Monday, November 30, 2015

Letters from the Soul: This Month's Newsletter Column + New Sermon Series!

Letters from the Soul: December 2015

"The Twelve Days of Christmas"

Dear Church,

By the time you receive this newsletter, in the waning days of November between Thanksgiving and the first of December, you may well have already begun to deck the proverbial halls, brought out the holly, and picked out your Christmas tree for the year.

It has become an increasingly common American tradition to begin the Christmas season just as soon as the last bites of Thanksgiving turkey have digested and the final whistle has blown in the Thanksgiving football games. But that was never how the Christmas season was meant to be--in fact, the church has historically kept an entirely different season all the way up to Christmas Day, a season we know as "Advent."

And believe it or not, Advent (which constitutes the four weeks immediately prior to Christmas) was originally meant to act as a season of penitence and repentance before the big celebration of Christmas, sort of how Lent acts as a season of penitence and repentance right before the big celebration of Easter! The Christmas season was never meant to span an entire month (six weeks or so now--it feels like Thanksgiving has finally gotten overrun and now Christmas is nudging up against Veteran's Day!), either.

Remember the Christmas carol "The Twelve Days of Christmas" when someone's true love for some reason known only to God and the deranged machinations of the beloved's mind, decides to give you a partridge in a pear tree every day for twelve days? Well, those twelve days are in fact exactly how long the Christmas season traditionally lasts: from December 25 until January 6 of the next year, the date traditionally associated with the arrival of the Magi and their Epiphany--discover--of the newborn Christ.

At this point, you're probably wondering why I'm being such a grouchy Christmas grinch in this column! But ask yourself--do you feel yourself just being completely over Christmas come December 26? Are you glad by that point that Christmas is over and are eager to move on? I think that this, too, is an increasingly common tradition, and I so deeply wish it weren't. Christmas shouldn't drain or sap us of our energy, it should give us renewed hope and vigor in life in remembering that God came to earth, in flesh, simply because God loves us *that* much!

As your pastor, I long for you to be able to experience the glory and wonder of the presence of Jesus Christ as surely as I long for it for myself. And if holding off even just a little on the epic ramp-up to Christmas means you will have a bit more time, energy, and wherewithal to truly rejoice, truly enjoy, and truly celebrate the miracle that is God becoming our flesh, then I hope you will take a moment or two this Christmas season and pause...pause long enough to give yourself space to celebrate Christ's arrival not just on Christmas Day, but for the Twelve Days of Christmas that follow...and then, hopefully, each and every day afterwards.

I wish you and yours a very merry and safe Christmas!

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Eric

New Sermon Series: Advent 2015

Holy cow! Where did 2015 go?! It cannot possibly have been so long ago that I was up in front of all of you preaching my series on different sermons that changed the world all the way back in January! But here we are, with December on our doorsteps, and it is time for us to be in the midst of preparing for the arrival of the Christ child. This season of preparation, as you may know by now, is called Advent, is often a season, for many of us, of decking the halls--trees are picked out and put up, lights are strung out around the house, and, of course, the stockings are hung by the chimney with care.

But what about the home the original Christmas took place in? Per Luke's version of the Christmas story, there were no halls to deck, no chimneys to hang stockings alongside. Jesus was born on the road, in a humble stable surrounded by the beasts of burden we dress our children up as for our amazing Christmas pageant. (Keep reading the newsletter to find out more about this year's pageant!) So, for this Advent, starting last Sunday back in November, we will be taking a look at that scene of the original Christmas as so frequently and touchingly displayed to us through a means we all are familiar with: the nativity set, replete with statues of Mary, Joseph, the angels, and the shepherds. We talked about the angels last Sunday and will continue exploring the story through the vantage point of each of these core, crucial characters that stand out in the Christmas story we have all come to know and love!

Finally, all of this will culminate in our annual "lessons and carols" style Christmas Eve worship service, which will take place in our lovely sanctuary on Thursday, December 24, at 5:00 pm. You and yours are warmly invited and we hope to see you there!

I'll see you Sunday,
Pastor Eric

Advent 2015: “The Nativity: Still Life Comes Alive in Advent”

November 30: "Angels," Luke 1:26-38
December 6: “Shepherds,” John 10:11-16
December 13: “Joseph,” Matthew 1:18-24
December 20: “Mary,” Luke 1:46-55
December 24 (Christmas Eve, 5:00 pm): “Go Now to Bethlehem,” Luke 2:1-20

Sunday, November 29, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "Angels"

Luke 1:26-38

When Elizabeth was six months pregnant, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a city in Galilee, 27 to a virgin who was engaged to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David’s house. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 When the angel came to her, he said, “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!” 29 She was confused by these words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 

30 The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you. 31 Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father. 33 He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.” 

34 Then Mary said to the angel, “How will this happen since I haven’t had sexual relations with a man?” 35 The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son. 36 Look, even in her old age, your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son. This woman who was labeled ‘unable to conceive’ is now six months pregnant. 37 Nothing is impossible for God.” 38 Then Mary said, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.” Then the angel left her. (Common English Bible)

“The Nativity Scene: Still Life Coming Alive in Advent,” Week One

It was a marriage that was—and would be—controversial today for a great many people.  The bride had been previously divorced, and the groom was marrying her purely so that she could avoid being deported from England.  In America, it was what we would have called a green card marriage.

Except that this was not simply any random pairing of people looking to flout the law just because they could: the groom was C.S. Lewis, perhaps the most celebrated Christian author of the 20th century, and his bride was a former atheistic communist-turned-Christian Joy Davidman.

Shortly after their civil ceremony, Davidman was diagnosed with terminal bone cancer, and the couple—who had gone from being more than the best of friends to being genuine spouses—sought to have a Christian ceremony; despite the rules governing divorce in the Church of England during the late 1950s, a priest who was a personal friend of the couple performed the ceremony in 1957.

Joy Davidman died of her cancer only three years later, in 1960.

In writing pseudonymously about his sheer, unadulterated grief over losing his wife, C.S. Lewis wrote these words:

She was my daughter and my mother, my pupil and my teacher, my subject and my sovereign, and always, holding all these in solution, my trusty comrade, friend, shipmate, fellow soldier.  My mistress, but at the same time all that any man friend (and I have good ones) has ever been to me.

Perhaps more.

When we think about the most basic role an angel of God is expected to fulfill—that role of revelation, of revealing a message from God to the human hearer—it is altogether easy (in fact, seemingly too easy) to see those who in our lives dramatically change shape and role from something common to something uncommon, something everyday to something extraordinary, as someone who has become in our eyes an angel.

And we would not to be wrong for doing so, for such a person who inspires such a change in our regard for them is someone capable of likewise changing our regard for God, if we were to let them.

This is a new sermon series for the church season of Advent, what we colloquially think of as the “Christmas season,” but in fact the Christmas season in the church traditionally refers to Christmas Day and the eleven days afterwards between it and the Epiphany—the day the Magi arrive in Matthew 2 to worship the newborn Jesus and present Him with the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Advent, rather, is much like the pre-Easter season of Lent in that it is meant to be a season of preparation—of preparing for the death and resurrection in the case of Lent, and preparing for the birth (“preparing the way for the Lord, (to) make His paths straight,” as John the Baptist puts it, by quoting the Old Testament prophets) in the case of Advent.

This Advent season, we’ll be doing so by going through the characters one by one in the nativity scenes that we all know and love—the setting of Jesus in the manger surrounded by His earthly parents, Mary and Joseph, as well as the shepherds and the angels who herald His birth—and this Sunday, we begin with the angels, and not just any angels, but the archangel Gabriel and His message to Mary that she is to bear a child who will one day bear the name Son of the Most High.

