Wednesday, November 30, 2016

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

December 2016: "Fireplaces and Farmhouses"

Dear Church,

One of the features that Carrie and I most love about our new house is the gas fireplace that sits as the focal point in the living area--it has classical style framing and wainscotting around it that makes it look amazing, and on a cold fall or winter evening, it is all I need, along with the cuddling of our dogs, to warm up again.

It is something that I have come to associate greatly with the Christmas season--after all, just a few years ago, the closest I could get to having a fireplace was to put a video of a Yule log up on my computer and set it next to my space heater! (It isn't the same. Trust me.)

That sort of warmth and coziness, in truth, is easy to associate with this season because we have all likely experienced it--the feeling of getting to bundle up, or of sitting up near a fire, and knowing that we will be able to celebrate the season in relative security. Some of us haven't had the chance to feel that sort of comfort every Christmas, though.

It is easy to forget that Jesus's parents had no such luxury--far from being able to stay in the inn (and some Bible scholars believe the inn may not have even been that--or, at least, an inn in the modern hotel sense--but simply a guesthouse, like a farmhouse bed + breakfast), they had to stay in a stable that was quite possibly open-air: while there was likely a roof of some sort, we have no inkling as to its quality, and we have no idea if there were even walls to the stable, or if it was simply a roof propped up by posts with mangers and feeding troughs running along the sides.

So as you draw inward towards the light and warmth of the Yule fire this Christmas season, I hope and pray that you will remember just how Jesus came into this world, and that you will also remember the billions of people who still live in similarly insecure circumstances today. For when God chose to become flesh and to come to earth, it was not in the form of royalty or wealth, and not in the form of a middle class American family (for neither the middle class or the United States existed then), but in the form of someone physically insecure, whose only security came from God, and God alone.

Part of the bargain of celebrating Christmas is remembering how it all began. And in remembering how it did indeed begin, may we also remember just how far we have come from that fateful night in Bethlehem, and just how much further we have yet to go in the building of God's kingdom here on earth.

So wherever you celebrate Christmas this year, from in front of a fireplace to inside a farmhouse, please take a moment of prayer to remember and recall the circumstances of Christ's birth--not as we might want it to have happened, but as it actually took place.

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

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Eric

Advent 2016 Sermon Series

Alright, it's officially holiday season--no, just because Starbucks and Dutch Bros hand out "holiday" cups by the time Veteran's Day rolls around doesn't mean it's the holiday season--and we've got a new series for it. Truthfully, what we think of as the "Christmas season" is in fact Advent: a month of preparing for the birth of Jesus Christ, which then kicks off the twelve-daylong Christmas season (yes, as in the Twelve Days of Christmas carol). For this year's Advent season, we started a new sermon series last week and will be continuing it up to Christmas Day, and it is based on The First Christmas, the sequel by John Dominic Crossan and the late Marcus Borg after their popular The Last Week book that you may recall I used as a template for my Lenten sermon series a couple of years ago. Just as The Last Week went verse-by-verse through the Passion story to uncover some of its original meanings and contexts, so too does The First Christmas with the birth narratives in Matthew and in Luke. We won't be sticking to the birth stories from Matthew and Luke themselves until Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, though, so that we may understand more deeply some of the theological points that Borg and Crossan make. I hope you'll join us this Advent and Christmas season for an exciting sermon series and some lovely worship services

Advent 2016 Sermon Series: "The First Christmas: Recreating a Holiday's Original Meaning"

November 27: "An Angel Comes to Mary," Luke 1:26-38
December 4: “In David’s City of Bethlehem,” Micah 5:2-4
December 11: “Light Against the Darkness,” John 1:1-5
December 18: “A Fulfillment of Prophecy,”
December 24: “And On Earth, Peace,” Luke 2:1-20
December 25: “Joy to the World,” Matthew 1:18-25
January 1, 2017: “A Year of Jubilee,” Leviticus 25:1-13

Sunday, November 27, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "An Angel Comes to Mary"

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 First Christmas: Recreating a Holiday’s Original Meaning,” Week One

I have had the blessing to be at St. John Hospital for a number of births during my time here at FCC Longview over the past five years. I’m not in the room when the birth takes place, but I’m at the hospital that day or the day after, and it really is one of the very best parts of this job. Usually I am summoned to the hospital for much worse news, and being able to be there for the creation of life rather than the injuring or sickening of it is a great joy.

