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.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Dishonest Wealth

St. Matthew’s
Proper 20

Jesus said to the disciples, "There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, `What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.' Then the manager said to himself, `What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.' So, summoning his master's debtors one by one, he asked the first, `How much do you owe my master?' He answered, `A hundred jugs of olive oil.' He said to him, `Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.' Then he asked another, `And how much do you owe?' He replied, `A hundred containers of wheat.' He said to him, `Take your bill and make it eighty.' And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.
"Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth." Luke 16:1-13
If you have been around church in the past few weeks and months, you might have noticed that money, or riches, or the difference between rich and poor, or giving away everything to the poor have been common themes in our gospel readings.  I think these themes have shown up about 5 times since June, here we are again today, and they will show up again at least two more times before November.  This is not because we are about to enter a time in which many churches talk about money or pledge drives.  The reason for this is because we are roughly reading our way through the Gospel of Luke based on a three-year cycle of readings, and Luke brings the subject up repeatedly.  Essentially, in the Gospel of Luke, one verse out of seven has to do with money, or richness, or poverty.  It is incredibly important.    

The net result of this is that I’ve spent some of this summer feeling quite guilty that I own more than two pair of shoes.  And yet I cannot escape it either.  If I’m to read the Bible, I’m going to run into this theme again and again.  This is especially true in Luke, which has the most piercing thrust of social justice of any of the gospels. And as one commentator I recently read rather grumpily wrote in the 1950s:  “We may have to make allowance for Luke’s frequently manifest prejudice in favor of the poor…but when all allowance is made, the language around wealth and money seem consonant with the mind of Jesus.”  I cannot do justice to every instance, but it may be helpful to look at the accounts of money and wealth that are in the Gospel of Luke.  And I want to look first at the promise in Luke that the world through Christ is in the process of being turned upside down.  And second, about the account money that Jesus gives:  what money is and what money does.   It might help us understand what’s going on in this passage from today, which commentators consider one of the hardest parables to interpret.  If you have a Bible with you, feel free to mark where we end up, I’ll be calling out verses because I’d like you to be able to refer to these later if you want to.

Again and again The Gospel of Luke makes reference to turning the world upside down.  And one of the first things to be smashed will be the power of money.  The theme shows up incredibly early in the Gospel of Luke (1:53), with Mary singing in joyful exuberance of what God is bringing about:  he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

When Jesus shows up in his hometown synagogue as a guest preacher, he chooses a passage from Isaiah to declare fulfilled in him, saying (Lk 4:18): 
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.”

In other words, Jesus is here for the lowly.

In Jesus’ sermon on the plain, one of his huge open air preaching gigs, he furthers this theme of turning the world upside down, preaching (Lk 6:20- 25):
‘Blessed are you who are poor,
    for yours is the kingdom of God.
‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,
    for you will be filled.
‘Blessed are you who weep now,
    for you will laugh…
‘But woe to you who are rich,
    for you have received your consolation.
‘Woe to you who are full now,
    for you will be hungry.
‘Woe to you who are laughing now,
    for you will mourn and weep.

Last example I’m going to mention about turning the world upside down (but there’s at least three more):  Next week will be the passage on Lazarus and the rich man (Lk 16:19ff).  The rich man and the sick beggar Lazarus find their fortunes reversed in the afterlife. And the rich man, finding this quite untenable, is told that he had his good things in his earthly life, when he showed no concern for Lazarus’s suffering.

Next, what is the account of money that Jesus gives?  How does it make people behave, and what is it?

Again and again Jesus confronts money as a concern.  “But wait,” some might say—“money isn’t the root of all evil. Love of money is!” 

Well, that’s what the letter to the Hebrews says; today we’re talking about Luke and what Jesus says.  The idea is that money is morally neutral—so long as people make their money honestly and don’t hurt anyone, what’s the harm? 

In the parable of the sower (Luke 8:11-15) the seed that fell among thorns represent those who hear; but as they go on their way, they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their spiritual fruit does not mature. In other words, money has the capacity to put a barrier between us and God. The problem, says Jesus throughout the Gospels, is that our hearts cannot be so easily extricated from our stuff.

