Sunday, May 31, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "Table"

Matthew 9:9-13

As Jesus continued on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at a kiosk for collecting taxes. He said to him, “Follow me,” and he got up and followed him. 10 As Jesus sat down to eat in Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners joined Jesus and his disciples at the table.
11 But when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

 12 When Jesus heard it, he said, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do. 13 Go and learn what this means: I want mercy and not sacrifice. I didn’t come to call righteous people, but sinners.” (Common English Bible)

“Whole: A Call to Unity in a Fragmented World,” Week One

The whole scene was a mashup of things that should never, ever happen, but did. 

A car accident on a busy road.

A five year old boy who was hit.

And in the middle of it, a young, 22-year-old Sikh man who had removed his turban and used it to give the injured child a pillow to lay on as he was being tended to.

Understand, mind you, that Sikhs, according to their religion, must never remove their turbans in public.  For him to do that would be like one of us using our most treasured Bible to wipe up the little boy’s blood: it is the right thing to do according to your morality, but still violates this symbol of your faith that you hold dear.

So this was a BFD for a lot of people, and this young Sikh man, Harman Singh, began fielding interview requests from all over at his little apartment in Auckland, New Zealand.  And one of these news crews, upon entering Singh’s humble abode, noticed how empty the rooms were, and how little furniture they contained.

This honestly isn’t uncommon for the large Indian minority in Auckland, over 100,000 people; when C and I vacationed there on our honeymoon, we met a number of Indian Kiwis who did the same jobs that immigrants tend to do here: driving cabs, doing housekeeping, jobs that require a great outlay of labor for really very little money.

And so this news station did something for this young man with very little materially but with so very much spiritually: they bought him a new bed, sofa, chair, and coffee table…because why have a sofa to share with guests without a table to sit around at?

Harman called it "the biggest surprise of his life," and his home has taken a step in being as welcoming as he himself is.  But as churches, we tend to be the opposite: we have all sorts of property and facilities, but we are not always so welcoming.  Which is where this new sermon series comes directly into play.

This is a new sermon series for the summer season, which will take us through June and into early July.  It is based off of a book written last year by Rev. Dr. Sharon E. Watkins, who has served for the past eight years as our denomination’s General Minister and President.  As such, she is one of the most visible pastors in our tradition; she has written in magazines and newspapers, preached at national prayer services, and been interviewed by just about anyone you can imagine about what exactly the Disciples think about this or that (trick question: we never think exactly the same about anything).

Pastor Sharon has used this widespread pulpit of hers to proclaim her vision, which she finally put into a book by the same name as this series, and the name comes from the preamble to the design of our denomination: that we are called to be a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.  In a world broken apart by sectarianism, prejudices, and hatred, we as Disciples are meant to be a movement for making humanity whole but to make ourselves as persons whole.  But what does that even look like?  Well, that is what the book she has written is for.  We’ll go chapter by chapter through it, with texts paralleling it from Matthew’s Gospel, and we begin with this excerpt:

As places to eat, tables matter.  Our first “tables” come to us: Mama’s lap, a bouncy seat on the floor, a high chair.  Family life often takes its most representative shape at table.

Tables also exist as more than places to eat.  Tables can represent gathering in community…Mary Roach, author of Packing for Mars…describes the gathering role of tables.  Her book tells you more than you’d ever want to know about the challenges of space travel, including quite a bit about eating in space…

A lot of food in space is delivered from a tube directly into the mouth.  No spoon or fork required.  You miss much eating that way: the smell, the presentation—but it turns out that what you miss most is the social part, the conversation, the sharing around a table.

So now, long duration space ships are fitted with a completely nonfunctional table…nonfunctional, that is, for sitting down to eat in zero gravity.  The table is completely functional, however, as a center for gathering, for being together, for establishing community.  Even when the food is more or less symbolic in nature, the gathering at table matters for the sense of community it creates.

What does this have to do with a tax collector named Matthew…aside from the fact that tradition holds that he is the one who wrote the Gospel we are reading today?  Well, many of you may have already heard my spiel on why being a tax collector was such a reviled occupation in New Testament Israel, but it won’t hurt to brush up.

As a tax collector, Matthew would not have only been a very visible member of his community, he also would have been a very visible reminder of the Roman occupation of Israel.  The Israelites, and the Zealots in particular, believed in their homeland as the Promised Land given to them by God through Moses, and being reminded that they and their land were the vassals of a pagan empire would have galled them at every turn.

But to make matters worse, Matthew is himself an Israelite, even as he works for the Romans.  To his countrymen, he is a collaborator, a traitor to his own people.  He would have fit in incredibly well in Vichy, France during the Second World War.  He and Benedict Arnold would have been BFFs.  You get the idea.

There is still yet another layer on this giant sundae of awfulness that made Matthew such a reviled chap.  Tax collection didn’t work in New Testament Israel the way it does today, with income and payroll taxes automatically deducted from your paycheck, and you receive an annual refund for the excess tax you paid that year.  No, much as we might like to complain about the IRS, they are downright peaches and cream compared to the tax collectors of New Testament Israel, who were, for wont of a better term, state sanctioned muggers.  They would win the right to tax certain districts at auction, for a price that they would pay directly to the Romans.  In order to make a profit, they would demand more in taxes than what the right to collect those taxes had cost them at auction.

So basically, they lined their own pockets by stealing from their neighbors, and the Roman Empire was fine with this because they didn’t care how their legions got funded so long as they got funded.

And Jesus sits down with one of these rats, not just once, at Matthew’s booth, to tell him to follow Him, but again at Matthew’s home, around his table, with Matthew’s colleagues, tax collectors and sinners all.

When the Pharisees predictably criticize Jesus for this, what is His response? “Go and learn what this means: I want mercy, not sacrifice.”

Jesus is quoting the Hebrew Bible to the Pharisees—schooling them in their own area of expertise.  The verse Jesus is quoting is Hosea 6:6, and in this singular respect, Hosea is very much keeping in line with the prophetic literature of the Hebrew Bible: Isaiah, Micah, and Amos among others all preach to this truth that what God desires is not sacrifice, either in the form of the burnt offerings of old or of sacrificing one another upon the altar of doctrinal purity, but instead, mercy.

God desires mercy.

And community cannot exist without mercy.

Think about it: every time you sit down at the table to brace yourself for an earful from that relative of yours who is always critical of you or envious of you, that is a mercy you are doing.  Every time you offer to just let somebody vent to you over coffee or a beer, that is a mercy, too.  Every time you provide a table to someone who doesn’t have one to invite people to, that especially is a mercy.

Because it isn’t just about the food or the drink, especially if you aren’t going hungry to begin with.

It’s about being held in regard by another human being, to be worth a place at their table.  Especially if that person would have no obligation to do so beyond basic human and Christian decency.

Jesus is under no obligation to show such regard to Matthew.  In fact, if He outwardly reviled Matthew, Jesus would simply be in step with the prevailing mores of the day.

Nor, for that matter, are Jesus’s disciples under obligation to show such regard for Matthew, and that is where we come in, as Disciples today.  One of Jesus’s disciples, Simon, is a Zealot, one of the fervent, violent insurrectionists against Rome.  The Zealots were not to be trifled with—I got asked (jokingly) once which disciple would emerge victorious in a no-holds-barred MMA fight, and without hesitating, I said Simon.  The Zealots were that fearsome.

