Without Samson or David

In a recent column about the now-finished synod on the family, Damon Linker over at The Week makes this general description of the Catholic Church — and it’s a description I think applies to the entire Church in the West, and quite possibly the whole world:

The reformers view the church as a community of believers founded by Jesus Christ on a message of universal inclusion, hope, love, and mercy. … This helps explain why the reformers favor loosening the strictures against divorced Catholics receiving communion: because it’s a gesture of inclusion, healing, acceptance. Just as Jesus consorted with the outcasts of his time, so his church should offer welcoming arms to any and all who want to receive the message of mercy and love and become active members of the People of God.

Those who oppose reform take a very different view. The church, for them, is primarily a rigorously consistent intellectual system that teaches a vision of the right way to live. Christ rejected divorce. Over the centuries, the church has developed a rich set of intellectually satisfying principles and procedures in response to this divine decree. A marriage can only be dissolved through annulment. Civil remarriage without an annulment is adulterous. Adultery is a grave sin. Communion is withheld from those living in a state of persistent grave sin. Therefore and with no possible exceptions, a Catholic who is civilly remarried cannot receive communion.

It really is that simple. Remove any of those steps and the whole edifice falls into incoherence. You can see Douthat making that point against Fr. Martin in a blog post written in response to the latter’s Time column: The church simply has to uphold the traditional rules and procedures — not primarily because they’re traditional but because they’re systematic.

Rod Dreher over at The American Conservative more or less agrees, though he says Linker’s description of religious conservatives (at least in the Catholic camp) is not entirely fair because “[d]octrine is not about right order alone, but primarily about Truth. It is far from loving and merciful to tell someone that a lie is actually the truth, only so that they can feel good about themselves, and affirmed. This, at best, is what the conservatives stand for — not mindless rule-following.”

I am much closer to the progressive camp Linker describes (accurately) here. I admire Dreher immensely, but honestly, I’ve seen little love come out of rule, order, and truth concerned conservatives. Mostly I’ve seen judgement and condemnation without any prospect of redemption, and the strange expectation of the conservative that, in a well and properly ordered world, some people will be marginalized and subjugated and because it is good and orderly, they should willingly and gladly acquiesce (and the violence it entails) because it is “the natural order of things.”

I take issue with the very systematic nature of the conservative understanding. And with the very idea that faith in God is to believe in some kind of inherent and discernible moral order to the world. That’s not biblical, not so far as I can tell, because the biblical story — which is what counts here — is hardly systematic itself, and doesn’t concern itself much with the good order of the world, but rather with a people called Israel, and their encounter with God. Revelation, not reason, is what matters.

Scripture also doesn’t deal in abstractions. It doesn’t talk about “war” in any generic sense, but human beings engaged in very specific conflicts with very specific causes and very specific outcomes. It doesn’t talk about “marriage,” or “divorce,” but rather gives us human beings who are married, and shows as a great many ways (mostly bad) that those marriages work (with no examples of divorce). It doesn’t talk about some abstract idea of “salvation,” but rather, the redemption of Israel, with hints that means the world will be redeemed too.

I will go so far as to say the very construction of the systematic edifice of theology is somehow an act of faithlessness on our part. Inevitable and inescapable, probably, but an act that leaves the actual story in God’s people Israel in the dust as it plays with concepts and ideas and thinks about God in wholly irrelevant ways — ways that have nothing to do with the encounter of Israel/Church with a redeeming God.

This said, I have tremendous problems with religious progressivism. It isn’t really biblical. The message of the liberal and progressive church is basically the promise of modernity — freedom, equality, and liberation. The liberal church is basically the church of the Civil Rights Movement, and that’s how it understands exclusion. The marginalized have done nothing to deserve their marginalization except to be born the wrong kind of people in terms of social position and power. They have not sinned. And so the Jesus of the liberal church invites the unjustly excluded to the table, bringing them into full communion with the powerful and the privileged. And he does so not because they have been forgiven anything, but because he breaks down barriers and crosses boundaries — all of which have been arbitrarily created and imposed. There is nothing wrong with this, but it isn’t redemption. The redemption of the liberal church is largely a redemption for those who have not sinned.

And because of this, the liberal church cannot even begin talk about sin in any meaningful way. Not being able to talk about sin, the liberal church cannot think straight about repentance, redemption, and forgiveness. The only thing the liberal church knows to do with real sinners is … exclude and marginalize them.

Not very Christ-like, that. Because Jesus supped with sinners, who knew their own sinfulness, who understood the redeeming forgiveness of God. Whether they changed their lives is another matter entirely. But those sinners met God, were judged, forgiven, and invited to follow.

As I have come to understand it, the controlling narrative of scripture — the key to understanding the entire story that unfolds from Genesis through Revelation — lies in Nehemiah 9 and 10. Nehemiah 9 is Israel’s telling its story and confessing its sin in the wake of resettling of the land after the end of exile. It is a confession of Israel’s constant sinfulness and God’s unremitting redeeming grace. “You are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,” Israel confesses. (Nehemiah 9:17) Again and again, as Israel sins, God gives Israel over to enemies as the consequence of Israel’s idolatry, and then redeems Israel when Israel cries out. Again and again.