It is a powerful and profound story, and likely not for reasons that we are truly able to fully appreciate today, I think.  Unwed mothers have it tough in so many ways in 21st-century America: the judgmental stares in the supermarket checkout line, the juggling of schedules without the help of a significant other, and, well, I don’t need to tell you—many of you were or are single moms yourselves.  It’s hard, and I should not, cannot, pretend to know what it is like, because I don’t.

But nor do we really know what it was like, how harrowing it truly was, to be a single mom in first-century Israel.  It meant that she was completely unmarriageable, completely without the intrinsic worth of the only thing that defined her worth back then: her virginity.  Back before the days of paternity testing and Maury Povich, the only way families could determine that their heirs were in fact their own was through virginity, and for obvious reasons, a pregnant woman was assumed to not be a virgin no matter how truthful her claims were of the Holy Spirit overcoming her and the power of the Most High overshadowing her.

She could have—and likely would have—been ostracized, demonized, and functionally exiled, putting her in an infinitely more dangerous place and probably dying even earlier than she otherwise would have due to the lower security of her livelihood.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  We’ll talk more about Mary as a person when her sermon arrives.

Yet, you can understand why some of Gabriel’s very first words to Mary are “Be not afraid” Be not afraid, Mary, of what I am about to tell you, of this fate that would mean almost certain isolation to any other woman.  Be not afraid, Mary, of who I am about to tell you your son really is.  Be not afraid, Mary, of me, of who I am, of a being sent to earth solely to reveal God’s goodness unto you!

Be not afraid, Mary!

It’s ironic, then, that these are the words that Gabriel perhaps least needed to speak.  Mary was not afraid, or if she was, Luke certainly does not know it or convey that to us.  No, what Gabriel is instead delivering is indeed what he says is a cause for rejoicing: rejoice, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  Rejoice, Mary, for you shall give birth to He who will save us all.  Rejoice, Mary, because God’s ultimate expression of love for humanity is going to arrive through you!

Rejoice, Mary!

Could we rejoice were we in Mary’s place?  Dare we rejoice were in the place of a teenaged girl visited by an angel to deliver her news that may be welcome to the world but potentially terrifying to her personally?

If God were made known to us by someone whom we did not know, who had to introduce themselves to us by saying “Be not afraid,” would we be able to live out the promise that God’s angel makes to us in that moment?  Would we be able to even see God’s Word in something so unexpected, told to us by someone so unexpected?

My prayer is that we would.

For weeks now, since the Paris terrorist attacks by the Islamic State, it seems we desperately need to be told to be not afraid—be not afraid of our Muslim neighbors, be not afraid of the refugees from Syria, be not afraid of those who simply do not look like us.  And in truth, the shootout that took place this past weekend over in Colorado Springs, at the Planned Parenthood affiliate there, ought to teach us that lesson with bitter tears: the terrorist who killed a law enforcement officer, wounded four more, killed two civilians, and wounded nine more, was not a Muslim, or a Syrian, he was a corn-fed, red-blooded American just like you or I.  Just like the terrorists who shot up Charleston, South Carolina, Aurora, Colorado, Newtown, Connecticut, and so many other sites of such tragedy.

Be not afraid, says Gabriel.  Perhaps it is impossible for us to be truly unafraid in this world we now live.  But certainly we must still try, and certainly we must learn to not be afraid of people whom we need not fear.  Gabriel is telling Mary she will soon become a mother with a child upon her back, like so many of the Syrian refugees—need we fear Mary?

Of course not.  For as an angel of the Lord says to her, the Holy Spirit will overcome her.  May we too find those in our lives for whom the Holy Spirit can show us a new reality, a new life, a new way of living.  Joy Davidman did that for C.S. Lewis, perhaps the most popular Christian thinker of the past 100 years.  Think of what you could do just for one another, never mind someone famous or of renown, but simply for the person sitting across the sanctuary or across the world from you.

Can we serve in that selfsame role of angels for one another, even if we do not think we can?  Because were we to do so, then it shall truly be as the writer of the letter to the Hebrews famously said: that by welcoming in strangers, we have indeed unknowingly entertained angels.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
November 29, 2015

Sunday, November 22, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "The Challenger Deep"

(This will likely be the only post for the week as C and I take a week of much deserved vacation to spend Thanksgiving with family.  I'll be back next Sunday, though, with the kickoff sermon to my new series for Advent based around the Nativity scene we all know, love, and decorate our homes and houses with. ~E.A.)

Romans 8:35-39

Who will separate us from Christ’s love? Will we be separated by trouble, or distress, or harassment, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written, We are being put to death all day long for your sake. We are treated like sheep for slaughter. 37 But in all these things we win a sweeping victory through the one who loved us. 38 I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers 39 or height or depth, or any other thing that is created. (Common English Bible)

“With Sighs Too Deep For Words: Verse-by-Verse Through Romans 8,” Week Five

For two days in June of 1944, the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet engaged in a massive air-and-sea battle with the navy of the Empire of Japan in the Philippine Sea, near the Marianas Islands and just above the Marianas trench—the deepest area of the seabed of the Earth’s oceans.  Basically, it’s the reverse Himalaya mount range: just as the Himalayas represent the highest peaks on earth, the Marianas trench contains the deepest points on earth, including the deepest point on earth: the Challenger Deep, sitting nearly 36,000 feet below sea level (if you’re trying to compute that in your head, it’s nearly seven miles).

Far above the Challenger Deep, in the air above the sea and ocean, the American Hellcat fighter planes achieved such a decisive victory over the Japanese Zeros that Japan’s ability to conduct large-scale air-and-sea operations was basically ended. 

While those planes were flying at a much lower altitude than ours do now, imagine a plane flying over the Challenger Deep today—for instance, Concorde, when it was in active use, would keep a cruising altitude of 60,000 feet, so high that passengers could see the curvature of the earth.  And the U2 spyplane (not the band) has an even higher operating altitude of 70,000 feet.

From 70,000 feet in the air to over 35,000 feet underground—and what Paul says to us, in such beautiful, vivid poetry, is that nothing, absolutely nothing, in that 105,000 feet of earth’s biosphere in which our existence is lived out, could ever possibly be enough to separate us from God’s love!

This is a sermon series that has amazingly taken us all the way to Advent—otherwise known as the Christmas season—which starts *next Sunday* (holy cow!).  Of course, we’ll be talking about the Christmas story beginning next Sunday, but we’re not quite there yet, and we still have Thanksgiving to celebrate this Thursday!  In that spirit of not only looking at what we have to be thankful for but also what cause we have to be loving and to experience such great love, we’ll be taking on a verse-by-verse treatment of the eighth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans.  Why this particular chapter?  Well, for one thing, it simply has been a while since we’ve had a series on Paul or his letters, and much like the USDA’s ubiquitous (when I was a kid, anyways) food pyramid, I strive to provide a balanced preaching diet for y’all; I’m like a spiritual lunch lady, doling out the religious Sloppy Joes. 

However, Paul is also a very dense, sometimes esoteric, theologian, especially in Romans, but when it comes to actually talking about the nature of God’s love, Paul’s prose genuinely begins to soar, and we’ve spent these last four Sundays reading through his elated words about the Holy Spirit, its fruits, and the ways in which it intercedes for us in our moments of weakness and selfishness.  Last week, we thematically moved on to the Spirit’s relationship not just with us as individuals, but with all of creation, with “sighs too deep for words,” as the New Revised Standard Version translates verse 26, from which this series got its title, and today, we arrive at the start of Paul’s conclusions to all of these different things, and he covers a ton of ground in doing so!  This week, we arrive at the end of the chapter, and one of Paul’s most famous passages in all of his letters.  It is famous for very good reason—it provides as great a possible sense of hope and wonder in the greatness and fullness of God’s love that it is scarcely equaled to, really, anything that I might be able to say about it.

