Monday, September 18, 2017

When forgiveness is still far off

Robert Berra
Year A Proper 19

Have you ever been reading the Bible--particularly the New Testament--and thought to yourself, “I wish Jesus had been more reasonable.”

And I suspect I might not be the only one to read and hear scripture--and we nod our head 'yes'--but we are also thinking “what did I just read?”

The readings from today bring up a double whammy of questions.
1.      Do we really have to forgive that much?
2.      Does God really hold our choice to forgive as being that important?

If I’m honest, I’m not as good at forgiveness as I would like to be.
It does not come natural to me.
But it has become a beautiful part of my life because, as a priest, my responsibility in a community is to point to the possibilities of reconciliation and to grant absolution on behalf of the church.

Still, forgiveness is hard.
Forgiveness is so hard, it is known in psychiatric settings and other helping professions as “the other ‘F’ word.”
But you know this, too, I think.

I suspect that there are a number of people in this room who come here with hearts heavy from recent pain and injury.

I suspect I’m not the only one here who has a few open conflicts that have grown cold.

Estrangements going back years.
Regrets going back years.

And here’s the kicker—
I’m much better at forgiving people who do something wrong to me than I am at forgiving those who hurts others I love.

I can turn my other cheek to be struck, but I will not hold someone else’s cheek out to be struck.

In those cases where I am angry and unforgiving on behalf of others, the compassion I’m supposed to have for the person who did something wrong comes into direct conflict with the sense of duty and obligation I feel like I have to care for the person who was hurt.   If you’ve ever had to cut someone out of your family for the sake of others in your family, you know that dynamic.  You know that tension. That discomfort of choosing not between good and evil, but choosing between the competing goods of being compassionate and yet also protecting others.  

And yet, here are these passages on forgiveness.  and they refuse to go away.
And I think Jesus makes this parable so hyperbolic—so exaggerated—so over-the top—because he knows how hard a thing it is to forgive.

I mean, the passage is over the top.  The debt that the first servant owed could translate to as little as 10 million dollars. There is no hope at all for something like that to be repaid. None. The servant’s debt is forgiven by the king— who in mercy foregoes the satisfaction of selling the servant’s family to others in slavery, thereby leaving the servant in pain for the rest of his life.  The king could here have said, “I know I’ll never get this money back, and even selling you and your family will not approach the debt you owe, but I would at least have the satisfaction of knowing that you will live and die in the agony of separation and loneliness.”  

Instead, forgiven.  All of it. 
That wouldn’t actually happen—who would write off that kind of debt?  
The king even writes off the foolish attempt by the slave to protest that he would eventually repay it.

Then the unforgiving servant goes after another, who owes him the equivalent of a third of a year’s wages.  Chokes him out and gets him thrown in prison.  But really, what is this going to do?  Even if the first servant thinks he’ll still get the money to repay the king, at this rate he’d have to shake down 450,000 of his fellow-servants to do it. 

But as it turned out, the debt came back.  The king called it in after hearing that the first servant did not heed his object lesson on mercy.  He sends the servant to be tortured until the debt can be paid off, which we established above, means never.  Everlasting torment.  There are a few rare places where Jesus is so forceful with the prospect of perpetual punishment. This is one of them, as are the warnings for hypocrites, those who tie up heavy burdens they themselves are not willing to bear, and those who care not for the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, imprisoned, or those deemed a stranger among us.

This, frankly, can make the Lord’s Prayer a frightful thing—because in it we prayerfully assent to that notion that God can act unto us according to our own standard of forgiveness.  “Forgive us our trespasses, insofar as we forgive others.”

If there is a commandment in Christianity at all, if there is something that cannot go away about how we understand our relationship to God and our neighbor, it is the persistence of forgiveness.  It is that we have to hold out forgiveness to those who do wrong to us and evil to others precisely because we know that same forgiveness from God.

And I almost hate to say that because I’m also mindful of how passages on forgiveness like this have been misused in the past--how the quick jump to demand that someone forgive their abuser can put the abused person right back in the abuser’s power. Many a battered partner or exploited child has been sent back to their abuser with no serious call for the abuser to be held accountable for his or her actions.

So I think it’s important to mention a few ways in which forgiveness goes wrong.

Forgiveness does not mean that we have to minimize the evil or the hurt that we experience.  The Christian commitment to truth means that we cannot lie about the hurt we experience or the pain others feel in an effort to get to forgiveness faster.  If someone wrongs you, you get to be honest about that pain instead of trying to “walk it off.” Evil and pain exist, and to pretend that they do not, and to pretend that they do not matter—just for the sake of the comfort of those around you—is not a path to truth or healing. Over time, the hurt may lessen, but you do not have to pretend it didn't exist.

Of the number of ideas that are “almost Christian, but not quite,” there is the phrase “forgive and forget.”  I’m sure you have heard that phrase.  Forgiveness is possible, and it’s an obligation of the faith, but we are not likewise required to forget—nor, sometimes, can we forget.  I kind of get why “forgive and forget” is a shorthand for our faith.  Forgetting in this sense could be a shorthand for what it means to forgive. It means that we release the other person from our power; we give up our claim on them—for revenge, for retribution, for restitution.  But that is release—it is forgiveness—it is not forgetfulness.  It means that we do not remember in such a way that implies that we have a claim on the person. 

