in my office as I write these words is a book I brought with me when I served as an adult chaperone on a youth mission trip to Tijauana, Mexico, way back in my seminary days (yes, “way back,” whilst I’m at the ripe old age of 29).  Written by the amusing Jon Acuff, the volume is entitled, “Stuff Christians Like,” a play on Christian Lander’s earlier (and similarly amusing) book, “Stuff White People Like.”  And the book is simply a collection of odes and paeans to different things what Christians like—and like to do—such as complaining about not being “fed” at church, using “let me pray about it” as a euphemism for “no,” and using “faith like a child” as an escape pod from difficult theological discussions.

All of these examples have something in common: they utilize commonplace vocabulary to say something distinctly uncommon unless you belong to a particular brand of Christianity and are fluent in its unique and idiosyncratic dialect.  I tend to view these sorts of verbal encodings as an offshoot of how even the Bible uses its own Greek vocabulary in sometimes taking a particular koine, common, word or phrase and turning it completely on its head to mean something different to a person within the early Jesus movement, but that might mean nothing or even nonsense (like John of Patmos’s Revelation) to an outsider.

John the Evangelist (not to be confused with John of Patmos—for the sake of simplicity here, when I refer to John, I am referring to the otherwise anonymous primary writer of the Gospel of John) is a master of this adroit use of the Greek language.  Though his vocabulary and syntax are relatively straightforward compared to many other New Testament works, John skillfully weaves in double and alternate meanings to particular words and phrases, and, in cases like that of Nicodemus in John 3 (with Jesus’s use of anothen, or being “born again/above”), or the Samaritan woman in John 4 (with Jesus’s use of phgh, or “spring/fountain” as “living water”), even makes those double meanings a point of contention in Jesus’s teachings.

All of this is to say: in reading through Dr. Lindsay’s paper for both the first and second time, I was particularly struck not merely by his tally of John’s use of pisteuein but also of the noting of John’s deliberate eschewing of pistis, a detail I myself had failed to glean during my (admittedly rudimentary) Greek studies of John’s Gospel during my college and seminary days.  I agree that this choice must have been deliberate on John’s part (see above—John was clearly very deliberate about his word choices throughout his Gospel), but in attempting to put this exegetical reality within the larger context in which John’s Gospel was put to writing, I cannot help but believe that John’s use of pisteuein, insofar as it creates new meaning to John’s community, represents what Bible scholars Richard L. Rohrbaugh and Bruce J. Malina call “antilanguage.”

Dennis C. Duling provides an excellent and concise definition of antilanguage thusly in a passage on John’s language and writing style:

Antilanguage is a type of language used by groups who are “marginal” with respect to the larger society, which in the most general sense is Mediterranean society but in a more restricted sense is more traditional Israelite society.  The key in this case is the choice of believers to live in opposition to “this world” and “the Israelites” (NRSV: “the Jews”).  Their “antilanguage” is thus an expression of their “antisociety” stance.[1]

My underlying thesis for what follows is this: that this frequency of use and particular usage of pisteuein as highlighted and interpreted by Dr. Lindsay represents a word of the antilanguage that John—and the Johannine community—would have been fluent in, and that it remains firmly in the antilanguage lexicon today, not only by right of our own (perhaps less-than-accurate) translations of John’s Gospel but by our own misapplications of the Gospel in a Christ-centered faith even today.

Throughout the New Testament, faith (and similar “fruits of the spirit”) is presented as in opposition to this world not merely by John but also by Paul[2] and by James, the brother of Jesus[3].  Considering the vehemence with which this world was in opposition to Christ Himself,  such sentiment is unsurprising, but the marginalized status of Jesus was a status inherited by His followers and, I would contend, especially so by His Johannine followers.  As Howard Clark Kee conveys, “The kinds of hostility the sect (the Johannine Community –E.A.) can expect are named in John 16: expulsion from the synagogues and martyrdom.”[4]  This sort of retro-interjection of such trauma is part of a pattern for John: he is indicating his sect “perhaps because of their increasingly vocal claims about Jesus’s divinity has been banished from fellowship in the synaoguge.  The expulsion was evidently traumatic for John, who responds by retrojecting the event back into the time of Jesus and insisting that his group is spiritually superior to their synagogue critics.”[5]

Ergo, even more so than the Christianity espoused by Paul or by James, the first-century Near Eastern world had little appetite for the Christianity practiced by John’s followers, and it shows in John’s Gospel and letters, not simply in that John and his community are isolated and alienated, but that in the midst of said isolation and alienation, he (and they) believe wholeheartedly in the spiritual superiority of their faith compared to their critics’ beliefs.  To John, then, the Judean critics and persecutors of Jesus lack not merely correct belief, they lack true faith as well.