But I’ll try to.  And hopefully Paul isn’t like Yoda and thinks, “Do, or do not.  There is no try.”

Paul is like Yoda, though (and I cannot believe that I am using Star Wars as a segue here…) because like Yoda, Paul is very much on the lam, as it were, from those who would do him harm.  Recall that Paul spent significant parts of his own ministry imprisoned, and that he was eventually martyred, and it’s much easier to see the sort of danger that Paul—and a great many other early followers of Jesus—really were at the hands of the Romans and their collaborators among the Judean leadership.

Knowing this crucial piece of context makes understanding Paul’s inclusion of a verse from the 44th Psalm (Ps. 44:22) that says, “We are being put to death all day long for your sake; we are treated like sheep for slaughter.”  It comes from a psalm that is clearly of lament, one that, if you read in its entirety, outright questions God and wonders how God could be asleep in the midst of such pain.

This is a critical question for Paul—he has just spent this entire chapter outlining the ways in which the Holy Spirit intercedes on our behalves, and yet our own lives are not always protected.  It is the sort of question that gets asked after the Paris attacks, or the Beirut attacks, or the Kenya attacks.

And, frankly, should be a question that is still being asked, not just because of the attacks but because of our response to them, towards the refugees from the Syrian civil war.  In terms of sheer body count, they are experiencing the equivalent of the Paris attacks every single day; it is small wonder, then, that they are fleeing.  A war between Bashar al-Assad and the Islamic State is a war where you desperately want both sides to lose, but guess who also loses?  The people in the middle.

Just as the early church was facing down the threats Paul is laying out here, in laundry list fashion, so too are the Syrian refugees right this second.  Trouble?  Yep.  Distress?  Check.  Harassment, danger, the sword?  All of them.

And after being attacked, after seeing attacks like these, fear is an entirely natural reaction in the purest sense of the term: fear is in our nature as humans.  But fear is not supposed to be in our nature as Christians.  And let me be clear here: the trials, terribly difficult trials that I know many of you face, and whose difficulty is real, in so very many ways pale in comparison to the trials these men, women, and children are suffering, facing, and experiencing.

If we are meant to show the love of Christ to all people—not just our tribe—then spiritually, we cannot afford to separate refugees from the love of God, especially when it is already so difficult a process to even arrive here in the United States as a refugee—a process that generally takes a minimum of a year, often two or more, all the while you must still find a way to live and provide for your family day-to-day.

So, can we be as the church in Rome is meant to be, as Paul is exhorting them to aspire to?  To cast aside these things of hurt and pain for ourselves and others—the distresses and the troubles and the famines—and finally, at long last, “win a sweeping victory through the one who loved us?”

All the way back in June of 1944, our Navy won us a great victory, flying planes high in the air over the deepest place on all the earth, a victory in the greatest, most terrible war that was ever fought in all of human history.

Can we—dare we—seek such a victory again, not in military terms, but in terms of life, of freedom, of uncut, unadulterated human flourishing?

Because were we to do so, then we would, I absolutely believe, be living out this powerful, poetic, profound dictum upon which Paul ends this chapter of his letter to the Romans, that there is indeed nothing, not angels or rules, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or anything created, in such a manner so as to completely change the world.

Let us begin, then.  With all of the vigor and strength that comes with following the eternal God who came to earth in the form of Jesus Christ.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington

November 22, 2015

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Recent Repost: "10,000 Is Too Few"

(I wrote this post back in September, when the plights of the Syrian refugees making their way to Europe began making the news here in the States and President Obama announced a plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees.

In the midst of massive prejudice against them in the wake of the Paris and Beirut terrorist attacks over the weekend, I feel it's important for me to, as a descendant of wartime refugees, to publicly restate the moral imperative--from both a Christian and an American perspectiv--for accepting those with less freedom than ourselves.  My hope is that in so doing, we will reach for a divine grace far greater than ourselves. ~E.A.)

Do not pick your vineyard clean or gather up all the grapes that have fallen there. Leave these items for the poor and the immigrant; I am the Lord your God.

Leviticus 19:10 (CEB)

When immigrants live in your land with you, you must not cheat them. Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens. You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.

Leviticus 19:33-34 (CEB)

The images of the Syrian refugees being reported in the media are absolutely heart-wrenching.

In response to this humanitarian crisis du jour--which I say not to be flippant, but to in fact highlight that there is indeed a humanitarian crisis seemingly every day now because of how good we are at hating and how terrible we are at loving--the Obama White House has directed the federal government to accept 10,000 refugees by granting them asylum status.  Pope Francis has directed every country in Europe to house refugees, and during his recent trip to America repeated those concerns for the immigrant and the marginalized.  And on Sunday night, John Oliver did an excellent segment on the refugee and immigrant crisis facing Europe as hundreds of thousands of people flee the Syrian civil war between two different devils--the government under Bashar al-Assad, and the rebel groups, one of which is the Islamic State (ISIS).

Meanwhile, it seems as though those vying for the chance to be the next leader of the free world care more about only talking about immigration in terms of what walls they can erect, and how high and impregnable they will be (and, if you're Donald Trump, how you'll somehow snooker Mexico into paying for the wall with I don't know, unicorn sprinkles or somesuch).

All of which raises a question: what on earth are we to do when others actually agree with us when we say (almost reflexively, as though on cue) that we live in the greatest country in the world?  What happens when they agree with us and say, "Yes, we want to join you?"

If we brag about how good and great our country is, we cannot then hold coming here (or wanting to come here) against people who are from somewhere less free.

That is the great dictum of America--and while I generally try to keep my patriotism separate from my Christian faith, I must confess it is especially difficult to do so this once.  I love America in no small part because my own family came here as refugees from a slaughter--the Armenian Genocide--and it is Scripture who tells us to care for the poor and the immigrant who are often one and same person.

My family came from halfway across the world as refugees of dubious legal status to settle in the United States to avoid their own deaths--and it was not without sacrifice of both blood and treasure.  One of the brothers of my great-grandfather Krikor perished in the Armenian Genocide.  The family's assets from their merchant holdings were wiped out.  And the world still lies to their descendants about what actually happened then, one hundred years ago.

In order to decide to leave their ancestral homeland in the face of such obstacles, *know* they had to do it.  They needed to leave, they had no alternative or option but to.  It was migration...or death.

And so, too, then, do our Syrian brothers and sisters flock to Europe and, to a lesser degree, America.  Because for them, too, it is a matter of migration or death.

This--this is why the Bible is so lucidly clear about how we are meant to treat immigrants: the Hebrews were immigrants in the land of Egypt.

And liberating the Hebrews was a matter not just of enslavement versus liberation, but after the Pharaoh ordered the deaths of the Hebrew boys, a matter of life and death as well.

So, in turn, Moses led them all out of Egypt, not just 10,000.  And when they had at long last made their own set of laws from what God had handed down to Moses, God saw fit to include multiple reminders--not just in Leviticus, but in the parts of the Law found in Exodus as well--that they too were once foreigners, and as such must treat foreigners as their own, for in the end, they are God's own, and thus, if we claim to be of God ourselves, they are our own as well.  Paul understood this well when he wrote that in Christ, there is neither Jew or Greek, but it is a lesson that seems to be long forgotten despite being inscribed for eternity in our sacred scriptures.

Pastorally, politically, personally, it pains me at great length that we seem to have forgotten not jut this lesson of the Bible but this lesson of our own history that people from places far less free than us will seek to come here, our natural inclination is, and will always, be, towards liberation.

But humanity will never be truly liberated until all of us are liberated.

For 10,000, in the face of so many needed so very much from us, is just too few.

Longview, Washington
September 29, 2015

Image--an artistic rendering of a refugee family--courtesy of Twitter

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

I Am Not Your Enemy

I am not your enemy.