It isn’t simply the use of money—or it’s hoarding—that presents a problem, it’s the possession  of something we are trained to value because of the opportunities money can open up to us—the social status it gives us.  Money and wealth is not necessarily value-neutral— possession of it moves one psychologically in nearly imperceptible ways.  Is money a tool? Sure, but we’ve made it a necessity to live.  Is money just paper and metal?  Sure, but we‘ve created powerful and complex systems of ranking and prestige based on who has more.

So what’s the harm, indeed?  “Jesus appears to agree with money’s basic corrupting potential, since he told us how difficult it would be for a person who is wealthy (note:  he did not say “a person who loves money”) to enter the kingdom.”[1]  He said this to the rich young ruler (Luke 18:18ff) who was otherwise very righteous, but could not give it all away to follow Jesus.

Contrast that rich young ruler to Zaccheus (Luke 19:1-10) a tax collector who vows to Jesus to not only give half of everything he has to the poor, but to pay four times the restitution to anyone he has cheated and extorted. 

That got Jesus’s attention.  Here was someone willing to part with wealth for the sake of the kingdom.  Here was someone willing to make restitution for participating in economic systems that left the poor especially vulnerable.

Rank acquisitiveness has no place in the reign of God. Jesus seems to know what we know deep down: we are not good spiritual multitaskers. We have a hard time focusing on two things at once: we cannot serve both God and wealth.  And simply acquiring wealth opens us up to numerous opportunities—both large and nearly imperceptible—to downplay and delude ourselves into thinking that our money does not change us or we deny that the way we allocate money as a society impacts others.

So Jesus, in Luke seems to think that money is tainted by its very nature.  Hence all the warnings to store up treasure in heaven instead (See Luke 11:41, 12:21, 12:33, and 18:22).  The acquisition of wealth leads one to lose sight of God and given how often the rules of a society will privilege the rich, the acquisition of wealth is often theft from the poor.  This is why when John the Baptist was asked what people had to do to be saved, he said not to extort or take more taxes than necessary (Luke 3:14).

Salvation and faith and belief in Christ and what God is bringing about through Christ is according to Luke will necessarily involve a change in orientation—a way of understanding that the economy of God is different from that of the world.

Are you still with me?

Okay, now let’s take a quick look at the Gospel passage from today.  There’s so much to say about this passage.  But I’m going to limit this to what it might mean when Jesus tells us to “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes (Luke16:9).”

Is Jesus telling us to be dishonest?  Does Jesus mean for us to do some religious money laundering when he asks us “if we have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to us the true riches (Lk 16:11)?”

Here’s what might be going on.  Throughout Luke, the point is that money is being made at the expense of the poor, and Jesus often says to give one’s wealth away to the poor as a way to get closer to God—to better understand what it means to trust God and to align one’s own concerns with God.  We also see the reversals of fortunes are a big part of Jesus’s preaching of the Kingdom of heaven and our eternal destinations.

Because of this, I think that when Jesus talks about dishonest wealth, he simply means worldly wealth.  He’s deeply suspicious of human claims to be unaffected by our wealth, and I think he asks us to be suspicious of our own rationalizations.

If we are being commended to do what the steward did by acting like the steward and lowering the debtor’s bills, it is possibly because the steward cancelled the interest or his own extorting cut from the overall debt. Loan sharks and exorbitant interest were common at this time in history, and a steward could get away with a 50% mark-up in some cases.  By making such adjustments, the steward hopes to make friends who will take him into their own homes in gratitude.  Even if the steward’s motives are suspect, the debtors experience some form of grace and reprieve, and that’s not nothing.

So, if Luke and Jesus both mean for this parable to be an image of the Kingdom of God, it could be that Jesus is meaning for us to use our worldly wealth, as tainted as it is from our journey in a sinful world, to make friends with the poor so that they make the wealthy welcome in eternal habitations.  Our willingness to do this is a sign of faith that we’ve aligned with God’s economy. 

This interpretation would be in keeping with the frequent commands to give everything away to the poor in exchange for treasure in Heaven, and the interpretation would be bolstered by the condemnation the rich man receives for ignoring the beggar Lazarus that we will read next week.  A story that, by the way, immediately follows our passage today.  Luke means for them to be read together.

Okay, so what?  What do we do with this?  Well, we cannot serve God and wealth. After an enigmatic difficult parable, Luke puts that straightforward morsel of Jesus’s teachings to clarify everything else.  It’s always worth asking where God might be calling us to put worldly, wealth toward that which enriches instead of impoverishes—toward that which fosters friendship and reconciliations than division. 