The main actor here is God, who called a people, made promises, redeems and delivers that people, over and over again. “Nevertheless, in your great mercies you did not make an end of them or forsake them, for you are a gracious and merciful God.” (Nehemiah 9:31)

This is the meaning of the entire Old Testament story. In fact, it is the meaning of the entire biblical story.

But Nehemiah 9 doesn’t sit by itself. After Israel confesses its sins, Israel vows to act in Nehemiah 10 — to keep the law, to rest on the sabbath, to keep their daughters to themselves, and to support the temple. This is no small thing. Israel promises to clean up its act in response to its confession of sin and its understanding of its utter and complete reliance upon God. And for a time, I suspect Israel does.

We know, however, the story doesn’t end there. Because Israel cannot maintain this. Because daughters are given in marriage and business done on Saturday. Because the slavery Israel laments at the end of Nehemiah 9 is never really lifted. This is the tension that we must live in — we cannot get it right, which is why we confess a God who does not abandon us. We sin, and we bear the consequences of our sinfulness. As do our children. And theirs. And theirs.

I get the sense both the conservative and the progressive are deeply modern — they dislike the tension and want it abolished. The conservative, for all his alleged understanding of the tragic nature of human existence, seems to believe the law can actually be adhered to (we are not, after all, Israel) and thus the consequences of sin (and the tragic) avoided altogether. For its part, the whole progressive program believes in the abolition of consequences, and so sin itself ceases to exist except as some systemic abstraction which all must repent of but no one can really point to or change.

Lost to both are the likes of Samson and David — clear and obvious sinners chosen by God, who pay the price for their sinfulness but are still loved by God and, in their very sinfulness, called by God to do God’s work in the world.

The Tyranny of Choice

Polina Aronson over at Aeon — one of my favorite websites for “big think” essays — says something very provocative about the nature of modernity and choice:

The most important requirement for choice is not the availability of multiple options. It is the existence of a savvy, sovereign chooser who is well aware of his needs and who acts on the basis of self-interest. Unlike all previous lovers who ran amok and acted like lost children, the new romantic hero approaches his emotions in a methodical, rational way. He sees an analyst, reads self-help literature and participates in couples counselling. Moreover, he might learn ‘love languages’, read into neuro-linguistic programming, or quantify his feelings by marking them on a scale from 1 to 10. The American philosopher Philip Rieff called this type ‘the psychological man’. In Freud: The Mind of a Moralist (1959), Rieff describes him as ‘anti-heroic, shrewd, carefully counting his satisfactions and dissatisfactions, studying unprofitable commitments as the sins most to be avoided’. The psychological man is a romantic technocrat who believes that the application of the right tools at the right time can straighten out the tangled nature of our emotions.

And she goes on:

Compared with other historical conventions about romance, the Regime of Choice might seem like a Gore-Tex jacket next to a hair shirt. Its greatest promise is that love needn’t cause pain. According to the polemics that Kipnis develops in Against Love (2003), the only suffering the Regime of Choice recognises is the supposedly productive strain of ‘working on a relationship’: tears shed in the couples therapist‘s room, wretched attempts at conjugal sex, daily inspection of mutual needs, the disappointment of a break-up with someone who is ‘not good for you’. You are allowed to have sore muscles but you cannot have accidents. By making heartbroken lovers into the authors of their own trouble, popular advice produces a new form of social hierarchy: an emotional stratification based on the misidentification of maturity with self-sufficiency.

In the Regime of Choice, committing oneself too strongly, too early, too eagerly is a sign of an infantile psyche. It shows a worrying readiness to abandon the self-interest so central to our culture.

Second, and even more importantly, the Regime of Choice is blind to structural limitations that make some people less willing – or less able – to choose than others. This occurs not only because we have unequal endowments of what the British sociologist Catherine Hakim calls ‘erotic capital’ (that is, some of us are prettier than others). In fact, the biggest problem about choice is that whole groups of individuals might, actually, be disadvantaged by it.

Aronson compares this to her native Russia, where the “Regime of Fate” rules, and where passion — unconsidered and unreflective passion — guides and where “the concept of maturity that lies at the heart of the Regime of Choice regards romantic pain as an aberration and a sign of poor decision-making, the Russians consider maturity to be the capacity to bear that very pain, sometimes to an absurd degree.”

A middle-class American who falls in love with a married woman is advised to break up with the lady and to schedule 50 hours of therapy. A Russian in a similar situation, however, storms the woman’s house and pulls her out by the hand, straight from the hob with stewing borsch, past crying children and a husband frozen with game controller in hand. Sometimes, it goes well: I know a couple who have been together happily for 15 years since the day he had kidnapped her from a conjugal New Year’s feast. But in most cases, the Regime of Fate produces mess.

In terms of bulk numbers, Russians have a greater number of marriages, divorces and abortions per capita than any other developed country. These statistics document an impetus to do whatever it takes to act upon emotions, and often at the cost of one’s own comfort. Russian romance is closely accompanied by substance abuse, domestic violence and abandoned children: the by-products of lives that were never really thought‑through very clearly. Apparently, believing in fate each time you fall in love is not such a great alternative to excessive choice.

Aarson sees the destruction the “regime of fate” inflicts upon the land, but she also see the “regime of choice” as attempting to impose too much control and took much predictability on events and acts that are, by our very nature as human beings, messy and unpredictable. Choice could use a little more passion and a little more fate.

