Monday, June 5, 2017

Letters from the Soul: This Month's Newsletter Column

June 2017: "The Pastor's Summer Reading List"

Dear Church, As always, to commemorate the conclusion of yet another academic year for our schools and their students, I'd like to commend to you a few books for some summer reading should you be so inclined to use these days of summer to continue your search for understanding of mission of the church for today. A couple of friends have produced books recently that make this year's summer reading list, and I cannot say enough about the good work they do for the Gospel.

"Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting with a Loving God After Experiencing a Hurtful Church," Carol Howard Merritt (HarperOne, 2017)

Carol has been a friend and role model for me in ministry ever since she came to speak at a regional conference in Yakima a few years ago. Her latest book touches on her own journey out of fundamentalism and into ordained ministry in profoundly vivid and vulnerable ways while also weaving in the narratives of other souls who have crossed her path after experiencing pain and hurt in the name of the church. For those who have had difficult experiences with faith in the past, she includes guides and exercises with each chapter. It is such a strong narrative that I am actually going to be using this book as the basis for my autumn sermon series, so if you want to get a jump start on it, seek out a copy!

"Pre-Post-Racial America: Spiritual Stories from the Front Lines," Sandhya Rani Jha (Chalice Press, 2015)

I met Sandhya during my seminary days in Berkeley when she was the pastor of a Disciples congregation just south of me in Oakland. Like Carol, Sandhya is an excellent storyteller, and she puts those skills to use sharing about one of her biggest areas of expertise: racial reconciliation and justice. It is easy to say when we worship in a relatively homogenous church that reconciliation between races and ethnicities is not a concern for us, and yet I promise you, for the wider church it absolutely is a concern--a massive one--and Sandhya is one of the saints doing the work on the ground that needs to be done on behalf of the Gospel in this particular arena.

"Half Truths: God Helps Those Who Help Themselves and Other Things the Bible Doesn't Say," Adam Hamilton (Abingdon Press, 2016)

Unlike Carol and Sandhya, I don't really know Adam personally--I've only met him once--but I have a family friend and colleague who works with him at Church of the Resurrection in my hometown of Kansas City, and Adam is consistently a thoughtful writer across several books of his that I have read. This one tackles one of the things that often rankles us pastors about cultural Christianity--the platitudes that we repeat to ourselves and others (often with the best of intentions) that have no basis in Scripture and can in fact do more harm than good. Adam's patient, methodical style helps dismantle several of these platitudes while offering up more substantive and helpful alternatives for our faith.

These are a few of the books that will be on my shelf for this summer--what about for you, and your bookshelf?

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Eric

Sunday, June 4, 2017

This Week's Sermon: "Fifty Days"

Acts 2:1-13

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


5 There were pious Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd gathered. They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native languages. 7 They were surprised and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all the people who are speaking Galileans, every one of them? 8 How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), 11 Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!” 12 They were all surprised and bewildered. Some asked each other, “What does this mean?” 13 Others jeered at them, saying, “They’re full of new wine!” (Common English Bible)

Pentecost Sunday 2017

Last week, we spoke of the good and kind souls living thousands of miles away in Manchester who responded with compassion, love, and openness to the terrorist attack at the Ariana Grande concert that week. But Carrie Frank is not a good and kind soul living thousands of miles away—she is a good and kind soul living right here in Longview’s interstate neighbor, Rainier, and was recently the subject of a very touching and moving profile in our local paper.

In response to last year’s terrorist attack at the LGBTQ nightclub Pulse in Orlando that killed nearly fifty people, Carrie decided to do more than mourn—she decided to act, to show that people from all over cared about those who were lost and those who remained. The owner of a pottery store and an artist by trade, she handpainted over one hundred mugs bearing the names of the victims, calling them “cups of love.” She was determined to send them to the survivors and the families of the deceased. But then she hit a snag—she had no way of knowing to whom to send the cups of love to ensure that they made it to the correct people, families, and households. And I’ll let the writer of the profile on her, The Daily News’s Madelyn Reese, pick it up from there:

Dejected, Frank gave up for a time. Then just before Easter she contacted the Orlando police department again. That’s when she got in touch with administrative assistant Dorothy Patterson and told her about her “cups of love” project…Patterson was able to get Frank in contact with someone who would help her—the Orlando United Assistance Center…

Thanks to Patterson and officials in the police department, Frank will send off the cups next week (sic). The cups are filled with rainbow-colored jelly beans donated from the Jelly Belly Co., and the cups will be shipped through the Kelso J.C. Penney’s bulk shipping account.

The mugs are individually packaged, so all the center needs to do is write the address of each family or survivor on the box and send it off. Though the project has been delayed many months, Frank said it was “meant to be” because the cups will arrive near the one year anniversary of the Pulse tragedy.

“I’m actually really happy that it happened the way it did,” Frank said. “It’s going to be more meaningful, I think. I hope that it’s more meaningful to them now, a year later, they are remembered.”

What had originally hoped to be a rapid show of compassion turned into more of a commemoration through the passage of time. Still meaningful—very meaningful, in fact—but it is meaningful in a slightly different way than before. Which is a good way of summing up the importance of today, Pentecost Sunday, for the Christian church.

Pentecost celebrates the day that the Holy Spirit came to the assembled believers in Jerusalem, fifty days after Easter. Which begs the question—what were they all doing in Jerusalem to begin with?

Pentecost, like Good Friday, fell on a Jewish festival day—in this case, the Feast of Weeks, which was a commemoration of the giving of the law to Moses at Mount Sinai, just as the Passover (when Good Friday falls) is the commemoration of the liberation from bondage of the Israelites under Moses.

But that isn’t how the Feast of Weeks actually began—it evolved into a celebration of the giving of the law. Before that, it was a harvest festival, as Bible professor Paul Walaskay explains: “The Day of Pentecost (fifty days after Passover) was also known as the Feast of Weeks, an agricultural festival in which the community celebrated the gathering of the first harvest (wheat) and offered thanks to God for nature’s bounty (Exod. 23:14-17; 34:18-24).” It is a holiday that may not be quite as prominent on the calendar as Passover, but is still nonetheless important, as evinced by the number of Israelites who have gathered from all sorts of places to Jerusalem in order to celebrate this holiday together.

So what became a holiday commemorating a spiritual harvest—the gathering of God’s Law upon Sinai—has its roots in also celebrating a physical harvest—the first wheat harvest of the year.

Yet, as the story of Carrie Frank ought to teach us—in huge, flashing neon—spiritual harvest ought to be able to lead to physical harvest. Her good faith and her belief in goodness led her to creating the physical gift of the cups of love—a harvest of physical fruit, as it were, from spiritual seeds.

It has taken her most of the past year to get these cups of love out to their intended recipients, though, and if that seems too daunting a timetable for you to try to reap a harvest of fruit from your spirituality, then why not try to take on the more modest timetable of Pentecost itself?

Fifty days after the redemption of humanity in the crucifixion and subsequent resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit arrives to the disciples who have assembled in Jerusalem for the festival. Fifty days from today is Monday, July 24.

What can the Holy Spirit do through you in the next fifty days?

