Here’s the worship service. Couple of bibliographical notes on the sermon:
Brian D. Robinette’s Grammars of Resurrection can be found at this link.
I erroneously referred to James Alison’s essay as “Dead Man Talking.” The actual title is simply “Emmaus and Eucharist” and can be found in his book and video course series, Jesus the Forgiving Victim. Here is a link to the video portion of that particular essay.
The “Prayer for the Healing of Creation,” like the “Prayer for the Healing of the Nations” comes out of Singing our Prayer: A Companion to Holden Prayer around the Cross.
The assembly’s continuing response in “Creation” is “God, renew.” That comes between each petition and becomes, effectively, a chanted prayer for renewal. This and “Nations” are some of my favorite litanies of all time.
The Psalm today was a selection from Psalm 98.
Look for this upload soon. I’m struggling a bit with the Facebook video downloader program, but as soon as I get that under control, I’ll post it here. In the meantime, some basic content from this a.m.:
* Reading from chapter 4 of Richard Rohr’s The Universal Christ on “Original Goodness” of creation.
* Prayer of thanksgiving for the gifts of creation and even for challenges, which God will transform for good. Prayer of protection.
* Falun gong exercise #1 (recap from last Tuesday) and intro to exercise #2 (holding the barrels). I’ve also been calling this “qigong” (CHEE-gung), which has to do with the practice of manipulating vital energy.
Hope you will have enjoyed it (once I have it uploaded)! 🙂
This morning I decided to brave the cold weather and headed over to the picnic area at Benedict Park here in Tulsa. I’m trying this new thing this week, where I’m following a worship pattern similar to the one our community used when I was in seminary:
Mondays: Moving Meditation
Tuesdays: Morning Prayer (mostly from Evangelical Lutheran Worship)
Wednesdays: Holy Communion (from various liturgies)
Thursdays: Meditation (mostly focused on breath. Perhaps a Psalm or reading)
Fridays: Prayer for the Healing of the Nations/for the Healing of Creation
I’ll be trying to post videos here for those of you who are (wisely) free from Facebook. It may take me a while to figure out how to pull this off. What you see here is my first attempt. Let’s hope it works!
Time for my semi-annual post, I guess. 🙂
There are a couple of things on my mind, and it would be good for us all to have this stuff out in the open. The first one has to do with me communicating. The second one has to do with our ministry to people living on the street.
Thing One: I don’t say out loud a lot of the things that are in my head. It’s a jungle in there. Or maybe a jumble. Probably a lot of both. If you’ve spent any time with me at all, you will have noticed that, if you ask me a question, you better have set aside some time for an answer, because I can be pretty verbacious when given the opportunity. I know this. I’ve watched the faces of people listening to me talk about what’s going on in my mind.
For this reason, I tend to err on the quieter side. It’s not that I don’t have reasons for things or ideas about stuff that might be going on: quite the opposite is true. It’s just that I don’t want to bore you with detail. That said, PLEASE ask me if you have questions about something that’s going on!!! I can’t emphasize this enough. ASK! It is far better for you to ask and get it straight from my mouth than to speculate and chatter outside of my earshot! (Some would call that “gossip.” I won’t place that label here because Grace, right?) Let me say this differently: Have I ever jumped down someone’s throat for asking me a challenging question? No. Maybe there’s some holdover from the past here, but let me assure you again: I WELCOME questions. You’ve seen me preach before, right? Right.
And to be clear, it’s not that I’m trying to put the burden of communication on you. I want this to be a partnership. The things I believe people care about gets announced through the weekly. Other stuff that’s happening might be rolling around in my skull. Help me get it out, please.
OK, now that that’s settled, on to Thing Two: Homeless Ministry.
Many of you know that we offer showers and a small clothing pantry for our friends who live on the streets. That takes place every Wednesday from 3:30 – 5:30. Bob Moody is in charge of it, and he has a helper from another church. (Genaro is his name, if you ever run into him.) Peggy helps by folding and sorting clothing and doing some other stuff. It’s a beautiful and much-needed ministry. It’s also a little different from some other similar ministries in town in that we don’t force Jesus down anybody’s throats: no sinner’s prayer required, no promise that anybody has to “accept Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior.” That, I think, is a big advantage, because it lets street folks know that we don’t have an ulterior motive for offering our help.