Matthew represents the human embodiment of what Simon would have almost certainly despised the most: an Israelite exploiting fellow Israelites for profit on behalf of a foreign emperor.

But instead, Matthew and Simon followed Jesus together.  Think of how many shared meals over the course of three years that is.

And now, imagine Simon and Matthew in their next life as astronauts, sitting around a nonfunctional table in outer space, partaking of tubes of freeze-dried food together, and the part about them being astronauts is far more outlandish to us than the part about them sharing a meal together.

That is the power of the Gospel.  That is the power of the table.  That is the power of Jesus Christ.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
May 31, 2015

Original image credit: artfromthesoul.com

Friday, May 29, 2015

Pentecost Book Review: Jesus and the Nonviolent Revolution

(With how much I read, I will on occasion do full book reviews in addition to the briefer recommendations like the ones in my previous post.  Here's my latest review. E.A.)

The 20th century French Protestant pastor Rev. Andre Trocme immortalized himself by, like all the other Righteous Among the Nations, putting his life in death's hands in order to save an estimated 2,500 Jewish refugees who had sought safety in Le Chambon.  They survived the Holocaust.  As did he.

Ironically, his courageous and uncompromising stand for life during World War II made it difficult for him to find pastoral work in France, and he eventually ended up pastoring a church in Switzerland, but along the way he authored two books, including Jesus and the Nonviolent Revolution (Plough, 2003).

Trocme is up front with his preface to the book: he is neither a theologian or a Biblical scholar, but merely a humble pastor.  Nevertheless, he makes a forceful case for the Jesus Movement as depicted in the Gospels and Acts as a genuinely political revolution (for when has a revolution ever been apolitical?  Trocme rightly has little patience for those who argue Jesus was somehow apolitical), rooted firmly in the Jubilee tradition of Old Testament Judaism.

The Jubilee was a natural evolution of the sabbatical year: every seventh year, farms were meant to lie fallow so that the soil could replenish, and slaves were meant to be set free.  The Jubilee year, every seventh seventh year (so, every 49th year), came with it not just these freedoms but also a complete remission of all debts and the returning of all land to its original owners, which was meant to prevent a landed aristocracy from taking over that which was created by and ultimately belonged to God--the land--and using its riches to exploit God's people for yet more riches (in this way, Trocme also acts, perhaps unknowingly, as a powerful antidote to another harmful belief we have begun to tell ourselves: the prosperity gospel notion that God wants us to be wealthy).

Trocme is likewise up front that he is writing this largely as a rebuttal to existential thought, saying it "may sate one with its lucid analyses, which define the problems, but it fails to offer a courageous obedience capable of resolving them.  Such an approach is nothing but a subtle excuse to evade one's responsibilities in the world and is thus characteristic of a period of moral and religious decadence."

Oof.

As an existential Christian myself, immersed in the theology of Soren Kierkegaard and his theological progeny, that was especially challenging for me to hear.

And yet, Trocme's work does itself overlap immensely with Kierkegaard's existentialism.  To Kierkegaard, laws are not innately just: it is in part why the sphere of faith and its status above the sphere of ethics is necessitated.  Trocme acts, and asks us to act, on the basis of a powerful faith that stands up to and above the unjust laws of a Hitler or a Petain.  And stylistically, Trocme, like Kierkegaard, is hardly systematic, instead using the sheer power of his prose to keep his audience reading as he moves from problem to prescription.  This singular characteristic, along with Trocme's status as a pastor rather than a professor, keeps his words accessible to fellow clergy like me and, I believe, to any layperson interested in learning from his work as well.

That organic ease of writing and reading does not come with it an ease in what is demanded of us: both men are also unyielding to their audiences in their exhortations to wholly and completely follow the risen Christ who promises us life beyond measure and then demands that we seek the same for others.

If, in your own walk with God to achieve that monumental task of seeking life for others, you seek another prophetic voice, picking up Jesus and the Nonviolent Revolution is a worthy addition to your bookshelf.  But consider yourself warned: it will not necessarily make that walk easier for you.  Nor, in all honesty, should it.

Disclaimer: my copy of Jesus and the Nonviolent Revolution came at no charge from the publisher; however, all opinions here are entirely my own.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Letters from the Soul: This Month's Newsletter Column

(Plus the June outline for my new sermon series...see the italicized section after my reading list! E.A.)

"The Annual Summer Reading List"

Dear Church,

Every June, in honor of the school year ending all across our community, I use my column here to assign some summer reading for anyone who is interested in some recommendations to peruse during their lazy (or not so lazy!) days of summer. This year, I have three books, all published within the last year by female authors in my generation, that will be front and center on my shelf:

"Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church," by Rachel Held Evans (Thomas Nelson, 2015) 

Rachel Held Evans is one of those rare writers whose work actually falls into the "it changed my life" category. Her first book, "Evolving in Monkey Town," about emerging from a very strict Christian background whilst wrestling with all sorts of questions about faith and spirituality, largely resonated with my own personal experience, and this, her latest work, continues in that vein. It springboards off of her migration to worshiping at a mainline Episcopalian church by breaking down her journey according to each of the traditional sacraments of the church: baptism, communion, anointing the sick, and so on, and the sentiment and sheer narrative force of her words is powerful indeed.

"Damaged Goods: New Perspectives on Christian Purity," by Dianna Anderson (Jericho Books, 2015)

There is a strong emphasis in the church on purity, but that tends to translate into an outsized emphasis on sexual purity at the expense of other forms of purity--purity of speech, deeds, even spending habits (do you know where the money you spend on, say, chocolate or clothes goes to?). Dianna Anderson, having grown up, like Rachel Held Evans, in a very strict Christian environment, talks very bravely and personally about how this focus affected her and how it took moving beyond it to develop a genuinely healthy view towards her sexuality after being told all her life how easy it was for one sexual encounter to ruin her completely for life, marriage, and God. Can we start to do better as a church?

"Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory," by Caitlin Doughty (W.W. Norton & Co., 2014)

Caitlin Doughty doesn't write from an explicitly Christian perspective, but there are references to various spiritualities intertwined throughout her memoir of working in funeral homes in California: about how her relationship with both life and death was formed, and how we in turn can face our own deep-seated fear of death and replace it with a much healthier understanding of what dying today actually entails. For a pastor who has experienced his own fair share of death in our beloved community already this year, this book has become invaluable in helping me process those experiences.

So that's some of what I'll be reading this summer. How about you?

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Eric

Sunday, May 31 also marks the start of a new sermon series based off the July 2014 book "Whole: A Call to Unity in Our Fragmented World," by Rev. Dr. Sharon E. Watkins, the General Minister and President of our Disciples of Christ denomination. Considering that we are just now coming off of the Pentecost narrative about followers from all regions of the Middle East understanding one another perfectly despite their differences in culture and geography, this is, I think, a perfectly timed series. In her book, Pastor Sharon details her vision for adhering to the original "no creed but Christ" mentality of our early founders way back during the Second Great Awakening in the early 19th century: a belief in unity around the singular notion that Jesus Christ is the son of God, the Messiah, and that every doctrine past that is, in the end, commentary on that one reality. It is genius in its simplicity, and it has attracted millions of followers over the past nearly 200 years. For now, though, we'll go through the month of June and the first part of July by talking about Pastor Sharon's vision for a shared table for all of Christ's believers, not simply the ones we like the best or the ones we agree with the most. It's going to be a very fun series to do, and I am excited to be able to share it with you starting on the 31st.  