Because believe me, the world needs the Spirit working through you as surely as it does the Spirit working through any of us. We’re mourning the loss of two Good Samaritans to the violence of white supremacy in Portland, we’re grieving the carnage and loss of life of back-to-back terrorist attacks in England—first in Manchester, and now yesterday deep in the heart of London—and we’re facing down epidemics of addiction and poverty and homelessness here in Longview…what can you do in the next fifty days to put even the smallest of dents in these soul-sized problems before us?

For sometimes, being able to minister, and to be a net force for good in the world, isn’t about being the one to fix something. It’s about being the one to minister to something, or to someone, in a way that empowers them to rise up themselves, to find their own inner strength, instead of us waving a magic wand.

The cups of love are not going to bring back to life the dozens of loved ones who went to their graves that night in Orlando nearly one year ago. But those cups will at least offer something of value—a message of hope, of love, and of unconditional compassion to the soul-sized gaping void that I promise you still remains in the lives of the people who lost someone at Pulse, or at Manchester, or at London Bridge.

The Holy Spirit coming to the disciples wasn’t meant to fix the reality that Jesus was gone—He ascended to heaven ten days previous—but instead was meant to be something new entirely. The Holy Spirit didn’t necessarily fill the void left behind by Jesus. It equipped the disciples to move forward without the bodily incarnation of Jesus right next to them.

So how might the Holy Spirit be equipping you to plunge forward into the next fifty days in spirit and in truth? We have lived the fifty days since the crucifixion and resurrection—what about the next fifty? And the fifty after that?

Before you know it, you may well have taken some small calling and made it into something good and something great in God's sight.

Such are the ways of the Spirit.

Such are the ways of a Pentecost church.

And such are the ways of God who loves you so much that God will not leave you alone.

After all, Jesus has since ascended to heaven.

But the Spirit remains.

And the Good News of Pentecost is that the Spirit always remains.

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
June 4, 2017

Sunday, May 28, 2017

This Week's Sermon: "The Pantokrator: The Almighty"

Revelation 21:22-26

I didn’t see a temple in the city, because its temple is the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb. 23 The city doesn’t need the sun or the moon to shine on it, because God’s glory is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. 25 Its gates will never be shut by day, and there will be no night there. 26 They will bring the glory and honor of the nations into it. (Common English Bible)


“Imago Christi: Images and Titles of the Living Christ,” Week Six

If you remember the horrific terrorist attack at the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris that the Islamic State claimed responsibility for, you’ll recognize that this past week’s tragedy in Manchester bears some disturbing similarities—both targeted massive events held at stadiums in large metropolitan areas, both were claimed by the Islamic State, and both inflicted massive human pain upon people who want only to live in peace and experience some joy alongside one another.

But there were, believe it or not, some heartening similarities to both as well. Both tragedies elicited stories of genuine heroism and human compassion from the people on the ground. As with the Paris attack with its “portes ouvertes,” or “open doors” campaign, Manchester residents immediately threw open the doors of their homes to concertgoers stranded by the attack in a social media campaign centered around the #RoomForManchester hashtag.

Also in Manchester, two shelterless men, Chris Parker and Stephen Jones, began pulling nails and shrapnel out of the limbs of the wounded, wrapping up the wounded in t-shirts and elevating them to prevent them from bleeding out, and even cradling a dying woman during her last moments of life. And Ariana Grande herself has reportedly offered to pay for the funerals of each of the twenty-two souls who perished in the attack at her concert.

Circle back to the Manchester residents opening their doors to terrified and vulnerable strangers—that is hospitality of the oldest sort, hospitality that comes straight from Scripture (and probably from before Scripture as well). And it is precisely the sort of open welcome to those in need that exists in the kingdom that is ruled over by God, specifically, in the image of God as presented by John of Patmos here in Revelation 21, God the Almighty, or the Pantokrator.

This is the conclusion to a sermon series for the church season of Easter, which extends for the forty-nine days between Easter Sunday to Pentecost Sunday, which is one week from today, and commemorates when the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples as described in the second chapter of Acts. Much like Christmas, then, Easter does not actually end on Easter Day, but rather continues for a number of days afterwards so that we may continue our celebration of the good news that each of these two holidays represents for us.

So for the 2017 Easter season, we have been using words to explore something visual—the images of the living and risen Jesus Christ that have been handed down from one generation of Christians to another throughout the centuries. Some of these images of Christ are almost as old as the church (the Way, in its Biblical incarnation) itself. All of them are rooted in Scriptural accounts of the Lord. And they each have something different to teach us about how different Christian communities at different points in time saw Jesus as the promised Messiah.

As a part of this series, we have talked about some of the earliest images of Jesus like the Good Shepherd and, last week, the Christus Victor, or the Victorious Christ, and we remain in the realm of much older images of Jesus with one of the most profound of all: the Pantokrator, or the almighty.

That image of Christ the Pantokrator was what greeted me from the frescoed ceiling when I set foot inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Old City of Jerusalem. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher stands on the traditional site where Jesus is said to have been crucified, but is so contentiously governed by the differing factions of Christianity that lay claim to it that the task of keeping the keys and gates to the church is in fact entrusted to a local Muslim family, whose members have handed down this sacred responsibility from one generation to the next stretching all the way back to the 1100s.

So we Christians clearly need to work on our gatekeeping skills. Or, we could embrace the image that John of Patmos puts forth here in Revelation that in God’s kingdom, gates are not even a requirement—that the gates to the kingdom will always be open during the day, and since there is no night, the implication is that the gates will be open around the clock, 24/7.

As the scholars Justo and Catherine Gunslaus Gonzales put it in their commentary on Revelation, “The gates are never closed, which is understandable, both because there is no need for defense and because there is no night, the time when the city gates were normally closed. There is no night because the light is the glory of God, and God does not depart from the Holy City.”

The kingdom that is under the rule of the Almighty, the Pantokrator, then, is one in which the glory of God is never extinguished, and precisely because God’s glory is never extinguished, it is safe enough and secure enough to not ever need to close its gate.

You may remember from the message on the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd on John 10 a few weeks ago that in the same discourse that Jesus refers to Himself as the Good Shepherd, He also refers to Himself as the gate through which the sheep go. There again is the imagery of the Almighty juxtaposed with something as humble as a gate, in order to prove a point that it is not we who determine who gets to pass through the gate and who does not, but that it is God who chooses.

Which is, after all, the purview of the Almighty. The “original sin” of Adam and Eve wasn’t really about the apple, but what the apple represented: taking from God that which belonged to God—namely, the capacity to determine good and evil. Which means that I don’t get to say that someone else isn’t a Christian. Neither do you. Neither do any of us. Christ as the Pantokrator is that gate which determines such soul-sized matters, not us.

Instead, like in the wake of the Manchester attack this past week, and the attack by an Islamophobic white supremacist on two young Muslim women and the three men he then stabbed when they rose to protect the teenaged girls, we open our arms to the possibility that Christ-like actions can come from those we may not think of as Christian—or who do not identify as Christian themselves. Indeed, that white supremacist's last name is Christian, but his acts of racism and terror most surely are not.

I have seen photographs of Muslims praying alongside Jews at the blast site—to me, that is Christ-like. The stories of heroism from homeless men like Chris Parker and Stephen Jones—to me they are Christ-like. The offer from Ariana Grande to finance her fans’ funerals—Christ-like.