Bob and Genaro do a great job with this ministry. They interact with folks and have built relationships, which I’m sure you will agree is better than just cattle prodding people into the showers, then the clothes pantry, then out the door. If you’re interested in being part of the ministry or adding another day, talk to Bob or me. (You have to submit to a background check and be “reliable” enough to show up when you say you will. You will always be scheduled with at least one other person, for safety’s sake. That’s just how we do it.)
On top of this ministry, I do my own ministry, which follows an “accompaniment model.” This is a long-accepted model in the ELCA and actually in the Lutheran World Federation. Rather than assuming that I have Jesus and am graciously and nobly giving it to some poor homeless sap because I’m just awesome that way, I approach it as though our street friends already HAVE Jesus and can teach me a thing or two about grace. I am committed to seeing Jesus in the face of each one of the folks who come through that door, even if they are drunk as a skunk or high as a kite. Each of us is created in the image and likeness of God. Not everybody remembers that in the face of trauma, and that’s where I am able to step in and remind them of that dignity that inheres in them as a child of the heavenly Father.
I’m not there to save anybody or help anybody. I’m there to SEE people and have them felt SEEN. Some of these folks, people might think, take advantage of me. But as Fr. Greg Boyle (founder of Homeboy Industries) says, “How can someone take advantage of me if I’ve already given them my advantage?” It’s what Jesus said in the Fourth Gospel: “No one takes my life from me. I lay it down and it pick it up again.” Or as he says every Sunday at the Eucharist, “This is my body, given for you!” (Not stolen or sneaked, or snatched away, but freely given! That’s grace, my friends! Some days it’s easier than others.) [Have you thought about the Eucharist this way? Give it a ponder. It can be life-changing.]
I mention all of this because it came to my attention that people are asking or wondering WHY we have homeless folks come to the church building during the week or even on Sundays. Good! Ask! Wonder! Just please don’t wonder amongst yourselves exclusively. I can’t mind-read, and I am THRILLED to talk about this stuff. But be prepared to hear the answers. You may question them. You don’t have to agree with everything I say. (What?! It’s true! I am NOT a “Herr Pastor” type. More on that later.)
I have been allowing this, even on Sundays when folks are drunk, because I always ask myself, “Why are they drunk?” Is it because they feel great about themselves and where their lives have led them? My guess is probably not. When they are drunk (or high, but that’s a slightly different response that’s needed in that case), they feel like hammered poop. The last thing I think they need is to hear how they screwed up. AGAIN.
100% of people living on the streets are there because of trauma, usually Family of Origin Trauma. Sometimes it’s sexual trauma at the hands of a close friend or family member. Sometimes they have a mental health issue and the family doesn’t know how to deal with it. Maybe it’s undiagnosed, which means the family REALLY doesn’t know how to deal with it, because they don’t see the disorder: they only see the behavior, which they label as “bad.” Oftentimes the person started self-medicating and this caused even further troubles with the family. The point is, even if they’ve been on the streets for years and have chosen to stay there by now, the reason in the beginning wasn’t because they thought it sounded great to get so drunk that they peed in their clothes, had to pick meals out of trash cans, sleep under bridges where people would mock them and maybe even beat them up, rape them, or kill them. No. They – like we – are broken people, who need reminding
what big, fat sinners and total losers they are that God loves them deeply.
And who is God and what does God look like? God is the Father, who looks like the Son, who established the Church to be his agents in this broken, messed up world. We should look like God. Not because we’ll go to hell if we fail to, but because we are called daily through our baptism to be conformed into that image, called through the meal to become what we have received.
People who live on the streets are usually people of faith. A lot of them come from Christian backgrounds. That might be part of the problem. I haven’t met a lot of former Lutherans who are homeless. Mostly they come from dogmatic backgrounds that believe in obedience and compliance to norms above all else. That could well describe a lot of North American Lutherans, too, to be honest, but most of us in the ELCA say over and over again that the message of GRACE – totally undeserved, completely unwarranted, wild-ass, foolishly squandered, recklessly offered forgiveness and acceptance – is what draws us to this denomination and keeps us here. It’s not the Theology of the Cross (though we really need to talk about this more, because this is the core of grace); it’s not the Law/Gospel dialectic (which we should also talk about, because Luther got this one wrong); it’s not any other theological proclamation: it’s GRACE that leads us home. Question: Does grace apply just to our congregation, just to the folks who look like us, dress like us, smell like us, act and worship like us? Or does it apply to everyone?