Case in point, we gather every week to remember the life, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus.  We bring to life that last supper, at which he sat with his disciples—who would become deserters and betrayers—and yet he both died and rose breathing forgiveness.  But we do not forget. We do not say that the crucifixion wasn’t that bad after all because Jesus rose from the dead, and so it can be forgotten. we instead say that evil is real, our capacity to hurt others is almost unbounded (see: Auschwitz), the torture and crucifixion was a moral catastrophe— but we follow savior who suffered the worst we could inflict, and a God whose love and redemption proved stronger than death, and a spirit who promises access to this loving power. We remember, not because the crucifixion and the betrayals and the desertions didn’t matter, but because our story as Christians is one of the power and possibilities of redemption and a love that conquers all adversity.

We can forgive, but we are not required to continue in old patterns of relationship.  If you notice from the parable, the king did not keep the unforgiving servant in charge of the finances.  Likewise, in winning back a fellow believer, as our gospel passage from last week put it, we do not need to continually put the same people in the breach to be abused and mis-used again and again.  The relationship of the forgiven to the community may need to change.

Yes, some of the ways forgiveness gets talked about makes it harder than it has to be, but it’s still hard.

Now here's the thing.  To my bones, I believe that if our reading of scripture does not lead us to healing and liberation, we have misread scripture.

And I believe that the point of the Gospel of Matthew is less about what we do, and more about who we become.  But what Matthew also makes clear is that we are not in this alone.  God does not leave us to our own devices only to pull the rug from under us at the end.  We are invited to a life of growth, of healing, and training in holiness even when it’s borne from being broken on the wheels of living.

That brokenness is our human condition. God knows it.  And God knows the difficulty of forgiving.

And I stand before you today with some trepidation because I am aware that I cannot tie heavier burdens than I myself am willing to bear, and forgiveness is a goal that no one but you and God can set the timeline to.

So, what shall I say?

MLK Jr. once said “If you can’t fly, run; if you can’t run, walk; if you can’t walk, crawl; but by all means keep moving.”[1]

Forgiveness may be far.
But are you at a place where you can bring your pain to God?

Can you trust that God is big enough to hold your anger?

Will you let a member of this community sit with you in your sorrow?

Will you seek the help of a community that can bear what you cannot carry alone?

If you are here, living with the shame of knowing you have injured another, are you ready to make amends? 

Would you let yourself be surprised by redemption?

[1] MLK, Jr. Spelman College Museum April I960, pp. 10-11.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Clapping Back at Jesus

Trinity Cathedral
Year A Proper 15

But the [Samaritan] people [of the town] refused to welcome [Jesus], because He was heading for Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do You want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them?” But Jesus turned and rebuked them and they went on to another village.… (Luke 9:54-55)[1]

I’ll come back to that in a moment.

One of my favorite pieces of contemporary slang is “clapback.” According to Urban Dictionary, a clapback is basically a comeback or a retort, most likely pumped with attitude and sass. The term goes back to at least Ja Rule’s rap titled “Clapback” in 2001. It’s the rhetorical backhand that is the response you give when you are insulted. The term is mostly used in social media settings to describe when folks start trading insults and feuds come and go fast and furious.

Of course, there are many ways you’d use a clapback- particularly effective is pointing out the hypocrisies of whoever just insulted you. Or when you can point out people abandoning their ideals for the sake of expediency. That gets pretty easy when so much of one’s life and thoughts are online.

So, the concept of a clapback is not a new concept at all; just a new word for what happens when you have a beef with someone and you go about conversation.

The term has been echoing through my head as I’ve been reading our gospel passage over the course of the week.  The gospel passage has not one but three examples.  First, Jesus claps back at the Pharisees and instructs his followers on the spiritual meaning of a matter of the law.  Second, Jesus claps back at his disciples who just aren’t getting it. But then, a Canaanite woman claps back at Jesus, and this is important—she wins. She gets what she wants.

Consider the scene:  Jesus is walking along with the disciples, and then there is a woman who is misbehaving in a couple of different ways.  First, she’s a Canaanite; Canaanites and the Jewish people did not get along.  In fact, they had beef going back at least to the time of Moses and Joshua, when the Hebrews forcibly conquered Canaanite land after the Exodus and the wandering.  Second she’s a woman addressing a group of men; that’s pretty transgressive.  Third, she’s yelling at them from a distance, which is just rude.  It’s not uncommon to ignore those who are breaking so many social mores at once.

Jesus doesn’t even address the woman until the disciples are annoyed enough to ask him to do something about it.  When he does, first he says, essentially, “I have nothing for you.  I’m here for those of my religion, of my nation.”

But she doesn’t go away.  She doesn’t shrink back.  She comes right up to Jesus and kneels at his feet.  Close enough to touch.  She wasn’t invited.  She wasn’t bid to do this when she asks him again for deliverance for her daughter. 