And the offers from hundreds of Mancunians for much-needed shelter for a night for thousands of traumatized concertgoers? Christ-like in the most Biblical sense in the term, because here in Revelation, we learn that under God Almighty, and Christ the Lamb, that the doors to sanctuary are always open, just as they were in Paris after the Parc des Princes attack, and just as they are now.

It is Christ-like because it takes from Christ those things we are called to emulate—the humility, the hospitality, the openness—rather than the things we are not, that are best left to the Pantokrator because of our own limitations—the sovereignty, the judgment, the power over life and death.

Part of acknowledging the role of Christ the Pantokrator in your life is to acknowledge that you cannot and will not ever be as mighty as He was, and to surrender such godlike tasks to Him. And as I’ve preached before—and will continue preaching—there is freedom that comes in that surrender. It should be a weight off of your shoulders, and mine, to not have to hold the final determination of a soul’s ultimate fate.

Indeed, the fate of any soul, including yours, is still first and foremost up to you personally. Terrorists cause God to judge them by their actions. God may judge you by your actions as well, but it is you who get to choose what acts you will be judged by based on your choice to perform them or not. Give aid and comfort to a dying person, even if nobody else is there to see it? God sees it. Give of your time and money to charity and the church? As Christ says in the Sermon on the Mount, even if you do so in secret—and you should—God, who sees in secret, will reward you.

Even if you may struggle with the notion of an almighty God or an almighty Christ, the truth is, we need such a God and such a Christ at times, if only to surrender to them the tasks that we are not equipped for.

In short—be Christ-like, and God will see it. But be the Christ that you are capable of being, not the Christ that only Jesus Himself is capable of being.

Do thusly, and there is yet, and will always be, hope for humanity after the next tragedy, and the one after that, and the one after that.

For hope, too, is a fundamental image of the living Christ—one that we cannot ever afford to lose sight of.

So treasure that hope. Protect it. Bear it. And share it.

And that image of Christ will be what helps bring God's divine healing to a bleeding world that aches for such grace and reconciliation in the face of violence met with still more violence.

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
May 28, 2017

Sunday, May 21, 2017

This Week's Sermon: "The Christus Victor: The Victorious Christ"

1 Corinthians 15:50-58

This is what I’m saying, brothers and sisters: Flesh and blood can’t inherit God’s kingdom. Something that rots can’t inherit something that doesn’t decay. 51 Listen, I’m telling you a secret: All of us won’t die, but we will all be changed— 52 in an instant, in the blink of an eye, at the final trumpet. The trumpet will blast, and the dead will be raised with bodies that won’t decay, and we will be changed. 53 It’s necessary for this rotting body to be clothed with what can’t decay, and for the body that is dying to be clothed in what can’t die. 


54 And when the rotting body has been clothed in what can’t decay, and the dying body has been clothed in what can’t die, then this statement in scripture will happen: Death has been swallowed up by a victory. 55 Where is your victory, Death? Where is your sting, Death? (56 Death’s sting is sin, and the power of sin is the Law.)

57 Thanks be to God, who gives us this victory through our Lord Jesus Christ! 58 As a result of all this, my loved brothers and sisters, you must stand firm, unshakable, excelling in the work of the Lord as always, because you know that your labor isn’t going to be for nothing in the Lord. (Common English Bible)

“The Christus Victor: The Victorious Christ,” 1 Corinthians 15:50-58

“Imago Christi: Images and Titles of the Living Christ,” Week Five

The young girl’s deep brown eyes stare into the camera lens, giving off a sense of profound determination, the sort you don’t always expect from teenagers, and if you do, it’s often about far less trivial matters than, say, being married to someone much older than you against your will.

But that is a circumstance that teenaged girls in fundamentalist sects across a great many religions (including Christianity) face, and in Afghanistan, one such girl, Sonita Alizadeh found a creative way out of the devastation she experienced when her parents told her that she was about to be married off, as Shuka Kalantari for PRI in San Francisco writes:

“One day my mom told me, ‘You have to return to Afghanistan with me. There’s a man there who wants to marry you. Your brother’s engaged and we need your dowry money to pay for his wedding.’”

Sonita was devastated. So she wrote the song “Brides for Sale.” The song starts “Let me whisper, so no one hears that I speak of selling girls. My voice shouldn’t be heard since it’s against Sharia. Women must remain silent…this is our tradition.”…

Sonita was worried what her parents would think about the video—but they actually loved it—and they also told her that she didn’t have to get married.

“It means so much to me that my family went against our tradition for me. Now I’m somewhere that I never imagined I could be.”

The attention around Sonita’s music landed her a full scholarship to Wasatch Academy, a college prep school in Utah, and that led to the concert here in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Freed from the oppressiveness of being married off as a child, Sonita was free—free to change the world through her music, but also free to see that even here in the United States, we struggle to provide for the poorest and the least among us, something that she laments later in this story about her, underlining just how much more the world still needs to be changed.

Which is the notion of atonement in Christianity in a nutshell—realizing that you and your circumstances may have been changed because of a change within you, but simultaneously realizing that you now must effect even more change beyond you on behalf of how you yourself have been set free. And there is one particular image of Christ that drives that notion home for us.

This is a (no longer) new sermon series for the church season of Easter, which extends for the forty-nine days between Easter Sunday last week to Pentecost Sunday, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples as described in the second chapter of Acts. Much like Christmas, then, Easter does not actually end on Easter Day, but rather continues for a number of days afterwards so that we may continue our celebration of the good news that each of these two holidays represents for us.

So for the 2017 Easter season, we have been using words to explore something visual—the images of the living and risen Jesus Christ that have been handed down from one generation of Christians to another throughout the centuries. Some of these images of Christ are almost as old as the church (the Way, in its Biblical incarnation) itself. All of them are rooted in Scriptural accounts of the Lord. And they each have something different to teach us about how different Christian communities at different points in time saw Jesus as the promised Messiah.

Today, after talking about the images of Jesus as the man, the child with mother, the Good Shepherd, and the Lord, we arrive at an old, old image of Jesus Christ that was expressed in some of the earliest atonement theology of the ancient church: the Christus Victor, or the Victorious Christ.
The Christus Victor is one of the theories of atonement in the church, which, if it sounds a bit like a boring term, it’s because it is. I don’t preach an awful lot on systematic doctrine in part because of that boredom factor (also because my preaching doesn’t exactly make it more exciting either), but stick with me for a minute or three.

We use sayings like “Jesus paid for my sins” or “Jesus paid it all” all the time (heck, the latter is the name of one of the traditional hymns of the church). But payment is purely transactional in nature; it’s like any other commercial interaction. It’s a quid pro quo. I give you this, you give me that. There’s not much room for grace, or for freedom, in such a framework.

So what if—and keep sticking with me—the crucifixion and resurrection weren’t really about payment at all, but about being liberated? That all of this isn’t about our debt of sins being paid, but being set free from that debt altogether?

If you don’t think there is a difference between the two, consider trying to call Visa or MasterCard and asking them if they’ll forgive your credit card balance instead of you paying it off and seeing just how far you get with them before they explode into peals of laughter.

I’m not saying the notion of sin as a debt to God that must be repaid isn’t a part of Paul’s work—as Paul scholar Stephen Finlan notes, it’s not like such a concept was fashioned out of whole cloth.