This is not an admonishment or a rebuke, friends. This is my theology of homeless ministry, which many of you have been wondering about. And this is just what pops out of my head as I sit here to write this post. If you ask me in person, watch out because who knows how long I could go on about this.
Now, with all of that said, some boundaries are necessary in order for YOU to feel safe. Just to put this out front, I never feel UNsafe around homeless people, even if they’re using. Almost all violence that comes from homeless people is directed toward other homeless people and is usually in retribution for some kind of slight: he stole my backpack, she took my bottle, that guy said some stuff about my wife. Nevertheless, I understand that, if you haven’t hung around with homeless folks, their forwardness can be off-putting. If I ask YOU how you’re doing, you’re likely to say, “Oh, fine, thanks. You?” And you expect me to say, “Just dandy” or something similar. When you ask a person from the street, they’re not going to give the polite, white, middle class answer. You’ll hear the unvarnished truth (with unvarnished language, most likely). We can work to get more comfortable with that. No big deal.
When someone comes in drunk or high, that’s another thing. Right now, you don’t have a relationship with them. Tell me, please, and I will deal with them. Even if it’s in the middle of service, just put your hand up or signal to me as you would if someone were sick. Maybe I’ll ask them to move. Maybe I’ll ask ushers to escort them out. Maybe I’ll just tell them to shush. It depends on how well I know them and how severe the behavior is.
If they’re acting dangerous, call the police. Don’t even think twice. Use your cellphone to call 911 or slip out and use the office phone. Safety for EVERYONE is our primary concern … even though the gospel is anything but “safe.” You know what I’m saying. Don’t let yourself or others be endangered. Call for help.
Don’t feel compelled to give anyone money. If it’s in your heart to give (AND if you can actually afford it!), then by all means give. But if you contribute to the congregation, there is some small amount of money that I am able to use at my discretion to help folks I think are in need. Or I’ll ask you. But let’s consider it policy that nobody should think they HAVE to give money. I will frequently say (and it’s the truth), “I don’t carry cash anymore, and the church doesn’t keep cash on the premises.” No guilt, no shame. God won’t think less of you for it. Probably. (Joke.)
Now, I have rambled a lot. Not everything or every situation is covered in this post, nor every question answered. This is meant to be a beginning of a conversation. These things are best discussed NOT on Sunday morning five minutes before worship when I’m running around like a beheaded chicken, and not in line after service when my little introvert brain is in sensory overload and I’m lucky if I can manage a handshake and a “Thanks for being here, human person whose name I can’t remember all of a sudden, even though I’ve known you for almost 7 years.” Call me. My number is in the directory. It’s on my calling card. You can also call the church office. You can invite me to lunch or coffee or dinner at your place (though I’d probably have to drag my lovely-yet-energetic children along for that). Point is: call. Ask. You shall receive. Maybe more than you wanted.
Hi. It’s me again. Been so long since I’ve been on here that I forgot all my passwords and stuff.
The reason I’m back today is to recap some recent conversations and to make a suggestion. First the recap.
Back on Reformation Sunday 2018, our congregation gathered, having passed 94 Reese’s (I swear I didn’t eat the 95th!) attached to the sanctuary door. We worshipped together, and we collected YOUR theses for the Church 501 years after Luther’s postings at Wittenberg. Vicar Kara and I collected them and have boiled them down to a few statements, which you find here below.
You said that Church is:
1. A Community
2. A Place (for gathering that community)
You told us that the Church Community values (in no particular order):
2. Healing/Wholeness (which we might call Shalom)
4. Comfort for the afflicted
5. Christ as the Center of the Christ-reflecting community
7. Celebration of Diversity
You told us that the community values having a place for:
Worship, sanctuary, refuge. Some of you called it a haven.
You told us that the community should:
1. Help people
2. Emphasize teaching and learning
3. Boldly speak out for justice
You also mentioned sustainability/survival of the institution in some of your responses.
First some quick background. I know that we’ve been thinking about mission and vision and purpose statements and the like for a number of years. We’ve been in flux as a congregation, and I’ve modulated back and forth between thinking business-like statments are really important to believing they’re a cultural capitulation that the church has made to the modern, Capitalist world. These days, I admit to not knowing where they fit at all, but I do see that they CAN at least be helpful in some scenarios.