And maybe it is okay that I own more than two pairs of shoes, but the life of faith is one of constantly checking on my rationalizations and ways of using the resources I’ve been entrusted with.  

And as aware as we might be of own propensities for self-delusion and questionable motives, might we be brave enough to welcome the questions that Jesus confronts us with about how we manage dishonest worldly wealth?



[1] Luke 18:24.  "The Politics Of Scripture: Luke 12:32-40—Maryann Mckibben Dana | Political Theology Today". 2016.Politicaltheology.Com. Accessed August 31 2016. http://www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-scripture-luke-1232-40-maryann-mckibben-dana/.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Blood and Bodies in the Streets. Which ones were our neighbors?


But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" —Luke 10:29

The Good Samaritan.
If one were to pick the most famous, most familiar parable that Jesus told, this would most likely be it. 
We name hospitals after this parable.
We name laws after this parable.
We complement kind people by calling them this.
There is probably a temptation to say ”Ah, this story,” when the passage is read. 
Time to zone out; check email or scores on the phone. 
We know what this one means.
In fact it’s easy to think that we’ve over-mined it for meaning.

Weeks ago when I saw this was the passage for this week, I jokingly thought for a moment about what it would be like to stand in the pulpit, repeat Jesus’s last line—“Go and do likewise”—and sit back down.

That thought did not last long, and it certainly cannot stand when there is blood running in the streets.

Honestly, blood runs daily.
But this last week in particular.

500 dead or injured in Baghdad as ISIS bombed a shopping district full of people celebrating the end of Ramadan—and the bombing of the Istanbul airport three days before that.

And closer to home—two African American men—Alton Stirling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota—shot to death by police within a 24 hour period.  Their last moments of life caught on video and broadcast to the world.  The videos are harrowing to watch.  The spread of blood; the last gasps of breath.

And then Thursday night. 12 people were shot at the end of a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest, by a sniper who was particulary targeting police officers.  Officers Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, and Lorne Ahrens died in that attack as they tried to protect protestors, making it the most deadly day for law enforcement since 9/11/2001. 

I am personally haunted by the image of a Dallas police sergeant being comforted by a doctor or a nurse at Baylor University’s hospital.  The sergeant is African-American, probably over 6 feet tall, crying, being hugged by a petite white woman.  When I see those stripes on his arm, I see my own father, who wore those same stripes for so many years before being promoted.


All of this stands out from a level of background violence that should shock, but it does not seem to anymore. 

Issue the ‘thoughts and prayers’ and we move on.

And wait for the next shooting.

May God forgive me for even for a moment thinking that there was nothing left to say on these of Jesus’s words.

Because, like the lawyer before Jesus, so often we ask who our neighbors are in the hope that we might find some exception.

Let us look again. 
Maybe we can see something new. 
But maybe we should start somewhere else. 
The parable of the Good Samaritan comes in the tenth chapter of Luke.
But let’s look at chapter 9 for a minute.

In Chapter 9(:51-56), Jesus is heading to Jerusalem for the final week of his life.  Along the way, he and his disciples pass a Samaritan village.  When they inquire about staying at the village, the village refuses.  This is not all that surprising.  Jesus and the disciples were Jews, and the Jews and Samaritans hated each other.  Feeling the sting of the village’s refusal, the disciples James and John ask Jesus if he wants them to call down fire from heaven to consume the village.  Jesus gives that request a firm ‘no’ and rebukes the disciples.  I wonder what he said there.

I mention this so that when we talk about the Good Samaritan, we can keep in mind that this wasn’t simply some polite rivalry, or disagreeable cold shoulder that the Jews and Samaritans mutually give to each other.  These disciples of Jesus were ready to lay waste to an entire village of Samaritans—men, women, and children.  That is the level of hatred we have to keep in mind when we read about Jesus talking about Samaritans around his people.

The fact that, at the end of the story, the lawyer could not bring himself to say the word Samaritan bears witness to this hatred.   When he has been trapped into admitting that a Samaritan was more kind than the religious leaders of his own group, all he says is “the one who showed kindness” through clenched teeth.

But all week as I read this passage I kept coming back to the exchange before Jesus tells the story—and the motives behind the lawyer’s question.

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"

He wanted to justify himself. 
How often are we doing the same?