Jesus then makes a more pointed stated. Just a minute ago, he simply said who he was here to serve.  Now he’s going to tell her who he will exclude.  He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

I need y’all to hear me, and more importantly to hear Jesus.  Jesus just called the woman kneeling at his feet and begging on behalf of her daughter a dog.  We have a derogatory term in our language for female dogs.  We need to recognize that Jesus called this distraught mother kneeling at his feet our word for a female dog.  Let that image sink in. 

Then comes the clapback. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

She says, “Fine, I’m a dog, but sometimes people treat dogs nicely.”

I’m not sure what was in the woman’s mind at this moment.  Was it shame at being brought further down?  Was it a willingness to shame Jesus into action?  was it sass or desperation?  Was it both?

I don’t know.  But it was enough to change Jesus’s response. He is impressed with her faithfulness and heals her daughter.  All while the disciples are standing there.  I wonder what was going through their minds.

Now there are two paths to interpreting this story at this point.  The first is to ask whether Jesus changed his mind; or repented of his own hard-heartedness.  The text is silent on Jesus’s internal monologue; and that’s frustrating.  We are so used to thinking that Jesus is sinless that the idea that Jesus would individually express the systemic sin all around him in the culture he inhabited leaves our theological constructs with a problem.  By that I mean that our understanding of Christ being a sinless perfect sacrifice on the cross could be endangered by admitting that Jesus had to repent of something evil.  But, frankly, making Jesus’s sinlessness obvious was not a concern for Matthew while he was writing, so we have this story that does nothing to make our theology neat and tidy. 

Thanks, Matthew. 

In any case, this interpretation means that Jesus learned not to be racist, and this is the turning point of the Gospel at which Jesus knows that the Gospel is for everyone and must be available to everyone, regardless of any human-made divisions.  Jesus’s mission will bring into reality the dream of Isaiah’s prophecy we also read today: that God’s house will be a house of prayer for all, and all are welcome to gather.

The second, more traditional understanding seeks to preserve Jesus’s sinlessness, and it does so by suggesting the episode was a test—that Jesus was going to heal the daughter all along, but he had a point to prove. It comes to the same conclusion:  that the Gospel is for everyone and must be available to everyone, regardless of any human-made divisions. 

But the traditional interpretation immediately raises the question: Who needed to be tested? Usually, people say the faith of the woman needed to be tested.  But frankly, she seemed to have the faith bit locked down.  She’s the one bugging him relentlessly.  Why further test someone who is so obstinately seeking Jesus out because she is already convinced that Jesus can help her.

So I am going to go ahead and for the sake of argument assume the traditional stance.  Jesus is sinless, and in this case, he is testing someone--but he already knows he’s going to help the woman.  The woman seems faithful already.  I think that means we have to look at the disciples.

There is a popular image of the disciples as good-natured bumblers.  Salt-of-the-earth fishermen.  Fine people; if a little slow on the uptake as to what Jesus was laying down for them. 

But there’s a pesky story that has never been far from my mind since I read it years ago.  Namely, that among the disciples there were at least two who had no issue with the ideas of destroying all of the men, women, and children of a village, all because the villagers had heard about Jesus and didn’t want any trouble.  In other words, the disciples had among their ranks a few who openly advocated for the genocide of a village of a different ethnic group because of a perceived offense.

That’s pretty far from a definition of ‘good, fine people.’  The disciples, given a little bit of power, were ready to go into ethnic cleansing.

The culture they lived in upheld these ethnic divisions. We see those divisions when the disciples want to destroy a village; we see it when they wish this foreign woman at Jesus’s feet would just shut up.

So, if Jesus knew what was going on and what he would do for the woman that might mean he wanted to teach the disciples something in this interaction.

I suggest that he wanted them to witness the moment when his message went from being one to Israel only and became something for everyone.  And I think it was important that the disciples saw that change as a result of an impetuous woman’s clapback.

So, here is a powerful man; the messiah; getting told off by a foreign woman—in front of his followers no less—and Jesus does not try to save face by reasserting his ‘no.’ He acknowledges the justice and compassion of the woman’s cause, and relents.

That is amazing. Typically, when you’re surrounded by your friends and someone comes at you, you don’t back down.  Not in front of your people.

But Jesus did.  And in the process, Jesus showed by example that the gifts of God’s gracious reign are for everyone.

Now, we stand outside of the text; but by being in the stream of the Christian tradition, we may as well be standing around Jesus and the woman, too.

We’ve just listened to Jesus respond in a racist way to a woman, and then change his tune.  Our Lord and Savior got called out for his racism, he accepted that he responded to the woman according to a racist social structure, and he rewarded her faith with divine healing.  In so doing, he showed the disciples what it means to repent of the evil that surrounds them and us.

You can probably guess where this sermon is going next.  We’ve reached a point in our national life where the KKK, neo-Nazis, and white nationalists feel free to take to the streets.  This is not news to those of us who study hate groups.  These white supremacists have been telling us that for the past 8 years that their recruitment has increased, sometimes exponentially.  Even if they were exaggerating, the images of Charlottesville serve to convince that the groups may still be exaggerating, but they are not lying.

