Saturday, April 11, 2009

Good Friday: Did God forsake God?

My third sermon. Perhaps my last, as I'm going to try out another parish closer to my new home. I don't expect other parishes are as willing to risk opening their pulpits to us lay critters. But it's been fun, and very educational for me, to do the research and put together a sermon that's both educational and inspiring for the congregants.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me and are so far from my cry and from the words of my distress?”

The first segment of these words from Psalm 22 are attributed to Jesus in Mark 15, which we heard on Palm Sunday, and Matthew 27. They don’t appear in today’s Gospel, for reasons I believe have more to do with what John was trying to say about Jesus than with any attempt to record the events of his crucifixion. But these are troublesome words, and they deserve to be understood, for the hope they convey to us today. Did God forsake Jesus, God’s Son? Did God abandon him?

Jesus’ crucifixion was grisly, and he didn’t take it well. Socrates died almost cheerfully, drinking hemlock tea. The Stoics died passively as the lions killed them in the Coliseum. At Masada, the Zealots died proudly. In the first century C.E., Rabbi Akiba, one of the earliest founders of rabbinical Judaism, is said to have recited the She-má while being tortured to death by the Romans (The Shemá is the prayer that begins, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One;” devout Jews recite this prayer twice each day). His was a death he welcomed, a death of freedom.

Jesus died a godforsaken death. He was impaled on a cross stark naked between two common criminals, bereft of all respect and dignity. He was greatly distressed and troubled in the Garden, the night before his crucifixion. He prayed, “Take this cup from me”! And his cry from the cross, from Psalm 22, represents, if not his actual words, his clearly intended expression. How are we to understand his cry? Was he really forsaken by God?

David’s Psalm 22 was written in the context of the God of Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophets. The text refers to, if you will, a contractual dispute: God has abrogated his covenant with Israel; he has abandoned me.

This distant God of the Covenant was not Jesus’ understanding of God. For him, God was much closer. He always referred to God as “My Father“. ”The Kingdom of God has come near,” he said more than once. This is a relationship not mediated through the covenant, the law of Moses, this is a direct relationship with God much more intimate, much less hierarchical, than that present in Judaism at that time. Jesus’ preaching was a direct challenge to the mainstream religious leaders. It challenged all their rules of how to gain access to God.

And God confirmed the intimacy of that relationship. At Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, God is quoted as saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1). At his Transfiguration, where he met Moses and Elijah on a high mountain, God said “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him” (Mark 9).

Having this kind of relationship with God means that our sins can be forgiven right here on earth, right at this table! Back then, when epilepsy and blindness and leprosy were considered the wages of sin (and those who suffered epilepsy, blindness and leprosy were unclean, impure), this radical idea that our sins could be forgiven right now was electrifying.

Even in our lifetime, when being black or female or gay is considered sinful, or at least morally inferior to being white or male or straight, this idea is still new and fresh in some places. Jesus was crucified, in other words, because, among other things, he crossed the political and religious establishment in a critical way. He challenged their authority, on a very basic level, to lead the people of Israel.

And, as the Gospels say in several places, Jesus spoke with authority. So, he had to be eliminated. Destroyed. Erased. Dehumanized. Crucified. The judgment of slaves, deserting soldiers and paupers. In Jesus’ words on the cross, you sense they were successful. Jesus’ death was, or certainly appeared to be, godforsaken.

Theologian Jürgen Moltmann says that if Jesus was abandoned by his God and Father and then raised through “the glory of the Father,” then there must be some conflict between God and God, some mystery in the theology of the cross which we cannot answer. Martin Luther was said to have sat at his desk in his study for hours on end studying the words, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” Those who observed him said that he appeared to be as a corpse. Finally, he rose from his chair in exasperation and was overheard to say, and here I translate from the German, “God forsaking God! No [one] can understand that.”

I’m not credentialed in systematic theology (or, for that matter, in unsystematic theology), but I’m a close observer of politics in business and government, and I understand that sometimes, our personal perception is for us our only reality. Therefore, I am inclined to agree with the view of another German theologian, Rudolf Bultmann whom Moltmann dismissed, “We may not veil from ourselves the possibility that [Jesus] suffered a collapse”. Here, for me, is a Jesus who is not “pretend” human but fully human, fully able to experience despair and hopelessness and, at the point of an excruciatingly painful death, perceive that not just his disciples but his own Father in Heaven may have betrayed and forsaken him. Here is a man I can identify with, and who through his glorification by God, can identify with my own pain and hopelessness and despair.

Where do we believe God doesn’t go? Where are the places we believe God has forsaken? Prisons? Crack houses? Strip joints? Homeless shelters? Bathhouses? War zones? Terrorist cells? No. God Himself (or Herself) is there.

