Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Freedom of a Christian

The sixteenth century father of Protestantism, Martin Luther, knew that human beings simultaneously crave and rebel against freedom. We find it difficult to be free even when freedom is the very thing we are in search of: we enslave ourselves and others with all kinds of dictates and systems of oppression- sometimes in the name of liberty itself.  Which is why we need Jesus.

In “A Treatise on Christian Liberty” (known more famously as “Freedom of a Christian,” Luther sought to remind his readers that ”the one thing, and only one thing necessary” for Christian life and freedom in the Spirit of Christ was “the Word of God, the Gospel of Christ.”  In other words, knowing Jesus and His Word is the only thing necessary to live freely, abundantly and ethically in and for the world around us.  Nothing else is required.  No secret handshake, no country club pass, and certainly not any one political party platform.

Centuries following Luther, it appears that at least one  influential segment of modern-day Protestants has been challenging the view that Christian freedom could be so simple and unrefined.  Liberty University, founded by the late televangelist Jerry Falwell and self-described as “the largest Christian university in the world,” was in the spotlight recently when presidential hopeful Rick Perry visited.  The school’s chancellor, Jerry Falwell Jr., took the opportunity to clarify that the university’s strong Christian credentials do not mean only Christian candidates are eligible for admission.  

“We don’t encourage our students to have a litmus test based on a candidate’s  theology,” Falwell said, in an interview Wednesday with National Public Radio. “But the  issues are what we care about, where they stand on all the issues that matter — social  conservatives to fiscal conservatives — and that’s always been our position.”

Which leaves me a bit confused: is or is not Liberty University a “Christian” university, as opposed to a university for “social conservatives” and “fiscal conservatives” (“Republicans” in other words)?  If the key criterion for admission is actually where candidates “stand on…the issues that matter” to social and fiscal conservatives, as opposed to faith in and relationship with Jesus Christ, would it not be better to change the university’s motto from “40 Years of Training Champions for Christ” to “40 Years of Training Champions for the Republican Party”? The university might even consider dropping the adjective “Christian” wherever it appears in their public relations materials and maybe replacing it with “Republican.”  Just a thought.

Field Notes on Grace

Here is a conversation starter:  Where did you last experience “grace” and what did it look like?

In the spirit of Stanley Hauerwas’ latest book, Working with Words, which is one Christian theologian’s exploration of language about God, I want to propose a conversation around “grace” and where we encounter it in the world.  This is not a conversation only for Christians.  It’s for everybody everywhere- and I’m looking for your input regardless of creed or lack thereof.

“Grace” according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, and I quote, is: “unmerited divine assistance given humans for their regeneration or sanctification…a virtue coming from Goda state of sanctification enjoyed through divine grace…approval, favor,  mercy, pardon…a charming or attractive trait or characteristic…a pleasing appearance or effect : charm…ease and suppleness of movement or bearing…used as a title of address or reference for a duke, a duchess, or an archbishop…a short prayer at a meal asking a blessing.”

So the invitation is to share how you have experienced “grace” lately wherever that may be- even in church.  If you haven’t experienced grace lately, you can share how you imagine ”grace” to be.

I’ll start.  The other day my family ended up, a bit bored and hungry (it was around lunchtime), at our local playground.  We soon discovered that a mega birthday party for someone we had never met was about to take place.  There were the bouquets of balloons, bounce houses, snow cone machine, tables of food and pony ride.  All for a guest list we were not on.  This was most evidenced by the fact that every person showing up to the party was a well-dressed African American carrying a large present for the now one-year-old birthday girl who would never remember this extravagant fun.  In short, the whole affair was over-the-top in a wonderful, serendipitous way, and we had stumbled into it.

Needless to say, we felt a bit out of place: while the playground appeared to be still open to the public, we had stepped into a private, invitation-only celebration.  We wondered whether we should go.  Our kids were hoping to stay and play.  And so we had lingered just a bit, all the while wondering when would be our cue to leave.

Just then, the mother of the girl walked over to me, the obvious interloper.  I wondered if this was it- the time when we would be told that the playground had been reserved for the occasion and we needed to leave.

I asked her about the cause for celebration.  She told me. And then the unexpected happened: “You all are welcome to stay and join us for the party. We’ll have snow cones and lots of food.  Help yourselves to everything! And there will be a pony ride, too.”

And so we had stayed.  Uninvited, ill-prepared but lavishly welcomed nonetheless.

Got an intelligence report on grace?  You can either post it in the comments section below or e-mail me at (kristinarobbdover@gmail.com); I’ll share it at the end of the week!