And it is a joy that it is indeed at, well, the hospital. Not all of us, even in 21st century America, are so lucky as to be able to give birth in so healthy and dignified of circumstances. Sarah Bessey, a Christian author and blogger, recounted the birth of her son in her book Jesus Feminist and, well, it went quite a bit different than what you or I might be used to:

But it’s the birth of our son, Joseph Arthur, that stays with me these winter months. His was an unintended, unattended birth in our building’s underground parking garage while we were on our way to the hospital.

No, I’m not kidding.

After beginning labor at home, we progressed far faster than we could have anticipated after our eldest daughter’s thirteen-hour labor. This was unprecedented for us, so Brian thought we had time to make it to the hospital just a few minutes away. I had four contractions on our way down the hall and in the elevator of our apartment building. My poor man half-carried, half-dragged me into the parking garage, now desperate for help. He leaned me up against a support pole and ran to the truck to pull it over to me.

We were on our own—no midwife, no doctor, not even in our own home with a clean floor. Instead, we were in a dirty garage filled with cars and the smell of gas and tires...Beside our old Chevy Trailblazer, standing up, with Brian’s arms under mine as a support, our son was born into my own hands…people applauded while they spoke to the 911 dispatcher.

I flat-out guarantee you that nobody has “make sure I crank the kid out in our parking garage” in their birth plan. But it happens. Life happens. And life comes into this world in the most unusual of ways—not just for us, but most famously for Mary, the mother of Jesus, who not only gave birth as a virgin but actually had an angel of God tell her so in no uncertain terms—something else that tends not to get penciled into our carefully laid-out birth plans.

This is a sermon series for the church season of Advent, which is known pretty much in every other context as “the Christmas season” or “the holidays.” Except it isn’t the Christmas season: the twelve-days-long Christmas season (yes, just like the Twelve Days of Christmas carol) begins on Christmas day and extends to January 6, the traditional date of the Epiphany, when the Magi arrived at where Joseph, Mary, and Jesus had been bedded down.

Advent is meant to be a season of preparation, and not just preparing for the Christmas dinner parties and the tinsel and ornaments, but a preparation for the least material of all things: of divine life becoming human life. To help us prepare for the birth of the Christ child this year, we will be revisiting the work of John Dominic Crossan and the late Marcus Borg who, if you remember, were the authors of The Last Week, a book I used as the template for my Lenten sermon series a couple of years ago. The First Christmas represents their sequel to The Last Week, and much as The Last Week sought to go verse-by-verse through the Passion narrative and place it into its historical and anthropological context, so too does The First Christmas deliver a similarly thoughtful treatment of the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke. We begin our series, then, with this from Borg and Crossan’s commentary on the annunciation story of the archangel Gabriel appearing to Mary:

Matthew draws parallels between Jesus and Moses in order to exalt Jesus over Moses in Matthew 1-2. Similar parallels are drawn to exalt Jesus over John the Baptizer in Luke 1-2. But Jesus is not simply the new John for Luke as Jesus is the new Moses for Matthew. The point is that—for Luke—John is the symbol, synthesis, conclusion, and consummation of the Old Testament. John was conceived—to conclude the Old Testament—in an aged and barren mother, but Jesus was born—to start the New Testament—of a virginal mother…look at this specific parallelism between the conception annunciations of Jesus and John:

“But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John’” (1:13).

“The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will…bear a son, and you will name him Jesus’” (1:31).

And, beyond that parallelism, of course, Luke looks back before Elizabeth and John to Sarah and Isaac: “Your wife Sarah shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac” (Gen. 17:19)

If ever you wondered just why the birth narratives are so different between Matthew and Luke, what Borg and Crossan are hinting at here is a very simple, very obvious, but easily overlooked truth: Matthew and Luke were very different people, very different believers, and very different evangelists. Matthew was an Israelite tax collector, highly educated and steeped in the Hebrew Bible; Luke was similarly highly educated but as a Gentile physician with far less of a knowledge of ancient Judaism.

So for Matthew, the key parallel is between Jesus and Moses. But for Luke, who lacks the same cultural and spiritual attachment to Moses that Matthew has, the parallel is to Jesus’s cousin John and, more historically, to Abraham, the forefather of Judaism itself.

