Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Why I Love Jesus (Weird Mix Edit)

Sometimes all I really want to do as a pastor is tell people how much I love Jesus. But because people have heard folks exclaim their love for Jesus quite often, it may be less than clear what I mean.
So, this Sunday in worship, I plan to use the sermon to simply share why I unabashedly love Jesus. We're going to be working from Matthew 11, one of the more enigmatic passages in the gospels. So allow me, if you would, to offer some examples of what I love about Jesus, as a kind of foretaste, and hopefully an invitation to love Jesus the way I love Jesus.
1. So, first there's the whole thing where Jesus never simply answers a question with, "Yes." Whether this is a survival tactic under a violent empire, or a discipleship strategy to force all hearers to think more deeply, it remains true, Jesus seems to avoid simple answers like "yes" or "no." Pilate: "Are you the Messiah?" Jesus: "You say that I am." Jesus is especially avoidant of answering questions regarding his Messiah-ship. So in Matthew 11, when John sends messengers to ask if Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus replies: "Go tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, etc."
2. Related to this, Jesus is as political as heck, but not in the way anyone anticipated. It's like everyone nominated him to run for governor of Arkansas for a major party, and then instead of getting out stumping and winning votes, he spends a day volunteering at the children's hospital, another day sleeping with the homeless on the street, and a third day up on Petit Jean preaching to a rag tag crowd of farmers. He's an epic failure at traditional political strategizing, all the while conducting the most powerful movement building the world has ever seen.
3. He's fully human and fully God, which also means he comes across as not-quite-human and not-quite-God. Matthew 11:18: "For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”" John was on many levels more holy than Jesus. In fact quite a few people in history have seemed better Christians than Jesus: St. Francis, Mother Teresa, Ghandi. So Jesus really wasn't as great a man as some others. On the other hand, he's the Son of God. But he doesn't "do God" like you'd expect. He completely frustrates almost all the ways we tend to think about God by antithesis: he's not impassible, almighty, immortal, omniscient, and so on.
4. He's got the best mom. His mom is like social justice warrior extraordinaire. From the time he was born, she'd been singing these amazing politically subversive songs (what we sometimes call the Magnificat). During his public ministry, she was always organizing, always present, bringing the movement forward.
The Almighty has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty. 
5. He said the oddest things. Sometimes they were straight up paradoxes, or at the very least dialectical. Like the Sermon on the Mount. He told parables, which are pretty much the best short-short story collection ever assembled. And if you start to list the things he said that Christians tend to overlook, things get pretty wacky. As just one example, Jesus taught that John the Baptist was Elijah come again (and who was going to come "again again"; 11:14). 
6. Did I mention he had the best friends? We might mention Moses and Elijah, with whom he was tight. But then also Mary Magdalene, John the Baptist, the disciples (some better than others, as it were, but my favorite is Peter). And then he seemed to simply get out with people in social settings pretty much all the time. It's like everywhere Jesus went was either to attend a party, or to assemble one. Hence, the water to wine in John 2. And again Matthew 11: the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’
7. He regularly stuck it to the powerful... like pretty much all the time. But he could at the same time be really close friends with those in power who had themselves aligned with his movement. Think of Zachaeus. But he was always sensitive to the weak and lowly ones. Think children. Or the widow who gave all she had. Or the woman who washed his feet. And so on. 
8. We have four stories about him, which is way better than just having one. Some other religions portray Jesus in alternative ways... for example, at least a couple of world religions claim Jesus didn't die on the cross. But we have on good record from four witnesses that he did, and this his death, even more than his resurrection, is central to the good news. Jesus died. On a cross. In complete faithfulness to his mission.
9. He rose from the dead and was both recognizable and unrecognizable. He ate fish but also passed through doors. At his death, bodies came out of tombs and walked around Jerusalem. Ever since, people have tried to make sense of this moment, his death and resurrection, and they've come up with all kinds of fascinating perspectives, from the idea that the resurrection is just a collective unconscious insight of the apostolic community, all the way over to cosmic notions of a world transfigured and ontologically changed by the events around him in that moment... signified by the fact that the curtain on the temple with a painting of creation was torn in two when he died. All I know is, that was a big enough moment that people decided to go back and figure out roughly when Jesus was born and then date history from that moment. 
10. I could go on and on, because I love this guy so much. But in the end, one of the things I love most about him is that he coalesced a movement, a community of people who tries to be an outpost of the kingdom he cast a vision of, a continuing body of his presence in the world. The church is a lot of things, sometimes not that great of things, but in its best moments, it gives the world the continuing presence of this man, Jesus. That's no small thing.