Now, we sitting here may not claim racial superiority.  If you do, repent and return to the Lord today. 

But there are a number of us who are in a position to either aid or abet racism or challenge it. 

You see I am from Mobile, AL.  My hometown has an infamously distinguished pedigree of institutionalized racism.  And if you sitting here, and white, you probably know what I mean when I say that , there are conversations that white folks will only have with other white folks.  Nothing but my skin color grants me entrance to these conversations, and they are not pleasant conversations.  And these conversations make me a party to continuing a conspiracy of white supremacy that I want nothing to do with and cannot easily avoid.

I’ll give you an example.  In 2002, I was starting my undergraduate degree, and hoping that after military service, I might find a career in the FBI or some other law enforcement organization.  Sitting in the office of the college recruiter, he looked at me, and began the conversation that white men only feel comfortable having with other white men. 

He said to me, “Robert, you have two things going against you in this world; you are white, and you are a man.  You should consider taking a degree in finance instead of criminal justice; that way you will be more hirable than those who will take a degree in criminal justice.”

In a world in which women earn at best 77 cents for every dollar a man earns, and in which the poverty gap between whites and blacks is steadily increasing with black unemployment double that of white unemployment, I was shocked and frozen by what he said.  For this man and many like him, any perceived loss of power is considered a threat.[2]

In this recruiter’s office, I was being brought into a conspiracy to maintain supremacy over others.  It was a wake-up call for me; yet while I did not challenge him then and there, I never took a class in finance.  I’ve always wondered what he told women and African Americans he counseled. 

Perhaps you have also known those conversations. In the course of our work, our days, and our lives, we may find ourselves in a situation in which someone we speak to wants to know if we are a safe person to talk to about keeping and maintaining supremacy, just as the college recruiter did with me.  It comes in conversation:  a sexist joke, an observation about how races do certain things, a slang term for someone from a different country.  When that happens, it is assumed we agree with the other person, or we are essentially being asked if we are in the conspiracy of this world, to keep those divisions in place.

You know that you have a choice—an uncomfortable choice: half-hearted agreement in the hope that the conversation shifts to something more pleasant, or silence, or confrontation. 

The Gospel passage today begs us risk confrontation.  It may mean that we have to tell someone why we cannot participate in such a conversation.  It may mean remembering aloud to the other person that our connection to God and to all of humankind renders racial divisions meaningless at least, and malicious at most.  And that can be a hard thing to say.  My own track record in confronting such speech is not as good as I wish it was. And yet the imperative is there—whether we are the ones who clap back at racism, or have our ideals thrown right back in our face when our silence equals complicity.

The good news is that we do not do this alone. We never have.  The presence of God makes all things possible for those who face enormous odds.

I want to go back to disciples. Well after this moment with the Canaanite woman.  Well after thar desire to destroy a village, the Holy Spirit descends upon them and empowers them.  Suddenly, they are baptizing Gentiles and coming to grips with this inclusive work of God.  Then, in the 8th chapter of the book of Acts, Peter and John and Philip go to Samaritan villages, to preach the Gospel and live in peace among the ones they rather have seen killed.  After Jesus ascends to Heaven, the story of the early church is the story of recovering racists trying to keep up with an inclusive God as they get kicked in the pants by the Holy Spirit into situations and with people they would not have chosen on their own.

That’s the work God hands to us every new day.

Shall we get to it?   

Monday, June 19, 2017

Fatherhood and Loss

Robert Berra
St. Matt’s Chandler
Year A, Proper 6

This past week was and is kind of complicated for me.

June 15th was the fourth anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood. I’m pleased to report that—at four years in—I have no regrets about giving myself over to this vocation. I’m truly where God has called me to be.

But June 15th is also another anniversary. On June 15th, 2012, Laura and I lost our first pregnancy to miscarriage.

Despite the historic silence around miscarriage, in which it was talked about in whispers if at all, miscarriage is the most common complication of early pregnancy. “Among women who know they are pregnant, the miscarriage rate is roughly 10% to 20% while rates among all fertilization is around 30% to 50%.”[1] The most common summary of the data you’ll hear is that 1 in 4 pregnancies end in loss.

Slowly, more people are starting to talk openly about their experiences of pregnancy loss.

I am heartened by the number of resources that are being developed for women, men, and families who experience miscarriage. This includes a resource that the Episcopal Church has developed that has Liturgies and Prayers Related to Childbearing, Childbirth, and Loss. It helped me to incorporate some of those materials into my own private prayer life.

Still, I wish there were more out there for men and fathers.

You see, what I needed after the miscarriage was different from what Laura needed.

I was grateful that I had a small number of friends who had also experienced this kind of loss. One of them was a father who—with his spouse—had experienced three miscarriages in a row and knew what it meant that the husband and wife might grieve in very different ways. When I told him I needed to talk and why, he said, “okay, but we’ll do it my way.” He took me on a day-long road trip around the back roads of Connecticut where we talked about everything, miscarriage related and not. I needed that so much.