I am a man, a very weak man, who draws his strength from a God I believe exists.

I am a husband, a son, a brother, a friend to far too few and a stranger to far too many.

I have placed my feet on different continents, flew over oceans, and stood in awe before the holiest of places in my religious tradition.

I have been raised with stories of truly horrific, genocidal evil done to my family, I have seen the stories of terrifying violence in the various towns and cities in which I have lived, and I have seen the fear in the eyes of people who have come to me pleading for help to escape their demons.

I am a humble servant of a greater God, trying as much as I humanly can to undo the damage being done by devils like addiction, fundamentalism, greed, and apathy. I make the world better where I can, fail often even at that, and go to sleep at night knowing that tomorrow gives me another chance to do better than I have done before.

So why must you try to end those tomorrows for others, others in Paris and in Garissa and in Beirut, others who no more want to be your enemy than I do, who no more want to see your violence than I do I am not your enemy.

I am not your enemy.  I am virtually unarmed.  I only have one tool to wield against you.

That tool is the promise of the empty tomb of my Messiah, whom your tradition reveres as a prophet in a great line of prophets, who conquered death at the hands of men who saw Him as an enemy.

That promise of the empty tomb is the promise of life, of resurrection, of a return from the grave by the very hand of God whose name you profane, and keep profaning, with your murder and your wickedness.

Your faith is a faith of death, and for that reason alone, you will lose out.  Maybe not in this world, but most certainly in the next.

How petrifying it must be for you to account of yourselves now before God for the death that you have brought upon us who are not your enemies.  I pity you for that.  I really do.  I know God as a source of life.  You know God only as a source of death and damnation.

How awful it must be to account of yourselves, then, before a God who reveres life above all else.  You who would destroy life, you who have taken life, you who would dare to put yourselves in place of God upon the throne and determine by your own actions who will live and who will die, how hollow your existence must be.

I will be praying for you.

Because, my Messiah commands me to.  Because my sacred texts command me to.  Because my faith commands me to.

And because in the end, I am not your enemy.  You are your own enemy.

Even though you think me yours.

Longview & Vancouver, Washington
November 18, 2015

Image courtesy of mypetjawa.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "Castellio's Lament"

Romans 8:28-34

28 We know that God works all things together for good for the ones who love God, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 We know this because God knew them in advance, and he decided in advance that they would be conformed to the image of his Son. That way his Son would be the first of many brothers and sisters. 30 Those who God decided in advance would be conformed to his Son, he also called. Those whom he called, he also made righteous. Those whom he made righteous, he also glorified. 

31 So what are we going to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He didn’t spare his own Son but gave him up for us all. Won’t he also freely give us all things with him? 33 Who will bring a charge against God’s elect people? It is God who acquits them. 34 Who is going to convict them? It is Christ Jesus who died, even more, who was raised, and who also is at God’s right side. It is Christ Jesus who also pleads our case for us.  (Common English Bible)

“With Sighs too Deep for Words: Verse-by-Verse Through Romans 8,” Week Four

The anguish of the man’s words could almost seep through the pages—if I had read his words on physical pages, rather than digitally, something I am sure he would’ve thought an incomprehensible innovation back in October of 1553.

That month, a man denounced for his beliefs by both Protestants and Catholics alike, Michael Servetus, was executed for heresy—burned at the stake, as was the fate of many heretics then, so that there would be no remains.  Servetus was prosecuted in no small part by the titanic church reformer John Calvin, and it was Calvin’s role in this whole sordid affair of putting another man to death for his beliefs that caused Sebastian Castellio such great anguish and lament.

You see, Protestants like Castellio and Calvin had spent the past several decades being persecuted for their belief in the Reformation—they were excommunicated, exiled, and in some cases, executed themselves, just like Michael Servetus.  And so Castellio could not bear seeing someone who ought to have known exactly how it felt to be so forsaken turn around and treat another man thusly.

Castellio’s lament exists today in the form of a book, De Haereticis, an sint Persequendi, which roughly translated, means, “Should Heretics be Persecuted?”  In it, he writes in part:

When Servetus fought with reason and writings, he should have been repulsed by reason and writings…it is unchristian to use arms against those who have been expelled from the Church, and to deny them rights common to all mankind.

Notice that in making this argument, Castellio is declining to refer to Servetus as a heretic—he has come to believe that there is no such thing, objectively, as a heretic, and that a heretic only exists in the mind of another person—that is, if I disagree with your interpretation of God or the Bible, I must be a heretic.  Not because I am one, but because you claim I am one.

It really requires you to change the way you look at people who don’t think the way you do.  And we must in fact change the way we look at such folk, for as Paul writes in today’s passage, it is God who acquits His elect.  And if His elect contains people you or I may not deign to call Christian, or lovers of Jesus Christ, or people of good faith, then I’m afraid that we are in for a massive shock in heaven.

This is a new sermon series that will take us all the way to Advent—otherwise known as the Christmas season (holy cow).  Of course, we’ll be talking about the Christmas story then rather than now, which is still firmly rooted in the Halloween-and-Thanksgiving season.  In that spirit of not only looking at what we have to be thankful for but also what cause we have to be loving and to experience such great love, we’ll be taking on a verse-by-verse treatment of the eighth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans.  Why this particular chapter?  Well, for one thing, it simply has been a while since we’ve had a series on Paul or his letters, and much like the USDA’s ubiquitous (when I was a kid, anyways) food pyramid, I strive to provide a balanced preaching diet for y’all; I’m like a spiritual lunch lady, doling out the religious Sloppy Joes. 

However, Paul is also a very dense, sometimes esoteric, theologian, especially in Romans, but when it comes to actually talking about the nature of God’s love, Paul’s prose genuinely begins to soar, and we’ll be spending this plus the next four Sundays trying to unlock exactly what the Holy Spirit has placed within Paul for this extraordinary chapter, beginning three weeks ago with the first eleven verses, and then last week with the subsequent five, all of which dealt with the nature of the Spirit and its fostering of selflessness rather than our prior and inherent selfishness.  Last week, we thematically moved on to the Spirit’s relationship not just with us as individuals, but with all of creation, with “sighs too deep for words,” as the New Revised Standard Version translates verse 26, from which this series got its title, and today, we arrive at the start of Paul’s conclusions to all of these different things, and he covers a ton of ground in doing so!

In reading this series of verses, it is quite easy to in fact come away thinking like Calvin—doesn’t “God knew them in advance…those whom God decided in advance would be conformed to His Son, He also called” in verses 29 and 30 sound an awful lot like the Calvinist notion of predestination, which posits that our ultimate fates are sealed before we are ever even born, and that there is nothing we can do to change that fate?  It sure sounds like that’s the case.

Except, lend an ear to what Paul is saying in the verse before all of that, in verse 28, that begins this passage: “We know God works all things together for good for the ones who love God.”  That love is an active choice we make, we choose to love as we choose to do anything else.  We can elect to be loving or unloving, faithful or unfaithful, and so we can choose whether to love God as well.

If we do, then what Paul says becomes true: God works all things together for good.  And that good, of course, is God’s grace and the opportunity of salvation, extended to all to accept.  But we cannot take credit for choosing to accept it, which is where we often run into trouble.  From Bible scholar Stephen Finlan in his book The Apostle Paul and the Pauline Tradition:

“Paul does not want anyone to take credit for his or her own salvation.  The language of being called gives God the glory.  Paul is not denying freedom of choice.  He is constantly exhorting people to choose rightly…what is highlighted in these verses is not predestination, but destiny: Paul is not looking back, but looking ahead to the perfecting and glorifying of those who accept God’s offer.”