“I may have sinned this much, but this other person is worse.”
“This other person is wrong.”

How often do we grasp for something that says we are righteous compared to others?
More correct compared to others?
How much do we long to find ourselves deemed okay? 
Approved by others or our ideologies?
Saved?
Well-adjusted to our living situations? 

In terms of our existence, we know that there is much wrong with the world. 
What do we grasp at to give us some assurance that everything will be okay at the end?
"Am I right with God?"  
"Can I know that separate from being able to name those who are not?"
"Do I have purpose?"  
"Can that purpose help me determine who does not have purpose?"
"If I am not greater, am I lesser?"

This existential anxiety is—I think—at the root of the lawyer’s question.
It is a sense of not knowing what to trust to take us to paradise—on earth or elsewhere—and so we either search for what will guarantee our reward—or we seek to create and control it here.

But we are also finite beings.
We have limited energy, limited knowledge, limited intelligence, limited resources, limited abilities, limited perspective.
Overcoming any of these takes time—which is also limited.
In the face of our finitude, we wonder if we have done enough.

"Did I hustle enough to make it to the next payday?"
"Did I save enough for retirement?"
"Will that medical bill end me?"
"Will my children be successful?"
"Will I coast on fumes into the Kingdom of Heaven?"
"If we have done all we could with what we have, Oh God, please let it be enough."

And how do we know we’ve done enough?
How do we know we didn’t misuse our precious limited time on something that didn’t count?
"Jesus, will helping this particular person be on my final exam, or can I skip over them?"

So, wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"

If love of neighbor is the way to eternal life, then, the lawyer asks, how do I set the brackets around those who are my neighbors? 

How do I categorize people correctly so that I do not waste my time helping the wrong people?
Who is within the realm of my care, and who can I ignore?

This leads to one of the most liberating but frankly aggravating aspects of the Gospels.
Time and again, Jesus gets asked for a checklist for heaven. 

“Tell us what to do,” people say.
Am I in or out?
Have I filled in enough boxes?
Did I prove myself good enough.
“I fed 15 hungry people today, so now I get my heavenly coupon book stamped." 
"756 more good deeds to go, and I’m done.”

Jesus always frustrated that type of thinking, because the goal was never simply about how much we do.  It’s about who we are called to be. 

Time and again, Jesus refused to quantify the practice of goodness.  He simply notes that goodness and perfection are our destiny as we conform to the image and likeness of God, and asks us to trust that the faithful seeking of these is sufficient. 

Almost always, the questions Jesus got assumed that there is a minimum that has to be done. 
“Jesus, what is the minimum we have to do to earn your favor?”
That is one way of putting the lawyer’s question. 

And when Jesus asks the lawyer to name which character was a neighbor to the man who fell among thieves, Jesus reorients their conversation away from the lawyer’s question about limiting one’s responsibility.  The lawyer wants to define who deserves his love, but Jesus suggests that love seeks out neighbors to receive compassion and care, even when established boundaries and prejudices conspire against it.[1]

There is no minimum we can do for a predetermined set of people we define as worthy.  God’s own perfect love is not like that, thanks be to God.  Instead God asks us to trust that we can be empowered to fight against our own programming, our anxieties, our prejudices, to show forth God’s love and care.

All of that seems well and good. There’s no new ground broken here.  I don’t think I’m out on a limb in this interpretation. 

But we wish Jesus had been reasonable all the same.  

Theoretically we can get behind the idea that everyone is our neighbor.  But how do we actually practice this?  Our finiteness—our limitedness—keeps pushing us to set those brackets around those who will receive are care.  More importantly those brackets define whose is outside of our care. 

“We can’t do it all!” we cry out.
So we set our brackets.

We hear or we say:
“Don’t send money overseas, we have poor people here.”
“Why are they adopting from Africa, we have orphans here.”
“These workers do not deserve a living wage because these other workers do not have a living wage either, and we value the latter more.”
“We feel bad for all of the shootings, but we need to shut down our media intake and remain silent until we have all of the facts.”
“Police are part of a systemically racist oppressive regime and cannot be trusted at all.”
“Black Lives Matter is a racist over-reactionary movement fomenting anarchy and violence and cannot be trusted at all.”

These brackets we set on our care help us categorize our own sets of ‘us’ vs. ‘thems.’
These brackets become our short hand classification of who we love in reality while we try to maintain an illusion of loving everyone theoretically.