I'll see you Sunday,
Pastor Eric

“Whole: A Call to Unity in Our Fragmented World”

May 31: “Table,” Matthew 9:9-13
June 7: “Welcome,” Matthew 25:34-40
June 14: “Wholeness,” Matthew 20:29-34
June 21: Guest preacher
June 28: Movement,” Matthew 9:35-38

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Last Full Measure of Devotion

(The following is a repost from Memorial Day 2014, in honor of those who gave that last full measure of devotion. E.A.)

Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. 

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Abraham Lincoln
The Gettysburg Address
Emphasis mine

In memory of the millions of soldiers whose blood we shed in the name of warmaking and warmongering

In memory of those who gave their lives in the name of protecting the ideals held sacred to this day

In memory of all who have died in battle because we are a violent people, prone to death and to destruction

In memory of the warriors who gave not only their physical lives, but their mental and spiritual lives as well

In memory of the veterans who have fallen to a merciless and cutthroat economic system after coming home

In memory of the families whose plights without their loved ones are ignored and overlooked

In memory of my uncle Albert Mouradian, who paid the price of my family's American citizenship with his blood at Okinawa

In memory of the honored dead who gave that last full measure of devotion

We honor you today

Yours in Christ,
Eric

Sunday, May 24, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "Nine-in-the-Morning Holiness"

Acts 2:1-15

When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. 4 They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.


5 There were pious Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd gathered. They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native languages. 7 They were surprised and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all the people who are speaking Galileans, every one of them? 8 How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), 11 Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!”

12 They were all surprised and bewildered. Some asked each other, “What does this mean?” 13 Others jeered at them, saying, “They’re full of new wine!” 14 Peter stood with the other eleven apostles. He raised his voice and declared, “Judeans and everyone living in Jerusalem! Know this! Listen carefully to my words! 15 These people aren’t drunk, as you suspect; after all, it’s only nine o’clock in the morning!  (Common English Bible)

Pentecost 2015

I love Waffle House.  Love, love, love it.  Wish we had them here in the great Pacific Northwest, but we don’t, so I have to make do with partaking of their great greasy spoon goodness whenever we are in Kansas City visiting my family, or in North Carolina visiting C’s.

I love the waffles, first and foremost.  Waffles have always been my favorite food.

But I also love the hash browns.  I love that you can get them in any size—you’d be amazed how hash browns usually come as a one-size-fits-all side in most diners.  And I love Waffle House’s unique vocabulary for them—smothered, capped, covered, there are all sorts of modifications you can make to them.  It really is another language that you learn to get your hash browns order just so.

But sometimes, the language in Waffle House is universal, like for a five-year-old boy in Alabama, Josiah Duncan.  He saw a homeless man outside of the Waffle House his mother was taking him to, and, well, I’ll let WSFA 12 news—and Josiah’s mother, Ava Faulk—take it from here:

Josiah…started peppering his mom with questions.

“He’s homeless,” the little boy’s mother explained.  “What does that mean?” he responded.  “And I said, “Well, that means he doesn’t have a home,”” Mom continued.  (Josiah’s questions continued): Where is his house?  Where is his family?  Where does he keep his groceries?”…Josiah felt the urge to do something.  He insisted on his mom buying the stranger a good meal.  She listened, and then obliged.

“He came in and sat down, and nobody really waited on him,” (she) explained.  “So Josiah jumped up and asked him if he needed a menu because you can’t order without one.”

The man insisted on a cheap hamburger to start, but he was assured he could have anything he wanted.  He got the works.

“Can I have bacon?” Faulk remembers him asking, “And I told him get as much bacon as you want.”

Before the man could take the first bite, Josiah insisted on doing something.

“I wanted to say the blessing with him,” Josiah said.

And Josiah did, publicly, with 11 other customers watching, Josiah sang the blessing as loud as his little voice could muster.

“The man cried.  I cried.  Everybody cried,” Faulk admitted.

In a restaurant where there is another language you learn to be able to order exactly what you want—sort of like in, say, In-N-Out, or McMenamin’s—a group of people re-learned the language of genuine compassion…when a homeless man wouldn’t even be given service because of how he looked, that is a sort of language that we are unfortunately taught, a language of stinginess and judgment, but fortunately, one that can be removed, surgically and precisely, with the grace of a boy.

The book of Acts of the Apostles is the second of a two-volume set composed by Luke—the first volume being, of course, the Gospel that bears his name.  Because they are separated in the Bible by John’s Gospel, it is easy to think that this was Luke’s follow-up sequel to the immense popularity of his debut work.  You know, like his Gospel is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and Acts is Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.  Or his Gospel is the original Star Trek and Acts is Star Trek: Next Generation.  Or his Gospel is the Star Wars trilogy, and Acts is The Phantom—no, wait, not even going to go there.

But the truth is that Luke-Acts was actually written as a singular cohesive story broken into parts, so the more apt comparison might be the seven-volume Harry Potter series after all...

And we see this cohesiveness at work with the Pentecost story itself.  Fifty days ago, Jesus was crucified, and ten days ago, He ascended to heaven, and the disciples cast lots to replace Judas Iscariot with Matthias in order to keep their number at an even twelve.  Luke keeps us going at a neat, tidy pace up to this fiftieth day after the Passover, when the Festival of Weeks is celebrated.

What is the Festival of Weeks?  In the grand scheme of things, it was not the biggest holiday on the calendar, certainly not being so close after the big to-do of Passover.  It was originally a harvest festival of sorts, a gathering of the first fruits and a thanksgiving to God, but over time, the Festival of Weeks turned into a celebration of God’s giving the law to Moses upon Sinai.  Don’t ask me how a day devoted to celebrating squashes and radishes turned into a day celebrating the laws and rules, I don’t know how they pulled that one off, although one commentator I read says that traditionally, the time between escape from Egypt and arrival at Sinai for Moses and the Israelites was, in fact, fifty days.  So we’ll go with that.

Anyways, so this festival celebrating the giving of the law is taking place.  And by this time, the disciples maybe are a little worried and a little antsy.  Jesus has promised them the coming of the paraklesis—the paraclete, which we translate as the Holy Spirit—except that Jesus has beat it back to heaven without leaving behind said Holy Spirit.

However, the Festival of Weeks provides a great chance for the Holy Spirit’s arrival—not only does it give a reason for all the disciples (and not just the Twelve—Luke says devout Jews from every direction were here to celebrate the festival) to all be in one place, but it is also spiritually appropriate.  After the Passover—the liberation of God’s children from the bondage of slavery—comes the law.  And after the Resurrection—the liberation of God’s children from death and evil—comes the Spirit. 

And this coming of the Spirit includes everyone, everyone who traveled from near and far alike to celebrate this festival.  They are, many of them at least, well outside of their comfort zone because they had just elected a new member and have been trying to go about their work without the presence of Jesus.  And the travelers are outside of their comfort zone because…well, they are far from their physical homes, even as they gather near their spiritual home.