We aren’t supposed to take credit for our own salvation, but what we often do is precisely that: not necessarily by patting ourselves on the backs for being saved, but by condemning, ostracizing, and really until rather recently in Christianity’s history, executing those who we label as “unsaved.”

People like Michael Servetus.  People like the citizens of Paris this past Friday.  People like the Syrians—refugees fleeing with their lives, and their now-dead friends and loved ones they have had to leave behind.  People like our brothers and sisters in God across time, across the earth, who have faced untold, unspeakable, unimaginable pain and anguish at the hands of those who deigned to take upon themselves the role of God the judge and cast out the other because they weren’t like us.

Who convicts us, indeed.  We convict ourselves by own actions, there is almost no need for God to convict us further, although He surely could.

But God doesn’t.  God reaches to save before to judge God reaches for salvation before condemnation, for reconciliation before estrangement, and for love before damnation.

Can we actually do likewise?  More to the point, dare we do likewise?  Because we surely can, we simply choose not to.

And by so doing, like I said, we convict ourselves.  By convicting others as heretics, we convict ourselves as heretics, as blaspheming pretenders to the name of God that is not ours to claim.

Which is precisely why we need, so deeply need, desperately require the Risen Christ to plead for us, because there are real, genuine crimes against life, against humanity, taking place right now, not just in Paris but also in Lebanon and in Kenya where hundreds likewise died in terrorist attacks over the weekend, and if we are going to instead try to convict a coffee company for plain red holiday cups, or a school district for asking a coach to pray privately rather than on the 50-yard line, then we need the Risen Christ to intervene on our behalves, because we have so lost the plot that the faith of people around us is at stake.

Don’t believe me?  Look at the massive backlash against the Christians who decided that those plain red Starbucks cups were somehow persecution.  We knew at the beginning of the week that there were way more important things than disposable coffee cups, and what has just happened in Paris, and in Beirut, and at Garissa University in Kenya, only confirms that immutable reality.

And if we ignore that reality, in favor of the persecution complexes that we have built up for ourselves, while people are dying at the hands of religious fundamentalist violence, and while prejudices and bigotry are being built against entire peoples as a result of that violence, then it can only be the grace and love of Christ Himself that can indeed save us, for we have shown that we simply cannot.

Which is, in the end, I suppose, why we should be so heartened, so encouraged, so reassured in God’s grace for each of us.

But I gotta tell you, after Paris, and Beirut, and Garissa, it’s hard to be.  It’s really, really hard.

Because it is a lot easier to be like John Calvin and want to fight fire with fire.

But that will only further the laments of the Castellios of the world who have seen the better versions of ourselves and are desperately calling us towards that reality.

Let us try to end that lament here, now, even if it won't change our reality today in the hopes that it will change our children's reality tomorrow.  That may be who we end up doing this for--not ourselves, but for our children, and grandchildren, on the far-off idealistic notion that they may one day live in a peaceful world.

So let us try to end that lament now, before another Paris occurs, for it is God who demands such goodness from us, even when we do not feel we are capable of it.

But we are.  In some deep, far-off corner of our souls, we have always been.  Because Christ pleads for us, and to us, every single day.

Thanks be to God for that.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
November 15, 2015

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Can We Talk About the Christmas Creep, Y'all?

I am immensely humbled and gratified by the amount of attention Monday's post on the Starbucks holiday cups got--it ended up being one of my most shared posts since "coming out" (as it were) about being a survivor of childhood sexual abuse in a post earlier this year in the wake of the Josh Duggar revelations.

I mention that post--the one recounting my instance of sexual abuse--because we suffer greatly from an immensely polarized manufacturing of reality today.  We can so very easily cordon ourselves and our minds off to our own little corner where all we see, all we consume of reality is Fox News, or MSNBC, or the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, or Keeping Up With the Kardashians.

For folks who have been wounded by the church--and I say this not to cast stones (in fact, I'd probably act very similarly myself if I were in their shoes)--it is very easy for them to create a reality that the church intrudes into as rarely as possible, except for when a Christian makes the news for doing something terrible (Duggar) or saying something terrible (think Todd Akin's "legitimate rape" drivel during the 2012 election cycle).

The howls of persecution over the Starbucks holiday cups fell into that latter camp on face, but in context could arguably have fallen into the former camp--not simply saying something terrible, but doing something terrible by demanding that we care more about a disposable paper cup than, say, what is currently happening on the University of Missouri campus right now, or Veteran's Day and the reality of the struggles that vets often face in terms of mental health care, homelessness, substance abuse, and on and on.

And these howls of persecution were taking place, let's remember, over a cup to celebrate the winter holidays, and ostensibly Christmas in particular--a day that is still over *six* weeks away.

Think about that for a second.  That's six refills of those S-M-T-W-T-F-S pill boxes you use to sort your meds out week-to-week.  That's six Monday Night Football Broadcasts.  That's six sermons, six Sunday School lessons, six Children's Church classes.

That's an awful lot of time.

I hate (okay, not hate--I try not to use the word 'hate.'  I ultra-despise, there), I ultra-despise having to pull the "when I was a kid" card because I am still not yet thirty, but when I was a kid, the "Christmas creep" stopped, full stop, at Thanksgiving.  And even that was a lot--waking up on December 26, one still got the "Whew, Christmas is finally over" sentiment in full measure.

But now that we've bumped up the start of "Christmas season" by 3+ weeks, we've gone from running a marathon of egg nog, peppermint, and awful covers of "Santa Baby" to running an ultramarathon of all those holiday trappings.  And the exhaustion we feel at the end of the race is likewise amplified, much to the detriment of our spiritual and emotional selves.  It becomes a relief to pack up all of the Christmas decorations for another year, it becomes a resentment to have to polish off the last of the Christmas leftovers.

We become tired and sick of something after purporting to celebrate it for 7-8 weeks.  Can we admit to ourselves that isn't really healthy?

Can we admit that we are eclipsing our need to disguise our consumerism with red and green holiday colors to the point that we're gorging ourselves?

Despite my grinchy reputation this time of year, I'm genuinely not trying to be a grinch.  I'm trying to encourage us to pace ourselves, to not jump the gun so early, to run the race without a series of false starts.

Think about your own birthday--not Jesus's, your own.  It's often possible to still have the joy of that day filter into the next one and propel you forward with some leftover afterburners of energy--at least, it does for me (or has done--ask me again after this one since I'm turning another decade older).

But we are no longer capable of reaching for that energy after Christmas because the energy it generated was already burned out days or weeks prior.

So let's actually leave some room for Thanksgiving, and for god's sake, Veterans Day.  Halloween?  Eh, it's not like I need more candy in my life, I'm agnostic on that one.

But let's get back to celebrating one holiday at a time, yeah?  And hopefully, the joy we are supposed to feel this time of year will be far easier to generate on a fuller soul.

Longview, Washington
November 12, 2015

Monday, November 9, 2015

A Tempest in a Coffee Cup: A Four-Shot Brew on Starbucks's (Nonexistent) War on Christmas

Before and after: an image of a previous edition Starbucks holiday-themed coffee cup (courtesy of, and an image of the 2015 Starbucks holiday-themed coffee cups (courtesy of Huffington Post).

Can you spot the difference between the two different cups?  It's pretty obvious: the top one has explicitly holiday-themed imagery like evergreen branches, stars, and Christmas ornaments, whereas the cups in the bottom image do not.

And it has gotten the pantaloons of a number of Christians into a right twist.

To be sure, symbols like the evergeen Christmas tree and the star do have Christian roots--the Christmas tree can be dated back to the Reformation-era Germans, and the star of course is a hearkening back to the Star of Bethlehem that guided the Magi to the newborn Christ.