Friday, December 02, 2016

The kind of Lutheran we are

I'm kind of embarrassed to admit that conversations about our church or denomination often have to begin with simply explaining what Lutheranism "is." Because Lutherans have come to the United States from many countries of origin, and since arriving here have periodically split into smaller groups (or merged into larger ones), there are a LOT of Lutheran flavors.

There's really only one Lutheran group in the United States that comes close to my denomination, the ELCA, in size, and that's the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS). In Arkansas, if people have encountered Lutherans, more than likely it has been LCMS.

But the truth is, our local congregation, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, not only isn't like most of the Lutheran churches in those other denominations, it isn't even like many of the Lutheran churches in our own denomination. Although we're a denomination, we're also very congregational as a polity, which means the local church is free to be itself without having to imprint too strongly the denomination to which it is affiliated.

Some of the outward markers of the kind of Christian we are as a church and denomination are obvious, and are representative across our church. We ordain women as pastors. This aligns us with mainline Protestants more than the LCMS. We practice open communion, and host it weekly, which aligns us more with the Episcopalians. We have a liturgy, which makes us "Catholic Lite." We preach from the Bible and are Jesus-centric, which aligns us more with Christianity than with other progressive religious movements which, on another level, we share common cause (like Unitarian Universalists).

But then there are the things that make us quite distinct, and make me wonder whether it's right to call us Lutheran at all. For one, we practice full inclusion of the LGBTQ community in the life of the church. This distinguishes us even from many ELCA congregations.

But it's more than just welcome. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of our life together as a Christian community is our commitment to offering open space for doubts and exploration. That is to say, an atheist or an agnostic would not feel out of place in our congregation, and in fact many such folks belong here. Belief and doctrine are not gates for entry, but furniture to try out.

Which is not at all to say that belief and doctrine are unimportant. Far from it. A good rug really ties the room together. Everyone loves a comfy couch. But the system of belief that we host among us is subject to inquiry and challenge. It's okay not to believe everything. And it certainly isn't an expectation to conform to specific behavioral patterns or types of "decency." We're quite busy trying to be less and less bourgeoise, even if our denomination and urban context tips that direction.

And then there's one more thing, and maybe this is the central thing.

The center for us as a community of faith is reminding each other that Jesus is the subaltern.

That's a fancy (Spivak) word, but it's helpful. The subaltern is the marginal one, the one on the edges. You know, like the beatitudes--blessed are the poor, the meek, the peacemakers, which then gets expanded in Scripture to include the Gentiles, the eunuch, refugees, and so on.

Then we remind ourselves that we are the body of Christ in the world. So we are the subaltern. Living as a Christian community means living as the subaltern, with a deep sensitivity to Christ's solidarity with subaltern communities of all types.

This is why we're committed, sometimes at a cost, to speaking up and with specific communities--#blacklivesmatter, the Transgender network, Latinx, refugees, immigrants.

Of course as a community of faith, we still carry all the markers of our historical origins also. Our worship still looks on some levels like a Lutheran worship formed in the crucible of the 1950s. We host potlucks, play handbells, sing hymns. Every Christian community is always an amalgam of its history and culture.

But we are also free to indigenize, perhaps more than other rigid types of Lutheran. Our worship has Ozark elements. Our leadership includes folks formally excluded from other Christian communions. We are free to join other movements and share common cause with them.

And increasingly, we catalyze ministries that we ourselves do not own or possess. We're free enough in Christ to trust that we can initiate things without possessing them, encourage others even when we don't earn credit. In fact, that's precisely one of the most profound ways Jesus Christ was both God and human.