I think Aronson here is speaking some deep and penetrating truths about the nature of the modern world (and not just about comparative coupling and romance in the United States and Russia). Modernity promises an end to pain and suffering, and in doing so, tells us that pain and suffering have no meaning except as things to be overcome. Passion and emotion have no value except as things to be mastered and eventually suppressed. Life will be plotted out carefully, deliberately, and properly, so that all of the right choices will be made and minimal suffering experienced or inflicted. Because, as Aronson notes, the modern autonomous individual (she uses the term “psychological man”) is “a romantic technocrat who believes that the application of the right tools at the right time can straighten out the tangled nature of our emotions.”

I suspect this explains some of why I had such trouble with the Lutherans. More than once, people have described me as having a Russian soul — a swirling and chaotic darkness and deep, abiding and barely controlled passion. For folks who want a well-ordered world, and whose notion of non-anxious presence is a rational, calm, and non-emotive person (you’ve all met that pastor, I’m fairly certain), well, I can see how I would be deeply unsettling. The ideal emotional technocrat Aronson describes here doesn’t just control how he or she reacts to emotions, but has learned how to feel the right kinds of things. It is the ultimate triumph of ideology and technology over humanity.

And I hate it. It isn’t human. At least it doesn’t seem human to me.

The well-planned and well-ordered life does’t know what to do with the vagaries of fate. We love and make commitments not knowing how things will end. (Well, we do know death looms out there somewhere, until technology makes it possible for us to do away even with that.) We marry in the heat of passion, and learn as we live and love what it means to have actually committed to be with this one person. Because it won’t always go well. It won’t always be easy.

Jennifer and I chose not to kids of our own — a decision I will regret until the day I die. And I am beginning to consider the possibility that our ethos of choice in this matter also lets us think that we can choose our children, that we can craft them into things of our liking. In the last few years, but especially this summer, I have found myself in parental relationships with a handful of young people whom I would never have chosen as my children had it been up to me. But they chose me, or fate knocked us together, and it has been glorious, falling in love with these amazing young people, getting to know them, finding out who it is that God has made my “children” because of circumstance.

And learning what it means to commit to people whose lives are not particularly well ordered.

Aronson’s Russian way is messy. It is chaotic. And we see the pain it causes in broken lives. But I don’t think the regime of choice is any less damaging and any less destructive. (It just isn’t so obvious because the violence is institutional, legal, and usually in slow motion.) In fact, I’m coming to the conclusion that our very modern idea that everything will be well planned, well considered, all angles examined and considered before any commitments are made, that we will choose well and choose wisely (and be judged harshly for failing to do so) is antihuman. (At least for non-Northern Europeans.) It denies us the experience of uncertainty, of bearing pain (and discerning meaning in that pain), and of finding real joy in that which cannot be planned.

SERMON — What Do You Want Me to Do For You?

I am not preaching today, but if I were, it would likely be something like this.

Today is also Reformation Sunday in the churches of the Lutheran confessions. (And elsewhere, I suppose.) Because I think that to be triumphalist twaddle (yay! we’re dumped the pope! aren’t we just the smartest, cleverest, most bestest people ever!), I’m going to stick with the readings for today in the Revised Common Lectionary.

  • Jeremiah 31:7–9
  • Psalm 126
  • Hebrews 7:23–28
  • Mark 10:46–52

46 And they came to Jericho. And as he was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a great crowd, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, the son of Timaeus, was sitting by the roadside. 47 And when he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 48 And many rebuked him, telling him to be silent. But he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 49 And Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart. Get up; he is calling you.” 50 And throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51 And Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” And the blind man said to him, “Rabbi, let me recover my sight.” 52 And Jesus said to him, “Go your way; your faith has made you well.” And immediately he recovered his sight and followed him on the way. (Mark 10:46–52 ESV)

I want you all to meet Bethany.

That’s not her real name, of course. I can’t give you her real name — her life is still in danger. And I cannot tell you very much about her except that she’s a young teenager, just barely old enough to start high school.

Her parents … well, I don’t know what happened to them. She told me she was not allowed to say. I do know know she has spent much of her life in foster care, and on the day I met her, she and her brother were in a foster home where the worst you can imagine anyone doing to a child had been done to them.

Regularly and repeatedly.

I’d come to meet Bethany because of an online ministry I started doing earlier this summer, when I discovered an iPhone app called Whisper. It’s mostly used by teenagers and twenty somethings to talk about sex and drugs, but the idea behind Whisper is to speak you deepest, darkest secrets onto the web. Everyone is anonymous. And there is a lot of despair, a lot of loneliness, a lot of hopeless whispered out into the world.

It’s an app I wish I could have had at 15. All I had were the four walls of my room. There was no way for me to tell the whole world I was lonely.

So … I decided to spread a little hope, to be kindness whenever I could. To those wondering if anyone would ever love them, I would respond — yes, wait, hold on, love will find you. Lonely is not all there would ever be in your life. To those who felt they no longer had a reason to live, I would tell them — live anyway. Life will get better.

To those who’d never heard a good word, a tried to be a good word.

Sometimes this would result in conversations, short conversations, usually one-time talks, of encouragement and support. But very occasionally, the talks would last. And we’d take them off Whisper to another place.