At the same time, evergreen trees began as a symbol of eternal life by the ancient Egyptians, and Christ's birth is by no means the only one that people have claimed was heralded by a star; most notably, the ancient Egyptians (again!) believed their god Horus's birth was heralded by a star.  And Santa Claus is simply a cuddlier version of the Norse god of war, Odin, who would fly around on his eight-legged horse, Sleipnir (get it?  Eight reindeer--screw you and your red nose, Rudolph--one for each of Sleipnir's legs) to visit children to leave gold coins in their shoes or stockings at night.

So can we admit that this imagery we are rushing to defend is not the literal imago dei--the image of God--and is instead the images we appropriated and thus should not claim any divine inheritance for?

Because once we do, this really does become the most obvious tempest in a teacup--or coffee cup.

And because this is Starbucks, the coffee cup comes in four different, in honor of peppermint-everything being ordered this time of year, take a tube of toothpaste, squeeze it into your coffee mug, and take a big, airy slurp of your minty miasma as you continue:

(Five sizes, really: we'll set aside for a moment my astonishment that I'm writing about Christmas and the nonexistent "War on Christmas" before Veteran's Day has even come and gone, much less Thanksgiving.  Seriously, let's get a grip, yeah?  But onward...)

Tall: There are way more important things for Christians to go to the mat for

Food scarcity.  Climate change.  Equal rights for racial, gender, and sexual orientation minorities.  Slavery and human trafficking.  The Gospels weren't kidding when they quoted, "What you do to the least of these, you do to me."  What we do to the least among us is, I have to believe, of far greater import to God than what we do to our disposable, one-use coffee cups (again--climate change).   Heck, what about the conditions of the farmers who grew your coffee beans?  Were they paid a fair wage?  Can they put food on their family's table?  How is it that we care more about the whitewashed (or red-washed, I guess) outside of the cup rather than the contents of it?  It was the contents of the jugs of water that Jesus turned into wine at Cana that mattered, not just the jugs themselves.

Put another way, when we finally see God face-to-face after we leave this earth, what will be asked of us is how we changed God's creation for the better, not how we fought for the symbols on a paper coffee cup.  It's that simple and point blank.

Grande: This is so far from actual persecution, it's almost comical

I wrote this, verbatim, to a good friend and congregant on Facebook when she asked me about it:

I think we Christians have sadly become a whiny and litigious people, quick to complain and cry persecution at almost anything (coffee cups, teaching evolution, you name it), which trivializes both the very real persecution Christians undergo in places like North Korea or China and the very real persecution our ancient predecessors endured for the first 300 years or so of Christianity's existence before Constantine made it the state religion of the Roman empire. We need to step back, calm down, see the big picture, and get a clue.

The list of things we have gotten quicker and quicker to cry persecution over has only (disturbingly) seemed to increase over the past decade or so: birth control, school prayer, and more.  And those are important issues, even if I disagree with many of my Christian brethren on them.  But to be told that you must cover an employee's birth control as a part of their health insurance is *not* persecution.

Persecution is being fed to the lions.  Persecution is being unable to worship because government authorities would round up you and your fellow worshipers and ship you off to modern-day gulags.

Every time we claim persecution for something that does not directly inhibit our right to worship, we are trivializing the horrors that many of our fellow Christians--who we claim to speak out for--actually face and have faced.  And that is unacceptable behavior.

Venti: This is a horrible, horrible Christian witness

Christians, this is why non-Christians don't like us.  This, exactly this.  Behavior where we throw hissy fits like a preschooler who just wants to be able to take their pet fish out on a walk to the park with them.  It's that illogical, that nonsensical, and that irreconcilable for many people outside of our faith tradition.  Honestly, if I weren't already Christian, I'd see and read about stuff like this and it would not entice me to become a Christian--if anything, it would probably only drive me further and further away from ever taking that leap of faith.  And I wouldn't be alone in that.

I cannot tell you how many people I met in college (I purposely went to a college with a great many nonreligious students, and I don't regret it for a nanosecond) tell me how turned off and even threatened they have felt by the incendiary rhetoric we Christians use with abandon.  I had gay friends who didn't feel safe around me for months, even years, simply because I am a Christian and, as it turns out, one of the only Christians in their lives to affirm their sexuality.  I had Muslim friends who confided in me their own anguish over how they got judged by Christians for visibly being Muslim--wearing the hijab, observing the Ramadan fast, and stopping to pray in the direction of Mecca.

I mention all of these different, seemingly divergent, behaviors because they have a common core: we are increasingly knee-jerk and hostile towards those who are not a part of our tribe of Christians.  We boycott Starbucks over the holiday cups...wait, weren't we already boycotting them over support same-sex marriage?  We retain out-of-state law firms to sue our school districts over public prayer...wait, didn't that get decided over and over by the Supreme Court?

We're terrible losers, we Christians.  We're sore, bad losers.  And that needs to change.  Whatever happened to, "turn the other cheek" after all?

Trenta: God is so, so much bigger than a damn coffee cup

Want to follow God, the maker of heaven and earth, all that is seen and unseen?  God, who breathed life into Adam, formed Eve from Adam, and eventually cast divinity itself down to earth in the form of a mortal named Jesus Christ?

Then get out of your tiny shell.  Break your blinders, cast off your shackles that cause you only limited movement, that allow you only to see a limited field of vision, that point you only in one direction rather than in all 360 degrees of God's good creation.

God is bigger, better, and more profound than you, or I, or anyone else in our limited mortality could possibly begin to comprehend and imagine.  Can we not allow, then, for the possibility that God needs no coffee cups to have glory be given unto heaven, that God needs no religious ambiguous symbols to have praises shouted to the throne?  That what God desires from each of us lies in our heads and our hearts and not upon a disposable paper product?  Indeed, if that coffee results in a communion of sorts, of two people sharing their lives over that coffee, or of praying together over that coffee, does it even matter what the coffee comes in?  It has still achieved a magnificent ends that does far more to edify a great and glorious God whom you and I serve alike.

Thanks for reading.

Vancouver & Longview, Washington
November 9, 2015

Sunday, November 8, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "Winton's Children"

Romans 8:18-27

I believe that the present suffering is nothing compared to the coming glory that is going to be revealed to us. 19 The whole creation waits breathless with anticipation for the revelation of God’s sons and daughters. 20 Creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice—it was the choice of the one who subjected it—but in the hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from slavery to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of God’s children. 22 We know that the whole creation is groaning together and suffering labor pains up until now. 

23 And it’s not only the creation. We ourselves who have the Spirit as the first crop of the harvest also groan inside as we wait to be adopted and for our bodies to be set free. 24 We were saved in hope. If we see what we hope for, that isn’t hope. Who hopes for what they already see? 25 But if we hope for what we don’t see, we wait for it with patience. 26 In the same way, the Spirit comes to help our weakness. We don’t know what we should pray, but the Spirit himself pleads our case with unexpressed groans. 27 The one who searches hearts knows how the Spirit thinks, because he pleads for the saints, consistent with God’s will.  (Common English Bible)

“With Sighs too Deep for Words: Verse-by-Verse Through Romans 8,” Week Three

669 children.

That’s an elementary school.  That’s several pee-wee soccer divisions.  That’s a Boy Scout camporee.

It’s the number of souls that one solitary British committee worker managed to spirit out of Czechoslovakia on the eve of the Second World War, with Nazi Germany occupying Czechoslovakia ever since the country got sold out by the Western powers at Munich.  Taking advantage of a House of Commons law, passed after Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, that allowed refugees who were minors to seek asylum in Britain provided a 50-pound bond was paid towards their eventual return to their homes once the war was over, Sir Nicholas Winton smuggled 669 children, in three groups of 200-250 apiece, across continental Europe and into England.  These children—now elderly adults, and some of them deceased, are known as “Winton’s Children.”