Something that is not often acknowledged is that fathers frequently suffer the same mental and spiritual wounds that women do after the loss of a pregnancy. And given that the 1 in 4 pregnancies end in loss, there is a lot of pain fathers or potential fathers are carrying around. The manifestation of the wounds may be different. We all grieve differently. There might be anger, blaming, accusations, dealing with poorly thought-out words that are supposed to be comforting but they really aren’t. There could be depression or other forms of mental illness. I experienced periods of lost time where I just froze up, fuzziness of thinking and inability to concentrate, and I ended up needing to drop a course in seminary. In other words, I went through about six months of a few PTSD symptoms.

But the manifestations of grief may also be different since women and men have different expectations thrust upon them in our society. For instance, women might feel guilt, wondering what they may have done to cause the miscarriage even if there is nothing to fault—or shame or inadequacy because they think their body failed to do what it was supposed to do. Men, on the other hand, will be dealing with the expectation to support their partners (which, yes, they should), be strong and hold it all together—to not show weakness—whilst they cope with their own grief. And there is still a bit of a stigma surrounding men and emotions, which makes it difficult for many men to open up about their experiences following a miscarriage.

So much suffering surrounds pregnancy loss, and this on top of every other suffering in the world. And then we might think about the words of Paul in his letter to the Romans that we read today: that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. Really? Is it that simple, Paul?

(How many times did you roll your eyes when your dad said something “builds character?”)

It may be that simple. Is it easy? Absolutely not.

An uncomfortable truth about the Christian faith is that we are not promised that we will suffer less for our belief. Our loyalty to God, and our faith in God, is not a type of currency that buys us an easy life. Approaching God as though our membership earns us easy living is an idea that will set us up for disappointment.

What Paul is getting at, however, is that God offers paths to the healing of memory and the redemption of suffering and circumstance.

What do I mean by redemption? Redemption means release or liberation from captivity or death by paying a price. By our desire to live separately from God, we took ourselves out of relationship and created for ourselves a world in which we experience death, decay, and refuse to live in perfect love of God, of ourselves, and of each other.

Jesus Christ was that price paid, and so we are redeemed from sin, death, and decay, and we live in the promise that God’s redemption will someday come to a perfect completion. But in this meantime, redemption means those moments when we are set free of the sins, the shames, the guilts, the diseases that afflict us. None of this makes those things go away—God does not make us forgetful—but we are able to look back at them free from their corrupting effects. We see God’s work in the midst of the terrible things that happen to us and to the world.

Further, through Christ, we now have the relationship to God by which God offers himself to us. This is what Paul means when he says that “God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”[2]

This isn’t just any type of love, and it certainly isn’t the sentimental Hallmark type love. This is an active love. There can be fierceness to this love. It’s the type of love that—when you find yourself up to your neck in the s***—it gives you the power and strength to start shoveling, knowing that you have help from beyond yourself. This fierce love is how God sends others to help you shovel the s*** with you.

Later, in this same letter to the Romans, Paul will assert that “all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”[3] God’s perfect work in the world is one in which God is actively bending our imperfections toward something worthwhile.

So when Paul says suffering produces endurance, he means that through God’s grace and power we are given the ability to get up and keep moving.

And when he says that endurance produces character, the translation is better rendered “tested Character.” He means that our capacity to endure creates a character forged by our trials. We learn what we can take and hopefully our capacity increases.

And when Paul says that tested character produces hope, he says it because by this point, we’ve probably seen those slivers of redemption and we know we serve a God who shovels the s*** with us.

But there is no set timeline to the redemption of a terrible situation, just as there is no set timeline to grieving. Redemption and healing are the promises of a loving God; the wait and the process, however, may feel interminable.

The six months following the miscarriage were terrible; and yet there were still moments of redemption in them. Early on I felt God’s presence, so I knew I wasn’t abandoned, but it wasn’t as though it took away all the pain. But there is another moment. A moment that taught me that a small measure of redemption, even in a sea of pain, makes a huge difference.

A month after the miscarriage, I got to meet my godson for the first time. He was about 7 months old then. Holding him was the first time that I can recall holding a baby. Before then I had been too scared; I thought I might break a baby.

Now I know that babies are kind of made of rubber. Thank God.

In those moments of holding my godson I came to peace with fatherhood and God and my grief showed me that I was more ready than I thought I was to have a child (as though one is ever really prepared). I felt like I had gone from “can I do this?” to “I can do this.” As such, I was better prepared for Colin when he came along.

This is one small instance of redemption.
Maybe yours look different.
Maybe you are still waiting.

Our lesson from Genesis is a small instance of redemption in a story of pain and waiting.

I wonder how much of the conversation around miscarriage and loss would have sounded familiar to Abraham and Sarah. The expectation of children to carry on the family line and inherit. How that desire gets heightened when God repeatedly visits Abraham to promise him he would be the father of an entire nation. Years after years of trying with no children.