And that’s how I met Bethany. A group of kids out west started sharing my phone number and texting me. I had a lot of conversations, and I think — though I cannot be certain — I got something of a reputation as the compassionate adult who actually listens. Because, and let me make this clear, your kids, our kids, are looking for just such adults. They hunger for that, for people who will listen and advise without judging and condemning.

Bethany got my phone number and wrote it down on a gum wrapper. One afternoon, she sent me a message:

“Are you Charles Featherstone? Before you answer, I have to ask you some questions to make sure.”

She’d heard of me. After she was satisfied I was who I said I was, she told me a little about her life — her painful, lonely, difficult life.

“What do you want me to do for you?” I asked her.

I don’t know, she replied. Because she couldn’t ask for the one thing she really wanted — to be rescued. I was far away, across the country, in no position at that point to do much for either my wife or myself, much less a young teenager.

Finally, the situation got so bad she ran away. The night she ran, she texted me from wifi hotspot to wifi hotspot. “I wish you were my dad,” she said.

“I wish I could help you more than I am,” I wrote. “I’m sorry, but I know what it’s like to live knowing help is not going to come.”

“Yeah. Help is not going to come.”

Bethany ended up helping herself, finding a home and sanctuary for herself and her brother. Something no 14 year old should have to do. But she did it. She’s an amazing and extraordinary young woman.

I couldn’t read today’s gospel lesson without thinking of Bethany. Now, I know I’ve just done something I’m not supposed to do, something my preaching professor at seminary — ELCA Bishop Craig Satterlee — told me a preacher should never do. I have put myself in the position of Jesus in this story. Bethany came to me, having heard of me, seeing how my presence in one of her friend’s lives has changed that friend, hoping against hope that I could something for her. Rescue her. Adopt her. Care for her. Love her.

All I have been able to be for her are words on a smartphone screen.

I’m not the hero of this story. I’m a guy who reached out to the world to spread a little kindness and do a little good who suddenly discovered, in waves and torrents, the surging suffering of the world can easily overwhelm. I don’t do much of this online ministry anymore, mostly because I’m already entangled in the lives of half-a-dozen wonderful, lovable, and deeply troubled young people. And that’s about all I can safely handle right now.

I couldn’t save Bethany.

Jesus had crowds. Mobs. Thousands crushing in upon him, looking for healing, wholeness, redemption, rescue, care, and love. He was the Son of God, he healed the multitudes, and yet even with the power of the divine flowing through him, he found it overwhelming.

I love the gospel reading from today. There are so many amazing and wonderful details in this. This is, according to my count, the eighth time Jesus heals someone in the gospel of Mark. (He casts out demons three times as well.) This is the only person Jesus heals who has a name — Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus. That’s a big deal. We have a host of lepers and paralytics and men with withered limbs and bleeding women and the deaf. We have Jairus’s dead daughter, who Jesus brings back to life — she kind of has a name, since we could call her Bint Jairus.

But only Bartimaeus has a full and proper name.

Baritmaeus has heard of Jesus (how could he not?!?), knows what he can do, and calls Jesus “Son a David,” a title used by Solomon, a royal title. “Son of David, have mercy upon me!” Bartimaeus cries out. And when the disciples true to silence him, he cries out all the louder.

Later, in Mark’s gospel, Jesus will seemingly refute the title, asking that if David himself acknowledges the anointing one, the Christ, as Lord, how can the Christ be David’s own son?

The disciples, of course, cannot be bothered with the fate of a single blind man, because they’ve got business to attend to, great things to accomplish. They are on the way from Jericho to Jerusalem, to claim the throne and the crown and the kingdom. This blind man, he is simply in their way.

At the time I met Bethany, I’d written a book, was arranging radio interviews, was hoping to get noticed and go on and do great and amazing and wonderful things. To be a famous pastor with lots of followers and lots of buzz and all that went with it. People were going to ask me my opinion and I was going to give it. I was going to be famous and important. This girl, well, she was simply a distraction.

And she didn’t care about may opinion on the great controversies of the day, or my hopes or dreams or aspirations. She just wanted to know — “Do you care enough about me to be here with me and for me? To rescue me, and maybe even care for me?”

In this story, Jesus reminds us — all of us — that no one is in the way. There isn’t anyone who doesn’t matter, who is a distraction or an inconvenience, who prevents us from doing the real business of life. Because in this call to love God and love neighbor, the person in front of you, in need, wanting, hoping, demanding, IS the business of this call. Bethany, and all those like her, ARE the reason Jesus spoke to me in the fire and death of 9/11 and called me to follow.

“Call him” he tells his disciples, who then think it their right to condescend to him. As if simply dismissing him, telling him to go away, was not enough.

Bartimaeus, thankfully, doesn’t listen. Doesn’t take their bait and doesn’t argue. He knows God when he meets God, and he doesn’t really care how God’s people have treated him. He rushes to Jesus with excitement.

“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks.

Nowhere else does Jesus ask this question. Nowhere else does Jesus ask if someone wants to be made whole, or have their demon cast out, or to be healed. And I suppose Bartimaeus could have answered some other way — make me wealthy, make me ruler of the world. But no, Bartimaeus wants his sight back. He wants to see.

He wants to see.

Jesus heals him. “Go your way. Your faith has made you well.” Your way. Jesus sends him off to live his life. Healed and whole. And what does Bartimaeus do with his newly regained sight? He follows Jesus.