What these circumstances have to do with faith, with pisteuein, or with antilanguage, is an important question in translating John.  Consider, for a moment, the primary alternative translation of pisteuein: not “faith,” but “belief,” or “to believe (in).”  Well-known and well-loved translations including both the King James Version and the New American Standard Bible will translate instances of pisteuein in the Gospel of John as “believing” rather than as, say, “having faith in.”[6]  Ultimately, and with the least amount of hubris possible that is inherent in a lone parish pastor attempting to correct a longstanding Bible translation, I would suggest this treatment of pisteuein to be antithetical to what John was endeavoring to communicate with his use of pisteuein as a possible example of antilanguage. 
Why?  Because there is a subtle but key distinction between belief and faith, which Dr. Lindsay points us toward simply and elegantly in his paper, at the top of page six: “Faith for John is thus both an identification with and an engagement with Christ in a relationship of servant to lord.”[7]

Belief, by contrast, merely implies intellectual assent.  One can choose to believe in Santa Claus, or in extraterrestrial life, but those beliefs need not dictate one’s moral decisions (at least, outside of the ever-elongating Christmas season or binge-watching sessions of Doctor Who).  Belief does not demand relationship, nor does it demand any engagement beyond a yes or no answer to the hypothesis being presently considered.

In other words, belief is, at its purest form, a sort of intellectual transaction or interaction.  Assent or negation is proffered in response to a stated value, fact, or reality.  Without attempting to denigrate the Hebrew Bible tradition in any way, I believe this is why Paul places such importance upon grace vis-à-vis the law.  One can assent to obey the law or not as one can even assent to obey a lord, but the belief in the law or in a lord (and by this I mean a lord in the feudal sense) does not justify a person, because that belief does not represent the change of nature that faith can achieve.

Ultimately, this difference between the two is likewise illuminated in Dr. Lindsay’s work: “Genuine faith enables vision (11:40)…It is thus unthinkable within the context of John’s Gospel to understand this faith/vision as anything other than the allegiance-yielding identification and engagement with Christ…”[8]  None of this is possible merely through holding a belief; it only becomes possible when that belief grows, like a sapling into a tree, into a fully blown faith that shapes and dictates a person’s life that allows them to “see,” as it were, God’s presence before them.

Yet we associate belief and sight nonetheless—after all, “seeing is believing.” For John’s community, though, seeing is wholly unnecessary to belief.  This is not only what Jesus teaches according to John[9], it is what was, in fact, physically necessary, because even if one were to believe that the Johannine community saw Jesus as an immortal figure who transcended time itself—after all, in John 8:58, Jesus exclaims, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am!”—His physical presence was still lacking from the world from the time of His ascension per the Gospel of Luke.  Jesus cannot be seen, and nor for that matter can God, a reality John concedes in his first letter.[10]

Rather, as that very same verse from 1 John goes on to teach, it is God who lives in us, invisible to us but whose love gets perfected in us over time.  With God’s love in us through Jesus Christ, we are able to have faith—and thus “see” the unseeable: the divine.  And so we remain “in” the divine.

All of this is acutely necessary to the Johannine community as it withstood marginalization and oppression, and it remains necessary to us today, even as we emphatically do not experience the same level of marginalization and oppression (despite vehement protestations to the contrary by some of our American Christian brethren).  The grandparent of Christian existentialism, who strove constantly to merge the notions of faith and experience, Soren Kierkegaard, once wrote, “He who loves God without faith reflects upon himself; he who loves God in faith reflects upon God.”[11]
In short: faith is what allows us to see God.  Perhaps this should not be so revolutionary a thought to us today, but in a first-century world of religion governed by law and by coercion more so than by faith or by grace, it almost certainly would be.  And in a 21st-century world governed by consumerism and unchecked greed, the idea of seeing the unseeable rather than striving for the tangible worth of materialism is, in point of fact, still very much revolutionary.

It is difficult to over-emphasize just how great the importance is to John of our faith, our “seeing the unseeable.”  Per Rudolf Schnakenburg, “The one thing demanded of man (sic) is faith, this is the great Johannine formula for salvation: He who believes in the Son has eternal life.”[12]  Yet Schnakenburg cites arguably the most famous verse in Scripture—John 3:16—in such a way that 3:16’s use of pisteuein is once more translated as “believes in” rather than “has faith in.”  To this day, we are still using the two terms interchangeably in our translations of John when, with a plethora of Biblical translations available to English readers, we can afford the luxury of choosing precision.
Yet we do not always choose to in favor of the wording we have known and accepted for years—witness the still strong popularity of the relatively inaccurate King James Version translation.