Difficulty conceiving, like pregnancy loss, is the grieving of what could have been. The expectancy and potential of new life, evaporating as time passes. It also gets tied to shame in cultures that measure both masculinity and femininity by how many children you have. And so, here comes God with tidings of a child. New possibilities open, and Abraham and Sarah’s cynical laughter at the prospect of a child turns to a laugh of faith. It must have felt like hope. It must have felt like a redemption of the decades of waiting.

Today is Father’s Day. And hey if that is a surprise, Lowe’s and Sears are open today.

But today I have a few thoughts

1. If you have fathers or men in your life that mentored you in meaningful ways, let them know about it. Give thanks to God for such men as these.

2. If you know men who wish to be fathers but are not—or they have lost children—pray for them that they may be comforted in their disappointment or grief. If you think you can talk about it with them, let them know you are thinking of them.

3. Not all men who are fathers live up to the role they have been given. Pray for fathers who have messed up. Pray for those who have been hurt by their fathers.

4. And now, Fathers. This day may be for us, but today of all days let’s show love to our families. They helped to make us who we are, and let’s not for a second take advantage of the precious gifts we are given.


[1] The Johns Hopkins Manual of Gynecology and Obstetrics (4 ed.). Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. 2012. pp. 438–439. ISBN 9781451148015, as quoted in Wikipedia.
[2] Rom 5:5
[3] Rom 8:28

Monday, April 17, 2017

"Give us Barabbas"

Good Friday Sermon
Holy Week 2017

“Give us Barabbas.”

Walking toward Golgotha, you would see it before anything else.  

Wooden cross beams bearing the bodies of men condemned to a torturous death.  Closer still, you would see the blood running down the wood of the cross in rivulets from pierced ankles and wrists, soaking and staining it red in the bright noon sun.  

The smell would hit you next.  The pervading aroma of death.  The coppery scent of blood mixed with the stench of men who have soiled themselves from the pain.  The wine soldiers drink as they wait for their prisoners to die.  

Can you hear it?  The weakening gasping of men slowly asphyxiating, slowly suffocating under their own weight?  The sharp snap of the bones in their legs as soldiers take a large hammer to them?  All so the crowd can get home sooner?  The sucking sound of a spear plunged into flesh, then slowly being drawn out of Jesus’ side? 

Not a week ago, the people of Jerusalem joined a procession of Palms and cloaks to welcome this man Jesus into the city.

This man covered in blood with skin ripped and flayed from his body…the marks of a scourging with a whip braided with metal shards.

Hours earlier, he stood before the assembled crowd with a reed for a scepter and a crown of thorns—a mockery of the claim to royalty.
“…he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and held of no account…”
The crowd, spurred on by their religious leaders, were given the choice between Jesus or Barabbas. 

They said “Give us Barabbas.”

Barabbas.  A murderer. A failed insurrectionist.  We translate John calling him a bandit, but the word is often used to describe those who rebel against the Roman Empire.  He was apparently involved in a riot in Jerusalem—these riots were the reason Pilate moved from his typical headquarters in Caesarea on the North coast of Israel to Jerusalem in the first place.  Especially at religious festivals when passions and tempers run high.

Jesus or Barabbas.  That was the choice.

A choice orchestrated by the political and religious leaders of an occupied territory under a tyrannical military empire.  They feared Jesus—what his unorthodox faith but signs of power would mean for them. Caught between keeping their people alive, keeping their faith as they saw it, and doing so in an unstable relationship to an occupying superpower—they feared the Romans, who applied excessive force with subjected peoples got too uppity.

And so as Caiaphas the High Priest said, “It is better to have one man die than have the nation destroyed.”[1] 

“Destroy the threat to our power. Give us Barabbas.”

But this was not the choice of moral monsters. 

At least, if we were to think of them as such, we may as well give ourselves and the rest of humanity that title, too.

Because we also know all too well the same calculations that lead to saying “Give us Barabbas.”

We are ambivalent about power, about violence. We, like those religious leaders, know the cold logic of calculating what it takes to keep safe, to keep comfortable, to keep control. 

We are not immune.  We know the mixed emotions that keep us choosing necessary evils.

We want peace; we choose leaders based on their willingness to war on our behalf. 
We want unity; we choose winners and losers.
We want civility; we blame the downtrodden for the violence they receive.
We want to be moral; we stand in awe of the marvel of our weaponry as we calculate how many of our own may be spared death by our ability to incinerate millions in a flash of atomic fire.

We may want Jesus, but we’ll take Barabbas. 
And we’ll the gamut between lamenting or celebrating our decision. 

After all, we live in a dangerous world.  We ought not be na├»ve.

We know we have to get our hands dirty sometime; we appreciate those who spare us from proximity to that life and work—as though we, like Pilate, can wash our hands of it all.

Then Jesus comes—preaching a kingdom built on peace and love.

What sort of Messiah is this? 
Doesn’t he know what it takes to beat the Romans?  Our other enemies?
Doesn’t he know what it means to be free?

At least Barabbas knew what was necessary.
At least Barabbas knew the way the world works, even if he failed.
Give us Barabbas.