That doesn’t happen anywhere else in Mark either. None of the other people Jesus heals or makes whole, brings to life or casts out their demons, are said to follow Jesus. They are restored to their lives amidst their people, to a place of respect in their communities.

But not Bartimaeus. He goes with Jesus to Jerusalem. We don’t know what happens to him after this, as far as I could tell we have no history or stories about him.

But healed, he follows Jesus.

We know what he follows Jesus into. Jesus enters Jerusalem, the crowds go wild, he does a little teaching,then things go stunningly wrong, he is arrested and convicted and tortured and crucified. He dies. He is buried. And then, and the third day of his death, two of his most important women followers cam to his tomb to discover that Jesus is not there. He has risen, and is going to Galilee to meet Peter and the other disciples.

We don’t know what becomes of Bartimaeus. But we do know what becomes of Jesus. He has risen. He is with us right now. He is in our midst. He is calling us and leading us and guiding us and asking us, “What do you want me to do for you?”

And he is doing it.

We who flee, who follow, who are called, who seek, who ask, who demand, who are swept up, who are simply minding our own business when Jesus walks into our lives. We who meet Jesus directly or only know of him because we’ve heard what others say. All of us, no matter how Jesus meets us or gets to us or finds us. Son of Man and Son of God, we are in him, he is in us, and he is all that matters.

7 For thus says the Lord:
“Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob,
and raise shouts for the chief of the nations;
proclaim, give praise, and say,
‘O Lord, save your people,
the remnant of Israel. ’
8 Behold, I will bring them from the north country
and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,
among them the blind and the lame,
the pregnant woman and she who is in labor, together;
a great company, they shall return here.
9 With weeping they shall come,
and with pleas for mercy I will lead them back,
I will make them walk by brooks of water,
in a straight path in which they shall not stumble,
for I am a father to Israel,
and Ephraim is my firstborn.
(Jeremiah 31:7-9 ESV)

SERMON – Give Us the Glory

I didn’t preach today, but if I had, it might look something like this.

SERMON Lectionary 28 / 20th Sunday After Pentecost 2015 (Year B)

  • Isaiah 53:4–12
  • Psalm 91:9–16
  • Hebrews 5:1–10
  • Mark 10:35–45

The disciples of Jesus didn’t get it. They didn’t get Jesus. They didn’t really understand who he was or why he had come or what he had come for. I’m not sure, half the time, they were really listening.

And so, in a bit that should have been part of our reading today, left out of both last week’s and this week’s gospel passages, is Jesus, telling his disciples what they are actually going to Jerusalem for:

32 And they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them. And they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. And taking the twelve again, he began to tell them what was to happen to him, 33 saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. 34 And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.” (Mark 10:32–34 ESV)

Mark is the shortest of our gospels, but this little bit has some fascinating details. Jesus walked ahead of his disciples, they were amazed, and following Jesus, they were afraid. All this before Jesus describes the awful things that are about to happen to him — betrayal, arrest, condemnation, humiliation, death.

Yes, three days later, Jesus tells his amazed and frightened disciples he will rise again. Not dead. Very, very, not dead.

And how do James and John respond to this?

Give us a place of honor at your side, in your glory.

Glory. They want glory. Literally, here, they want the attention, the honor, they want the eyes of all the world upon them, thinking those eyes are on Jesus. They want to share in the light that shines upon Jesus, their teacher and friend. They want to be part of it.

Now, maybe they think this walk to Jerusalem is about a kingdom that will look and smell and taste and be like Rome. Power that can do what it wants, when it wants, where it wants, how it wants. Power that knows little restraint upon passion or desire or avarice. Perhaps they think this kingdom is like that, and whatever power is coming to Jesus, they want a share of that.

Well, who wouldn’t?

There’s nothing in the passage, though, that suggests they think that way. I like to think sometimes that the disciples were good, earnest revolutionaries on their way to Jerusalem to seize power, ends the Roman occupation, and create what they truly believed was the kingdom of God, but honestly, we don’t know what was in their minds. Perhaps all that is happening here is callow ignorance and boasting, like Peter, who will later swear that he will never leave Jesus when the Lord described how he will be abandoned by all who follow him. Maybe they are humoring the boss, or sucking up, or maybe they think that whatever is coming, they really, truly, honestly want part of it too.

But they don’t really understand Jesus. They have no idea what they are asking for. They will know, eventually, after Jesus is dead, and risen, and ascended. They will know. But not that day. Not on that road.

Can you drink the cup that I drink? Jesus asks.

A cup. Jesus will later gather with his disciples, in what must have struck them as a weird and terrifying meal, break bread with them, and pass it around. “This is my body,” he tells them. He then takes a cup, he gives thanks, and he passes it around. “This is my blood,” he says.

Later that evening, as Jesus struggles with what is about to happen, what he has time and again told his disciples will come to pass, he will pray in the garden of Gethsemane to the Father to “remove this cup from me.”

This cup. The cup that Jesus drinks. That he shares. The cup he asks — no, he pleads — with the father to take away.

[Pause]

Jeremiah speaks, in chapter 25, of something called “the cup of the wine of wrath.” God tells the prophet to give this cup to all of the nations I am sending you — beginning with the Kingdom of Judah — and make them drink of this cup. And when they drink, God tells Jeremiah, all of these nations shall “stagger and be crazed because of the sword that I am sending among them.”