What I suggest below seems to fit some kind of “statement” model, which both folds in everything you reported back on Reformation Sunday AND gives us some pithy things to say about ourselves to others and to ourselves as we seek to guide our decision-making in the foreseeable future. You tell me if I’m way off base.
First Lutheran Church strives to inspire hope for a wounded world
through worship that both uplifts and challenges
and by building blessed relationships inside and outside the walls of our building.
I believe this will help guide us in worship planning, sermon preparation, giving shape to budget priorities, hiring/calling practices, framing our business meetings and social gatherings? You tell me. It feels to me like this is ready to publish. This is something we can do whether we gather in our own current structure, or whether we meet in the park or at another house of worship, or even whether we pick up and move shop to some other location. Whaddyathink?
[NB: I didn’t explicitly include the words “God” or “Jesus” in this statement. “God” is such a nebulous term that even Luther struggled with it a bit, stating in his explication of the First Commandment in the Large Catechism, that to have a “god” is to have something in which you place your ultimate trust. That could be THE God, but it could just as easily be an idol. In any case, by explicitly using the word “worship,” “God” as an unnamed direct object is implied. The same goes for “blessed” in “blessed relationships.” That we are a “church” also implies directly that we follow Jesus Christ. Again, though, that means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. I just kind of wanted to avoid the whole assumption claptrap and instead keep things simple as a way to invite folks of all stripes and backgrounds to “come and see.”]
Here is the sermon skeleton for the 2nd week after Pentecost Year A, 2017.
I’m attaching some stuff that doesn’t come up in the sermon, but that we can go back to in reference as we think about growing more and more as a Shalom church.
The inspiration for all of this comes from:
Nessan, Craig L. Shalom Church: The Body of Christ as Ministering Community. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010.
And here is a video of Dr. Nessan giving a brief overview of this book.
Also note: the “manuscript” section of my sermon is something I view as a “jumping off point.” I almost always open the floor for discussion, feedback, pushback, what-have-you. This sermon was written in skeleton form before the announcement of the verdict in the Philando Castile manslaughter case. If you’re coming to church tomorrow, we’re going to talk about the verdict. We can’t ignore it. Our Black siblings in and out of church are in pain because of systemic racism and white privilege, and the acquittal of the officer who shot Mr. Castile brings this up. Again. For the Nth time, just this year. As a community who strives to be a Shalom Church, how can WE (an almost exclusively White congregation belonging to a predominantly White denomination) be the hands and feet of Christ for our kindred in pain, and also see the face of Christ in them? What does a Shalom Church do in situations like this?
Pentecost 2A (2017)
Last week our Gospel reading came from Matthew 28
where Jesus authorized the Great Commission:
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
Go, therefore, and teach all nations, (make pupils of all nations/gentiles)
baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.
And, Jesus says, I will be with you always, to the completion of the age.
I gave us Lutherans a bit of a ribbing by commenting that
when Jesus says “Go,”
We quote Luther and respond, “Here we stand. We can do no other.”
Well, there’s a joke in every truth, and a truth in every joke.
And it’s no secret that Lutherans are really terrible at evangelism.
But to defend us for a moment,
I think that word “Evangelism” bears a big chunk of the blame.
It’s not so much the word itself, but the way in which it has been co-opted to mean
that we must go knock on doors
and harass people in the streets
pressuring them to say a sinner’s prayer
or asking them “If you died today, do you know FOR A FACT that you will go to heaven?”
Even the Roman Catholics have distanced themselves from Evangelism in that sense of the word,
and now they talk about the “New Evangelization.”
I don’t understand that word, because as far as I know
there is no verb, “evangelizate.”
In any case, Evangelism is supposed to be a sharing of Good News,
not a sales pitch for eternal fire insurance.
Scaring people with hell and fire and brimstone
or pressuring them to say the right words or what have you
isn’t spreading good news.
It’s spreading terror.
You might get a convert or two here and there, but not for the right reasons.
When Jesus COMMISSIONED those first disciples/apostles,
he was sending them out with authority
to show that his Good News was about healing and wholeness and peace,
concepts that are wrapped up in the Hebrew idea of Shalom.