When do we feel godforsaken?
When we’re diagnosed with cancer? When we’re wheeled into the operating room for major surgery? When we show up for another round of chemotherapy?
When a family member dies from illness or accident;
When we are attacked, beaten senseless and left for dead;
When we discover our children’s college funds and our own retirement nest egg is ravaged by the economic downturn;
When our life’s work is ended abruptly by layoff or bankruptcy;
When friends or family reject us because of who we are or what we stand for;
When, through our own blindness and weakness we let addictions or prejudices weaken us;
When we hit bottom, when we turn around and find that God is “so far from my cry and from the words of my distress,”

When we feel, in other words, that God has forsaken us,

Then know that perception is not always reality. Christ our Passover was sacrificed for us, he suffered and died feeling godforsaken, but God never left him,and He has never left us. God is always present. Even if, as David says in Psalm 139, you “take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,” even there God will hold you and love you and want you to love and trust God. He will never leave you godforsaken.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Fixing the Economy

Thanks to my brother for sending me this. It's from Jim Caroon, who proposes the following wonderful solution to the Current Depression:
Dear Mr.President,

Patriotic retirement: There's about 40 million people
over 50 in the work force; pay them $1 million apiece
severance with stipulations:

1) They leave their jobs. Forty million job openings -
Unemployment fixed.

2) They buy NEW American cars. Forty million cars ordered -
Auto Industry fixed.

3) They either buy a house or pay off their mortgage -
Housing Crisis fixed.

Much cheaper than the trillions being ineffectively spent
on the financial industry

What a neat idea! We can fix the economy by paying 40 million people $1 million each. Not sure if you noticed, but that's $40 trillion total. President Obama's budget is less than ten percent of that, and the bailout package is only about 2.5% of that number. So, are you saying that Obama's plan is insufficient? I thought that President Obama's plan was too costly, that the deficit was too high. Which is it?

Now, as to the details, what constitutes a new American car? Toyota has plants in Alabama, Kentucky, Indiana, Texas and West Virginia. Honda has plants in Alabama and Indiana. Mitsubishi, Hyundai, Nissan and Subaru also have plants in the US. The Big Three automakers depend on Canadian manufacturers for major pieces of the cars they assemble in Michigan. Are their products to be considered American, or not? Remember, the jobs of tens of thousands of Americans hang on your answer.

Buy a house. You need to stipulate that the house not be mortgaged, that's how we got into this mess in the first place. To be safe, you should probably also make sure that the people buying the house can afford its operating costs and property taxes. I know this sounds like "controls," but who wants to create a problem when you're trying to solve one.

It may well be true that trillions are being spent ineffectively. After all, Secretary Geithner has fully bought into the concept of socializing losses (that means we pay) and privatizing gains (that means that the wealthy receive). I have an alternative proposal. Until the government funds are repaid, we socialize the gains as well. Yes, I said "nationalization". Yes, it also smacks of socialism. Nasty word, but tell me: how's capitalism working out for you these days? If you're not a rightwing journalist on a major media salary (and bonus, don't forget), you may be affected by the economic calamity created by the ideologues of the Far RIght. Boom and bust cycles are endemic to the philosophy of free enterprise; the current bust is directly related to the the freest, least regulated period of capitalism in modern times. It's all part of and linked to the millions that have been funnelled into the salaries, bonuses and retirement plans of the privileged few that control most of the assets of the United States of America. Those of us who take it on the chin? Collateral damage comes to mind. It's all part of the plan, in order to make an omelette, you need to break some eggs. Thank you, Josef Stalin, for reminding us of Adam Smith.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Transfiguration Sunday

Transfiguration Sunday was the second time I've preached, but it was my first sermon.

From today’s Gospel:
Jesus [led] Peter and James and John up a high mountain . . . And. . . was transfigured before them, . . . And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus . . . and Peter did not know what to say, for they were terrified.”

The Transfiguration is one of the “big events” in our Judeo-Christian tradition. It’s not as big as the parting of the Red Sea or the crucifixion, but it’s still pretty big. It’s easy to look at the “big events” in the Bible as the main message, the extent of what we learn about God’s presence in our midst. After all, this is what most of us learned in Sunday School. When we stop at the “big event,” though, we miss one element that runs through so many of these stories. That element is how we as observers react when “the Kingdom of God comes near”.

For example, when Jesus was born in Bethlehem, it was such a big deal to the Company of Heaven that a band of angels got together, formed an impromptu chorus, came down and sang Christmas carols all around the neighborhood, then flew back to Heaven and probably drank hot cider or something. I’m sure they were satisfied with their performance, but it terrified the observers, the shepherds. Before they collected their wits and went to see the infant Jesus, I said a few years ago that I imagine they washed more than their socks that night.

Let’s take another example. In Mark 5, Jesus goes across the Sea of Galilee (on the way, he dozes off in the back of the boat in the middle of a major storm that scares the wits out of his disciples). He goes to the country of the Gerasenes. A demoniac, a man possessed by demons, approaches Jesus and begs not to be tormented. Jesus confronts the unclean spirits and gives them permission to leave the demoniac and enter a herd of two thousand swine. The swine promptly stampede down a slope, into the water, and drown.

The observers are the swineherds. Their reaction? Probably panic. They run into the town and inform the townspeople. What do the locals do? “They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion [of unclean spirits]; and they were afraid”. The demoniac, the one too strong to be restrained, who lived in the cemetery howling and bruising himself with stones, running around naked or nearly so, the townspeople were willing to live with; it was Jesus they asked to leave.