The sword. War. War without mercy, without limit, without pity is coming, and it will begin with Jerusalem, which will become a desolation and wasteland. And then it will seep outward, to Egypt, to Moab, to Edom, to the Philistines, to the rest of Israel’s neighbors, and eventually, to the north and the south, far and near, and all of the kings of the earth shall drink of this cup, ending with the King of Babylon — the Rome of Jeremiah’s time.

Then Jeremiah writes:

“Then you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Drink, be drunk and vomit, fall and rise no more, because of the sword that I am sending among you.” (Jeremiah 25:27 ESV)

The cup of the wrath of God, full to overflowing, filled with war and violence and fear and death. No one with any sense would take that cup and drink it. Not gladly. Not happily. Only in fear and trembling. And even then, not if you absolutely had to. I’d refuse it if I could.

And God knows this. Which is why he tells Jeremiah:

28 “And if they refuse to accept the cup from your hand to drink, then you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts: You must drink! 29 For behold, I begin to work disaster at the city that is called by my name, and shall you go unpunished? You shall not go unpunished, for I am summoning a sword against all the inhabitants of the earth, declares the Lord of hosts.” (Jeremiah 25:28–29 ESV)

What if this is the cup Jesus passes around the table, the cup Jesus begs the Father to take from him, so that he doesn’t have to drink it?

[Pause]

On that night when Jesus was betrayed, he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank of it.

All of them.

All of us.

When we gather at this table, when we celebrate this supper, when we eat bread and drink wine, we think of reconciliation and forgiveness, of belonging and unity, of the grace and mercy and God, a self-sacrificing gift of salvation made in fear and trembling. But what if this bread, and this cup, is also the wrath of God, poured out upon the world, swords loosed against all who dwell on earth, a judgement upon us, for our sin, our violence, our desire for wealth, and power, and glory?

I have a confession to make. I’ve never been comfortable with saying that Jesus somehow takes the wrath of God for me, so I don’t have to. That Jesus dies for me. I don’t buy it. I don’t believe it. My eyes tell me a different story, one of sin and suffering and death. Everywhere. So much. If Jesus is busy dying for us, taking wrath in our place, drinking a cup that we cannot drink because it is too much to bear, then honestly, I don’t know what to do. Because we all still suffer. We all die.

We all drink that cup. Without even thinking about it.

I think it’s better — and a great deal more correct — to say Jesus lives and suffers and dies with us, drinks this cup with us. Does it first. Is out in the lead, amazing and terrifying us at the same time. And then he rises, defeating sin and death and showing us that the wrath of God looks more like resurrection than it does a rain of fiery stones from heaven.

Or a Babylonian army besieging the city. Or Roman legions laying waste.

In taking the wrath with us, and then rising on the third day, Jesus shows us that the wrath of God is not something to fear. It will not make us fall so that we will rise no more. We are free to live without fear of that wrath. Because it cannot leave us dead and desolate.

Jesus tells John and James, “That cup that I drink you will drink and the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.” They will drink — oh, will they drink. They will preach and teach and heal and raise from the dead. And like Jesus, they will suffer. And they will die.

And like Jesus, they will rise.

We will rise.

So as we gather at this table, take this cup, each and every one of you, and drink. Drink of the wrath of God, poured out upon the world. Drink also of the mercy of God, the promise of God, poured out for many. Drink of the life of God, given, so that we may live.

The Problem of Modernity

I’ve dealt with the subject of the American civil faith beforeespecially from that glorious time of strong and steady church attendance in the decade and a half following the Second World War, but it is a subject I will return again and again. In part, because I listen to a lot of old radio shows — many bundled with commercials and public service announcements — and in part because I think the rot in the American church is a very specific product of American Christendom.

So, I present yet another public service announcement — this from an episode of Gunsmoke broadcast on December 02, 1956 — encouraging Americans to worship:

The world is in a chaotic state these days. Maintaining world peace requires much more than military strength. It takes moral strength too. That moral strength can come from our spiritual advisors, our ministers, priests, and rabbis. Educating our children in the right way, teaching them to love and fear God, can to build morally and spiritual strong young men and women out of them.

Many of us have personal troubles, some of which seem insoluble. Contact with God will provide the necessary comfort and strength to carry on under even the most trying circumstances. Get into the habit of attending your church or synagogue regularly, and don’t go alone. Take a friend with you, or better still, take your whole family. Families who worship together, stay together.

There come times in all our lives when we feel the need of advice or comfort from a spiritual advisor. Howe much more helpful he can be if we are in regular communication with him through weekly worship.

Make America spiritually strong. Attend your church or synagogue each week.

Remember, this is from the high-water mark of American Christendom. Churches were full and well-funded. They bustled with children. Clergy were respected, and listened to, as intellectuals and figures in the community. The country was a lot more Christian in any number of senses — culturally, ethically, even perhaps on some level confessionally. And yet someone convince me that the faith presented here is not Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

Because that’s what it looks like to me.