He was forming a Shalom Society, a Shalom Church.
And he had already prepared his disciples for that work.
That’s what his whole ministry had been about.
And before the crucifixion, he had sent them out as interns in a way.
That’s where today’s Gospel reading comes in.
Now, this story of the sending of the 12 shows up in all 3 synoptic Gospels (Mt, Mk, Lk)
and one might argue that it also shows up in John 14
with the promise to his disciples that
You will do the works that I do
and greater works than these.
But John’s Gospel frames the story differently from the other three.
We don’t need to get too much into that today,
but it’s interesting to notice how the synoptic authors tell the story.
Mark, historically the 1st account, which Matthew and maybe Luke drew from
shows Jesus sending out the 12
with authority over unclean spirits.
They preached repentance,
cast out many demons,
anointed with oil and healed many sick people.
Luke 9 talks about the mission of the 12 in terms of Jesus giving the disciples
power and authority over demons, to cure diseases, and to proclaim the kingdom of God.
Luke follows that up in chapter 10 with a broader sending –
the sending of the 70 (or 72, depending on which translation you’re reading)
to heal the sick and to proclaim the kingdom’s at-hand-ness.
So, 2 sending stories in Luke.
And here in Matthew 9 – 10
Jesus tells the 12 disciples, whom he now calls “apostles” (sent ones, not just students)
to proclaim the at-hand-ness of the kingdom of heaven
heal the sick
raise the dead,
cast out demons.
He gives them authority over unclean spirits to cast them out
to heal every disease and every infirmity.
There are a lot of neat little details that vary from one Gospel to the next:
Most of the versions talk about entering a town or city
and accepting hospitality where it is given
eating what’s placed before you
sharing peace if it’s there,
but shaking the dust off your sandals where there is no one to hear your message.
But in Matthew and Luke we get that curious little phrase about
how it will be better for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment for that town.
That’s just kind of interesting because people in the North American church
usually associate Sodom and Gomorrah with homosexuality
even though Ezekiel straight out says:
49 “‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom:
She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned;
they did not help the poor and needy.”
And Matthew’s version is the only place where Jesus says
NOT to go to the Gentiles or even to the Samaritans,
but instead to go ONLY to the “lost sheep of Israel.”
One could write a dissertation on that particular variation
and what that might mean.
So, there are some differences between the various Gospel accounts,
but what’s significant is what they have in common:
Namely, that Jesus is looking for willing Co-workers in this kingdom work.
God is coming to us to offer us PARTNERSHIP in bringing about the reign of God.
Jesus is building a community of Gospel partners:
NOT to harangue people about life after death or repeating a sinner’s prayer,
BUT RATHER to proclaim that God’s rule is coming to earth
and is, in fact here!
THAT’s what the Good News is.
Jesus gives us the power and the authority to put on display what God’s rule looks like:
peace and healing and wholeness
or, again, that fabulous Hebrew word: Shalom.
Jesus never commissioned us to go into the world and make Lutherans of all people,
teaching them to sing hymns in 4-part harmony
and to memorize the Small Catechism
to follow the Revised Common Lectionary when we meet every Sunday inside a fancy building.
It’s important to remember that all of those things are cultural trappings
— colonialist trappings, in fact —
that can sometimes get in the way of ACTUALLY proclaiming the kingdom of God in word and deed.
Those are things that we have to hold onto pretty loosely
unless we, too, want to be like Sodom and her daughters:
arrogant, overfed and unconcerned
unwilling to help the poor and needy.
But there are important aspects of Lutheran identity that can HELP us in our evangelizing task:
Luther’s 2 Kingdoms thinking is one example
as long as we don’t think of them as separate spheres,
which is what got us in trouble in Germany in the 1930s and 40s.
[An oversimplification of 2-kingdoms theory holds that there is a right-hand kingdom that concerns itself with the things of the church and spirituality and there is a left-hand kingdom which entails life in the world. The actual theory is more nuanced than this, and Luther himself understood that GOD RULES BOTH KINGDOMS, but “popular” understanding of 2-kingdoms theory holds that these are two entirely separate dimensions of life: One is civil, the other is religious. It’s where the idea comes from that religion/spirituality should be held apart from political life, because it is “personal” and “individualistic/subjective.” It’s different than the separation of church and state as Jefferson would have framed it, but again in the popular imagination, there’s probably little distinction. And this is part of the reason that German churches didn’t, as a rule, involve themselves in a struggle against Nazism. Clearly, the situation is more complex than all of this, but that’s the idea in a nutshell.]