Words for a Dying Friend

Then Moses climbed Mount Nebo from the plains of Moab to the top of Pisgah, across from Jericho.  There the Lord showed him the whole land…Then the Lord said to [Moses], ‘”This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when I said, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’  I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it.”  And Moses the servant of the Lord died there in Moab….Deut. 34:1-4  

The entry stone at the Memorial of Moses atop Mount Nebo.

A dear friend and her husband who has pancreatic cancer have been on the journey of their life.  A journey that they would never have chosen for themselves, but to which they had been painfully summoned this past January when they first got the diagnosis of cancer. Like Moses and the people of Israel, they had their “promised land”:  this past week, they drove to Houston’s MD Anderson with every expectation that Alex, my friend’s husband, would receive the long-awaited Whipple (a procedure that removes the pancreas along with, among other things, the gallbladder,  stomach bile duct and lymph nodes near the pancreas).

Our friends had been praying and waiting for this drive for weeks now, at times wondering if it would ever happen.  There were the infections- one that had nearly taken his life in the hospital- and the weekly chemo treatments.  The emergency trips to the hospital. The scary falls.

And then there have been the daily realities.  The nausea and vomiting.  Those sickening protein boosts.  The emptying of the bile bag (which my friend had joked was “Gollum” from The Lord of the Rings).  All of this the new normalcy of having to play host 24/7 to an unwanted guest called “cancer.”

I, along with thousands of friends and acquaintances, had been regularly praying for Alex’ healing.  We had been intimately following their journey through the Caring Bridge web site that connects family and friends during times of a loved one’s illness- a total of 41,450 visits made from around the world as of this morning.  Each day I have had the blessing of witnessing the faith, hope and love of this family as they have banded together around their father, brother, husband, and lover.

Yesterday my friends were told that the Whipple would not be possible.  The cancer had spread to the liver.  Like Moses, my friends had been obliged to gaze on their promised land from afar.  The doctors had said Alex could measure the remainder of his life in months.

Shock. Anger. Depression.  Sadness.  Fear.  Doubts.  ”If only’s.”  I wonder if Moses standing on Mount Nebo experienced the same tide of messy emotions that my friends are experiencing right now.

Even as I write this I want to paper over the reality of death and dying with some tidy expression of faith.  I want to say that my friends will beat the odds (a one percent chance of life now, according to the doctors, as if life and death can be predicted like the weather).  I want to ask for a miracle and part of me is still praying for one.

But to do so is also to deny the tragedy inherent in every death: that by definition, death is the violent ripping away of our “promised lands”- if not the Whipple and another decade of life, then the book remaining to be written, or the grandchildren you had wanted to hold, or the places you had hoped to visit.  The list goes on.  In death we are forced to gaze on what lies before us with the naked recognition that we will not have it.  At least not in this life.

Can any consolation be found here, at this juncture where we stand like Moses gazing on what we had hoped would be the land that we would inhabit but which has become painfully elusive to us?  For Christians the answer is resolutely “yes.”  Even as we must walk through the valley of death and fall back against the tragedy of life itself, there is consolation that our lives, like Moses’, are in the hands of “the Lord” who led us on the journey and along the way provided manna from heaven and protection from our enemies, who planted in us the desire for a “promised land” and who will indeed give it to us, only never as we had expected, as if to remind us that our beginning and our end are in Him alone.  To that same God, I give thanks for these dear friends and entrust their journey.

Beyond Tribalism

These days my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), finds itself bracing for the possibility of further membership losses with more congregations jumping ship- this after a majority of presbyteries voted to remove the constitutional requirement that all ministers, elders and deacons  live “in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness” (G-6.0106b in the church’s Book of Order).  In effect, the new language opens the way for gays to serve in ordained ministry by letting everyone’s sexuality and sexual preferences (not just gays’) be a matter of conscience.

The change has given way to some ripple effects.  The National Presbyterian Church of Mexico has severed ties with the PC(USA), ending a 139-year-old relationship.  Now some 2,000 clergy and laity representing about 850 congregations are debating the question of whether to stay or go.

"Should I stay or should I go now? If I go there will be trouble. If I stay it will be double."

In the meantime, a decisive factor will be how well we can answer the question, “How then shall we live together?”  Just last week at a meeting of the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta, the governing entity of elders and ministers to which I belong, those of us present began to work together towards an answer.  In small break-out groups we were asked to discuss two proposed alternatives to our current form of polity which might allow us to remain unified despite our differences and prevent further splintering of our denomination.

I had arrived late, so had been ushered to one of the few open seats. There I found myself within a rather random assortment of conversation partners who together had been asked to grapple with the various challenges and opportunities presented by these two possible revised forms of government.