The focus here is on the individual and the nation. But not on the Church, or God, or even Christ. (Jesus couldn’t be central save as a teacher of good works, since at this point, Jews had become full participants in the American civic faith.) There is no mystery here, no communion, just faith as a public utility with a personal and public end — a strong nation peopled by individuals capable of dealing with problems. There is no suffering here, just “times of our lives when we feel the need of advice or comfort.” There is no sin and no redemption here, just a chaotic world in need of morally and spiritually strong women and men.

Again, tell me why this isn’t Moral Therapeutic Deism.

I feel like I’m belaboring a point. (Because I am.) This is the problem with liberal Christianity — and by that, I mean the (primarily) protestant surrender to the truth claims of modernity in the 18th and 19th centuries. (Rome would surrender later.) The protestant churches accepted the modern order — the state, society (the community of citizens bounded by the state and defined by their relationship to the state, progress, and the belief that the purpose of human history — the purpose of humanity — was embodied in the state, rather than the church. The church became an adjunct to the state, supporting its efforts, its purposes, and guiding people toward their “proper” places in this order. The whole point of the church was to provide a moral and ethical buttress to the state-centered order, and provide ethical guidance to individuals during “trying circumstances.” The church is useful to the maintenance of the liberal order, and perhaps justifies it morally (especially in cosmic struggles with officially atheist ideologies), but it is nothing more.

So, of course the church cannot meaningfully teach its story — the story of Israel’s encounter with God, the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and how that changed the people Jesus called to follow — and cannot meaningfully disciple people because it has, for at least 150 years, been too busy making good citizens out of them. The church has been too busy telling, and elevating, and celebrating the story of liberal modernity — democracy and progress and science and history and freedom — to tell its own story. If we have failed to shape people as followers of Christ, it’s because we stopped trying. A long time ago.

It is a partisan political conceit of the worst kind to think that somehow the rot set in only recently, with a few Supreme Court decisions, or in the Sixties, when 1950s American Christendom fell apart. It is much older than that. It goes back at least to an uncritical and unquestioning acceptance of modernity, and the story enlightenment moderns tell about human beings and the meaning and purpose of our existence. (And it may go back farther than modernity, and may be deeply rooted in Christendom itself, which means failure and collapse is an inescapable product of success and prosperity. Which is, if you consider it, very much in line with the biblical story of the rise and fall of the Kingdom of Israel.)

Which means, like Jeremiah, all we can do is watch as the Babylonians gather and being their siege. Nothing is going to save this city. There are no miracles coming. Only defeat. And exile.

Blogging Will Be Light for a While

Hey everyone, just an update. Blogging will be very light for for next month of thereabouts, as I have just started a full-time job (yay! It is not the best job I’ve ever had, but it will do for now) and I am taking the H&R Block tax course three evenings a week. I have have my hands full, if not necessarily my mind.

Hey, if no one’s calling me to be a pastor, I have to do something…

SERMON — Naked With Nothing Left

SERMON Lectionary 28 / 20th Sunday After Pentecost 2015

  • Amos 5:6–7, 10–15
  • Psalm 22:1–15
  • Hebrews 4:12–16
  • Mark 10:17–31

I think we’ve all heard this story before, the story of the man — in Mark he’s just a plain, ordinary rich man, in Matthew he’s a rich young man, and in Luke he’s the rich ruler — who comes up to Jesus and asks with all honesty and reverence:

Good teacher, What must I do to inherit eternal life?

And, of course, Jesus responds by telling the man to follow the teaching of God as given to Israel through Moses — do not murder anyone, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not defraud anyone, and honor your father and mother. All those “thou shalt nots” with a nice dollop of “thou shalt” on top.

What were you taught, Jesus is asking him, and did you actually do what you were taught?

Yes, the man says, from the days of my youth, I have done all these things. As Protestants, most of probably snort at that — we all know everyone is a sinner who has fallen short of the glory of God. Somewhere along the line, I suspect, this man lusted in his heart, or hated his neighbor, or wanted something his neighbor owned, or cursed his mother and disobeyed his father. No one is sinless, no one is righteous, except Jesus. We know this to be true, we confess it regularly. Maybe not in worship, but the founders of our churches did, in writing, confess our essential sinfulness.

So, the man is clearly lying. We know this. Right?

There’s something I want you to consider when we hear Jesus say something or do something. I want all of you to consider the possibility that Jesus meant it. Perhaps even literally.

So, consider what Jesus doesn’t do. He doesn’t argue with the man’s assertion that he has, in fact, kept the law. That he is righteous. he gospels frequently suggest that there are people who are righteous, and don’t need to be healed. He doesn’t make this a theological discussion — “really, you are sinner.” He agrees with the man. Yeah, you’re righteous, you’ve done all God has commanded.

And then he adds something — something not in the Torah. “Go and sell all you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”

It’s an interesting conversation Jesus and this man are having. See, the man knows something, something in his choice of words that he forgets as he speaks. He talks of inheriting eternal life. Not acquiring, or earning, or building, or creating, or seizing. He understands that this life eternal he so desperately seeks isn’t a thing we earn or make. It isn’t the product of honest labor, or a reward for services rendered. It’s unearned. It may be expected — the heir to a fortune always has some idea that money and property will land on him. But he doesn’t know when.

And the heir cannot be entirely sure that he will inherit. There’s always a matter of chance. Wills can be changed, New heirs can be found. The fortune can simply dry up or get washed away before it will ever be passed on. That there will be nothing left, and the heir will stand there, empty handed. With nothing.