But if we think of those kingdoms more as God’s 2 “STRATEGIES”
we can have a healthier concept of what it means to be a concerned Shalom community in the world.
God’s right-hand strategy includes the task of disciple-making.
We are a part of Christ’s body
who are formed into that membership by the biblical narrative
and by thoughtful liturgical practice.
And God’s left-hand strategy includes the social ministries of our Shalom community:
striving for justice and equality for all people
caring for creation and responsible use of the resources we’ve been given
and respecting the dignity of all human beings as creatures made in the image of God.
Underlying this approach to being church in and for the world
is Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s idea that the Church community —
the Shalom Community —
IS the presence and existence of Jesus Christ
through the empowering and gifting of the Holy Spirit.
The work Jesus calls us to is God’s Work.
The tools he gives us to do this work are one another:
Our gifts and talents put to use for the betterment of the world
Our proclamation and our prayers
Our “evangelism” in word and deed.
We have the power AND the authority from Jesus himself to work with him to bring Shalom to the world.
Twenty Virtues of the Shalom Church
1. Commitment to inclusivity
2. Love for enemies
3. Readiness to forgive
4. Repenting of violence
5. Nonviolent resistance
6. Solidarity with the oppressed
7. Hospitality to strangers
8. Care for the physical needs of all
9. Preferential concern for the weak [ed. for those whom we have marginalized]
10. Just economic and legal dealings with others
11. Basic posture of praise and thanksgiving
12. Loving the earth as our neighbor
13. Readiness to learn a new paradigm for human participation in the world
14. Stewardship as care for creation
15. Holding one another accountable for the care of creation
16. Affirmation of the common humanity of all those created by God
17. Respect for the dignity of the [people/groups whom we have] marginalized
18. Commitment to building an inclusive church
19. Defending human rights
20. Immersion in the theology of the cross.
Twenty Core Practices of the Shalom Church
1. Praying for peace
2. Interpreting the actions of others in the kindest way
4. Resisting violence
5. Advocating nonviolence
7. Charity and generosity
8. Healing ministry
9. Restorative justice
10. Holding accountable the privileged and those in authority
13. Attending to the local place
14. Living sustainably
15. Advocacy for the creation
16. Admiring the divine image in the face of the other
17. Expecting to encounter Christ in the person of the vulnerable one
18. Participating in the suffering of others
19. Principled opposition to genocide
10. Advocating for human rights
12 Representatives of Shalom Church
1. Mohandas Gandhi
2. Martin Luther King, Jr.
3. A.J. Muste
4. Dorothy Day
5. Oscar Romero
6. Mother Teresa
7. Francis of Assisi
8. Chief Seattle of the Suquamish
9. Wendell Berry
10. Bartolome de Las Casas
11. Sojourner Truth
12. Desmond Tutu
Wow, it’s been a while since I’ve been on here. What can I say? Life has been busy. Since I last checked in, I’ve hit several walls and come pretty close to a few break-downs. For now, though, things are going OK.
For Lent, as we’ve been doing for the last several years, we’ve had “guest preachers” from the pews share their perspectives on the texts we use in worship, how they impact the lives of those who are doing the preaching, things like that. I love this practice, not only for the practical reasons (mainly that it gives me a break from writing a couple of sermons in an already busy season), but also and especially because it gives the rest of the congregation a different perspective than mine all the time, plus I think it raises people to different positions of leadership in the congregation. It’s not that everyone is called to become a preacher or a pastor, but those gifts DO exist among the saints in the pews, even if not on a full-time basis. I just really love doing this, and I’m always impressed with how the lay people who feel drawn to preach on occasion are able to work with the texts and communicate with the rest of the congregation just what it is in those scriptures that moves and shapes them in their lives.
One of the other benefits of the lay preacher series is that I wind up with some more time to pursue other things in the congregation. Things like teaching. Which I also love to do.