But if reconciliation with God is only possible through repayment, then what need is there for grace? Put another way—how can forgiveness of a paid debt be considered forgiveness of said debt?

So if payment represents forgiveness, we’re left with two options: one is the one I just illustrated—that our debt with God has been paid in full, and so forgiveness of the debt is unnecessary, precisely because it is a paid debt, eliminating the need for grace.

The other option, though, is far more monstrous: that Jesus’s death does not pay our debt with God in full, which creates all sorts of problems, since we believe Jesus was divine as well as human in nature. If God’s own divine, infinite substance is not enough to appease God, then what in creation possibly could be? And if this God can never be appeased or satisfied, then why bother worshiping such a God? We might as well all go home and do the crossword, it’ll have the same net effect on such a deity.

But what if God doesn’t adhere to the notion that we must pay off our heavenly debt through Jesus? What if Christ, and especially Christ crucified, represents God tearing up the bill outlining in great detail our indebtedness and feeding it into the shredder?

What if God does not demand compensation for our sins? What if God really did decide to err on the side of grace?

Then we are indeed set free. If payment of debt is the only thing that saves us from divine anger or wrath, then what is the point of grace at all? It would be just as easy to worship a God that is only capable of wrath.

But it would not be freeing to worship such a God. And here we finally, at long last, arrive at Paul’s words at the end of 1 Corinthians 15. It is a *victory* that has been achieved through Jesus, Paul says, and that victory comes from God.

Not from repayment to God.

Can you see the parallel between this relationship and the relationship between Sonita and her parents? Her parents didn’t consider her potential dowry paid, but rather, not needing to be paid at all. God does not see our debt as having been paid, but in not needing to be paid as well.

So we should find comfort and motivation in being set free, just like Sonita, just like people around the world who have escaped poverty, violence, war, and a multitude of other such severe harms.

We should find encouragement and affirmation in the knowledge that we are not chattel that has been bought and paid for, but souls that have been liberated from bondage, at liberty to tell the story, to live out the Word, to be the body of Christ to a world still in need of that same liberation.

That is the victory of God over the grave of which Paul speaks. That is what life without the sting of sin, and being deadened by sin, is meant to be and to look like and to experience fully and vividly.

And it is life that God calls you still towards today, and on all days, through the Christus Victor—the Victorious Christ, as a soul not bought and paid for, but forgiven, redeemed, and liberated.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
May 21, 2017

Sunday, May 14, 2017

This Week's Sermon: "The Kyrios: The Lord"

Philippians 2:5-11

5 Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus: 6 Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. 7 But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings. When he found himself in the form of a human, 8 he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore, God highly honored him and gave him a name above all names, 10 so that at the name of Jesus everyone in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Common English Bible)


“Imago Christi: Images and Titles of the Living Christ,” Week Four

It was a heartbreaking scene in Manikchak, a remote village in India that suffers from immense poverty: a young man, only thirty-five years old, had just died of cancer, and his neighbors were carrying his body for more than a mile and a half to the village crematorium, to say goodbye to him one last time and chant prayers over him before his body would be burned and his ashes deposited into a nearby river.

There was one twist, though, that made this scene not just heartbreaking, but heartwarming as well: the crowd of neighbors putting on this impromptu funeral were doing so for a friend of a completely different faith as theirs. Manikchak is almost entire Muslim, but the man who died, Biswajit Rajak, was a son of one of only two Hindu families in the entire village.

And so even with their differing faiths, Rajak’s friends were determined to send him off in a way that honored him and who he was by holding his cremation and funeral in accordance with Hindu tradition. On top of that, as Sreyasi Pal of the Hindustan Times notes, because Rajak’s family was so poor that they could not afford the cremation, the town covered his entire funeral expenses:

Rajak was suffering from liver cancer and died at his home on Monday. But when his family could not arrange for his cremation on Tuesday, villagers gathered at his house and requested Biswajit’s father Nagen Rajak to allow them to cremate his son.

Even the moulavi of the local mosque also went to the crematorium. The Muslim neighbors paid the money necessary for his last rites. The Rajaks are one of the two Hindu families in the village of about 6,000 residents.

“I had neither the money nor the manpower to take my son to the crematorium. I don’t know what would have happened if the villagers didn’t come forward for the last rites of my son,” said Rajak’s father, Nagen Rajak, with tears streaming down his eyes.

Haji Abdul Khalek, who took the lead in arranging the last rites told HT, “No religion preaches hatred towards others. Biswajit was like our brother. Allah wouldn’t have forgiven us if we looked the other way thinking that the family follows some other religion.”…

The Muslim neighbors of Rajak also paid for his treatment and arranged to send him to a hospital in Kolkata.

When we think of the nature of lordship from a divine rather than a human perspective, the establishment of such honor is always brought about by serving and by sacrificing. As Haji Abdul Khalek conveyed, the Muslims of Manikchak did their tradition such an honor in the funeral of Biswajit Rajak, and from a Christian perspective, I can say that I too saw the honor in their kindness.

This is a new sermon series for the church season of Easter, which extends for the forty-nine days between Easter Sunday last week to Pentecost Sunday, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples as described in the second chapter of Acts. Much like Christmas, then, Easter does not actually end on Easter Day, but rather continues for a number of days afterwards so that we may continue our celebration of the good news that each of these two holidays represents and teaches us.

So for the 2017 Easter season, we’ll be using words to explore something visual—the images of the living and risen Jesus Christ that have been handed down from one generation of Christians to another throughout the centuries. Some of these images of Christ are almost as old as the church (the Way, in its Biblical incarnation) itself. All of them are rooted in Scriptural accounts of the Lord. And they each have something different to teach us about how different Christian communities at different points in time saw Jesus as the promised Messiah.

We began this series three weeks ago by rewinding to Good Friday to the image of Jesus the man being hauled out before the chief priests and temple authorities by Pontius Pilate, and we remained in Good Friday for the removal of Christ’s body from the cross, and the image of Mary holding her dead son’s body that was immortalized most famously in Michelangelo’s (the Sistine Chapel painter, not the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle) statue of the two, called the Pieta.

Then last week, we turned to a very famous and well-known image of Christ that Jesus Himself conjures up for us in John 10: the image of Him as the Good Shepherd, leading His sheep, sheep that He describes in this passage as ultimately being of one flock, since, after all, they are all of the one God. And this week, we turn to perhaps the most fundamental image of all of Jesus: that of Him as Lord, which of course is a paradoxical image of Him, as He is Lord through His lowliness.

That lowliness is no small demonstration from God, either. The same God who fashioned heaven and earth from mere words, who was able to create light simply by uttering, “Let there be light,” that God was dedicated enough, and devoted enough, to humanity to decide to send a vestige of that divinity to us in the form of our own flesh. As Paul conveys in this hymn, it was a humbleness, an emptying out of power and splendor and wonder the likes of which the world had never seen either before or since.

It is an extremity—obedience as a slave even unto death—that might make us a bit squeamish, but it should not precisely because it illustrates the extent to which God’s devotion, and Christ’s devotion, to us reaches. It certainly made Peter squeamish, when Jesus took on the task of a slave in washing the feet of the disciples in John’s Gospel, yet after learning that he must allow Jesus this humbleness, Peter insisted on Jesus washing not just his feet but his hands and his head as well!