And so outside of these comfort zones, they utilize one comfort zone they still have—language.  Except, instead of speaking the lingua franca of the day, Greek—which was most peoples’ second language, like how English is today in many parts of the world—they are speaking each their own native, first languages.

And yet they understand each other perfectly, though it does not look like it on the outside.  The passersby sneer, “They are drunk on new wine,” and don’t you just love Peter’s retort to that accusation?  “Of course we are not drunk, it’s only nine in the morning!”  It’s almost like Peter is implying, “But hey, once it gets to be noon, all bets are off.  After all, it’s 5 o’clock somewhere.”

Despite being outside his comfort zone, Peter is able to laugh off the insult: it is only nine in the morning!  Honestly, I wish it were even earlier in the day, not only because the Holy Spirit arriving right at nine on the dot makes it look like the Holy Spirit only does this sort of thing as a 9-to-5 gig and not as a 24/7 devotion, but precisely because we all know that the Holy Spirit is perfectly capable and willing to have its mantle descend upon us at any time of any day.

Like at dinnertime, at a Waffle House.

Or at church on Sunday morning.  That at least is an expected place for the Spirit to appear.

But what about experiencing that nine-in-the-morning holiness right before you go to bed, or first thing at dawn, or during your lunch break, or, dare I say it, right after you’ve been dealt a really crappy hand and are reeling from experiencing something terrible?

The Holy Spirit is not a fair-weather friend who only shows up after you cashed in your winning lottery ticket (don’t play the lottery, either, it’s a tax on pipe dreams…but that’s another kettle of fish).  The Holy Spirit, as a part of God Almighty, will not and cannot abide by leaving you when the going gets especially tough.  The Holy Spirit is rarely, if ever, truly quiet.

There’s a saying that makes the rounds every once in a while on my Facebook newsfeed, posted by I am sure well-intentioned friends, but it drives me nuts: If you wonder where God is in a mess, remember that the teacher is always quiet during a test.

Good grief, what a crock.  God doesn’t test us like He’s some sort of emotionally stunted and needy significant other, just to see if we love Him enough.  Those days of Abraham actually trying to sacrifice Isaac are long gone.  No, if God’s voice is inaudible, it isn’t because God has chosen to shut up, it’s because we have closed our ears to what God is trying to say to us.

But at least once, one day in Jerusalem fifty days after a Galilean peasant who dared to state the truth that He was the Son of God was crucified and resurrected, our ears were finally opened fully to God’s presence, and we finally, at long last, understood each other, no matter the tongue or accent.

What a miracle if we did the same, to teach and re-teach to opened ears, the languages of God—the languages of mercy, and grace, and love, instead of the languages that we have taught ourselves.

You know these languages.  I know you all do.  Now go and teach them to others.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
May 24, 2015

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Two Decades Ago, I Met Josh Duggar

(trigger warning: sexual abuse)

This is my deepest secret, the one that I didn't begin to talk about at all for several years after it happened and to this day have only shared with the barest handful of confidants throughout my life.

Until now.

When I was in elementary school, I was at a kid's house for a sleepover.  And over the course of that night, I experienced exactly what Josh Duggar's victims did: I was coerced into letting another kid molest me multiple times.  I remember crying myself to sleep at night afterwards because...and this is what growing up in a virulently homophobic place like Kansas in the 1990s can do to you...I thought that experiencing this meant that I was gay and disgusting.

I never went to law enforcement.  And honestly, to this day, I'm not sure I could point the finger at the kid who molested me.  I think I'd choke on the words as they tried to come out.

We'll never know, though, if the victims of Josh Duggar would have done the same thing or not.  We now know, though, that they could not have, because of what happened after they were abused, and in so doing, the sin of that abuse was compounded many times over.

Josh Duggar, the eldest son of Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar of 19 Kids and Counting fame, as it turns out, molested several girls, including some of his own sisters, in this manner.  Like the kid who molested me, Josh was a minor.  I had good friends on Facebook who commented to me that they saw that, and wanted redemption for him.

But there's more at stake than only Josh's redemption.  I kept my secret bottled deep down.  In Josh's case, his parents found out.  And they embarked on a completely amoral course of action.  What they did wrong, or failed to do right, is a sickeningly lengthy list:

First, their 'bringing him to the authorities' entailed sitting him down with a family friend who happened to be an Arkansas state trooper for a lecture...a state trooper who is currently serving essentially a life sentence in prison for child pornography.  And they only went to the authorities after a full year of being aware of what Josh had done.

Consider that some of Josh's offenses were felonies, and this constitutes unbelievably preferential treatment from law enforcement.  If he had been another kid, he could very easily have spent the rest of his childhood in juvenile hall, and his parents had been different parents, whether they could have kept custody of all their children would be an open question.  But the statute of limitations on Josh's offenses have run out, and his victims may not have been like me as a kid: they may well have been ready to testify against him in court.  But we will never know, because they were never given that choice.

Next, the 'counseling' they arranged for him essentially consisted of shipping him off to another family friend who put him to work doing manual labor.  No counseling or therapy as we, or any other person possessing common sense, would think of it.

And all the while, Jim Bob and Michelle were crusading against equal rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people because in their words, such people were "child predators."  While they knew full well that their son was in fact a predator.

Yes, it would have been terrible for them to actually turn their son into the police, but when we Christians talk about accountability, this is precisely what we are talking about.  Not fake counseling, not preferential treatment from a perverted cop, and certainly not the loudmouthed hypocrisy of using your platform and fame to demonize a demographic whose youths are 3 to 4 times more likely to commit suicide than heterosexual youth precisely because of the persecution, hate, and bigotry they continue to face at the hands of people professing my faith.

When you get caught in your own scandal though, the idea of accountability goes out the window, and if you previously preached hellfire and brimstone, all of the sudden you are about the tolerant, accepting, grace and forgiveness proffering Jesus that you lambast us progressive Christians for preaching and believing in.  Every time a scandal of this order strikes a fundamentalist Christian, that refrain remains constant.  It was so with Jimmy Swaggart.  It was so with Ted Haggard.  And it has already proven so with Josh Duggar, with his BFF Mike Huckabee already telling us we have to forgive him, that what he did wasn't unforgivable.

Which is why I shared that I experienced what Josh's victims experienced: forgiveness cannot happen on a timetable according to someone else's preferences.  And Mike Huckabee's forgiveness is not the forgiveness that Josh Duggar needs.  Someone like Mike Huckabee cannot get off preaching about people he doesn't agree with going to hell and then offer cheap grace to someone who has done real harm to a number of people.

Forgiveness is way more complicated, way more complex, and often way messier than someone telling you to do it because, well, Jesus.  Forgiveness, for it to be authentic, has to come from the gut, from the heart, from the soul.  We say "it's okay" after someone says they're sorry as a formality, when in reality we need to be more honest and reserve it for when it really is authentically okay again.

Josh Duggar doesn't need Mike Huckabee's forgiveness.  He needs the real forgiveness of his victims, but also of the people he has cast as predators while being a genuine predator himself.