This Lent we decided (on the urging of Augsburg Fortress, who produced a new version of this publication) to study Luther’s “Small Catechism.” We spent a week going over the 10 Commandments, a week looking at “The Lord’s Prayer,” a week on the Apostles’ Creed, another week on Baptism. This week we’ll be wrapping up with the Sacrament of the Table.
As I’ve been thinking about this, even though I’m teaching primarily in line with traditional Lutheran thought, my own theological life has been deeply touched by Girardian thought, especially as interpreted by theologians like Michael Hardin. With that said, I wanted to share a little bit of what I’ve been digesting from Michael and others. That’s what follows here. Feel free to comment, agree, disagree, call me a heretic, whatever. I hope it gives you some, er, food for thought.
In the ancient world – let’s pick a date of 2000 BCE, just for argument’s sake – people in every culture believed in God, or more properly, in “the gods.” This wasn’t about intellectual assent to a god-concept or to a set of doctrines, but rather it was a set of practices including offering sacrifice to the deities. “Believing” equaled “making sacrifice.” Not making a sacrifice or making a poor one was a mark of infidelity and it brought about the curse or the wrath of the gods. But making a good sacrifice yielded blessings. The better the sacrifice, the greater the blessing. Firstborn boys and virgin girls made excellent sacrifices in most cultures.
Sacrifice, then, was practical theology. It was the way in which religion and culture were both formed and practiced.
This is no less true of the ancient Hebrews. The first major modification in their culture/religion is that they stopped sacrificing to the many gods, and began offering sacrifice to the One, True God. At first, this God they saw as the greatest among many, but eventually (perhaps because they stopped sacrificing to the many gods?) they came to believe in and sacrifice ONLY to the One God, seeing the many gods as mere idols. After some time, they stopped offering human victims to this One God (see the linguistic shift in the story known as “The Binding of Isaac”), moving to a “lesser” sacrifice of animals, especially goats, cattle, and sheep, but also turtle doves and other small animals.
By the time of the Prophets, even this lesser sacrifice was being called into question. Isaiah, Zechariah, Micah, Hosea, and even some of the Psalms begin to speak negatively about sacrifice.
While theologically-speaking, this diminished emphasis on sacrifice was occurring, on an anthropological, sociological level, the idea and practice of sacrifice carried on – not only among the Hebrews/Israelites/Jews, of course, but in all cultures — in other, less overt forms, especially through the practice of “scapegoating” a victim in times of tribal/cultural conflict or anxiety. As group cohesiveness would begin to appear threatened and anxiety began to rise, groups could find unity in locating and naming a guilty Other, then casting that person from the group, either by expulsion or by murder (usually carried out anonymously in mobs, so that no one person would bear the burden of murdering the scapegoat). Following this, the identified “problem” was “taken care of,” and unity would be restored … for a time. It would have to be repeated over and over again, but the more often it worked to restore unity, the more cemented the practice became.
There is also within this practice of scapegoating, a move by which the expelled/murdered victim moves from being seen as “the guilty one,” in terms of taking blame for the original problem, to being seen as holy, heroic, godly, because their death solved the group’s problem. They move from victim to rescuer of the people. The “sacrificial” killing of our victims gives us life.
It doesn’t require much of a stretch to see this applied to Jesus. The Gospel witness even attests to the unlikely friendship that developed between Herod and Pilate on account of the disposal of Jesus.
But Jesus was not to be the typical victim-turned-savior because this particular scapegoat returned from his expulsion “on the third day.” And in discontinuity with what most people would expect from a murdered victim, when he returned, rather than seeking revenge on his victimizers, he bore a message of peace. In forgiving those who denied and betrayed him, Jesus not only exposed the violent, murderous scapegoating process as a trap, thus giving humanity a chance to break the cycle of such violence, but also he took away the possibility for humans to use scapegoating as a means of seeing their violent activity as God-ordained. A murderous humanity actually attempted to sacrifice God to God, and as CS Lewis put it, the stone table (the altar) of death was shattered. The spell was broken. And a new possibility for living as non-violent, non-scapegoating, forgiving humanity grew up through the fissures.
This is a model of atonement most recently made popular by French sociologist Rene Girard, but the idea stretches back to the early church’s understanding of what God was up to in the death and resurrection of Jesus. In other words, this is actually an ancient understanding of “atonement,” at-one-ment – the way God in Christ heals the broken relationship between humans and God, as well as between humans and their fellow creatures.