For neither Gospel writer does Jesus’s birth fit neatly into a box that can be easily labeled and categorized. And for Luke, who alone conveys this story of the annunciation and who, far more than Matthew, lavishes attention upon Mary’s role as the focal point in the birth narrative, by harkening all the way back to Abraham in his wording, he is subtly telling us that Jesus’s birth is unlike anything else seen between that moment and this one when Gabriel appears to Mary. The closest Luke can get to it, aside from Jesus’s cousin John, is to reach 1,800 years into the past to Abraham and Sarah and their son Isaac.

But Luke also makes abundantly clear, in a way that Matthew does not, just how messy a birth story this really was: Joseph and Mary are traveling, not because they want to but because they have to in order to register for the census, and they have to cut the journey short because she goes into labor and the door to the inn is closed in their faces.

So Mary gives birth in a stable, surrounded by animals and all their (lack of) hygiene. Which is probably the ancient equivalent of giving birth in a parking garage next to your Chevy Trailblazer.

Put in that context, this story of the annunciation is the cleanest, least muddled or confusing part of the entire birth narrative. The part when an angel of God appears and tells a virgin that she is about to give birth to the Savior of humanity is the *least confusing* part of this entire narrative, because that way, we only have to come up with an explanation of God’s goodness rather than an explanation for why a pregnant teenager in labor and her husband were deep-sixed from one of the very few places capable of sheltering them on that given night.

Which action do you think is easier to justify—God showing to a young girl an angel, or a person showing that same young girl the door?

This is a powerful story, then, one that we must pay attention to, for already it shows the depth of character and bravery of Mary. She knows what she is signing up for. And in that way, too, she harkens back to that tradition of strong, courageous mothers whom God calls to be more than mothers but to be extraordinary vessels for God’s message—Mary’s relative Elizabeth, King David’s mother Hannah, and all the way back to the matriarchs: Leah, Rachel, Rebekah, and, of course, Sarah.

Lend an ear to their millennia of lifebearing, life-giving, and life experience just as you would to Gabriel; indeed, just as Mary does for Gabriel. For theirs is an important message to hear in the church, but one that Sarah Bessey points out in her book that we often do not hear, that we instead often hear metaphors of sports and war rather than of child-bearing and child-rearing, even though these are surely far more a part of God’s works than whether the Seahawks win this weekend.

After all, it was Jesus who would go on to compare Himself to a mother hen wishing to gather her chicks underneath her wings. That is surely more a part of God than many of the metaphors we use, and more than many of the plans we claim for God to have.

For God indeed has other plans. In this story, those plans are now revealed. An angel has come to Mary. And nothing will ever be the same again.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
November 27, 2016

Sunday, November 20, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "A Lonely Minister"

Luke 6:46-49

46 “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and don’t do what I say?

47 I’ll show what it’s like when someone comes to me, hears my words, and puts them into practice. 

48 It’s like a person building a house by digging deep and laying the foundation on bedrock. When the flood came, the rising water smashed against that house, but the water couldn’t shake the house because it was well built.

49 But those who don’t put into practice what they hear are like a person who built a house without a foundation. The floodwater smashed against it and it collapsed instantly. It was completely destroyed.” (Common English Bible)

“The Wounded Healer: Finding Strength in Our Scars,” Week Five

In the small(ish) world of mainline Christian pastors with social media presences, Derrick Weston is the friend of a friend whose blog I stumbled across some time ago for the first time some months ago, when I was linked to an emotionally honest post of his as he reflected on his time at his first pastorate, a solo pastor job much like mine, and how he loved the church and its people dearly but struggled to make the sort of impact that he had felt called by God to make there. He wrote in part:

Every effort I made to think through ways of inviting new youth into the church or to develop programming for young people was met with either indifference or outright hostility. To make it worse, the loyal young people we did have in the church were treated very poorly. They were critiqued for what they wore to church. Their behavior when they stayed in worship was analyzed. They were looked down upon when they didn’t stay in worship. It was frustrating. How were we supposed to bring in new young people when we treated the young people we did have like they were a nuisance? And these were good kids! Really good kids! It pisses me off to think about some of the things that were said to and about them…

Easter of that year, I had a panic attack. It took a while for me to realize that that is what it was. I couldn’t breathe. My chest tightened. I lost my balance. This was before worship began and continued into the start of the service. I was carrying the pressure that this might be this church’s last Easter service on me and it was devastating.

Think about that for a minute—the inability to change the culture of the church in ways that both he and they knew desperately needed changing was such a heavy burden upon him that it caused a panic attack. On Easter, the day most associated with resurrection and rebirth in the entire calendar.