Rather than trumpet his goodness from the mountaintops, he instead never mentioned it, not to anyone, for over 40 years, until his wife found a scrapbook in their attic containing the names of every child he had saved back in the late 1930’s and gave it to a Holocaust researcher, ensuring he would indeed receive the acclaim due to him that he received all the way up until his death, this past summer, at the age of 106, 76 years to the day when the final train carrying over 200 children to life, freedom, and safety, left from Prague.

What drove one person to do all of this—and then keep it all a secret?  Christ tells us that is in fact what true goodness looks like—it is done in secret, so much so that one hand does not know what the other is doing—and sometimes, that too is how the Holy Spirit, with sighs too deep for words, intercedes in our own lives: in ways that only we can see them.

This is a new sermon series that will take us all the way to Advent—otherwise known as the Christmas season (holy cow).  Of course, we’ll be talking about the Christmas story then rather than now, which is still firmly rooted in the Halloween-and-Thanksgiving season.  In that spirit of not only looking at what we have to be thankful for but also what cause we have to be loving and to experience such great love, we’ll be taking on a verse-by-verse treatment of the eighth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans.  Why this particular chapter?  Well, for one thing, it simply has been a while since we’ve had a series on Paul or his letters, and much like the USDA’s ubiquitous (when I was a kid, anyways) food pyramid, I strive to provide a balanced preaching diet for y’all; I’m like a spiritual lunch lady, doling out the religious Sloppy Joes. 

However, Paul is also a very dense, sometimes esoteric, theologian, especially in Romans, but when it comes to actually talking about the nature of God’s love, Paul’s prose genuinely begins to soar, and we’ll be spending this plus the next four Sundays trying to unlock exactly what the Holy Spirit has placed within Paul for this extraordinary chapter, beginning two weeks ago with the first eleven verses, and then last week with the subsequent five, all of which dealt with the nature of the Spirit and its fostering of selflessness rather than our prior and inherent selfishness.  Today, we thematically move on to the Spirit’s relationship not just with us as individuals, but with all of creation, with “sighs too deep for words,” as the New Revised Standard Version translates verse 26.

It is from the NRSV translation of that verse that we get the title of this sermon series, and it is really quite remarkable that we do.  The NRSV is a more academically-oriented formal word-for-word translation, as opposed to more dynamic thought-for-thought translations or paraphrases that might be more attractive or engineered towards the layperson’s eye.  And that’s to say nothing of the granddaddy of Bible translations, the King James Version, whose thee’s and thou’s contain within them a vast trove of soaring poetic translation—albeit of sometimes dubious accuracy.

But why does that matter?  Why translate Paul in this way if we could translate him in a more cut-and-dry way?  Because Paul himself does not long to be so cut-and-dry.  Read what he is saying here—phrases like “breathless with anticipation,” and “set free from slavery to decay.”  This is Paul at his very, very best, able to soar with such height and altitude that you cannot help but stare up at the heavens and envy him—until he reaches down to pull you up to that very selfsame loftiness.

In this way, Paul is doing exactly what we might expect of anyone who has had such a profound God experience: he wants to shout it out to the world, something has done for years now prior to his writing to the church in Rome.  But what of the Holy Spirit, whose words are not always spoken, whose voice is not always audibly heard, and whose presence, like the rush of the wind, can be impossible for us to see by itself?

Paul says that the Spirit intercedes for us when we do not know how to pray as we ought.  And that makes sense, because I think we tend to see our ability to pray or to not pray as a part of whether we are indeed feeling the Spirit--feeling in tune with God may make it easier for us to pray, but in truth, it is probably those moments we are least in tune with God that we need prayer but don't know how.

Yet Jesus taught us how to pray, rather famously, if you’ll remember, in Matthew 6, when during the Sermon the Mount, Jesus outlines the Lord’s Prayer for us.  But just a few verses prior, that prayer, Jesus tells us, is meant to take place in secret, unlike the hypocrites who love to pray in the most public places so that people will see them: “But when you pray, go to your room, shut the door, and pray to your Father who is present in secret.  Your Father who sees what you do in secret will reward you.”

And in truth, that being seen versus unseen, visible versus invisible dichotomy is what life itself faces.  Only until recently did we see life come into this world—it was not so long ago that husbands were consigned to waiting rooms, and even further in the past, that mother and child were sequestered entirely for days on end.  But the provision of life is precisely what Paul is rejoicing in here—his constant references to creation, and to its breathlessness, it is a (I have to think deliberate) harkening back to Genesis 2 when God breathed life into Adam through his nostrils.

In the Biblical sense, breath is equals life.  And breath, too, is something we feel but cannot always see, not unless we have a glass in front of us to fog up with our exhalations.  So even the Bible’s oldest, most ancient symbol of life is itself in no small manner…invisible to us.

It is divinely appropriate, then, that someone such as Sir Nicholas Winton would keep entirely to himself the work of salvaging the lives of 669 children in the face of the most infamous evil of the modern era.  Counter-intuitive to us, perhaps, but appropriate.  Divinely appropriate.

The Spirit likewise intercedes for us with sighs—with groans—too deep for words.  Sighs and groans can be heard, they can even be felt on a visceral, gut level.  But are they seen?  No.

Sometimes, the Spirit’s most important, most life-saving work is done sight unseen by us, the beneficiaries of such great work.  And because we do not see it, we may well think that such work has not in fact taken place, even when it absolutely has.  Instead of if a tree falls in the forest, it’s, “If the Spirit works in a heart and nobody was around to see it, do we still think that it has happened?”
The usual way to do this in the case of born-again experiences would be to simply look at a person’s life afterwards—have they had that dramatic, substantial change in nature like Paul did on the road to Damascus?  And that’s well enough, but what about the rest of us who may not have such colossal experiences but who need the Spirit’s help in our everyday, week-to-week wobbles in faith, wobbles that nobody else might see but us?

That's what is tough for me in how we tend to treat testimonies of born-again experiences: those experiences are seen as a finishing line, not a starting line, and we sometimes hear less of how the Spirit works to sustain a newly Christian person's faith than we do about that momentous road to Damascus moment.  It's not to diminish those born-again experiences at all, it's to say that even Paul here acknowledges that the Spirit continues to intercede for him well after he has been forever changed.

So for the rest of us, look at how Paul ends this passage (well, it’s not the ending to the passage, we had to cut it off today lest the reading get way too long to do proper justice to): the one who searches hearts knows how the Spirit thinks.  And I have to believe that for us, the searching of hearts must begin with our own.

Search your own heart then, in the midst of your own wobbles and stumbles, to see whether what your heart desires and what God desire are indeed the same.  For if they are, then continue to have faith, faith enough to live, faith enough to thrive, and faith enough to know, deep in your bones, at the bottom of your soul, and from the innermost chambers of your heart that the Holy Spirit shall indeed continue to advocate for you…with sighs far too deep for words.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
November 8. 2015

Sunday, November 1, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "Bendlerblock"

Romans 8:12-17

So then, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation, but it isn’t an obligation to ourselves to live our lives on the basis of selfishness. 13 If you live on the basis of selfishness, you are going to die. But if by the Spirit you put to death the actions of the body, you will live. 14 All who are led by God’s Spirit are God’s sons and daughters. 15 You didn’t receive a spirit of slavery to lead you back again into fear, but you received a Spirit that shows you are adopted as his children. With this Spirit, we cry, “Abba, Father.” 16 The same Spirit agrees with our spirit, that we are God’s children. 17 But if we are children, we are also heirs. We are God’s heirs and fellow heirs with Christ, if we really suffer with him so that we can also be glorified with him. (Common English Bible)

“With Sighs Too Deep For Words: Verse-by-Verse Through Romans 8,” Week Two

Like Oprah’s couch, or Katie Holmes’s film career, this was almost ruined by eventually being associated with Tom Cruise (sorry, Scientology, you were a poisoned chalice long before Maverick flew into your exploitative life).  In Berlin, where the Bendlerblock office buildings stand on what was once Bendlerstrasse but has been renamed to Stauffenburgstrasse after Colonel Claus Schenck Graf von Stauffenburg, portrayed by Cruise in Bryan Singer’s 2008 film Valkyrie.