So, how deep is our love?
Who consistently benefits from our silence about the injury of our neighbors?
Who consistently find themselves outside of our caring, because we just don’t have the bandwidth to deal with the situation?
Who consistently has their issues filed under the heading “not our problem?”
Once we identify those who consistently fall outside of our care, we expose the reality of our brackets of care—
Those same brackets Jesus calls us to expose and obliterate through life in the Holy Spirit.

What do we do next?

There are many things to be done.
Educating ourselves on the scope of the problem of racism within our society and the criminal justice system is important.
But even though study is important, Jesus didn’t tell us to form a humanities club to debate another’s oppression.

So here is something more tangible.

Go to your neighbors.
Your white neighbors. 
Your black neighbors. 
Your latinx neighbors.
Your native neighbors.
Your police neighbors. 

Ask them what concerns them, given the world we share. 
Listen to hear, not to debate. 
Listen for the pain.
Listen for the fear. 

Listen to the officer who wants to make sure he makes it home to his 4-month old child tonight. 
Listen to the police supervisor who prays that this not be the night he has to tell his officer’s wife he died in the line of duty.

Listen to the black mother whose 13 year old son is about the get the talk—
the talk about how his responsibility is to make sure he gets home that night regardless of the disrespect a cop shows him. 

Listen to the black man who thought one night he would die in his own front yard, his keys in his front door, when a cop drew down on him because the cop thought the pager in his pocket was a gun.

Listen to the anguish of the father of a biracial child whose skin is dark enough to change every encounter he has with people different from him. 

Listen to the Native American talk about the high number deaths in her community at the hands of police that never make it on the news.

Be vulnerable enough to name your own fear, to God and neighbor.
You may be surprised to hear the fear you are carrying if you dared to speak of it aloud.

The commonality of fear that maintains our brackets will only crumble when we let go of these fears.
To name these fears is to rob them of power.
To pray for your neighbor’s fears is to put them under God’s power and care—and perfect love casts out all fear.

Ask your neighbors to pray for you.

The better world we long for will come when we are willing to show we want to truly break down the brackets we use to define ‘neighbor.’  If we cannot deal openly with the fear and hatred our legacies of oppression have left us as inheritances, we will never get beyond a power struggle that leaves history littered with winners and losers.  Our children will inherit that power struggle.  Might we try something different this time?

We should continue the story begun in Luke chapter 9 with John and James ready to destroy a Samaritan village.  After their journey with Jesus on Earth, and after their being given the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, in Acts chapter 8, Peter and John go to Samaritan villages to love and work among them, which was only possible after setting aside old dividing lines.

Let us go and do likewise.





[1] Matthew Skinner in David Lyon Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor’s Feasting On The Word (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008) 243.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Love and Justice in Rape Culture

Robert Berra
All Saints, Mobile, Sermon
Proper 6, Year C



If I have not had the chance to greet you yet:
My name is Robert Berra and I bring greetings from the Diocese of Arizona where I serve as the
Episcopal Campus Chaplain and teach sociology at Arizona State University. 

Jim was so gracious as to allow me to preach today—and even though I’m on vacation I said yes.  I did not know at the time that I was also signing up for a week of intense personal struggles with central truths of the Christian faith—but it is what it is.  I stand before you today still struggling with justice and forgiveness and love and sin.
You see, even before I went to seminary, my graduate work focused in large part on the relationship between gender and religion.  My graduate work has since turned into my pastoral work.  I have witnessed the emergence of a long-necessary conversation about rape on college campuses. On college campuses, 1-in-4 women and 1-in-16 men will experience sexual assault. I work on a campus that was once referred to on The Daily Show as “the Harvard of Date Rape.”  I have co-facilitated a course for other campus chaplains on campus rape culture.  I write on the topic academically.  One week this past semester, four different pastoral conversations I had involved counseling people who were dealing with the aftermath of rape—either because they knew the victim or the perpetrator.  The aftermath of rape is rarely only held by the victim and perpetrator—it radiates out to friends, families, and communities.