That is the sort of loneliness ministry can inflict, and sometimes be about. And it is the sort of loneliness that can move us to construct a house built without a foundation like here in Luke 6.

This is the final week of a sermon series that, believe it or not, has taken us right now just up to church season of Advent, which is the time we prepare for Christmas and begins next Sunday, the 27th. Before we arrive at the land of egg nog and gingerbread, though, we have one more series to undertake together, and it is based on a formative book which I first read in its entirety when I arrived here and a colleague and friend of this congregation, Marvin Eckfeldt, gave to me: The Wounded Healer by Henri Nouwen, a Dutch priest and theologian who passed away about twenty years ago, but not before leaving behind him a rich vein of theological and pastoral literature. Though relatively brief as far as theological treatises go, The Wounded Healer is arguably Nouwen’s magnum opus: accessible, lucid, poignant, and passionate in its fundamental premise that only by understanding our own wounds and scars can we as Christians and as ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ then, in turn, heal others of their own wounds and scars.

The Wounded Healer is a four-chapter book with a prologue, and we had five weeks in all, so we spent week on each section, and we finally arrive at the final chapter, which Nouwen entitled, “Ministry By A Lonely Minister,” and writes in part in it:

Ministers are called to speak to the ultimate concerns of life: birth and death, union and separation, love and hate. They have an urgent desire to give meaning to people’s lives. But they find themselves standing on the edges of events and only reluctantly admitted to the spot where the decisions are made…

In the cities, where children play between buildings and old people die isolated and forgotten, the protests of priests are hardly taken seriously and their demands hang in the air like rhetorical questions. Many churches decorated with words announcing salvation and new life are often little more than parlors who feel quite comfortable in the old life, and who are not likely to let the minister’s words change their stone hearts into furnaces where swords can be cast into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks.

The painful irony is that ministers, who want to touch the center of people’s lives, find themselves on the periphery, often pleading in vain for admission…Our failure to change the world with our good intentions and sincere actions and our undesired displacement to the edges of life have made us aware that the wound is still there.

I promise this isn’t a “woe is me” message from either Nouwen or myself. What he—and I—are both lamenting is something far bigger than any one of us: it’s the willingness of people to set their lives about without that solid bedrock which Jesus speaks of in the Sermon on the Plain here in Luke 6.

Jesus is speaking the exact same lament that we are: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,” and don’t do what I say?” It’s probably the same lament you had or have as parents with your kids on occasion: “Why do you call me Mom/Dad and don’t do what I say?”

And it is the exact same sort of lament with the church. We pastors who shepherd the church hear ourselves being called “Pastor, Pastor,” but we really do lament why more of what we bend over backwards and turn ourselves inside out in order to teach doesn’t quite seem to land in the fertile soil rather than on the gravel and the stones where no seeds will easily grow.

A significant amount of what we teach falls into that category, but one teaching in particular stands out—to me and, I think, in light of the arc of his book, to Nouwen as well: the church is still not a welcoming place yet. Not for LGBTQ seekers, not for people of other faith traditions, and not for young people. That, in a nutshell, is what causes the sort of emotional and spiritual pain that leads a pastor like Derrick Weston to a panic attack on Easter Sunday.

For the lack of welcome in the church can be directly tied to its decline: millennials are abandoning organized religion in record numbers and believe me, it isn’t just because we would rather worship at the church of brunch (although that is certainly a part of it). And it isn’t just because Sunday is now a day to do all sorts of things as opposed to a day when everything shut down for the day (although that is certainly a part of it as well).

It is because with all of those other options in mind, why would we come to a place for a couple hours on a rare day off to be treated with skepticism, suspicion, or condescension? Why would any rational person subject themselves to that sort of subtle hostility when they could be doing any number of other things that they legitimately enjoy?

In other words—we here in the church are the ones who are getting in the way of the Gospel being heard by even more people, and it is because we are acting as Jesus’s audience did, calling Him Lord but not doing all which He says to do in terms of providing a radically open welcome to all persons, not just the ones who dress like us, or fit into our generation, or quite simply look like us.

The Gospel is not simply for the people who look like us. It is for the people who do not.

Jesus, after all, was an Aramaic-speaking Israelite—not an English-speaking American. He never lived past the age of 33 or so. And He was homeless.

All of those factors, do you really think if you saw them in someone that it would make you more inclined to welcome them into the church, or less likely? Be honest.