But this understanding became eclipsed in the church over time, and by the 17th century, a theory of penal substitutionary atonement, as espoused by John Calvin and others, came into vogue, both in Europe, and then through European resettlement to the North American continent, in the New World.
Part of this Penal Substitutionary Atonement theory reaches back into archaic religion/culture, and views the death of Jesus as a self-sacrifice to an angry God, as a means to appease this God’s wrath. This God is so holy and so honor-demanding that He (sic) cannot bear the sight of sin. He demands a sacrifice as restitution for the disobedience of sinful humanity. And so Jesus, although himself sinless, offers his own blood in place of ours, bears God’s wrath in his own person so that we don’t have to, thereby effecting our salvation. Jesus bears the penance (hence “penal”) in our place (hence “substitutionary”), stilling God’s anger so that we can be saved or brought back into God’s favor (“at-one-ment”).
Now, there are all kinds of problems with this view of what God was accomplishing for us in Christ on the cross, but that’s another discussion for another time. The reason I bring it up has to do with the ties between the Passion of Jesus and the meal we call the Eucharist or Holy Communion.
St. Paul writes (and we hear again each week in the “Words of Institution”):
On the night in which our Lord Jesus was handed over
he took the bread and gave thanks.
He broke the bread, gave it to his disciples and said,
Take this all of you and eat.
This is my body, which will be given up for you.
Do this in remembrance of me.
And after the supper was ended,
he took the cup and gave thanks,
then he gave it to his disciples, saying
Take this all of you and drink.
This cup is the new and everlasting covenant in my blood
which will be shed for you and for all people
for the forgiveness of sins.
Do this in remembrance of me.
According to Jesus, then, his body will be broken and given up “for you.” Likewise, his blood will be shed “for you and for all people” – for what? For the forgiveness of sins.
TO whom is Jesus being handed over to have his body broken and his blood shed? To God?
No. To the authorities: To Pilate as a representative of the occupying forces of Rome. To the Sanhedrin, the religious authorities. From Pilate to Herod, back to Pilate, to the people, who all cry “Crucify him!” It’s not God saying that. It’s the people, the powers, the principalities. But it’s not God.
FOR whom is he doing it? For God?
No. He explicitly says, “for you” and “for all people.”
This has nothing to do with appeasing a wrathful God, and everything to do with appeasing a wrathful, vengeful, violent humanity.
As Pastor Brian Zahnd puts it, “The cross is not what God inflicts upon Christ in order to forgive: It’s what God endures in Christ as he forgives.”
The prophets were right: God doesn’t demand sacrifice, never mind sacrifice of the Father’s beloved Son, in order to forgive sinful humanity. But humanity DOES demand the sacrifice of the rabble rouser Jesus, who flagrantly violates religious laws and traditions of the elders; who refuses to pay homage to Caesar, but remains faithful to the Abba alone; who stands out as differentiated from the common people. There’s nothing worse in any human society than someone who dares to be different. They make themselves conspicuous, easy to pick out, easy to place blame on when the going gets rough.
In short, WE are the ones who break Jesus’ body. WE are the ones who shed his blood. WE are the ones who demand a sacrifice. God doesn’t command this or demand it in order to restore his pristine name, but rather God endures it. God doesn’t put Jesus on the cross in our place so that he can take the brunt of God’s righteous anger. We put Jesus up there. What God does is to allow himself to be pushed out of the world on the cross, as Bonhoeffer says. By us. And in the end, instead of wiping us out a deicidal sinners, he is persistently present with Jesus on the cross “in the world, reconciling all things to himself.”
So, when we come up for Communion, we’re coming forward not only with nothing to offer God (as beggars with empty hands, as Luther put it), but as a vengeful mob, looking once again to kill our scapegoat, to brutally consume his body and gorge on his blood so that we can suck eternal life out of his bones. And what does God dole out to us in this meal? Is it vengeance? Is it retaliation? That would be justice, but No. God’s response is forgiveness. Nothing but forgiveness.
UPDATE: In my original post, I inadvertently left a big chunk of material from Michael Hardin’s 5-part series on the Eucharist on here, uncredited. As I say, this was accidental. Here’s a link to his original material. Please read it. It’s fantastic! And while you’re at it, please also check out Rob Grayson’s response on his blog. These two guys are just awesome.