So as you can imagine, I have been following the case involving Stanford student Brock Turner, who was found and chased down by two bicyclists while he was attempting to rape an unconscious woman behind a dumpster.  This past week, he was sentenced to 6 months in jail after being found guilty on three felony counts.  The victim’s statement has rightfully gone viral on social media, as she demolishes his attempts to shift the moral locus from his decision to rape her to a generalized complaint against college drunkenness and promiscuity.  He promises that he will go on a speaking circuit and dedicate his life to addressing drinking and hook-ups; but at every turn he refused to admit that the real problem is that he thought he could rape an unconscious woman.  Adding insult to injury, the father of the rapist wrote a letter to the judge, in which he lamented that this entire messy business of being on trial for rape had taken away his son’s appetite for steak dinners, and that “20 minutes of action” should not cancel out the promise of his son’s first 20 years of life. 

“20 years of action.”  That is the closest the father of the rapist comes to mentioning his son’s victim.  But the judge seemed to agree, and reduced the prosecution’s recommended 6 year sentence to six months, saying that such a long “prison sentence would have a severe impact” on the rapist.  [Although, I do note he will be a registered sex offender, and that will follow him around for the rest of his life.]

I take some comfort that there has been quite a bit of outrage, at least in my little corners of the world and internet.  The ways in which rich white men are treated with kid gloves for heinous crimes was unusually transparent in this case.  And it became painfully clear that we live in a world in which a judge will give a rapist a sentence that seems less like taking rape seriously and more like a consolation prize to the rapist for the inconvenience of being found guilty.  …Where the perceived promise of the rapist’s future is valued more highly than the past and present suffering of the victim.

But even as I share the outrage, I’m aware that at least one thing mingled with my outrage is recognition.  I do see Brock Turner in younger versions of myself.  Even though I was raised to consider rape a great moral evil, I was also raised in a culture that treats a woman’s ‘no’ not as the final word, but the opening of a negotiation.  As one judge in New Zealand said during his summation of a rape trial 45 minutes before the rapist was acquitted by a jury, “if every man stopped the first time a woman said ‘no’, the world would be a much less exciting place to live.”  We learn in this culture not to respect the word “no”, but to try to get around it.  Twelve years ago, it took sitting with friends who had been raped to realize that the way many men treat intimate relationships cause profound damage.[1]  I do not speak as though I’m above our rape culture; I speak as one who is embedded within it.  It took time to learn how to avoid shifting the moral locus of a rape from the perpetrator—to keep from asking the questions that blame the person who got raped—and instead focus on the fact that the perpetrator alone made a conscious choice to overpower someone to use their body. 

Maybe you have known for a long time about these counter-cultural messages—how consent is an affirmative yes, not just the absence of a partner saying “no.”  Maybe you’ve known that rape is nine times out of ten not the attack of a stranger, but an acquaintance or a partner who overrides a “no.”  But I suspect many of us men may recognize Brock Turner in us, and the recognition can silence us even as we are disgusted with his refusal to own up to what he did.  And so some men defend Turner, or the lessened sentence; they counsel us to consider that the jury may have been wrong; we are urged to forgive and be merciful to a rapist who refuses to name his own crime for what it was. 

So now that I’ve shared more about me than you may have ever wanted to know, maybe you understand some of why, this week of all weeks, I might struggle with scripture about forgiveness. 

Our passage from the Gospel of Luke today takes places right after Jesus notes that he is taking criticism from the religious leaders around him because he is “a glutton and a drunkard who eats with tax collectors and sinners.”[2]  Luke then tells the story we heard today to drive the point home.  In the very home of a Pharisee who probably invited Jesus over to size him up and test his credentials, one of the pesky unclean sinners—a woman, no less— barges in and performs this service for Jesus.  It is just as likely as not that the woman may have met Jesus earlier, experienced forgiveness, and this is simply her service of gratitude.  Instead of forgiving her because of the foot-washing she gives him, Jesus reiterates her forgiveness in front of men who could not see the woman beyond her sin.  Hence Jesus’s question to Simon the Pharisee:  “Do you see this woman?  Can you look past the sin and see the love and gratitude that forgiveness brings forth?”

A general lesson to be pulled from Luke is that we are to be like the unnamed forgiving woman, grateful for the forgiveness that Jesus offers—and rightly so; we are not supposed to be like the judgmental Pharisee.  And so it is easy to see the passage as offering us that choice:  do we want to be like the woman, loving so much more because we know the power of forgiveness and offer forgiveness in our relationships; or are we like Simon who cannot see beyond past sin and holds the past deeds of a person as the only measure of who they truly are, or have become?