That, in a nutshell, is how we have lost the bedrock that Jesus speaks of here in Luke 6. It is what we pastors have known for years, and have been pleading with our churches to understand and embrace the reality of, but like Derrick, many of us have ended up seeing our pleas fall on plugged-up ears.

Yet Christ also says, let the one who has ears hear.

So hear the words of those who minister to you in your life—not just me, but your family and friends and especially the youth in your life. Do not allow us to minister to you in loneliness. Allow us to minister to you in vitality, spirit, truth, and power, in a symbiotic relationship in which each of us is made better for the other being in their life. Allow us to provide you with that firm foundation, that solid bedrock of love and mercy, upon which life eternal through Jesus Christ is predicated.

For it is in such conditions that the Spirit is known to thrive in us. And forever may it thrive in our churches, in our lives, and in the kingdom.

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
November 20, 2016

Thursday, November 17, 2016

I Get Fan Mail: Adventures in Missing the Point

My online (mis)adventures, as so often they do, began with a single tweet, one that I retweeted:

I retweeted it because I empathized with the sentiment: I've had folks-acquaintances and strangers alike--get upset with me, online and in person because (a) I opposed Trump and (b) I opposed him in no small part because I viewed his candidacy as one fueled by white nationalism. That was it, that is what was meant to be conveyed.

But the overwhelming balance of responses I got fixated not on the lesson about white nationalism, but because the tweet contained an f-bomb:

I pointed out that both Jesus and Paul (and John the Baptist, for that matter) cussed, in Matthew 23:33 and Philippians 3:8 respectively, and that we cleaned up the original Greek in our English translations, and other, erm, "apologists" tagged in...

We then moved on from me personally to my denomination...

That last chap also went to my church website to email me directly, here is an excerpt of it which I have not edited in any way, and which was also posted twice here on the blog:

Mr. Eric, you need to repent and believe the gospel while God has given you time. 

Review of \"First Christian Church- Disciples in Longview.- 2 Peter 2:1-3 \" But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves. Many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of the truth will be maligned; and in their greed they will exploit you with false words; their judgment from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.\" 

 This church is not a biblically sound church. It preaches a false gospel that will lead you to hell apart from God. Mr. Eric Atcheson is a false teacher who perverts the word of God. If your desire is to worship God in spirit and in truth(John 4:24) then please do not attend this church.

So I guess that in the interests of preserving your salvation, if you wish to avoid all manner of heresies then you should stop reading now and never attend my church.

Still here? I figured you would be. Because there is a truth here that, as truth, cannot be heresy: the original point of the tweet that kicked off increasingly vitriolic reactions from different Christians was about white supremacy.

Guess how many responses I got about that? None.

But distract from that message by throwing stones over an f-bomb? That's a long line my friend, you best take a number or come back another time.

Look, I don't make light of the fact that cursing is indeed offensive for many people, and around such folks (and simply as a general rule when I'm on company time), I police my own speech so that, per James 3, my tongue may be tame.

But the weightier matters of faith, as Jesus calls them, are no time for a tame tongue, and indeed, His tongue hardly was. You can go onto my Twitter feed to see my exegesis on why He was in fact cussing in that rant in Matthew 23, and I stand by my exegesis.

But, like I said, that isn't really the point of this post. The point is that, as Christians, it seems that we have decided that an f-bomb is more offensive to our delicate sensibilities than white nationalism, and that was simply never how the Gospel had meant for us to be as vessels for the Spirit.

More to the point--most of what I was met with when I presented my exegesis wasn't similar Biblical scholarship, but doctrine--the idea that if God or Jesus must be X, then Y must be absolutely true. And that's problematic as well, as it points to demanding that certain concepts or ideas must be treated as Gospel even if they are not in fact, well, in accordance with the Gospel.

And it is *that* mentality that gives us so many of the notions that plague the church today about God not favoring the poor or God not favoring women or God not favoring LGBTQ people--none of that is in the Scriptures, but because we have accepted doctrine to be on the same level of Scripture and in doing so ironically abandoned one of Calvinism's five solae (sola Scriptura--by Scripture alone), we have moved ourselves further and further from the Gospel message.

Man, look at me--an Arminian citing Calvinism. That's what these past 10 days or so have done.