So, in today’s Gospel, Peter and James and John observe Jesus speaking with Moses and Elijah, the very Jewish embodiment of all the Law and the Prophets, Jesus’ clothing dazzling white, and “[Peter] did not know what to say, for they were terrified”.

They were terrified. This is our typical reaction when the Kingdom of God comes near us. We come to this Table and eat the Body of Christ and drink His Blood, and, little by little, the Kingdom of God comes closer and closer to changing our hearts, to turning us away from cultural expectations and dicta—the world—and toward his call to each of us. It’s terrifying.

Who isn’t terrified today? We see that fear all around us:
1. A woman struggles to reconnect her emotions to her true worth, a connection damaged by physical and psychological abuse;
2. A young man, overwhelmed by the cultural expectations he perceives demanded of him, hides his imperfections in an outburst of sexual promiscuity;
3. Yet another person, terrified by feelings of guilt or shame, resorts to alcoholic anesthesia rather than deal with them; and
4. A middle-aged man, a thousand miles from home, trapped in a parking lot between a culture that expects him to maintain his marriage and family, and an orientation that drives him to seek a relationship with another man.

We know fear, even terror. To a greater or lesser extent, it controls all of us: the more we react to fear in our lives, the more we are controlled by others, and the less freedom we have to respond to God’s love.

What does God say about fear? Just about everywhere, God says, “fear not,” do not be afraid.

As Bishop Gene Robinson pointed out in a sermon last year, Jesus’ life is bookended by calls not to be afraid. Bishop Robinson, of all people, a man not afraid to be open and honest about his sexual orientation in a culture that, more often than not, punishes such honesty and condones the violent suppression of homosexuals by fear-filled people.

At the front end of Jesus’ life are Joseph and Mary. In Matthew, just as Joseph has just decided to dismiss Mary quietly, an angel tells him not to be afraid to marry her. The angel Gabriel visited John the Baptist’s father and scared the wits out of him. Gabriel got much the same response from Mary, who was “much perplexed” by his appearance. Gabriel told Mary the same thing he told Zechariah, “Do not be afraid”.

At the end of Jesus’ life, after the Crucifixion, the two Mary’s who went to the tomb on the first day of the week encountered the stone rolled away and one or two men in clothes dazzling white. The guards were paralyzed with fear. The women were so terrified they couldn’t even look up. The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid”.

And even after the Resurrection, the disciples get together in an upper room and lock the doors and windows “for fear of the Jews”. After Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, the Lord speaks to Ananias in a vision, calling him to go to Saul and lay his hands on him. You can tell from the ensuing discussion in Acts 9 that Ananias has a very clear impression of what will happen to him if he does. He obeys the Lord, but one can easily imagine the fear he must have felt on this mission, God’s reassurances notwithstanding.

How do you overcome fear? I have a few practical ideas.

First, name your fear, just as Jesus asked the unclean spirits, “What is your name”? Write down what you’re afraid of, pencil and paper or keyboard and Microsoft Word. Write it down exactly, graphically, all the details, don’t leave anything out.

Second, assess if you can the risk that what you fear will actually occur. For example, If you’re afraid to drive on expressways or fly on commercial airlines, find out how many people actually do without incident.

Third, move toward the fear, not away from it. Jesus spoke directly to the unclean spirits; Ananias went to the house where Saul was staying. Reacting to the fear means the fear controls you. Moving toward the fear puts you in control. It has been my experience that my irrational fears vanish like smoke when I move toward them and stop giving them control.

Finally, and always, trust in God. Love God; God loves you. And love your neighbor as yourself, which I interpret to mean that in order to love others, you must first love yourself. You are, after all, “fearfully and wonderfully made”.

And when you have overcome your fears and love God and know that God doesn’t love you less than anyone else, or more, but that he loves us all beyond our wildest imaginings, you will be able to say to others with genuineness and conviction from your heart, the peace of the Lord be always with you.

New Year's resolution, or Lenten discipline?

I have been encouraged - driven, even - by my friends to write more. I agreed to do so as a New Year's resolution. That didn't actually work out. Starting now, it's more of a Lenten discipline. Considering that we're now past the Second Sunday in Lent, I'm a bit remiss here as well. But the time has come, and I am finally resolving to write.

Why so reluctant, when I love to write? Embarrassment? Modesty? The old fear of being "discovered"? There is something about writing that exposes the writer to all his readers. My prior essays, by and large, were triggered by outrage or injustice. Easy enough to hide behind righteous indignation. Writing as a discipline and a practice, divulges who I am: just and unjust, kind and cruel, global and petty, deep and shallow, loved and, in all my faults, human. Honesty demands humility.

It has been nearly two years since my separation and only three months since the divorce. I may never shed all the embarrassment and shame of having to go through it and put my now ex-wife through it. By writing this blog, all my laundry will eventually be hung out for all my readers to see. It is time to shed the modesty. I am who I am. Enjoy the view.