The irony of this is that it does not have to be this way; translators have shown a willingness to correct potential inaccuracies of translations past, such as changing the translation of hoi ioudaioi from “the Jews” to “the Jewish leaders” (in the Common English Bible) or “the Judeans” (in the Complete Jewish Bible), and yet, we have continued to neglect to offer pisteuein the same treatment.

In this way, faith language remains a form of antilanguage for an antisociety, even as Christianity still remains, numerically at least, the most popular religion in the world.  Yet for as many—literally billions—of people who profess Christianity as their faith of choice, we still seem to possess a lack of more people who, in Dr. Lindsay’s words, are true to John’s Jesus, for “to remain in Jesus, therefore, is to produce the work(s) that Jesus does, just as Jesus’ remaining in the Father allows him to do the works of the Father.”[13]  We remain lacking in producing the works of Jesus to this day.

I am fully cognizant of the implications of what it is I am suggesting in that previous paragraph: that even the faith of billions has yet been inadequate in remedying a great many of the world’s harms which Jesus indicts and calls upon us to remedy.  However, we in our human condition remain difficult to teach new forms and acts of pisteuein, of faith.  As Dr. Lindsay notes in his concluding paragraph, even as John’s concept of faith is rooted in the Septuagint[14], this is still “all new in John’s Gospel.”[15]  To no small extent, it remains new even today, or at the very least, under-practiced.

In concluding my remarks, I would draw once more from Kierkegaard: “Faith is the movement of infinity within itself, and it cannot be otherwise.  Everything previous is preparatory, preliminary, something which disappears as soon as the conviction arrives.  Otherwise, there would be no resting in a conviction, for then to have conviction would mean perpetually to repeat the reasons.”[16]  What John calls us to, perhaps above anything else, in His Gospel is to rest in the conviction that having faith in God as revealed through Jesus Christ will cause us to experience the fullness of God’s love for us.  As we experience that divine love by way of our human faith, we, in turn, strive to bring others into experiencing that selfsame divine love.  How we strive to do so, though, comes down to our production of not only the works of Jesus Christ, but our production of His words as well.  The religious language we use has always mattered, but with a wide Christian-oriented theological vocabulary to choose from in 21st-century English, I hope and pray we would do well to think of how our own language sounds at its core—and how we might use it, along with every other ounce of our being, to bring forth the love of God to a hurting world that remains in desperate need of such love. 

In this way, may our own movement of infinity within itself continue on.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Vancouver & Longview, Washington
January 2015

Works Cited

Dennis C. Duling, The New Testament: History, Literature, and Social Context, Thomson Wadsworth, 2003

Stephen L. Harris, The New Testament: A Student’s Introduction, Fifth Edition, McGraw-Hill, 2006

Howard C. Kee, Understanding the New Testament, Fifth Edition, Prentice Hall, 1993

Soren A. Kierkegaard, Provocations, edited by Charles E. Moore, Plough Publishing House, 2002

Dennis R. Lindsay, “Believing in Jesus: A Johannine Theology of Faith,” 2015

Rudolf Schnakenburg, New Testament Theology Today, translated by David Askew, Palm Publishers, 1963

[1] Dennis C. Duling, The New Testament: History, Literature, and Social Context, Thomson Wadsworth, 2003, 417.
[2] Galatians 5:16-17: “Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.  For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want.” (NRSV)
[3] James 3:14-15, 17: “But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth.  Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish…But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” (NRSV)
[4] Howard C. Kee, Understanding the New Testament, Fifth Edition, Prentice Hall, 1993, 179.
[5] Stephen L. Harris, The New Testament: A Student’s Introduction, McGraw-Hill, 2006, 229.
[6] Eg, John 12:39: “…they could not believe…,” rather than, say, “they could not have faith in…”
[7] Dennis R. Lindsay, Believing in Jesus: A Johannine Theology of Faith, 6
[8] Ibid, 6-7
[9] John 20:29: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to pisteusantes—believe.” (NRSV)
[10] 1 John 4:12: “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and His love is perfected in us.” (NRSV)
[11] Soren A. Kierkegaard, Provocations, edited by Charles E. Moore, Plough Publishing House, 2002, 275.
[12] Rudolf Schnakenburg, New Testament Theology Today, translated by David Askey, Palm Publishers, 1963, 98
[13] Dennis R. Lindsay, Believing in Jesus: A Johannine Theology of Faith, 11-12
[14] I regret that I could not devote my response more towards the Hebrew roots of John’s pisteuein usage, but the brutal truth is that I am poorly equipped to exegete ancient Hebrew and would only do it a disservice.
[15] Ibid, 24
[16] Soren A. Kierkegaard, Provocations, edited by Charles E. Moore, Plough Publishing House, 2002, 270