Valkyrie depicted the failed July 20, 1944 plot by a group of Wehrmacht officers and powerful politicians to try to assassinate Hitler by means of plastic-W left to explode in a briefcase set next to Hitler in a planning meeting.  The officers could read the writing on the wall and knew the Normandy invasion from D-Day six weeks prior could absolutely devastate Germany and Europe and so desired to rid themselves of Hitler and then surrender to the Allies to spare the continent this destruction.  At the last second, the briefcase was moved further away from Hitler unknowingly by another officer who knew nothing of the plot, and the Fuhrer escaped with only minor injuries. 

That very same night, Stauffenburg, along with fellow conspiracists General Friedrich Olbricht, Colonel Merz von Quirinheim, and Lieutenant Werner von Haeften were executed at Bendlerblock.  And in 1980, over 35 years after their executions for resisting Hitler, Bendlerblock was justly converted into a memorial to the courage of these men, and the site where they lost their lives to the fury and unrequited evil of national socialism now bears a plaque with the following inscription:

You did not bear the shame
You resisted
You bestowed an eternally vigilant symbol for change
By sacrificing your lives for freedom, justice and honor

Their actions, as Paul would say at the end of today’s passage, absolutely led to their suffering and their deaths, but it also led to their just and rightful glorification as representatives of a better way.

This is a new sermon series that will take us all the way to Advent—otherwise known as the Christmas season (holy cow).  Of course, we’ll be talking about the Christmas story then rather than now, which is still firmly rooted in the Halloween-and-Thanksgiving season.  In that spirit of not only looking at what we have to be thankful for but also what cause we have to be loving and to experience such great love, we’ll be taking on a verse-by-verse treatment of the eighth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans.  Why this particular chapter?  Well, for one thing, it simply has been a while since we’ve had a series on Paul or his letters, and much like the USDA’s ubiquitous (when I was a kid, anyways) food pyramid, I strive to provide a balanced preaching diet for y’all; I’m like a spiritual lunch lady, doling out the religious Sloppy Joes. 

However, Paul is also a very dense, sometimes esoteric, theologian, especially in Romans, but when it comes to actually talking about the nature of God’s love, Paul’s prose genuinely begins to soar, and we’ll be spending this plus the next four Sundays trying to unlock exactly what the Holy Spirit has placed within Paul for this extraordinary chapter, beginning last week with its first eleven verses on the nature of selfishness versus the spirit, and this week we’ll delve into the next five verses.

These five verses represent the natural conclusion to the previous eleven—Paul has compared and contrasted selfishness and spirit, and this is what is ultimately meant to be the result: an obligation to live.  And how do we live?  By avoiding selfishness at all costs.  Like Christ’s own teachings about radical generosity and compassion, Paul’s teachings on radical selflessness are completely counter-intuitive to the way we are programmed, and completely countercultural to the world we live in.

And that’s not nothing.  Paul, if you’ll recall, was raised up through the ranks of Pharisaic Judaism and became so radical that he at a minimum approved, but in all actuality probably supervised, the murder of Stephen the martyr in Acts of the Apostles.  And Paul as a Pharisee was closely aligned not to the interests of Israel and the Israelite people, but to the ruling Roman Empire with whom the Pharisees closely collaborated in order to maintain their own hold on the remaining levers of power over an oppressed populace.

I’ve used this comparison before in trying to explain the power dynamics of the Israel Jesus was born into, and it is why I felt the story of Bendlerblock was so appropriate a one to share when talking about dying to selfishness while dying because of selflessness: when you think of the Roman Empire, think of Nazi Germany, and when you think of the Pharisees, Sadducees, and other temple authorities, think of the collaborationist governments in Vichy France, Norway under Quisling, and the like who enabled the bloodthirstiness of the German government in Berlin.

The Pharisees—of whom Paul was one—enabled the oppression of the Israelite people by the emperor in Rome.  It is why it was so very wrong of the Christian church for centuries to hang Christ’s crucifixion on the Jewish people rather than on the very small subset of Jewish leaders with any power.  And it is why such radical selflessness still matters very, very much on a grand scale: we have to have leaders and systems that are for the many, not for the very elite few.

Paul ultimately turns this on its head when he becomes, in his own words, a slave to Christ--it is a radical statement of self-denial in the face of his previous selfishness.  I carry that reminder of self-denial in the form of the stole I wear before you every Sunday.  It isn't just for decorative effect--the stole is meant to resemble the sweat cloth that slaves who worked outdoors would wear in Biblical times.  The stole is meant to mark me as a slave to Christ, like Paul, willing (even though sometimes I'm truthfully not so willing--I'm still just a man, and a very weak man at that) to deny myself to instead follow Christ.

So I’m also concerned for the survival of this sort of selflessness on a micro-level as well.  Are we realistically and genuinely capable of such radical selflessness that it might mean the loss of our own selves but at the gain of our glorification, as Paul says, alongside Christ?  Because I think we tend to water down selflessness in order to only make it worthwhile when it is extended to someone we deem—by our own arbitrary set of criteria—to be worthy or deserving of our aid.  And that was, quite simply, never meant to be the way that the Gospel was ever supposed to work.

Jesus did not administer drug tests before feeding the 5,000.

Peter did not ask the crippled beggar at the Solomon Portico why he did not have a job.

And Paul does not condition God’s own goodness and grace on our own attempts, feeble they often are, to underscore our own merit, because God is no longer concerned with merit.  Grace is extended to all, and we choose whether to accept it or to reject it.

So if God is no longer so concerned with merit, why on earth are we?  Why are we so concerned over whether the single mother in front of us in the checkout line is using cash or WIC to pay for her formula?  Why do we care so much if the EBT card a person is using to pay for gas is the first month of benefits they’ve received or the twenty-fifth?

More to the point, whatever happened to the sort of selflessness that drove these four German men—and many more after them—to lay down their lives for the sake of a newer and better world?

True selflessness is, and has to be, entirely unconditional, it can be no other way.  That is the lesson of Bendlerblock.  The men who executed this plot did so knowing they could lose everything.  We have to be willing to lose everything to follow Christ—He himself makes that much clear when erstwhile people come to follow Him but only after putting their own affairs in order.

But we don’t want to do any of that, do we?  We like our comfort.  We like our lifestyles.  We like not having to strive more.  But we must.  We absolutely must.

One of those many who were executed in the weeks after the failed July 20 plot was Field Marshal Erwin von Witzleben.  Just a few weeks later, he was given a show trial in the kangaroo People’s Court, and upon being sentenced to death by hanging by presiding judge Roland Freisler, he responded, “You may hand us over to the executioner, but in three months’ time our disgusted and harried people will bring you to book, and drag you alive through the dirt in the streets.”

Such is the fate of those who go the furthest in their hateful and hurtful efforts to avoid selflessness at all costs—they too are brought to book.  Paul says as much later in Romans, when he exhorts us not to avenge ourselves but to remember that vengeance is God’s, not ours.

Have faith that those who may hurt you and wish you harm will indeed be brought to book, and do not let your fear of them inhibit your own great capacity for selflessness.

For in so doing, you too will not bear the shame of evil, no matter how great and no matter how small, but rather may you one day bear that glorification that Paul speaks of, and longs for, and ultimately, one day found.

They in their sacrifice chose ultimately to be glorified.

Choose to be glorified, my brothers and sisters.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington

November 1, 2015