So we admire that lowliness and humbleness of Jesus, in part precisely because we are aware of His divine origins. Jesus gave up so very much to become human in the first place, even before giving up His own human life as well on the cross. So we would be right to look upon the very existence of Jesus, not just His crucifixion, as a sacrifice.

And it is right for us to admire such sacrifice, especially from a place of lowliness, whether from Jesus, or from His earthly mother Mary, or from a small village of Muslim Indians halfway around the world from us. But if all that Paul’s words evoke for us is a sense of admiration of Jesus (or of Paul, for that matter), then Paul has not taken us nearly far enough—and I think Paul would be the first to point that out to us.

For where this becomes an obstacle for Christians, then, is that as Bible scholar Ernest W. Saunders is keen to point out in his own commentary on Philippians, we are more apt to *admire* such lowliness rather than to *emulate* such lowliness. Saunders calls Christ’s lowliness “the scandal of the Gospel,” writing: “But how are we to make it real for our world where self-sufficiency and success are the most prized goals? People like Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Martin Luther King Jr. may evoke admiration from us, but less likely emulation.”

Examples of selflessness and humility may evoke admiration from us, but less likely emulation. If there is a single sentence to sum up the existential crisis that Christianity has found itself in honestly probably ever since it went from minority religion to the state faith of the Roman Empire, this is it.

We are no longer willing to be Christian from a place of lowliness because lowliness, especially on a global scale, is no longer our starting or default position. We live in the wealthiest country in the world, even if we ourselves do not partake of the lion’s share of its riches, and we see in where we live a divine exceptionalism, an almost special-child status in the world.

But God is not an American. Jesus was not an American. And we can find in people like the citizens of Manikchak, who on paper may seem to have nothing in common with us but our humanity, a far more profound emulation of the ministry and values of Jesus Christ than what we see lived out in our own communities on a day-to-day basis.

This is a village of immense material poverty, that is already empty and devoid of so much financial wealth that we take for granted, and whose spiritual richness was put on display not for the sake of its own dominant tradition, but for that of a son who, much like Jesus Himself, died far, far too soon.

That is the scandal of the Gospel. That is why the Good News, good though it is, should scare us so—because it should remove from us any ability to claim exceptionalism before the throne of God. The same grace and mercy that covers me as a pastor covers you as a layperson. I don’t get special treatment either just because I’m a Christian who has gone pro.

So today’s mandate is a simple one: try to take some of your deep admiration of Jesus and transform it into emulation of Jesus. And not just in a schlocky, “WWJD?” sort of way. But in a way that is capable of fundamentally changing your very self into a vessel that more clearly and lucidly than ever reflects the One who has recognized you for who you are: a sinner called and redeemed, and who has since called you to go forth to help save and redeem other sinners.

So like Christ, empty yourself of those higher pretensions to which you might still cling. Empty yourself of those conceits that may guide you towards selfishness rather than empathy and ego rather than connectedness.

And in their place, let the need to not just admire but emulate the life of Jesus Christ burn brightly within you, lighting your way forward towards that God who highly honored Jesus as a result, and who highly honors you with an attention so caring and so loving towards you that you will never, ever be without it.

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
May 14, 2017

Sunday, May 7, 2017

This Week's Sermon: "The Poimen o Kalos: The Good Shepherd"

John 10:1-16

I assure you that whoever doesn’t enter into the sheep pen through the gate but climbs over the wall is a thief and an outlaw. 2 The one who enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The guard at the gate opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 Whenever he has gathered all of his sheep, he goes before them and they follow him, because they know his voice. 5 They won’t follow a stranger but will run away because they don’t know the stranger’s voice.” 6 Those who heard Jesus use this analogy didn’t understand what he was saying.


7 So Jesus spoke again, “I assure you that I am the gate of the sheep. 8 All who came before me were thieves and outlaws, but the sheep didn’t listen to them. 9 I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out and find pasture. 10 The thief enters only to steal, kill, and destroy. I came so that they could have life—indeed, so that they could live life to the fullest. 

11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 When the hired hand sees the wolf coming, he leaves the sheep and runs away. That’s because he isn’t the shepherd; the sheep aren’t really his. So the wolf attacks the sheep and scatters them. 13 He’s only a hired hand and the sheep don’t matter to him. 14 “I am the good shepherd. I know my own sheep and they know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. I give up my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that don’t belong to this sheep pen. I must lead them too. They will listen to my voice and there will be one flock, with one shepherd. (CEB)

“Imago Christi: Images and Titles of the Living Christ,” Week Three

Whether we are willing to admit it or not, the legacy of segregation still lives and breathes as surely as you or I do, and it is not playing the race card or trying to induce white guilt out of you to say it.

How’s that for an ice-breaker?

If you do not believe that there remains still more work to be done, consider that in 2008—less than a decade ago—the high school in Charleston, Mississippi for the first time hosted an integrated prom, with the help of a quite famous and justifiably beloved actor, and even then, a group of white parents insisted on going forward with a whites-only prom.

And the actor who helped make possible the first-ever integrated prom? A certain Morgan Freeman.

But rather than focus on him, I want to focus on two people involved in throwing that dance several years ago, and what it meant to them—Chasidy Buckley, who was then a high school senior in Charleston, and Paul Saltzman, a Canadian filmmaker who helped facilitate Freeman’s involvement. Both of them spoke to Leonard Doyle of the UK-based Independent:

For Ms. Buckley the strain of racial segregation, however informal, is evident. “We have a 15-minute [lunch] break and all the whites are like in one area, except there are a few blacks and whites that hang out together.”

As she understands things, the reason for having segregated prom night is the parents. “That’s the way that it’s always been for them,” she said. “But I mean, things have changed, so I didn’t get why they kept on doing it. But they said, ‘why change now? Let’s just keep going.’ It’s just horrible.”

Like elsewhere in the US, racial tensions are “like a scab that nobody wants to disturb,” said Mr. Saltzman. Rarely are the issues discussed openly, although they are constantly talked about within the black and white communities. He discovered this after sitting down with the black chairman of the school board and the white school principal. “They both said, ‘You know we’ve known each other for 27 years, but until now we have never talked about race.”

For 27 years, race never came up. That really isn’t something to strive for, certainly not against the backdrop of a still-segregated school-sponsored event like prom. If we are to bring together people into one flock that is not scattered or segregated by wolves, then pretending that the scattering and segregating isn’t happening is not the way to do it.

This is a new sermon series for the church season of Easter, which extends for the forty-nine days between Easter Sunday last week to Pentecost Sunday, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples as described in the second chapter of Acts. Much like Christmas, then, Easter does not actually end on Easter Day, but rather continues for a number of days afterwards so that we may continue our celebration of the good news that each of these two holidays represents and teaches us.

So for the 2017 Easter season, we’ll be using words to explore something visual—the images of the living and risen Jesus Christ that have been handed down from one generation of Christians to another throughout the centuries. Some of these images of Christ are almost as old as the church (the Way, in its Biblical incarnation) itself. All of them are rooted in Scriptural accounts of the Lord. And they each have something different to teach us about how different Christian communities at different points in time saw Jesus as the promised Messiah.