It’s unearned, this eternal life. We don’t get it for ourselves. And yet, there’s a sense that all the good we do must somehow contribute to it. The man just wants Jesus to tell him — how do I guarantee that I will be an heir? That there will be eternal life coming my way?

“Go and sell all you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”

As good modern human beings, inheritors ourselves of the liberal capitalist order, we know the role Anglicans and Lutherans good Scots Presbyterians played in creating the modern world — a wealthy world where the virtuous worked hard and saved and created their wealth carefully and scrupulously. And we know how little of value there would be in the world if this instruction — go and sell all you have and give to the poor — were actually followed. It’s absurd! Think of all we would never have accomplished if everyone just gave everything away!

Well I have good new for you — Jesus isn’t telling you to do that. He’s telling the man, who asked him what he could do to inherit eternal life. And in all four gospels, so far as I know, this man is the only person Jesus specifically instructs to leave everything and follow him. So, whatever property and wealth you have, you can relax. Take a breath. You’re okay.

But I do want you to consider — suppose Jesus really does mean this. Leave everything, and follow him.

Because from the very first encounter Jesus has with his disciples, when calls them to be fishers of men, they respond that way — they leave everything and follow him. When Jesus looks at Levi the tax collector and said, “follow me,” Levi gets up, leaves his work, and follows Jesus. Time and again, there are people Jesus meets and he calls them to follow. And they do follow, they leave whatever it was they were doing, they get up, and they follow. They leave work, home, father, mother, brother, sister, wife, children. They leave property and obligations behind, and they follow. They follow Jesus.

He never had to tell Peter and James and John and Andrew and Levi to sell everything, give it away, and follow. Because they abandoned nets and boats and homes and even families. To follow Jesus.

And the man, when faced with the cost of following Jesus, walks away.

The passage said he is disheartened, and sad, but think about it for a minute — he’s actually giving thought to what it means to follow Jesus. Peter never did. Neither did his brother Andrew, nor James, nor John, nor Levi. None of them considered the costs when Jesus walked into their lives, they heard the call, and dropped what they were doing and left it all to follow Christ. We would hope a woman or a man when faced with such an immense decision would at least consider the matter, give it some thought, weigh the costs and consequences with the benefits. Make some kind of rational choice.

Jesus stepped into my life on September 11, 2001, underneath the burning towers of the World Trade Center. He didn’t tell me, “follow me,” at least not that day. But follow I did. It wasn’t a reasoned choice (maybe it ought to have been), but I left everything. A solid career as a journalist in Washington, savings, financial security. And now all of it is gone. I went to seminary, through the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s candidacy process for ordained ministry, failed spectacularly at it, was asked to write a book about my life, which has — as of this morning — only sold a few hundred hundred copies despite being an astounding tale of my journey through Islam and the kind of terrorism that flies airplanes into tall buildings to meeting Jesus underneath those very same burning buildings. I’ve been unable to find work, Jennifer and I have been wandering from place to place without a proper home, and no one will call me to be their pastor. I’ve not only left everything, I’ve just about failed at everything I’ve done as well.

I feel like Peter when he tells Jesus, “See, we have left everything and followed you.” And i’m not sure I’m wrong. Because Jesus doesn’t rebuke Peter, doesn’t shut him up, doesn’t correct or contradict him, and does not tell him, “get behind me Satan!” Like the man who came looking for the secret to eternal life, Jesus takes him seriously, and at his word. Yes, you have left everything. I know.

But more importantly, Jesus tells Peter and the rest of his disciples — and us — that even as we leave everything behind to follow him, we will receive in return a hundred times what we left.

This is not some prosperity gospel claim. We don’t, as followers of Jesus, name it and claim it. Rather, we become part of a community of people — the followers of Jesus — who become brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers and children. This is the kingdom of God, the miraculous and marvelous provision. You who have nothing, who left everything to follow, you have brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers and even children in Christ. You have homes and lands and more than enough. Because God, and God’s people, provide.

We no longer own. We no longer possess. We no longer acquire. But we do inherit. In this kingdom we belong to each other. In all the time I have been unable to find work, Jennifer and I have thankfully never been without a place to live. Occasionally it has been cramped, but we have been cared for. By brothers, and sisters, and mothers, and fathers, and yes, even children. The people of God. Sharing what they have. Allowing us to inherit.

All this, and eternal life too.

Now, I suspect we’re used to thinking that this man walked away, sad, dejected, so entranced and attached to his wealth that he could not part with it. Certainly not for the poor, and certainly not to follow Jesus. An object lesson. It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to make it into the kingdom of God.

But this is where the Gospel of Mark is interesting, because while this story appears in Matthew, Mark, and John, only this detail appears later — at the time of Jesus’ arrest — in Mark, chapter 14:

51 And a young man followed him, with nothing but a linen cloth about his body. And they seized him, 52 but he left the linen cloth and ran away naked.

It doesn’t say who this young man was. Mark does write that at this point, everyone else had fled, and this young man was the only person left. I like to think he is rich man who came to Jesus, seeking eternal life, righteous in all he had done. He walked away, grappled with his sadness and his sorrow, and then — he sold all he had, gave to the poor, and followed Jesus.

Because with God, all things are possible.