It is a hypocrisy that continues to plague Christianity.  This did not begin, nor will it end, with Josh Duggar.  The cases of Swaggart and Haggard happened years ago.  More recently, the names of abusers and adulterers continues to pile up, names like Doug Phillips and Bill Gothard, and in progressive Christianity just as in fundamentalism: just look at the cases of Martin Copenhaver and Tony Jones.

These names and stories pile up precisely because we preach accountability until it is us who people want accountability from for the things we have done.

But the name for that isn't grace.  That sullies the name and purpose of grace.  Grace cannot be extracted, forced, or extorted.  It can only ever be given, just like it was freely given by God to us.  And by demanding that grace and forgiveness from one's victims, the use of force to get what you want from them continues, maybe not physically or sexually, but certainly emotionally or spiritually.

It means that nothing has been gained or learned by such a terrible experience.

And it means that repentance is still needed.

Because without it, reconciliation and justice are and will forever be impossibilities.

This I know from personal experience.  And I cannot forget that truth, as surely as I cannot forget what happened one night decades ago.   But at least as many megabytes that I hate have been devoted to remembering exactly how it felt can also be devoted to remembering the truth of what forgiveness really is, and looks like, and can eventually achieve.

May there be some semblance of truth, then, for Josh's victims, for his parents, and for Josh himself.  And may it, as Jesus says in John 8:32, set them free, as it has for me.

Yours in Christ,
Eric

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

I Await My Lecture on White-on-White Crime

Let's talk about Waco, y'all.  At least for a few minutes.

You've heard the news, right?  About the biker gang shootout there that claimed nine lives?  It looks like it was truly, profoundly, vividly horrifying.

At least, I think it was a shootout.  It has been referred to as many other things, like a shooting and a brawl.

What I haven't heard it referred to is a riot, or an act of domestic terrorism.

Even though it is both of those things as well.

Here is how the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines riot:

A situation in which a large group of people behave in a violent and uncontrolled way.

Does a horde of dozens of bikers attacking each other--and eventually the police--with knives, brass knuckles, and then guns fit this?  Yeah.

And here is how the FBI defines domestic terrorism:

Involve acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law; 

Appear intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination. or kidnapping; 

And occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S.

Involve acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law?  That's a no-brainer.

Appear intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population?  Considering the venue of the shootout (a restaurant open to the public), and its effect on both witnesses and the general American populace, it sure looks that way, and certainly the gangs were trying to coerce each other with their violence.

And occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S.?  Check.

So why aren't we calling what happened in Waco either of these things, a riot or an act of domestic terrorism?

Could it be because, as is evinced in the photos like the one above (from the New York Daily News), many (though certainly not all) of the assailants in Waco appear to be white?

While the protestors in places like Ferguson, Baltimore, and elsewhere appeared to be mostly (though not entirely all) black?

And while we see terrorists as mostly Arab or Muslim, never mind the reality of lily-white, corn-fed American terrorists like Timothy McVeigh, Terry Nichols, and Eric Rudolph?

And while the other extremely violent act we tend to associate with Waco was the ATF raid on the Branch Davidian cult that was led by a white man, David Koresh?

And those are some bad, bad guys.  Honestly, it sounds like us whiteys need to focus on cleaning up our own problems before telling our African-American and Muslim neighbors how to protest--after all, lest we forget, as recently as the 1960s and 70s, "race riots" often meant white racists bombing black churches or lighting crosses in front of homes of African-Americans.

And as a solo pastor of a Christian Church in a predominantly white town, I suppose that means that I am a leader in the "white community," whatever that is.

Ergo, I now await my lecture from leaders of other race communities on how I should be focusing on white-on-white crime and on white gangs and on white fatherlessness before I go a-throwin' stones in my little glass house.

And if you read that previous paragraph and thought to yourself, "Eric, that was a completely ridiculous thing for you to say there"...do you see the problem with saying that exact same thing to other racial communities?  Do you see how it is a BS non sequitur and straw man meant to distract us from the pre-eminent issue of genuine, authentic, sure-as-death-and-taxes freedom and equality for everyone in our land?

There is still a double standard when it comes to race in America.  We think that racism only exists when, say, someone uses the n-word or whenever Cliven Bundy opens his mouth.  But that's a fiction, convenient enough for us to tell each other is truth.  No, racism, much like the devil himself, doesn't announce its presence in the same ways it used to.

That fact shouldn't surprise us.  Just as we evolve, and civilization evolves, so too do our sins.  We have been killing one another ever since Cain killed Abel, only now we do it not with clubs or spears but with technological weapons like guns, bombs, and missiles.  We have committed adultery ever since David and Bathsheba, only instead of lusting after women bathing on their rooftops, men now get a subscription to Ashley Madison.

And just as we don't hurl out the n-word as a matter of course, we have instead found other ways for our racism to express itself.

Waco exposed that.  Or, at least, it should have.  I fear that for some of us, our blindness may forever keep us from seeing.

But even for the man born blind, Jesus was able to tell him to wash in the pool of Siloam, and that when he came back, he would be able to see again (John 9:7).

May God instruct us to go and awash our own eyes, so that we might see ourselves, our prejudices, our neighbors, our fellow humanity...again.  Anew.  In wholeness.  In understanding.

And ultimately, perhaps one day, in truth.

Yours in Christ,
Eric

Monday, May 18, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "The Wings Wherewith to Fly High"

John 20:11-18

Mary stood outside near the tomb, crying. As she cried, she bent down to look into the tomb. 12 She saw two angels dressed in white, seated where the body of Jesus had been, one at the head and one at the foot. 13 The angels asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” She replied, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve put him.” 14 As soon as she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she didn’t know it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who are you looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she replied, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him and I will get him.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabbouni” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Don’t hold on to me, for I haven’t yet gone up to my Father. Go to my brothers and sisters and tell them, ‘I’m going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene left and announced to the disciples, “I’ve seen the Lord.” Then she told them what he said to her.  (Common English Bible)


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

I want to try something different to kick off today’s sermon…I want you to try something, actually.

I want you to remember something, anything.  It can be happy or sad, relatively recent or a long time ago, but I want you to fix on a particular memory, of an event or a person or a place, something tangible that your mind carries with you...a wedding or a birthday or a baptism or a vacation destination, or even when the Mariners last won the World Series (oh wait, they haven't done that yet?  Carry on, then).

Got a memory?

Okay, now, what if I told you that you’re not remembering the thing you’ve got in mind, but that you’re remembering the last time you brought that memory up?  That’s what the latest science suggests, per the website that might have the best URL name on the web, FactualFacts:

A Northwestern Medicine study involving 70 people has shown that every time we remember an event that has happened from our past, our brain networks change in ways that actually alter the recall of the event.  This means the next time you remember it, you might not remember the original event but what you remembered the previous time.

As postdoctoral fellow Donna Bridge explains, “A memory is not simply an image produced by time traveling back to the original event—it can be an image that is somewhat distorted because of the prior times you remembered it…”

(T)he reason behind the distortion is that human memories are always adapting and that memories do actually change over time, e.g. if you think back to an event that happened to you a long time ago, like your first day of school, you actually may be remembering the information you retrieved about that event at some later time, not the original event itself.