As Son of God, he didn't consider that sonship as something to be grasped, but released himself fully in the world to be the subaltern.

This has been a very long explanation, but I post it as response to those with questions. It's my way of saying, if you're an atheist, or gay, or exhausted by culture Christianity that equates faith with nationalism, or just a plain old person in the world curious about an alternative form of life together with others that is making an attempt to live as the embodiment of Jesus the subaltern in the world... maybe give us a shot.

There's so much good in the world to be done that happens when those of common cause come together. You don't have to do it alone, and we may very well be better together.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Refugee Resettlement Syllabus

As we have launched Canopy NWA, many volunteers have asked for a refugee resettlement reading list. Quite a bit of contemporary fiction has been inspired by the migrant experience, so such a list could become quite long. If you're looking for a few holiday reads that will deepen both your empathy for the refugee experience, and your understanding of it and how to advocate for and with refugees, I recommend:

The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen, which begins at the very end of the Vietnam war, and chronicles the refugee experience in what may be THE refugee novel so far of the 21st century. It won the Pulitzer Prize.

They Are Us: Lutherans and Immigration, by Stephen Bouman, which is not directly about the refugee experience, but is tremendous in understanding a theology of immigration and sanctuary from a Lutheran perspective. Makes a compelling case for the problems that have arisen in our nation when we began calling the undocumented "illegal."

The Lost Boys of Sudan: An American Story of the Refugee Experience, by Mark Bixler. Bixler, a reporter, chronicles the resettlement of Lost Boys in Atlanta, Georgia. This is the best and clearest description of refugee resettlement I've ever read. It really helps potential volunteers understand their role.

Longing for Home: Forced Displacement and Postures of Hospitality, by M. Jan Holt. "Longing For Home offers a frame for understanding how communities can respond to refugees and various homeless populations by cultivating hospitality outside of their own comfort zones. This essential study addresses an urgent interreligious global concern and Holton’s thoughtful and compelling work offers a constructive model for a sustained practical response."

City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World's Refugee Camps, by Ben Rawlence. Although many of us involved in refugee resettlement think about the experience once refugees arrive here in their "third" home, this book is direct description of refugee life in the camps.

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson. Sometimes we forget that one of the most recent and major refugee crises happened within our own borders, with large portions of the African-American population in our country seeking refuge in northern cities.

Where the Wind Leads, by Vinh Chung. By a refugee, a memoir of his own experience entering the United States through Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, and thriving in his new country.

Strangers at Our Door, by Zygmunt Bauman. "Today we find ourselves confronted with an extreme form of this historical dynamic, as our TV screens and newspapers are filled with accounts of a 'migration crisis', ostensibly overwhelming Europe and portending the collapse of our way of life. This anxious debate has given rise to a veritable 'moral panic' - a feeling of fear spreading among a large number of people that some evil threatens the well-being of society. 

In this short book Zygmunt Bauman analyses the origins, contours and impact of this moral panic - he dissects, in short, the present-day migration panic. He shows how politicians have exploited fears and anxieties that have become widespread, especially among those who have already lost so much - the disinherited and the poor. But he argues that the policy of mutual separation, of building walls rather than bridges, is misguided. It may bring some short-term reassurance but it is doomed to fail in the long run. We are faced with a crisis of humanity, and the only exit from this crisis is to recognize our growing interdependence as a species and to find new ways to live together in solidarity and cooperation, amidst strangers who may hold opinions and preferences different from our own."

A few more novels:

Behold the Dreamers, by Imbolo Mbue
What is the What, by Dave Eggers
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Anne Fadiman (not a novel, but literary)

And for those looking for a biblical theology of refuge:

Unceasing Kindness: A Biblical Theology of Ruth
Or, just read Exodus, about Israel as refugee, or Matthew, about Jesus as refugee.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Election Apocalyptic: Revealing Signs of God's Kingdom as anti-dote to white nationalism

I think it is important to share with readers of this column that many, many of our brothers and sisters in minority communities are especially disappointed in white evangelicals this week. Some are scared. And it is our responsibility as Christians
to put away false theologies like ethnically based nationalism, and instead to remain faithful to the liberating gospel of God’s breaking down the dividing walls between us. “Build the wall,” or “send those people home,” should never be the chant of any Christian. Welcome the refugee, love the neighbor, honor the image of God in each other, these are the core commitments of Christianity. All hateful practices that violate such love and welcome and honor are 
disordered practices. It is a sin to confuse Christianity with whiteness, or America.