If truth be told, I felt a bit uncomfortable.  I didn’t know the people in my circle from Adam or Eve. They were strangers with name tags- our only connection being our leadership in the same denomination and a unifying belief in the saving love of Jesus Christ- and here we were being asked to share our views on a loaded topic.  Six very different people representing six very different congregations, each with very different backgrounds and experiences.  Could authentic and abiding fellowship really be found here?  The question had crossed my mind as we were introducing ourselves.

But then something happened.  The one African American in our group, an elderly gentleman who had been a pastor for many years, began to speak.  He spoke passionately and articulately from a place of real vulnerability and gentle conviction.  He shared from his own personal experience of having grappled with Scripture and in dialogue with others.  He shared about a time when he sat in a room with members of a certain church whose brash, unapologetic rejection of homosexuals as full-fledged members of the body of Christ seemed an awful lot like bigotry; he called us to consider the opportunity presented by this experiment before us, an experiment in a different way of relating to one another that would ask for courage and a new-found dependence on the Holy Spirit.  That would require us to put our money where our mouth is, so that, in the words of the old hymn, “they will know we are Christians by our love.”

He kept talking- so much so that a couple of us exchanged nervous glances, wondering if we would ever get through the questions we were to answer.  But as he spoke, an amazing thing happened:  I began to listen.  To really listen.  To listen without an agenda, without thinking about the next question or what I ought to say next.  Just to listen.  And as I listened, I began to thank God for this man next to me and for each of us sitting there in this circle of mostly strangers, so thankfully different one from another.  All of us called to this place at this time in the life of our churches and denomination.  Here in these moments we had been obliged to encounter one another as persons.  Not as categories of “conservative” or “liberal.”  Not as members of opposing tribes, but as individuals- as saints and sinners wrestling with the complexities of Scripture and the limits of our own experience.

We human beings are instinctively tribalistic: we tend to gravitate to those who are just like us, who look like us, talk like us, think and act like us.  Differences can make us uncomfortable.  So we choose to live in certain neighborhoods over others.  Our children prefer certain cafeteria tables to others.  We attend certain churches rather than others, so that, as Martin Luther King, Jr. once put it, America remains never more segregated than on any given Sunday morning.

Last Thursday this kind of tribalism injected itself in an ugly way into the Republican primary debate when an American soldier fighting in Iraq, built like an Iron Man but speaking a bit tentatively, called in with a question:  “In 2010 when I was deployed to Iraq, I had to lie about who I was because I’m a gay soldier and didn’t want to lose my job,” Stephen Hill told the candidates. “Under one of your presidencies, do you intend to circumvent the progress that’s been made for gay and lesbian soldiers in the military?”

Hill’s question elicited loud boos from the audience.  Then Rick Santorum answered.  He gave no words of thanks for this man’s service, no gestures of appreciation.  Only boisterous reassurances, to the loud cheers of those present, that “don’t ask, don’t tell” would be reinstated under a Santorum presidency.

Tribalism.  It is about as old as a man and a woman in a garden with an apple and a serpent.  It is in our loins, a bit like sin, and it is everywhere.  All around us everyday.  In the church and out.

I left last week’s exercise in listening to those different from me with an answer to my question.  Can we find unity in our differences and belonging in our diversity?  Can we find fellowship in our separateness?  Yes, by the grace of God we can.  For all of the times we have failed, maybe this time will be different.  Amen.

“What If God Was One of Us?”

I heard this song sung by Alanis Morisette the other day on the radio.  It’s actually a wonderful reflection on the doctrine that makes Christianity so distinctive- the notion that in Jesus Christ God became “one of us,” laying aside God’s claims to divinity in order to be with us.  We use a fancy name for it, but the “Incarnation” could just as well be about God becoming a “slob like one of us,” as Morisette croons.

Which at its heart is a declaration of how much God really loves us.  Scandalous, isn’t it?  But in a really beautiful, life-giving way. Because if God Himself found our skin worthy enough to be lived in, then we, too, have every reason to love and affirm our bodies and the physicality of all created things:

If God had a name what would it be?
And would you call it to his face?
If you were faced with him in all his glory
what would you ask if you had just one question?