There is so much more wreckage to tend to in the wake of this election. The Southern Poverty Law Center has documented over 400 instances of hate crimes and hate speech against minorities. I see those stories myself daily, and they've even happened here in Longview with the graffiting of two churches with swastikas and hate speech.

But it is the f-bomb on a pastor's Twitter feed by which the kingdom apparently cannot abide.

And that is a shameful testimony to the priorities that the kingdom apparently holds today.

Longview, Washington
November 17, 2016

Sunday, November 13, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "A Hopeless Man"

Mark 10:35-45

James and John, Zebedee’s sons, came to Jesus and said, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” 36 “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. 37 They said, “Allow one of us to sit on your right and the other on your left when you enter your glory.” 38 Jesus replied, “You don’t know what you’re asking! Can you drink the cup I drink or receive the baptism I receive?” 39 “We can,” they answered. Jesus said, “You will drink the cup I drink and receive the baptism I receive, 40 but to sit at my right or left hand isn’t mine to give. It belongs to those for whom it has been prepared.” 41 Now when the other ten disciples heard about this, they became angry with James and John. 42 Jesus called them over and said, “You know that the ones who are considered the rulers by the Gentiles show off their authority over them and their high-ranking officials order them around. 43 But that’s not the way it will be with you. Whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant. 44 Whoever wants to be first among you will be the slave of all, 45 for the Human One didn’t come to be served but rather to serve and to give his life to liberate many people.” (Common English Bible)

“The Wounded Healer: Finding Strength in Our Scars,” Week Four

I remember the story vividly, even though it took place a full decade ago: a man had gone on a shooting rampage through an Amish one-room schoolhouse, first by ordering the adults and boys to leave, and then tying up and murdering five of the little girls between the ages of 6 and 13 before committing suicide.

As nauseating as that crime was, the compassion, mercy, and forgiveness shown by the Amish families—including the families of the murdered little girls—was truly profound and awe-inspiring to behold, especially for Terri Roberts, the mother of the man who had committed this mass murder, as the Washington Post conveys:

(I)n the hours after the massacre, as Amish parents still waited in a nearby barn for word about whether their daughters had survived, an Amish man named Henry arrived at the Robertses’ home with a message: The families did not see the couple as an enemy. Rather, they saw them as parents who were grieving the loss of their child, too. Henry put his hand on (Terri’s husband’s shoulder) and called him a friend.

The world watch in amazement as, on the day of their son’s funeral, nearly 30 Amish men and women, some othe parents of the victims, came to the cemetery and formed a wall to block out media cameras. Parents, whose daughters had died at the hand of their son, approached the couple after the burial and offered condolences for their loss…

(T)he Amish did more than forgive the couple. They embraced them as part of their community. When Roberts underwent treatment for Stage 4 breast cancer in December, one of the girls who survived the massacre helped clean her home before she returned from the hospital. A large yellow bus arrived at her home around Christmas, and Amish children piled inside to sing her Christmas carols.

That is Christian forgiveness in the most literal term: it is Christ-like. It is Jesus, on the cross, saying, “Forgive them, Father.” It is Jesus forgiving even while suffering. It is because of that suffering that Jesus has liberated us. And it is because of such suffering that we, too, can liberate others.

This is a new sermon series that will take us up to the church season of Advent, which is the time we prepare for Christmas. Before we arrive at the land of egg nog and gingerbread, though, we have one more series to undertake together, and it is based on a formative book which I first read in its entirety when I arrived here and a colleague and friend of this congregation, Marvin Eckfeldt, gave to me: The Wounded Healer by Henri Nouwen, a Dutch priest and theologian who passed away about twenty years ago, but not before leaving behind him a rich vein of theological and pastoral literature. Though relatively brief as far as theological treatises go, The Wounded Healer is arguably Nouwen’s magnum opus: accessible, lucid, poignant, and passionate in its fundamental premise that only by understanding our own wounds and scars can we as Christians and as ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ then, in turn, heal others of their own wounds and scars.

The Wounded Healer is a four-chapter book with a prologue, and we have five weeks in all, so we will be able to spend a week on each section, beginning with the book’s prologue, which we talked about two weeks ago, and then in chapter one, “Ministry in a Dislocated World,” last week, and chapter two, “Ministry for the Rootless Generations.” We arrive today at chapter three, “Ministry to a Hopeless Man,” in which Nouwen writes in part, about how he sees the role of woundedness in ministering to hopelessness:

The beginning and the end of all Christian leadership is to give your life for others. Thinking about martyrdom can be an escape unless we realize that real martyrdom means a witness that starts with the willingness to cry with those who cry, laugh with those who laugh, and to make our own painful and joyful experiences available as sources of clarification and understanding.