We began this series two weeks ago by rewinding to Good Friday to the image of Jesus the man being hauled out before the chief priests and temple authorities by Pontius Pilate, and we remained in Good Friday last week for the removal of Christ’s body from the cross, and the image of Mary holding her dead son’s body that was immortalized most famously in Michelangelo’s (the Sistine Chapel painter, not the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle) statue of the two, called the Pieta.

This week, we turn to a very famous and well-known image of Christ that Jesus Himself conjures up for us in John 10: the image of Him as the Good Shepherd, leading His sheep, sheep that He describes in this passage as ultimately being of one flock, since, after all, they are all of the one God. It is an image that, in the form of statues, frescoes, and paintings dates all the way back in Christian art to the 200s, when the church was still an illegal sect in an emperor-worshiping Roman Empire.

So from the beginning, the Good Shepherd has been a comforting image, a pastoral image, and it is meant to be, even as the verse in the middle of it—“I come that they may have life, and have it to the fullest” is taken out of context and proof-texted into oblivion by prosperity theology hucksters like Joel Osteen and Creflo Dollar to back up their notion that God wants you to be materially wealthy and that if you are not, it is a direct reflection of your faith (or lack thereof in their eyes).

And that isn’t what this passage is about at all. It isn’t about material reality, it’s about emotional, spiritual, and relational reality. It’s not about the reality between me and my stuff, but between you and me, and God and us, and Christ and us. While a harmful religious figure like a prosperity gospel preacher or like the Pharisees would, in this comparison, be simply a hired hand who isn’t really emotionally invested in the flock put under their care, Jesus is completely and fully invested in us.

That’s why this passage is comforting and pastoral, and what it is right to see it as such. But it would not be right to simply leave it at that. A passage can, and should, challenge while simultaneously comfort, and Jesus challenges us here to not only see His care for us, but to live out that care for others because of the basic truth that we are all of one flock. As the great Roman Catholic Bible scholar Raymond E. Brown wrote in his commentary on John, “His (Christ’s) love goes out beyond “his own sheep” of (John’s) community to others who believe adequately in him. These…constitute the one flock of v. 16… (Yet) once again his words cause a division among his hearers.”

So a message of integration—of bringing together one flock that already existed within the gate (which Jesus also speaks of Himself as in this passage) with still another flock outside of it—gets met with still more division.

Sounds like a familiar pattern? It should. It is how we have always treated people, Jesus or no Jesus. The Good Shepherd tries to bring us together into one flock, and we insist on scattering and segregating one another under His eye.

That is not what our tradition was built upon. It is not what our connection with God and with Christ ought to be built upon. But it has become what our lives—including our church lives—have become built upon.

Martin Luther King Jr. famously said once that the most segregated hour of the week in the United States is Sunday at 11:00 am, and the reality of that statement has not changed a great deal since.

And not only in regards to race—although that does remain true—but in terms of socio-economic status and generation as well. There are church planters today who are told, basically, “Pick your target demographic and go all-in on that” instead of, simply, “Minister to the body of Christ.” So if your target demographic is, say, left-handed horoscope enthusiasts with silent vowels in their names who are fans of Nickelback (but why?), well, then, that’s who your church is supposed to consist of.

For far too long, schools like the high school in Charleston had separate proms, separate social circles, separate everything, and that doesn’t look like that is going to change anytime soon—a judge in Alabama recently ruled that a community could legally withdraw from its school district with motives that were, on face, racist towards students of color.

The phrase emblazoned on our marquee, “Everyone Welcome,” shouldn’t be such a countercultural statement. And yet it is. But we also have to be able and willing to live out that statement, by actually being one flock that is not only willing to, but enthusiastic about, growing the flock rather than segregating it further and further.

And that comes down to you and me as sheep rather than to Jesus as the Good Shepherd. We can follow that Good Shepherd or not, but it’s tricky to claim to follow Him without…well, actually doing so. Yet for so long, that is precisely what the church has done: claimed to follow the Good Shepherd, the Poimen o Kalos, without wholeheartedly endeavoring to be one flock.

The mandate from John 10 is clear: we cannot act as the gatekeepers of the flock. Jesus is the gate, and far be it for us to try to keep Him. He cannot be kept. He will not be kept.

So let us not worry, then, about guarding the gate that is Jesus, and instead worry about whether we have tried to block that gate to others and, in so doing, to ourselves.

Because Jesus must not be kept by us, or solely for us.

Jesus must not be kept.

No Good Shepherd may be kept.

So follow that Good Shepherd, then, instead of keeping Him. Let Him keep you and guide you through that gate instead of placing yourself in front of it to keep your fellowship from passing through.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
May 7, 2017

Monday, May 1, 2017

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

May 2017: "The Earth We Own"

Dear Church,

There is a story, preserved by the Greek historian Arrian of Nicomedia, about the ancient Greek general and emperor Alexander the Great, who stretched the Greek Empire as far as what is now modern-day Pakistan and India. While there, he visited a brahmin who told the conquering general, "One day you'll be dead, and you'll own only as much of the earth that will suffice to cover you." Whatever our own ambitions may be--and however selfish those ambitions may be--we all face the same fate eventually.

Put another way, as a t-shirt I bought all the way back in high school says on the back, "He who dies with the most toys still dies."

Does this seem a morose or depressing way to open a church newsletter column? It should not, because we know that in Christ there is eternal life after death, and that with that eternal life comes no such need for the vast sums of resources that we stockpile here for ourselves on earth. No matter how much we try to hold on to, we never hold onto it forever--much as we may want to.

It is a lesson that can be taken to heart not only by individuals, but by churches and communities as well. We try to hang on bitterly to what we already have, seemingly unaware to the reality that perhaps God has been calling us to let go of it in order to create something new and wondrous to behold. We are called to surrender everything to God, but in truth that is often more difficult than it seems.

For the past year, that is a surrender that we have been willing to make for the sake of doing what is best for the body of Christ. Knowing that we have far more space than we need and that some of that space could go towards housing another congregation or ministry in town, FCC's membership generously put its faith in God's providence to allow for the possibility of finding new owners for our education building, and we hope to have some news for you concerning that process soon.

This represents, to me, a deep faith in the church as the people, not just the building or the land, and a recognition that the earth we own is not all the creation that God has called us to worship upon, and a willingness to believe in the good news of eternal life that the resurrection of Easter Sunday represents!

We appreciate your prayers and support as the church continues its revitalization and reinvention into a new vessel for its big faith in a promising future. As much as we take comfort in the aspects of church that are timeless, we must remain ever attuned to what God is calling us to do today, and tomorrow, and the day after as we continue to trust in the Word as taught, revealed, and embodied by Jesus Christ.

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Eric

Whew! I've only been back from sabbatical a few weeks, and already we have spanned the gamut of Holy Week together, from Christ's triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to the pain and agony of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday to the uncertainty followed by celebration at the news of the resurrection on Easter Sunday. But as you may remember from my Easter Sunday message, God does not call us to simply be a resurrection people on one day out of the year, but on *all* days out of the year. In that spirit, the church season of Easter is not limited merely to Resurrection Sunday, but rather lasts fifty days until the Pentecost--the arrival of the Holy Spirit for the disciples--as conveyed to us in Acts 2.