And so when God comes to earth preaching peace, love, and good news to the poor— what does humanity do?
He whom none may touch is seized.He who looses Adam from the curse is bound.He who tries the hearts and inner thoughts of humankind is unjustly brought to trial;He who closed the abyss is shut in prison.He before whom the powers of heaven stand tremblingstands before Pilate.The Creator is struck by the hand of his creation.He who comes to judge the living and the dead is condemned to the Cross;The destroyer of Hell is enclosed in a tomb.[2]
While one may wonder why God in Christ chose death on the cross as the way to work our salvation; the better question is whether we really think it could have happened any other way.  In our manifold sins and wickedness; the cold logic of the Enemy—the ruler of this world who is now thrown down—that cold calculation is still what we choose, again and again.

Perhaps instead of wondering “why the cross,” there should not have been any doubt that when even our creator showed up on Earth, we would be threatened enough to kill him.  

We scare so easily.   
And humanity is so predictable--and unimaginative of the possibilities of God’s reign.

The span of history reminds us that even with the work of salvation done-and-yet-ongoing, human nature is still warped in a way that no one, not even the Church, can fix without God.  Unfortunately, the drums of war and the banging of gavels are sometimes loud enough to drown the still, small voice calling us to forgo the calculations that keep us estranged from everyone around us and grasping for control.

This is the world we create when we say we want Jesus, but “give us Barabbas.”

What we get instead is God in Christ, who came in weakness and humility to show the power of love and life; who shows that there is power beyond and stronger than the forces of death the powerful rely upon in this world. who chose to conquer the cross as the judgment on our capacity for cruelty.  The crosses we wear, and that we use to decorate our churches and homes ought to confront us with that judgment of God against us—A judgment on our propensity to choose Barabbas.

And that makes us witnesses not only to Christ’s work of salvation, but calls to our attention to the crucifixions and deaths we witness daily as the world tries to justify them.

Every day.  Even this very week.
The world says “give us Barabbas.”
Yet every year.  On this very night,
we are reminded to say “no, give us Jesus.”

Every year, on this night,
we hope as Isaiah did, that:
Just as there were many who were astonished at God’s suffering servant
--so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance,
and his form beyond that of mortals--
that he shall startle many nations;
kings shall shut their mouths because of him;
for that which had not been told them they shall see,
and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.
God came to die at the hands of his Creation.  
His own beloved.  
Let that inspire silence.  
Let Jesus’s work be seen for what it was.  

Let the way of a quiet power over death and the stillness of a tomb shame the powers of the world tonight.

Tomorrow, in the stillness of a tomb the soft gasp of a body resurrected will inspire a chorus of angelic voices that will shout down the powerful and the forces of death.

A savior who proclaims peace and forgiveness and life after death—A death he swallows in victory, and shows that the absolute worst that humanity can do is nothing, nothing, to what Christ has done and will do.  This is worthy of awe and gratitude.  May it be precious in our sight.

May once again the world—and us—be inspired to say, “give us Jesus.”

[1] Jn 11:50.
[2] From Vespers on Good Friday, Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, 1st ed. (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1995).  The final lines: 
O thou who has endured all these things in thy tender love,
who has saved us all from the curse;
O longsuffering lord, glory be to thee.

"Enemies of God"

Robert Berra
St. Matthew’s, Chandler
Lent 3, Yr A
Exodus 17:1-7
Romans 5:1-11
John 4:5-42
Psalm 95

How would you rate your moral life?

Average?  Above average?  Below average?

Do others seem to you to be really self-righteous? Judgmental?

There’s a reason.

Last October, researchers at the University of London published a study in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. The title of the article was “The Illusion of Moral Superiority.” The findings were these:  Most people strongly believe they are just, virtuous, and moral; yet regard the average person as distinctly less so. Virtually all individuals involved in the random sample irrationally inflated their moral qualities.  These findings suggest that moral superiority is a strong and prevalent form of “positive illusion.”[1] 

This is not a new finding, actually.   At least since the late-1980s—and repeated in a significant number of studies—The common means of inferring the presence of positive illusions is to ask individuals how they compare with respect to the average person along some trait. This method consistently reveals that an implausibly high number of people believe that they are above average. This has been dubbed the ‘‘better-than-average effect.’’ Although this phenomenon emerges across a range of characteristics, the magnitude of self-enhancement is strongest for moral qualities.[2] 

Bottom line:  Most people consider themselves paragons of virtue; yet few folks perceive this abundance of virtue in others.[3] Such is the extent of this phenomenon that violent criminals consider themselves more moral than law-abiding citizens living in the same community.[4] 

And the thing is, it’s actually more reasonable and accurate to assume that another person is just as moral as we are. Normatively speaking, self-judgments act as valid cues to what the average person is like—justified by the fact that most people are in the majority most of the time. So gauging the typicality (typical-ness) of one’s own characteristics improves accuracy in judgments of others.  Neglecting this typical-ness amounts to a failure of inductive reasoning.

Still, we do this on the regular.  We tend to see ourselves as more moral than others, and almost always consider ourselves above average.