Yolando Pierce, professor of African-American Religion and Literature at Princeton Theological Seminary, wrote, “Watching 81% of my white brothers and sisters vote for Trump has broken something in me. I do not know if I can continue to pay the cost of being a peacemaker and a bridge-builder with those who refuse to see how their actions have so deeply wounded minority communities. Something has been broken for me; a fragile hope that the work of racial and gender justice will be embraced by the larger church.

I am calling on evangelical Christians all across Northwest Arkansas to join Donald Trump in saying, “Stop it!” to the hate speech that has increased in our region since his election. We elected a man who used dog whistle race-based rhetoric to fuel his campaign, and the result has been harmful speech and actions against black and brown bodies all over our country. It is not just politically correct to speak out against racist and misogynist and homophobic slurs. It is human, and Christian, to do so. 

Yolando is not alone in feeling like something broke this week. Many of us feel like things broke. Others are celebrating. But the shared narrative is one with which many of us are familiar. This election felt, on some levels, apocalyptic.

When you hear the word apocalypse, you might think about the end of the world. That’s the popular definition. So apocalyptic films and literature tend to be about the end of the world, or at the very least the end of the world as we know it.

But when I hear the word apocalypse, I do not think about the end of the world. Instead, I think about the in-breaking of the kingdom of God. I think about the arrival, advent, and recapitulation of all things in Christ. In other words, apocalypse is really about revealing, showing forth the signs of God’s kingdom here and now.

Ask yourself: Where can I see glimpses of God’s kingdom? How can I help make them a reality? That’s apocalyptic. One of my favorite theologians said: “Apocalyptic is the mother of all Christian theology” (Ernst K√§semann). What he meant by this is that almost everything we read in the New Testament, from the teachings of Jesus, all the way to the letters of Paul, is informed by this lived anticipation of the arrival of the kingdom of God. Jesus himself constantly points toward the kingdom. When the Son of Man comes, he says, and then he has very specific things in mind that happen in that coming kingdom. The thirsty receive water, the hungry are fed, the naked clothed, repentance and humility are practiced, the poor are lifted up, the rich are brought down from their thrones. 

The outposts of this coming kingdom (of which churches are called to be the foremost) will be notable for taking up their cross and following Jesus on the way of the cross. This is not cross as tool of the oppressor (like the way the cross is used in white supremacy), but cross as a public sign of Christ’s love made perfect in and through our weakness and vulnerability.

That phrase, Son of Man, which so frequently occurs in Scripture, especially on the lips of Jesus, comes to us first in a great apocalyptic book, Daniel. In Daniel, God gives dominion to “one like a son of man” (7:13).  It’s a phrase that could perhaps be better translated: The Human One. The one who will rule over heaven and earth is the truly Human One, the one in whom the authentic image of God is restored. 

Christians perhaps uniquely among people of faith look at this Human One and see Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ we see the humanity of humanity restored. Paul talks about him as the New Adam, restoring what had been lost in the Old Adam. Making humans human again (and so humane). 

Not only that, but this Human One, that Jewish brown-bodied Jesus, reigns in a peculiar way. He ends up executed at the hands of the empire, persecuted by the religious authorities, victim of a rigged trial, with a mocking title above his head—King of the Jews. 

And there, precisely in that moment, the kingdom of God is revealed. Jesus reigns from on high, on a cross. The suffering servant is our vision of the kingdom of God. There are historical moments when it is sometimes easier to be a Christian, because the culture simply aligns with your perspective and protects you. In a moment when all kinds of vulnerable people are more under threat and in need of loving neighbors, the responsibility of Christians becomes much more clear. Take up the cross, and endure being maligned by others, maybe even your fellow religionists, for associating with those who are being hated.

That’s what apocalypse looks like.

[Published today in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette Faith Matters Column]