Monday, November 20, 2017

An Apocalyptic Moment for Men

Robert Berra
St. Matthew’s, Chandler
Yr A Proper 28

Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy, *
for we have had more than enough of contempt,
Too much of the scorn of the indolent rich, *
and of the derision of the proud.

For the past seven weeks or so, histories of men’s serial predation of other men, women, and children have been exposed and the exposures show no sign of slowing down. The entertainment world is being rocked by this; as is the political world; the academic; the church world.  The columnist Rebecca Traister writes of this moment that:

“There is suddenly space, air, for women to talk. To yell, in fact. To make dangerous lists and call reporters and text with their friends about everything that’s been suppressed. This is organic, mass, radical rage, exploding in unpredictable directions. It is loud, thanks to the human megaphone that is social media and the “whisper networks” that are now less about speaking sotto voce than about frantically typed texts and all-caps group chats.  Really powerful white men are losing jobs — that never happens. Women (and some men) are breaking their silence and telling painful and intimate stories to reporters, who in turn are putting them on the front pages of major newspapers.”[1]

The exposures show that issues of sexual impropriety are not the sole purview of either the ideological Right or Left.  Instead the exposures show that more fundamental than our political ideologies is the entitlement men thought they have had to using the bodies of other men women and children.  And not even the perpetrator’s strict adherence to their political ideologies or their service as a mouthpiece to their parties may be enough to save them anymore. 

I—and others—been watching this moment build for a while.  This moment in which harassment and assault may be finally taken seriously.  I’ve devoted my most recent academic work to these subjects.  Between being at Yale and ASU, I’ve been involved at institutions under investigations for not taking such things seriously.  In 2009, the Daily Show referred to ASU as the Harvard of date rape, and I’ve witnessed the institutions try to reverse that reputation. And just last week, an ASU professor—a former Roman Catholic Priest who also taught at Yale—was forced to resign when it became known that he was defrocked for abusing children.  I’ve sat with students and faculty processing their own assaults by loved ones, by significant others, by colleagues, by mentors, and heard the anguish that comes with their decision-making as to whether it would be worthwhile to come forward in a world in which is likely they will not be believed—or, the likelihood that they would be believed, but nothing would change because the reputation of the academic unit is at stake. 
But still, victims and survivors come forward.

they have had more than enough of contempt,
Too much of the scorn of the rich and powerful,
and of the derision of the proud.

But now we are in a scary time in a few different ways.  In one case, as happy as I am that there is attention being paid to harassment and abuse, I and others are concerned that lasting change may be fleeting.  One demonstrably false accusation could trigger a backlash that stalls lasting change.  Every movement that brings accountability to those with power faces a countercurrent—and we may find the truth-telling about how men with power and privilege act stalled by one mistake. 

It is also a scary moment because men are not necessarily ready for this.  Abusers may find the shadows they operate within getting smaller as their victims are empowered to talk.  Thanks be to God for that.  Meanwhile other men have to wonder about their interactions with women and how they are perceived.  They have to comb their memories and interrogate their own past actions.  Did I make her feel uncomfortable?  Did I actually have consent?  Why did I need to touch her that way?  How do I avoid an accusation?

The words that are used to talk about this cultural moment are telling:  They are called revelations, exposures, events brought to light.  This is an apocalyptic moment for men.  I mean that quite literally.  The word apocalypse is Greek word meaning “an uncovering.” It is a word used to mean a disclosure of knowledge or revelation.  Christians are very familiar with apocalyptic thought:  we understand the apocalyptic as the time when all will be revealed and judgment rendered.  St. John in the prologue to his gospel talks about our time after Christ’s appearance in our midst as a time of judgment: 

“And this is the verdict: The Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness more than light, because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come into the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed (Jn 3:19-20).” 

We are now at a time of disclosure.  Evil is being brought to light.  Actions that were secret are being exposed. Or in the case of institutions that protected abusers, actions that were considered open secrets are being revealed, and people asking questions like, “If you all knew what was going on, why didn’t you stop it?”

Now, this will obviously be scary to those who use their power to take advantage of others, but it’s also scary for others, because we may know the abusers.  We may even love them.  And even giving them the benefit of a doubt may be protecting them.  And so we may be conflicted.

Apocalypses are scary.  Apocalypses involve the overthrow of every power structure that opposes God’s reign.  Think of the Magnificat, the song Mary sang while carrying Jesus, in which she prophesies of the time in which God pulls the mighty from their thrones and lifts the lowly, the hungry eat while the rich are sent away empty-handed.   The idea is that God’s decisive work in the world means that the every rebellious power gets overthrown—including power structures that enable abusers to thrive.  All of those power structures are thrown upside down and in the all-consuming light of God’s loving judgment we can see where we’ve served the powers that abuse at the expense of the vulnerable. Those are difficult moments, in which we are confronted with our complicities in unjust systems.