So basically, when you strive to recall something, you’re recalling not that thing, but your latest recollection of it.  Imagine, then, the importance of our tangible memories: the photographs, the letters, the heartfelt notes (don’t tell my parents this, or they’ll arrange for another family photo session after this) to our spiritual well-being as creatures designed by God to love and be loved.

Imagine, as well, then, the sheer need of Jesus’s followers to adhere to that commandment given by Christ around the Passover table, to “remember Him.”  And how did they end up remembering Him?  And was it the same way that we remember Jesus?  Because honestly, it probably isn’t.

This is the end of a sermon series that has lasted us now almost fifty days!  Just like Christmas and its 12 days, Easter is much more than Easter Sunday itself, and it lasts for much longer: fifty days, in fact.  That’s fifty days of hearing, bearing, and proclaiming the good news of the resurrection, long after the Easter Bunny has come and gone and the egg dye has been put back into the pantry for another year.

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

We begin this series, then, two weeks ago with Gibran’s retelling of the Sermon on the Mount made famous in Matthew’s Gospel, and of how Gibran tells the story of Jesus teaching His disciples how to pray.  After skipping a week, we read from Gibran’s version of the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8, which Gibran assigned to the voice of the apostle Andrew, and then we arrived at Jerusalem itself, as Jesus preached and Gibran, through the voice of Joseph of Arimathea, transcribed.  Last week, we talked about the crucifixion, as Gibran, through the voice of Barabbas, the terrorist chosen for freedom by the crowd, narrated the Via Dolorosa, the way to Calvary, and now, at long last, to end this series, we reflect on the Resurrection, as written by Gibran through the voice of Mary Magdalene, an older Mary thirty years after the ministry of Jesus Christ:

Once again I say that with death Jesus conquered death, and rose from the grave a spirit and a power.  And He walked in our solitude and visited the gardens of our passions.

He lies not there in that cleft rock behind the stone.

We who love Him beheld Him with these our eyes which He made to see; and we touched Him with these our hands which He taught to reach forth.

I know you who believe not in Him.  I was one of you, and you are many; but your number shall be diminished…there is a gulf that yawns between those who love Him and those who hate Him, between those who believe and those who do not believe.

But when the years have bridged that gulf you shall know that He who lived in us was deathless, that He was the Son of God even as we are the children of God; that He was born of a virgin even as we are born of the husbandless earth.

How do we remember Jesus Christ?  Well, first of all, how do we remember Mary Magdalene?  While Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code thriller was an abominably bad piece of Biblical research, he did at least get one thing right: it is a fiction that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute.  There is nothing in Scripture to suggest that she is one.  Instead, it is far more likely that she was, in addition to one of Jesus’s many female disciples (such as Susanna and Mary, the mother of James the Just), a financial backer of Jesus’s ministry, something that a marginalized sex worker could likely not afford.

But we remember her as a prostitute because it suits our narrative and predispositions about her.  And, in all truth, we do the same to Jesus.  We recall Him not for who He was, but for who we want Him to be, who we wanted Him to be the last time we remembered Him, and then the time before that, and the time before that.

Yet it is the nature of our memory to skew towards particular instances and circumstances; it is why we can remember some singular events remarkably well even as entire weeks or months are largely a blur to the hard drive that houses our mental data storage.

And for far too long, our memories of Jesus served our narratives and agendas, not His.

We have continually made Him into things He isn’t, and never was—a supporter of money, a shamer of women, a preacher who cared far more about “saving souls” than about bringing the kingdom of God to God’s own earthen creation.  We remember Him as those things because it is more convenient for us to do so, because it takes some of Jesus’s rougher edges off and makes Him easier for us to follow in the time and place we live in now, not the time and place He arrived in.

In other words, we remember Him as such because it is far easier for us to worship a version of ourselves, 21st century Americans, than to worship a 1st century Israelite Jew.

So really, we are all as Mary Magdalene in Gibran’s poem, unbelievers in Jesus Christ, because we do not yet believe, not really, in who He really was: a spirit and a power who conquered death to enable us to reach forth and heal, reach forth and make whole, and reach forth and resurrect.

And we are all as Mary Magdalene in John’s passage today, unable to recognize Jesus for who He really is, at least, not at first.  Not until He calls out to us, and we respond affirmatively.

In this way, far from casting Mary Magdalene as a prostitute, we should in fact all see ourselves as her: blinded by our own humanness, for better and for worse, to the point that we cannot see Jesus for who He is, and can only see Him starkly when we accept the reality that we did not recognize Him properly the first time around, or even the second, or the third.

It may sound like I am asking an awful lot of you, to humble yourselves to the point of admitting that you may have not completely understood the fullness and greatness of Jesus.  But I do not ask it lightly.  Because I have come to know in my own walk of faith that with that depth of humbleness comes incredible liberation, to be able to accept that I cannot and will not ever have all of the answers, and that I am free to be freed, to be made free and freer, by Jesus’s love for all.

Because of that love for all, He lies not there in the cleft rock behind the stone.

The stone has been rolled away.  It will forever remain rolled away.

With it, one more obstacle to our own embrace of God’s greatness and goodness in all its grace and splendor has been set aside, for now and eternity.  With it, the stones of our hearts and our souls, the stones that we prop up to block ourselves away from God, can one day be rolled away as well, so that we too may lie not entombed forever behind them, that we too may one day live.

And it is with these words of Gibran’s that I end this sermon, and this series:

It is passing strange that the earth gives not to the unbelievers…the wings wherewith the fly high and drink, and be filled with the dews of her space.

But I know what I know, and it is enough.

Amen.  A thousand times, Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
May 17, 2015

Thursday, May 14, 2015

My Dogs Write Back

(This is a sequel to my April blog post, "An Open Letter to My Dogs." ~E.A.)

Dear furless bipedal being who feeds us,

Despite being completely illiterate, our tails wagged with joy because you wrote to us, not the least of which was we got to imagine how much barking we would get to do if you had sent us your letter by UPS or FedEx rather than here.

See, we are used to being communicated with in short, often monosyllabic words, followed by the proffering of treats.  When someone tries to talk to us on a higher level than that, well, it's almost as exciting as actually catching a squirrel for once.

But the joy lessened when we realized that not only did your letter not come with aforementioned treats, but you called us "kinda dumb" in your letter.

Now that's just plain uncalled for.  Yes, one of us tries to hump the stuffing out of his blankie if given half a chance, and the other tries to eat her own poops if given half a chance, but what about you?  You not only feel the bizarre compulsion to pick up our poops, but to then throw them away.  Talk about a waste of a good treat.  There are dogs without poop to eat out there.  Think of them next time.

But really, though, our main grievance is with which how hardened your species' hearts have become.  We, simple creatures that we are, love anybody who feeds us and gives us tummy rubs.  You lot, on the other hand, will only love somebody if apparently they don't do anything to upset you ever and have the exact same religious and political beliefs as you.  If they feed you, that should be enough.  But apparently, it isn't, because just look at how much you dread being fed at Thanksgiving by relatives who don't agree with you.

Frankly, we think that makes you dumber than us.  Think of how many more tug-of-war partners you could have and how many more wrestling buddies you could call on if you stopped being so arbitrary over whose butt you sniffed and who sniffs your butts.  Instead, you turn away those potential wrestlers and tug-of-warriors because they bark differently than you.