This year, Pentecost falls on the first Sunday of June, so we'll be taking the entire month of May to continue the Easter season sermon series that we just began on the 23rd. This series takes a look at some of the most famous images of Jesus Christ throughout history and how they relate to critical roles that He inhabits in our spirituality. It ends with the image of Christ in the heavens as the almighty holder and judge of the world--the Pantokrator--which seems an apt image for transitioning in to the Pentecost narrative that takes place mere days after the ascension of Jesus into the heavens. I look forward to continuing to unpack this sermon series with you, and I hope you end up enjoying exploring it as much as I am!

Easter 2017: “Imago Christi: Titles and Images of the Living Christ”

May 7: “The Poimen o Kalos: The Good Shepherd,” John 10:1-16
May 14: “The Kyrios: The Lord,” Philippians 2:5-11
May 21: “The Christus Victor: The Victorious Christ,” 1 Peter 2:18-25
May 28: “The Pantokrator: The Almighty,” Revelation 21:22-26

Sunday, April 30, 2017

This Week's Sermon: "The Pieta: The Mother and Son"

Mark 15:42-47

Since it was late in the afternoon on Preparation Day, just before the Sabbath, 43 Joseph from Arimathea dared to approach Pilate and ask for Jesus’ body. (Joseph was a prominent council member who also eagerly anticipated the coming of God’s kingdom.) 44 Pilate wondered if Jesus was already dead. He called the centurion and asked him whether Jesus had already died. 45 When he learned from the centurion that Jesus was dead, Pilate gave the dead body to Joseph. 46 He bought a linen cloth, took Jesus down from the cross, wrapped him in the cloth, and laid him in a tomb that had been carved out of rock. He rolled a stone against the entrance to the tomb. 47 Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where he was buried. (Common English Bible)


“Imago Christi: Images and Titles of the Living Christ,” Week Two

It is one of those images that hits a particular chord in our humanity and amplifies across the internet for millions of eyes to see: a photograph of little preschool-aged girl in her soccer jersey, flanked on either side by her parents, with jerseys that share her number 37 and that bear the names “Mommy” and Daddy.” And then on either side of them are two more parents, also with the number 37 on their backs with the names “Stepmom” and “Stepdad” above the number.

All of them alongside the little girl, Maelyn. All of them affirming her. All of them supporting her.

Naturally, people became curious to learn more about this uplifting family, and WSB-TV 2 in Atlanta went to do a little digging, and I’ll share from them some of theirinterview with Maelyn’s mother, Clara Cazeau, and Maelyn’s stepmother, Emilee Player:

They explained that the amicable relationship between the two couples isn’t anything new: they share custody and have been co-parenting Maelyn for the last three years. They had no idea that the photo would touch such a deep chord for people and go viral.

Cazeau said, “I had just gotten these shirts made. Emilee posted the picture and made it public—but we had no idea it would go that far.”

On both family’s Facebook feeds are similar photos of the four smiling “co-parents” and their two daughters. When asked how they manage their relationship, they say it’s all about being mature and putting aside your own insecurities.

“You really have each person 100 percent in it,” Cazeau said. You have to put your differences aside for the good of your child.”

Maelyn may have no idea that her family’s story has gone viral—but her stepmom says that even at just 4 years old, she does know a lot about what it means to be accepting.

“She’s very sweet, very loving,” Player says. “She’s not standoffish, she’s accepting of everybody. And I think that’s because she’s been taught to accept everybody by the people who love her.”

Parents and co-parents alike are capable of raising their children with love, and to teach them to be inclusive and accepting in ways that perhaps we were not. Maelyn is living, breathing proof of that.

Who our parents are matters. The genetic lottery can determine so much about our fates—whether we are raised with love and care, whether we are born rich or poor and the correlation to remaining rich or poor, all of these can play factors into the people who we become.

We tend to talk most about Jesus’s parents during the Advent and Christmas seasons, and perhaps understandably so. But no discussion of the images of Jesus would be complete without talking about how Jesus is seen and depicted in relation to His parents—both earthly and heavenly—in perhaps the most famous co-parenting arrangement of all time. So while we take in the joyful image of one co-parenting situation—of Maelyn’s—we can, in so doing, reflect on that situation for Jesus.

This is a new sermon series for the church season of Easter, which extends for the forty-nine days between Easter Sunday last week to Pentecost Sunday, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples as described in the second chapter of Acts. Much like Christmas, then, Easter does not actually end on Easter Day, but rather continues for a number of days afterwards so that we may continue our celebration of the good news that each of these two holidays represents and teaches us.

So for the 2017 Easter season, we’ll be using words to explore something visual—the images of the living and risen Jesus Christ that have been handed down from one generation of Christians to another throughout the centuries. Some of these images of Christ are almost as old as the church (the Way, in its Biblical incarnation) itself. All of them are rooted in Scriptural accounts of the Lord. And they each have something different to teach us about how different Christian communities at different points in time saw Jesus as the promised Messiah.

We began this series last week by rewinding to Good Friday to the image of Jesus the man being hauled out before the chief priests and temple authorities by Pontius Pilate, and we are going to remain in Good Friday for one sermon longer as we fast forward several hours to the removal of Christ’s body from the cross, and the image of Mary holding her dead son’s body that was immortalized most famously in Michelangelo’s (the Sistine Chapel painter, not the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle) statue of the two, called the Pieta.

The other famous image of Jesus with Mary is the Madonna (the image, not the iconic celebrity), otherwise known as the Mother and Child, and the two images are a fascinating juxtaposition to make—both are of Mary holding Jesus, but in one, Jesus is a very much alive infant, while in the other, Jesus is a dead adult man, having just been executed by the state.

In this regard, Michelangelo may have taken a bit of liberty with his art, as Mark states in this passage that while Mary the mother of Joseph and Mary Magdalene were present at the removal of Christ’s body from the cross, it was Joseph of Arimathea (who is not Joseph the earthly father of Jesus) who performed the actual removal, presumably under the supervision of a Roman official or centurion sent by Pilate, and Mary the mother of Jesus, while present according to John's Gospel, has to have her presence inferred here.

You can, and should, though, easily and vividly imagine Mary as being given the chance to hold her dead son’s body one last time before Joseph wrapped Jesus up in a linen cloth that served as a shroud and placed the body in Joseph’s own tomb.

It is a heart-wrenching image that is difficult to truly wipe away from your mind, so do not try to do so. Do not forget the human pain that comes with a child predeceasing their parent, even if, in this case, it is inherently necessary for that child to then resurrect.

That is why I chose Maelyn’s story to begin this message—because the images we tend to share, and want to share, of our families, tends to be the images we want to share, not the ones we do not. I would say that this tendency is extended, as the nature of the family unit shifts over time, to more and more often include co-parents and stepparents and their photos (or photos of them). Indeed, as I noted then, Jesus’s own family unit was one that included a co-parent in Joseph.

So much like the joy around Maelyn’s family, or around the image of Mary and the newborn Jesus, so too is it important to see the images that may not cause us such joy, but that may challenge us, make us ask questions of ourselves, or push us outside our comfort zones—images like the Pieta. There are images of our families and friends that we often cannot wait to share with the world. But there are also images that are not quite so joyous and clean-cut either, but that offer a very real window into the depths of our humanity and compassion.