And for men, even when we do not feel powerful, an apocalyptic moment like this is scary precisely because our power and our culture’s way of holding us up has now been kicked out from under us—even when we’ve never noticed it before.  That’s why, for some of us this moment feels like an attack or that this is unfair.  There is good news; this is not The End.  Apocalypse does not always have to end in damnation, but we need to remember that it is perilous to ignore those who make their cry to God in the midst of seeking justice:

we have had more than enough of contempt,
Too much of the scorn of the rich and powerful,
and of the derision of the proud.

Apocalypse is often the entry to a better world—it is the promise that after all has been brought to light and judged, we move to something better.  We Christians live for these moments of imagining a better world; we pray so often that things would be on earth as they are in Heaven.  What do we have to offer this cultural moment?


Before we imagine a better world, let’s first acknowledge that unscrupulous folks have used our faith to protect bad actors.  The history is long of churches protecting abusers and discrediting victims, or blaming young women for the fall of beloved men, and using scripture to keep the abused in relationship to their abuser.  One more recent poor use of scripture was when the state auditor of Alabama argued that senate candidate Roy Moore’s attempt to pick up a 14 year old girl is okay because of the presumed age discrepancy in the relationship between Mary and Joseph. Please note that this state auditor didn’t question the story of then-32yo Moore trying to take an eighth grader home; he just tried to make it okay using the Holy Family.  Our job in imagining a better world is to leave no place for abusers to hide through using our sacred story.  We have to engage in the same brave truth-telling here.  We also have to recognize places where our faith makes it difficult for the abused to receive justice.

There is a quite famous passage from Paul, Philippians 2:5-11, which is known as a hymn to Christ’s humility.  You’ve probably heard it in worship here:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature[a] God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

In the Christian tradition, we call this kenosis. Kenosis.  Literally, it means “to empty oneself.”  It means that Christ emptied himself of any claim to power, and made himself nothing by taking our weak form.  It is an expression of humility, and this is given to all Christians as an example—we are to humble ourselves and in so doing we understand Christ better; we enact no undue power over another.  It is a powerful practice of understanding what it means when we say the eternally begotten Christ dwelt in human flesh.

Entering into the Christian life and following this process of kenosis requires us to ask a question: who has something of which they can be emptied? Where our society has traditionally put front and center the importance of men’s concerns, desires, and agency, kenosis for men requires setting aside such corrupting power. This setting aside of the power which makes men the top of the social ladder would be helpful for addressing the conditioning of our society by which women are made responsible for the actions and feelings of men. Within our social systems women are often directed to consider how their actions might affect the goals and projects of men, with the implication that they must sacrifice of themselves (experience kenosis, in Christian settings) to further these goals and projects. 

So, now, the brunt of kenosis falls differently upon women and children than men—or rather, the abused than the abusers.  Think of how often those who have been raped, harassed, or abused are told to forego justice:  “It was so long ago.” “Do you really want to ruin his life?” “It was just a small bad decision.” 

As the father of the convicted Stanford rapist Brock Turner—if you don’t remember, Brock Turner was caught by two eye-witnesses raping an unconscious woman—in defense of a lighter sentencing, his father wrote— “My son’s life will never be the one he dreamed about and worked so hard to achieve.  That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.”  The judge apparently agreed.  Turner was sentenced to six months.  He served three months.

Our society constantly, in ways large and small, asks victims to humble themselves for the sake of their abuser for the sake of a too-fast forgiveness.  This shifts the practice of kenosis of men or abusers to their victims.  Victims instead are put into situations in which they risk being re-victimized, or they forgo justice for an ideal of Christ’s suffering example, while their abusers are spared from the same practice of kenosis.

We have to be willing to name this shifting of kenotic self-emptying from the abuser to the abused as a perversion of our faith.  We have to allow abusers to come fact-to-face with what they have done, not only because our moral communal life demands it but because doing so opens up for the abuser a redemptive possibility by being confronted with the full weight of the wrong he or she has done.  We owe it to abusers and harassers to bring them to repentance without attempting to pre-emptively defend them or tiptoe around their fragile egos.

It is only at that point—when repentance is our primary goal in the moment—that we can entertain a conversation about what a reconciled life of the harasser and the abuser might look like.  In the meantime, rushing to forgiveness for the sake of comfort will close off our possibilities to address why men have historically felt entitled to the bodies of other men, women, and children.  The risk we run at this moment in our life together is that a few bad men will be sacrificed and justice may come for them, but the power structures that entitle abusers remain in place.  We now have a prime opportunity to talk about a different world and how we create that in the churches. 

St. Paul reminds the Christian community is his letter to the Thessalonians that we “are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.”  Could your life and your example shine in the shadowy corners in which harassers and abusers operate?  Can you be a light in a shadowed world that prefers that the violated remain silent instead of question the way we let harassers work?

God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us. Let us lift up our eyes, and seek God’s courage and mercy in this moment of hard truth-telling.

[1] Traister, R. (2017). We Are All Implicated in the Post-Weinstein ReckoningThe Cut. Retrieved 18 November 2017, from

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.