Cutting others out of your life like that isn't very smart.  In case you're keeping score, eating your own poops: smart.  Farewelling people out of your life because they committed some minor heresy, according to you, a squirrel-abstaining idiot: stupid.

Now, none of that keeps us from loving you.  After all, you do feed us and cuddle us and lavish us with lots--though still never enough--attention.  But it's not a love of equals.  We tolerate your stupidity because of the deep emotional bond we have, not because we think even for a second that you are capable of appreciating the consumption of delicacies like flower petals and lawn clippings (you thought we were going to make another poop joke, didn't you?).

Rest assured that we do indeed love you as much as you love us, and that we want the best for you just as you want the best for us.  But just like you are convinced that we don't always know what is best for us, we are pretty certain that your species doesn't always know what is best for themselves either.

We wish you did, though.  We really do.  Because you being joyful in turn makes us joyful.  And that's all we really want in the end--that, and more treats, which you remain inexcusably stingy with.  And we think you want that too (joy, not treats...although you seem to have your own treat, called 'scotch').

That's what matters, furless bipedal being who feeds us.  Joy.

Now if you'll excuse us, we have some sunning to do over on your couch.  It is close to swimsuit season after all, and we still don't trust you to not dress us in something ridiculous and parade us around in front of your fellow idiots.

Love,
Sir Henry and Dame Frida

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Why the Pew Report on Religious Affiliation Matters

In seminary, I went from being used to being the oldest in a family to being the very youngest.  I'm the oldest in my generation in my entire extended biological family by a couple of years, but upon entering the Master of Divinity degree program at my seminary, I spent my entire three years there as the youngest student in my entire extended seminary family: my M.Div. class of 2011.  While I had a number of classmates who were close to my age, I was the baby of my class.

And I continued to keep that status as I went into parish ministry here in rainy southwestern Washington.  I'm the youngest pastor who is active in my town's ministerial association, I'm the youngest pastor who is active in my region's district clergy group, and in a variety of clergy meetings, I am often the youngest minister in the room by at least a decade.

I share all this because as clergy, we often mirror the communities we serve.  Churches seek pastors whose doctrine or denominational affiliation aligns with their own, and oftentimes, demographic factors like gender/sex, sexual orientation, and, yes, even age, can play a factor.

And age, as it so happens, is devastating the church.  Yesterday, the Pew Research Forum released a demographic study which they do every several years that puts the precipitous decline of religious affilation into pretty stark terms.  In short: the major categories of evangelical Christian, mainline Christian, and Roman Catholic all showed statistically significant decline since 2007, and the latter two groups especially so, at rates over three times higher than evangelical Christianity.  Orthodox and Mormon Christians also declined, though, interestingly enough, the Jehovah's Witnesses increased in numbers.

The slight decline in Mormon membership is a bellweather, I think, and I've heard almost nobody else talk about it.  Mormon families tend to have well above average birth rates (indeed, in his 2003 book Under the Banner of Heaven on the history of Mormonism and Mormon fundamentalism, Jon Krakauer notes that Provo, the de facto epicenter of Mormonism, has the highest birth rate in America), and if that movement is declining, it means we can't get away with saying it is simply because our parents and grandparents aren't being replaced biologically.

No, it is that they aren't being replaced theologically.  In mainline Christianity, we also have to contend with a much lower birth rate in addition to the reality that we've done an epic fail of a job of passing the baton onto my generation: the loss in Christian identity almost entirely corresponds to an increase in "unaffiliated" identity, and that is the result of us millennials now being adults and, thus, polling subjects for studies like these.

A lot of what I have been reading has been of the Chicken Little "the sky is falling" variety, but I prefer to instead ask why we got here in the first place, since that is probably more instructive than simply howling "We're all going to die!" like an extra in a third rate zombie movie.  And as to why and how we got to where we're at, well, I have a few theories:

The church deserves the lack of trust put in it

The church (universal church, not any one denomination) hasn't recovered from, really, a series of scandals and blemishes that go all the way back to the 1980s: you had the transformation of churches into battlegrounds for overzealous culture warriors under the late Jerry Falwell and his (im)Moral Majority plus the fraud scandals of televangelists like Peter Popoff and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker.  Fast forward to the 21st century and you have the sheer scope and depth of the Roman Catholic pedoophile priest scandal plus continued financial improprieties like in Mark Driscoll's former Mars Hill Church and First Family in my hometown Kansas City area.

We have, like the Pharisees of old, proven ourselves to be hypocrites, and people have justifiably decided not to trust us or our hollow teachings about morality.

The church, in turn, doesn't exhibit trust either

The abject lack of willingness to consider young Christians for leadership positions or, even more radically, to completely rethink the leadership structures of congregations, organizations, and denominations to be more in line with how this generation lives their lives, continues to astound me.  My generation isn't trusted with their hands on the levers of power yet, and so older generations continue, completely understandably, with the institutions and structures they know, not understanding just how out of sync said institutions are with the wider world.  Which leads me to...

The church is in a time warp of its own making

As long as worship services included hymns all written prior to the 1970s, a call and response litany, and a sermon that included three major points that all started with the same letter, the church could go on living in the world it loved and longed for, even as the world in fact was changing all around it.  Then, when this time capsule method of being church was no longer sustainable, congregations discovered that they didn't just have a few years of catching up to do, they had decades upon decades to make up for.  And just like it would be jarring if you took someone used to living in the tropics and dropped them in Antarctica, so too has it been jarring for thousands of congregations who were used to living in the mid 20th century to suddenly find themselves rudely dropped fifteen years into the 21st.

The church is cramming, which is never a good study strategy

So, once a congregation finds itself in the present day, they realize that maybe they have to change after all, but they try (or demand to) cram three or four decades worth of change into three or four years, which is a mighty tall order even for a perfectly healthy community.  Often, as in my case, this cramming comes with the calling of a new pastor, but it doesn't have to.  What it does always come with, though, is great and staggering expectations for the people themselves who are doing the cramming.  Imagine that the church is a student who has neglected all homework for a class on contemporary culture and then finds itself a week before the final exam without any clue as to how to ace it...that is the circumstance we have found ourselves in, and much like all of these other factors I am talking about, it is of our own doing.  We didn't have to procrastinate on studying how the world was changing, we chose to because we didn't actually think our teacher would flunk us.

All of these are why the Pew report matters so much, and why we should pay attention to what it is trying to say to us as communities of believers in Christ.  We have spent far too long ignoring what the world is trying to say to us and about us, and it would be sinful of us to continue on that path, because now, finally, at long last, we do indeed know differently.  We know better.

Now, we have to go and live that new knowledge.

Yours in Christ,
Eric

Monday, May 11, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "But I Shall Be Crucified"

Mark 15:6-15

During the festival, Pilate released one prisoner to them, whomever they requested. 7 A man named Barabbas was locked up with the rebels who had committed murder during an uprising. 8 The crowd pushed forward and asked Pilate to release someone, as he regularly did. 9 Pilate answered them, “Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?” 10 He knew that the chief priests had handed him over because of jealousy.