Who can save a child from a burning house without taking the risk of being hurt by the flames? Who can listen to a story of loneliness and despair without taking the risk of experiencing similar pains in their own heart and even losing their precious peace of mind? In short, “Who can take away suffering without entering it?”

It is an illusion to think that a person can be led out of the desert by someone who has never been there…we have forgotten that no God can save us except a suffering God, and that no one can lead others except the one who is crushed by their own sins.

Now, at first glance, this passage from Mark 10 seems to have little, if anything, to do with what Nouwen is saying about the need for us to enter into and embrace our suffering. In truth, it has everything to do with it. Jesus’s disciples are often a selfish, unruly lot, and this is one of those moments when they really lay it on thick. The brothers James and John ask Jesus to be placed on His left and His right in heaven, and in the grander scheme of the Gospels, their request is not terribly out of character. John’s Gospel takes an ongoing tack of minimizing the role of the chief apostle, Peter, and after Peter, James and John are probably the disciples who were in fact closest to Jesus—they, with Peter, were the only ones present at the Transfiguration, and in Matthew 4, they are among the first of the disciples to be called by Jesus, immediately after Peter and Peter’s brother, Andrew.

So the brothers James and John want eventual digs that befit, in their eyes, the status and esteem that they have achieved with Jesus. Except that Jesus rebukes them, saying that no, they have done no such think to earn such a place of honor and privilege at the table. Indeed, Jesus tells them, they don’t even know what it is that they are even asking for.

Jesus achieves His place of honor in our spiritual lives as our Lord precisely by suffering—He suffered emotionally as a man when his friend Lazarus died, He suffered spiritually in the wilderness as He was tempted by Satan, and He suffered physically at the hands of Pontius Pilate and the Judean collaborators in being tried, whipped, and crucified before His resurrection. It is why He asks James and John if they are prepared to drink from the cup that He drinks from—the cup that they will drink from, at the Last Supper, is Christ’s blood, which gives life, but the cup that Christ asks, begs, pleads with God at Gethsemane to remove from His lips is the cup whose contents will very quickly kill Him.

The disciples, in contrast—and including James and John—all flee Gethsemane instead. Jesus knows that they are not ready to drink from the cup that He will have to drink from, and He tells them so: the way it has been is that the rulers show off their authority and status, but someone who wants to be first in the kingdom of God must become the servant—or slave—of all, for Christ did not come to be served but to serve, and to give His life to liberate us.

In other words: Jesus liberates us because He has in fact taken on the servant role of suffering. We have others suffer in this world so that we don’t have to—exploited children make our clothing, children sold into slavery harvest our chocolate, and underpaid immigrants butcher our meat.

If we are to follow Christ’s suffering example, then we should be willing to suffer for them, not they for us. But we have not done so. Nor, truthfully, do I see us ever doing so in the near future.

I do not know if you expected me to talk about the election today, and I would not do so, except to say this: there are people who are suffering now, who are having racist and sexist names thrown at them, who have had their cars and businesses vandalized with swastikas and slurs, including right here in Longview at Trinity and St. Rose. And if we do not know exactly how that feels, we will not be in a position to offer them the healing that is so desperately needed at present in our country.

It is a healing on a magnitude of the sort the Amish offered to Terri Roberts, the mother of the man who had so devastated their families and community. That is the radical sort of healing that is needed. But it is not being provided, not in a world of swastikas and racial slurs being spray-painted and children being bullied once more for the color of their skin.

We are a wounded people. We have always been a wounded people. But it is incumbent upon us to use such woundedness for good, for healing and for wholeness. James and John could not see that. But we can.

Indeed, we must, as though our salvations depended upon it. Because in truth, they may well might.

May your woundedness, then, be the source of not only your salvation of but the salvations of other wounded saints and sinners alike. May it be a source of light in the darkness. And may it be, at long last, the final scar that evil dares to inflict upon you.

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
November 13, 2016

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

An Open Letter to My Fellow White Christians

Dear fellow Jesus followers,

Congratulations. You voted like a near-uniform bloc (81% according to the Washington Post's data, also, see handy visual aid to the right, courtesy of the fine folks at Pew Research) for Donald J. Trump to be the next president, and you have gotten your wish. Caesar is very much on his throne, and this time, the throne is decked out in gaudy, ornately eye-bleeding gold.