If we were to place ourselves in the Story as Simon, what would we see and do if we saw Brock Turner’s victim in the woman at Jesus’s feet.  What if it was Brock turner there, indstead?

Am I too much like Simon if I ask what it means to be forgiving when, in this society, it seems to be an informal norm that men can more easily escape the consequences of raping someone than a woman can escape questions of what she may have done to bring the rape upon herself?  Can we be too quick to forgive? 

And here are the two big questions that have haunted me all week:  Is my anger that a rapist was let off easier than I think is fair counter to the Gospel imperative to be forgiving?
Am I failing at being loving?

Not necessarily.

Forgiveness is commanded to the church in terms of how we handle our interpersonal relationships, but we also live in a world in which we have to use our best judgment about how we will live together as a society.  Unless we are willing to completely forgo any sense of moral decision-making, we have to come to grips with the complexities of love and justice. 

There are those who would divide the concept of love and justice, and set them as opposite shores of a deep, broad river.  Such a division is harsh and, for a Christian, it is ultimately artificial. 

A sharp division between justice and love leads to a justice better called retribution and revenge.  Love fares no better in the division: On this side of perfection, love without justice cannot admit that the wounding we suffer at the hands of others bears any significance at all, and so it has nothing of substance to offer to those who suffer.  For if God offers an unqualified patience and affirmation to everything we do—even those things which harm others—then the Gospel holds no good news for the many who suffer for the sake of the comfort of a few.    

The truth is more complex, and as the 20th century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said, justice is “an approximation of brotherhood under conditions of sin.”  Rather than  there being a sharp division between love and justice, justice is the degree of love that is possible among strangers and societies in a world marred by self-interest and a desire for control—in other words, sin. 

And it has to be said that outrage at injustice is itself an expression of love.  We follow a God who loves all with an equal loving regard, and we are created to bear and respond to and mirror that divine image.  Our very ability to discern and desire fairness is that imperfect approximation of our sharing of God’s equal loving regard for all.  A perversion of love that offers preemptive forgiveness to our wrongdoing with no redress or naming of the wrong is the denial of love and worth to those who suffer.  And, ironically, such a perversion of love will always benefit those who practice evil and indulge selfish desire.  The world already practices that sort of love, in which white, male bodies possessing money are favored over others. Christians are called to a more radical love—a more equal regard that responds to divine image rather than earthly markers of favor.

Am I still Simon the Pharisee?
Maybe, but I do not think Simon was being just.  He did not allow the possibility of redemption or forgiveness, and so he lost sight of God’s equal loving regard—to the point he could not see the woman past her history. There is a lesson there worth heeding.

I suspect that everyone in this church knows some measure of forgiveness and so we may also know the gratitude of the unnamed woman; and yet we all could experience and give more forgiveness.  That is easy to say and hard to do, but it is the life we are called to live.  At our best, Christians point to forgiveness and redemption.  Any number of people have histories that need such good news—oppressors and oppressed, perpetrators and victims, activists and the apathetic.

And if we choose to live in the world, we are called to take on the work of love, which always includes forgiveness, and yet our love will occasionally have to look more like justice.  While I may decide to turn my own cheek when I am attacked, there is no love or justice in holding out another person’s cheek to be hit again.  How often do we fail in this when we refuse to believe a rape victim, or hold the perpetrator’s future of more worth than healing the living hell the victim still experiences, or believe a rapist will not act again when he cannot even name what he did wrong in the first place?  How do we hold our responsibility to forgive in tension with our desire to acknowledge and mirror God’s equal loving regard for all? 

Ultimately I cannot answer these for you.  I can tell you that I have commitments to ending systems that see some lives as less worthy of consideration.  I simply offer that this tension between love, and justice, and forgiveness, and sin is a part of a conversation we do not have permission to avoid, consider settled, or abdicate.  

How might you engage this conversation and point the world toward a more perfect justice and love?  
May your discernment be fruitful.

Amen.





[1] Other men called me an “emotional tampon” after noticing that I was spending the time to listen to women without trying to score.  Many of them are now military officers.
[2] Lk 7:34.

There are a number of things I read that are worth looking at, and so I provide citations or web addresses below.




Reinhold Niebuhr, Love And Justice (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992).