Down in Arkansas, where the state government is churning through executions at a historically rapid rate, one of the inmates executed, Kenneth Williams, received a bit of mercy and help from an unexpected source—the family of a person he killed (not the person he was put on death row for killing, but someone else) learned that he had a daughter he had not seen in many years and a granddaughter whom he had never met.

So, according to the Associated Press, this family sprung for the plane tickets for his daughter and granddaughter from here in Washington to Arkansas to see him one last time (and first time, for the granddaughter) before he was put to death this past weekend. Asked about this act of mercy by the AP, the daughter, Kayla Greenwood, of this man’s victim, Michael Greenwood, simply said, “I told him we forgive him.”

Can you see difference in gravity between these images—between the joy in Maelyn’s family and the anguish in Kayla’s? But can you also see how that anguish gave way to mercy and to forgiveness?

We do not know if or when Mary forgave the state for crucifying her son. But knowing Mary from her words and deeds in the Gospels, and knowing that she did indeed find favor with God, I imagine that she did indeed in time begin to forgive them, just as, according to Luke’s Gospel, Jesus also did. It may not have been easy, it may not have been right away, but eventually, perhaps that forgiveness was there.

For while Jesus was God-made-flesh, He surely took on some of his mother’s characteristics as a man. As does Maelyn as her parents and co-parents raise her. And so too have we, sometimes for worse, but hopefully for the better.

May we continue to seek to exhibit as many good and great traits from our loved ones as possible, especially the One who loves us the greatest and deepest from the throne in heaven with a love so great and so much that, as John says, Jesus was sent to us as a result…not so that we might die, but so that we might live, and live eternally.

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
April 30, 2017

Monday, April 24, 2017

#KeepThePromise

As I was unlocking the church building yesterday morning for worship and Sunday School, one of the guitarists in our worship band came up to me and, completely unbidden, began raving about a movie that he had seen the day before--The Promise, about a war romance that buds as the First World War rages and as, within its violent confines, the Armenian Genocide snuffs out the lives of 1.5 million men, women, and children in the first genocide of the 20th century.

I told my worship musician that I hadn't yet had a chance to see the entire film, but that I was very glad that he had gone to see it and that I hoped he would take its message and lessons to heart. Because those lessons--that the Armenian Genocide was real, that it really did happen, and that it created an entire diaspora of millions and millions of people who have spent the past century crying out for a crumb of recognition or justice--have yet to really sink in for vast swaths of the world, including here in the United States.

But as The Promise was being released in the United States, over in Jerusalem, something remarkable was happening: in the archives of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, Turkish historian Taner Akcam discovered a document that he called the "smoking gun" for the argument that the Armenian Genocide was indeed perpetrated not by rogue soldiers or civilians, but by the order of the government of the Ottoman Empire (what would become the modern nation of Turkey) itself.

Akcam's smoking gun may not change anything right away, but were it to do so, even over time, it would be a great testament to a historian whose body of work has been genuinely heroic. Imprisoned and threatened for his work (that has largely, but not exclusively, focused on World War I and the Armenian Genocide), Akcam had to seek asylum in Europe and eventually relocated to the States, and at every turn has shown uncommon courage in a field that is perhaps more associated with boredom than hair-raising attempts to silence you.

Even emotionally, there is a great deal of courage in his work. It is difficult to admit that your ancestors were a part of a massive crime against humanity that resulted in millions of deaths--just look at how difficult it remains to come to a full reckoning of the United States' own treatment of its African slaves and its indigenous peoples over the course of our own history.

Moviemaking has a role to play in such recognition--Hotel Rwanda (directed by Terry George, the director of The Promise) seared the Rwandan Genocide into our memories. Edward Zwick's Glory immortalized the heroism and dignity of the black Massachusetts 54th regiment in the face of constant racism from not only Confederates but also Union soldiers. And Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List--which, for my money, is one of the very best films ever made--stands as one of the most compelling memorials to the Holocaust I have ever seen.

All deserve to be remembered. All deserve to be honored. If I do not likewise honor the memory of the souls killed in the Holocaust, or the Rwandan Genocide, or the Trail of Tears, then what good is my memory of my own people? My responsibility as one of millions of landless Armenians around the world is to honor them, and to honor others who have suffered what nobody else should ever have had to suffer.

The Promise, then, even if it does not rise to the all-time greats list that Schindler's List has, represents a sincerely and wonderfully made first wide-scale effort to maintain the memory of what has been done, and what has been left undone, to my people.

I'll be watching The Promise today, on Genocide Remembrance Day. I have my reservations about the film--namely the casting of non-Armenian actors in Armenian roles (with all due respect to Oscar Isaac, who is otherwise a laudable actor)--but the fact remains that this is the most "mainstream" film that includes the Armenian Genocide, and the first film that has been widely available in the United States since Atom Egoyan's 2002 film Ararat (there have been a number of European-made films since 2002, but few, if any, were distributed to any great length in the United States).

The message of The Promise, though, isn't just about the genocide--it is about doing right by others as a general rule to live by, which is why the filmmakers are donating 100% of the film's proceeds to global charities such as the Elton John AIDS Foundation. And to raise awareness--I know its such a cliched term in our era of clicktivism and silly bracelets, but here, it fits--the hashtag #KeepThePromise has been trending on social media.

That awareness is very much necessary, as Christian Bale, one of the actors portraying the three protagonists in The Promise, is quick to note in interviews that he had no notion of the Armenian Genocide before The Promise--and, indeed, often so too are his interviewers quick to admit a similar lack of awareness themselves.

This should not be so.

There are a great many doorsteps at which to lay culpability for this lack of awareness--the absence of a good World War I curriculum in our history classrooms, the despicable effort in pockets of academia ranging from Princeton University to Louisville University to use faux-intellectual disinformation to discredit the scholarly consensus, and just plain old-fashioned lobbying against the truth in the halls of government. It takes time and effort--a great deal of time and effort, in fact--for the work and research of someone like Taner Akcam to erode and chip away at such systemic forces.

But if, as GI Joe says, knowing is half the battle, and if, as Jesus says in John 8, that you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free, then at least seeking an awareness, whether it comes in a classroom or a movie theater, is worthy of our praise.

So if you do go to see The Promise, my sincere and profound thanks to you. All I ask is that you emerge from the darkened theater prepared to keep the promise--to keep in your heart what you have learned, and to share the story with others.

In so doing, we will be set free. Of that, I am certain.

In memory of the 1.5 million men, women, and children murdered in the Armenian Genocide. As of this writing, its status as a genocide has yet to be acknowledged by the United States of America and is officially denied by the republics of both Turkey and Azerbaijan.

Longview, Washington
April 24, 2017

Since I began The Theophilus Project in the autumn of 2011, I write on or around April 24 every year in memory of my own family, whose patriarch Sarkis Mouradian (my great-great grandfather) and his son Madiros, died in the spring of 1915 as the genocide began. You can find more of my work on their behalf and in their memory here:

2016: "Red Sunday"
2015: "100"
2014: "A Voice Was Heard In Ramah"
2013: "Being Ethnic"
2012: "Armenia Remembered"

The Promise promo poster image courtesy of IMDB