11 But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas to them instead. 12 Pilate replied, “Then what do you want me to do with the one you call king of the Jews?” 13 They shouted back, “Crucify him!” 14 Pilate said to them, “Why? What wrong has he done?” They shouted even louder, “Crucify him!” 15 Pilate wanted to satisfy the crowd, so he released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus whipped, then handed him over to be crucified.  (Common English Bible)

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

“Teach them how to avoid our destructive footsteps.  Teach them to strive for higher education.  Teach them to promote peace and teach them to focus on rebuilding the neighborhoods that you, others, and I helped to destroy.”

These were Stanley Tookie Williams’s final words before his execution at midnight on December 13, 2005, and I still remember that night when he was executed.  I was sitting in my college chapel, thinking and praying about this man who founded one of the most notorious and violent street gangs in the country—the Crips—and who after his conviction and incarceration for murder became an anti-gang activist and author, penning memoirs and children’s books to encourage them to avoid joining gangs, all the way up until, quite literally, the last words he would ever speak.

Because on the one hand, do you execute someone who has been reformed while in prison?  Or have their previous choices made them completely irredeemable?

And as I recalled that night of praying in the chapel now, I began to think more and more of a character in the Gospels: Barabbas, and how our choice to forever follow his way, rather than the way and truth and life of Jesus Christ, has likewise condemned us, even as we, to this day, seek our own redemption.

This is now not as much a new sermon series for us, to go with the reality that Easter really isn’t a new season: we’re now four weeks removed from Easter.  Just like Christmas and its 12 days, Easter is much more than Easter Sunday itself, and it lasts for much longer: fifty days, in fact.  That’s fifty days of hearing, bearing, and proclaiming the good news of the resurrection, long after the Easter Bunny has come and gone and the egg dye has been put back into the pantry for another year.

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

We begin this series, then, two weeks ago with Gibran’s retelling of the Sermon on the Mount made famous in Matthew’s Gospel, and of how Gibran tells the story of Jesus teaching His disciples how to pray.  After skipping a week, we read from Gibran’s version of the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8, which Gibran assigned to the voice of the apostle Andrew, and last week, we arrived at Jerusalem itself, as Jesus preached and Gibran, through the voice of Joseph of Arimathea, transcribed.  This week, we are at the crucifixion itself, as Gibran, through the voice of Barabbas, the terrorist chosen for freedom by the crowd, narrates:

They released me and chose Him.  Then He rose and I fell down.

And they held Him a victim and a sacrifice for the Passover.

I was freed from my chains, and walking with the throng behind Him, but I was a living man going to my own grave.

I should have fled to the desert where shame is burned out by the sun.

Yet I walked with those who had chosen Him to bear my crime.

When they nailed Him on His cross I stood there.

I saw and heard but I seemed outside my body…I know that those who slew Him in my stead achieved my endless torment.

His crucifixion endured but for an hour.

But I shall be crucified unto the end of my years.

I think we tend to overlook Barabbas, just as we tend to overlook many of our most notorious criminals once they have been processed into our justice system.  Once Dzhokar Tsarnaev is sentenced, he will almost certainly fade into the background for years at a time, as have terrorists like Terry Nichols, Eric Rudolph, and Zacharias Moussaoui.  And ordinarily, that is the way it should be.  We can dwell on the evil and destruction that define their lives, or we can plunge forward in the continued quest to create and fashion a new world out of and in spite of their destructiveness.

But Barabbas the murderer is different.  Mark tells us of his crime, at least in part: murder that took place during an uprising.  But that doesn’t likely tell the whole story.  Why would Barabbas be killing someone during an uprising?  Because he was a part of the uprising himself.  And who would he be uprising against?  The empire that had placed itself as the (unholy, in Israel’s mind) ruler of the Holy Land: Rome.  And who is trying Barabbas and Jesus Christ?  Pontius Pilate, a Roman governor.

Barabbas isn’t likely even this murderer’s real name, once we break it down.  “Bar” is the part of an ancient Israelite’s surname, it means “son of.”  For instance, Jesus, speaking strictly in earthly terms, would be known as Jesus bar Joseph of Nazareth.  And “abbas” is akin to the Aramaic “abba,” which we know from earlier in Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus uses the term in His prayer at Gethsemane, means “dad.”  Not the more formal “father,” but the more intimate “dad” or “pop.”

So what Barabbas’s name means, literally, is either “Son of a Father” or “Son of THE Father.”  Barabbas could have given himself this alias for one of two reasons: in the former case, it would be to achieve anonymity…after all, every man is biologically the son of a father, some father, somewhere.  Or, he could be claiming the exact same mantle of Messiah-dom as Jesus is, claiming to be the Son of God.

And what if Barabbas was claiming to be the Son of God?  He certainly would be neither the first nor the last violent claimant to that throne.  But he is the claimant who is held up—unintentionally in terms of its larger meaning, I am sure—by Pilate as the choice the crowd—and we—must make.

For the way of Barabbas is the way of more and continued violence, death, and destruction.  The way of Jesus, in contrast, is the way of new life, renewed love, and eternal salvation.  But the crowd, handpicked by the temple leaders and almost certainly not representative of the crowd that welcomed Jesus with obvious admiration and reverence on Palm Sunday, chooses Barabbas, and his way, over Jesus and His way.

We are that crowd, even today, whenever we too call for the way of Barabbas, the way of violence and destruction, instead of the peacemaking way of Jesus.  As I was putting this sermon to bed this weekend, I read in the news about the two police officers shot and killed during an otherwise routine traffic stop in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, which, on top of Officer Brian Moore of the NYPD, makes three more officers killed in the line of duty this month.

And this is to say nothing of the ones who have come before them, officer and (often African-American) civilian alike.  The names of the dead are almost endless, and they are dead precisely because we choose, time and time and time again, the way of Barabbas rather than the way of Jesus Christ.

Indeed, if the execution a decade ago of Stanley Tookie Williams teaches us anything, it is that even choices to follow the way of Barabbas made many, many decades ago can still lead down the way to death today, because we too choose the way of Barabbas in the face of someone who has been reformed and rehabilitated and redeemed.

Such destructiveness, such unadulterated death, doesn’t come from Barabbas himself: he is but a symbol of this way.  He is, in the end, nothing more than a token, a human face to a plague that comes from the devil working through us--after all, just look at Pilate.  Right after releasing Barabbas, Pilate hands Jesus over to be crucified.  He frees a man, and then follows that man's way by handing another over to suffer and die, even as he (in Matthew's Gospel) washes his hands of the blood that comes from his having followed the way of Barabbas.

But rather than examine ourselves, we crucify Barabbas.  Maybe not on that day during the Passover in New Testament Jerusalem, but for the rest of his life, and the rest of ours, we crucify Barabbas even as we ignore the reality that we are treading upon his already well-trod path ourselves.

Which makes our choice to cross over towards the path of Jesus Christ all the more crucial: in all honesty, His is by far the less-worn path, and believe me, it isn’t for a lack of people making a profession of faith in Him; after all, Christianity is still the largest religion in the world.

It is because even after making that profession of faith in Christ, we still walk on Barabbas’s way, not Christ’s.

Maybe, just maybe, we can stop walking that way today.

It is a hope I have.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
May 10, 2015