I also hope that the Faustian bargain that you made with our new Caesar was very much worth it. This is someone who lived in a very un-Christlike manner for decades--ostentatiously both chasing and showing off wealth; demeaning, belitting, abusing, cheating on, and assaulting women; profanely cutting down people of color like the Central Park Five, and much more--but who, in recent months, began pretending to speak our language so badly that it was almost comical (remember Two Corinthians?).

This Johnny-Come-Lately to the pews did not talk about how he needed grace and forgiveness--quite the opposite. He did not talk about how he saw the value and dignity in all people, even those who looked different from him--quite the opposite. He, at almost every turn, made it abundantly clear to you just how much of a charade his act really was. But because he also promised you power, clout, and relevance again, you hitched yourselves to his wagon.

I shouldn't have to remind you that being tempted with promises of political power was the second of the three ways Satan deploys to try to get Jesus to worship him in the wilderness. I hope you see the parallels between that temptation and this one, as well as the incongruity of the ending: Jesus successfully resisted such temptation. It appears that you have not.

It isn't just that you have succumbed to temptation--after all, we all do, in some form or fashion, and often at many times throughout your life. It is the particular tempter to whom you have succumbed.

He called Mexicans rapists, and that didn't disqualify him for you.

He called for banning an entire religion from entering the United States, and that wasn't a dealbreaker.

He said that women should face legal punishment for having an abortion, and he got a pass.

He circulated anti-Semitic memes on social media, and it didn't push him out of the running.

He claimed that a federal judge should be disqualified from presiding over a fraud case--that, by the by, is still very much active, much more so than Hillary's emails--because of where that judge's parents were born, and it didn't remove him from your list of options.

He decided to keep the entire country in suspense rather than commit to a peaceful transition of power, regardless of the result, and the response was apparently a collective shrug.

And he was caught, on tape, bragging about sexually assaulting women, and when a dozen woman bravely came forward to use their own names to confirm his bragging, you still voted for him.

I used to think that when the tempter arrived, it wouldn't be so obvious that he was in fact the tempter. But no, it was transparently, astoundingly obvious.

And you fell for his tricks anyways. How can this possibly be a result of the faith we share in someone who resisted, at every turn, the wiles and deviousness of the Adversary?

Look, what's done is done. Trump is the president-elect, fair and square. But I beg you, beseech you, plead with you, *please* spend the next four years keeping a watchful eye over your Muslim neighbor, your Jewish neighbor, your Latino/a neighbor, your African-American neighbor, your queer neighbor. You may have been the ones to fall prey to Caesar's tricks, but they are the ones for whom Caesar represents a threat, sacrificed upon the twin altars of self-interest and privilege.

Part of being a Christian--one of the biggest parts of being a Christian--is the practice of surrender, of giving up of yourself and of your own self-interests. I really do hope that you can see and understand why yesterday appears to be a surrender to those self-interests rather than a surrender of those self-interests, because millions of people are now in anguish because of it. People of color and queer people are already receiving hate messages. David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan are already taking victory laps. That is hardly the fruit of the Spirit.

And if that makes you uncomfortable to know is taking place, do not run from that discomfort. Know that it is only a fraction of what your queer neighbors or your neighbors of color may be feeling right now.

So, again, congratulations on your guy winning the mantle of leader of the free world for the next four years. You may well feel like this is a cause for celebration for you, and since your side won, I can hardly begrudge you that. Just please, please, do not act like such a cause for celebration has anything to do at all with our shared faith in the one we call the Christ, Jesus of Nazareth.

To my black, Latino/a, queer, Muslim and Jewish friends: I repeat what I said on Facebook and on Twitter--I am yours for the next four years. I am at your disposal to advocate for your safety and freedom, and if they come for you, I will stand up both for you and alongside you. Mourn how you need to mourn, grieve how you need to grieve, and let us go and be salt for an earth that so desperately needs it now.

And finally, once more, to my white evangelical brethren: there may well come a time in the next four years when you will, in the spirit of Pontius Pilate, want to wash your hands of that which you have brought upon those neighbors for the sake of your own selfishness. But know that there is no earthly washbasin that can fully erase that which by your vote you have wished, intentionally or not, upon your fellow children of God.

Vancouver, Washington
November 9, 2016