I bring this up because I imagine there might be a little bit of recoil when Paul calls us sinners and “enemies of God.”  Surely we aren’t that bad? 

Enemy?  Maybe that sounds too strong. Too dualistic.

Maybe we think we had or have a neutral relationship to God—a hands-off arrangement that goes both ways.
“I don’t bother God.  God doesn’t bother me.” 
“After all,”—we might think— “I’m a moral person.  I’m okay.  Surely there are worse people than me.”

What if we sat with that notion that we are—or were—enemies of God a little longer?  What does it mean to be an enemy of God?

It’s much easier to understand this rhetoric of “enemy” when we remember that Paul was writing this letter to a congregation in the heart of the empire that crucified Christ 25-30 years prior.

But there is more to it than the historical fact of the Roman Empire.  What continues to make this letter to the Romans and its naming of humankind as enemies of God so true—hard to hear, maybe; but true—is that humankind has rebelled against God, defied the divine purpose in our lives, and destroyed the fellowship for which we were intended.  From the beginning, we have erected upon a false foundation a whole series of relationships which constitute a kingdom of evil. [5]

While we were created for perfect relationship with God and with each other, humankind has been in the practice of rejecting these calls to take up our loving purpose.  We instead set up kingdoms in which the dignity of many is expendable for the comfort of a few who continue to live in suspicion of each other.  In which our fellow humans become commodities—things to be manipulated to our own will.  Or they are considered burdens, and all too easily we begin to regard others as expendable. 

Time and again the law, the prophets, Christ himself, and the apostles called us back into relationship with God and with each other with appeals to defend and care for the alien, the sick, the poor, the orphan, the widow, the hungry, the naked, the prisoner, the oppressed, the refugee, the workers seeking their wages. [6]  Yet humankind continues to sell each other cheaply. 

We name enemies we need to defeat.  We practice deceit and falsehood.  We create burdens, austerities, and hardships for others that we are not willing to face ourselves.[7]  We do not trust God’s love for us, and instead want to prove ourselves self-sufficient and free from everything and everyone. 

All of which intensifies our estrangement from God and from others and from ourselves.  And we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.

The reality is that in our natural state we are separated from God.  And for Paul to refer to himself and all of us as enemies of God is harsh, but a less-pointed description would not match the situation.  Our reconciliation was absolutely necessary, and utterly unattainable by our own striving.  And God’s dogged love for all means that He is unwilling to turn a blind eye to our hostility to him and our apathy and animosity to each other.

So how does God treat God’s enemies? 

Paul tells us that in this lesson, too.  God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners, Christ his son died for us.  Christ’s life was necessary; his death was necessary; his resurrection was necessary.  Through all of these, the hostility between us and God is bridged. And rather than simply being acquitted, and declared in a neutral relationship with God, we are called into reconciled, loving, relationship.

And in the Gospel lesson from John today, we see what it means that God sends Jesus Christ into the world not to condemn the world, but to save it.  Jesus meets the woman at the well, not with judgment, but a desire.  A desire to do the work his father had given him to do.  A desire to seek out the lost and those left bereft of hope. A desire to open reconciliation where there had been ethnic strife (Samaritans and Jews hated each other.) If God and Jesus were only interested in reconciling a select few, or passively waiting for people to seek to reconcile themselves, Jesus didn’t have to say a word to that woman.  But he is the perfect image of God’s active pursuit of renewed relationship with his creation. And by his example, he brings his disciples and us with him into the relentless…seeking…labor of God’s redeeming purpose.

You see, the offer of God in the work of reconciling us to him is not an offer in which we get to choose to be left alone. Paul writes elsewhere that we are called into the ministry of reconciliation.[8]  We do not get to sit in a personal salvation, assured of our safety with an eternal fire insurance policy. We are called to actively pursue our own reconciliation—giving ourselves to God’s purpose, and to invite the world into that same work.

Others have labored.  It is our time.
It is always a renewed time to let go our own self-righteousness—which even secular psychology is now able to quantify—and seek God’s righteousness. 

It’s time to temper our faith in ourselves, and find our faith in God’s purposes and mission.

For it is not our own morality or righteousness or faith in ourselves that saves us or makes us worthy of boasting about ourselves.  Instead, we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.

…For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ [in whom we are knit as one body, and] through whom we have now received reconciliation.  Thanks be to God!

[1] Tappin, Ben M. and Ryan T. McKay. "The Illusion of Moral Superiority". Social Psychological and Personality Science (2016): 194855061667387.  Illusions are "beliefs that depart from reality" and they are positive when they involve unrealistic optimism about one's capacities, prospects, or control over the external environment.
[2] Ibid, 1.
[3] Ibid, 2.
[4] Ibid, 4.
[5] This phrasing is heavily indebted to John Knox, The Interpreter's Bible, Volume 9 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1954), 460.
[6] Ex. 22:21, Jas 1:27, Mt . 25:31-46, Prov 13:41, Jas. 5:4.
[7] Mt 23:4.
[8] 2Cor 5:18.