Yeah, Yeah, God is great
Yeah, Yeah, God is good
Yeah Yeah yeah yeah yeah 

What if God was one of us?
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus
Trying to make his way home

If God had a face
What would it look like?
And would you want to see
If seeing meant that you would have to believe
In things like heaven and Jesus and the saints
and all the Prophets

Yeah Yeah God is great
Yeah Yeah God is good
Yeah Yeah yeah yeah yeah

What if God was one of us?
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus
Trying to make his way home
Just trying to make his way home
Back up to Heaven all alone
Nobody callin’ on the phone
cept for the Pope maybe in Rome

Yeah Yeah God is great
Yeah Yeah God is good
Yeah Yeah yeah yeah

What if God was one of us?
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus
Trying to make his way home
Like a holly Rolling Stone
Back up to Heaven all alone
Just trying to make his way home
Nobody callin’ on the phone
‘cept for the Pope maybe in Rome 

Matzo Ball Love: Weird Sayings Continued…

“‘Go!  I am sending you out like lambs among wolves.’” Luke 10:3  

“These were his instructions:  ’Take nothing for the journey except a staff- no bread, no bag, no money in your belts.  Wear sandals but not an extra tunic.  Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town.  And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, shake the dust off your feet when you leave, as a testimony against them.’” Mark 6:8-11

There are few animals more endearingly stupid than sheep.  A couple years ago, my husband and I were in Scotland celebrating our tenth year anniversary.  The sheep were everywhere.  In just about every strange configuration.  I even saw one sheep literally standing on all fours on the back of another sheep who was herself standing on all fours.  No joke.  If there were a sheep circus, those two would have been in it.

I tried to make friends with the sheep but could never get quite close enough to pet one.  They were skiddish.  It was like they were always running off to another more important engagement, when in fact all they ever really seemed to do was eat, sleep and poop.  (But then again, I guess food, rest and regularity are pretty important in the scheme of things.)

The thing about sheep is that they stick together.  It is rare to find a sheep meandering on its own.  And the wee ones, the lambs, are especially timid.  They stick close to their mothers.  

In addition to being a bit dim, scared and skittish, sheep do not have a very good sense of direction.  Have you ever heard of a sheep that takes directions well?  I mean, while my directional sense is poor, (and I mean really poor), try telling a sheep how to get from point A to point B.  At least I can ask for directions.  Sheep have to be herded with a big stick and even then they bleat and bump into each other like bumbling, blathering fools.  Endearingly stupid at best.

Which is why Jesus’ declaration here, just when he is sending out his disciples on a  dangerous mission into potentially hostile territory, is just plain weird.  Even a bit  insulting really.  Hardly the kind of phrase that the U.S. army would use to recruit new  soldiers, for instance- unless they were kamikazes.

But, is Jesus ordering his disciples to be like sheep here? Is he telling them to be bumbling,  blathering fools running all over the place eating, sleeping, and pooping and having to  be herded with great, big sticks?  Is he charging them to be timid babies sticking close  to their mothers?  I don’t think so.

More likely Jesus is describing a reality.  The reality that anyone who believes in Jesus  above all else and seeks to answer God’s call to go into the world with the message that  God is here and on the way is going to face obstacles.  Is going to be near the bottom of  the food chain.  Is going to appear naive and powerless by all external appearances.  Is  going to look like the next good meal for those who would cynically prey on the poor  and vulnerable.

Because by virtue of our being sent into the world with a message that God is here redeeming lives, we are making ourselves vulnerable.  We are putting ourselves “out there,” by telling people God loves them.  And, in the words of Jerry Seinfeld, if we don’t “get a return” on our words, “that’s a pretty big matzo ball hanging out there.”

To tell our world that God is here and that God loves us and cares about how we treat one another and is intimately invested in our lives is a claim that can seem silly and downright outrageous.  And it can require a whole lot of humility and courage- especially when we ourselves are not the message.  And just to drive this point home, Jesus instructs his disciples to “take nothing for the journey.”  “No bread, no bag, no money in your belts.”  As if by virtue of having these things we might mistaken ourselves and our resources for the message itself.  A message we’re bringing about One who saves.

These instructions that we travel light are, I suspect, especially hard to hear for those of us who have spent our lives justifying our existence through our possessions. The best education.  The highest accolades.  The well-paying job.  Like money and clothes, these are stamps of worldly success.  They can send a message about who we are.  Or at least who we would like to think we are.

But Jesus won’t let us take refuge in these petty minutiae.  Because at the end of the day they really are like “chaff that the wind blows away.”  When the world as we know it falls apart, when chronic illness strikes, or we lose a loved one, or all of our life’s savings dissolve with one swing in the stock market, we can quickly be left with nothing.  We can feel lost, like a pathetic, helpless sheep bleating on a hillside.

And this is where God shows up.  In that nexus between our desperate inadequacy and a cruel world that scorns the weak, God issues the assurance that God’s sheep will never be lost and will never perish (John 10).  Because a Shepherd came and laid down his life for the sheep and pointed them in the direction of Love.  He was God’s own great, big matzo ball hanging out there, broken for us.

I call that naked love.

Playing Host to Our Demons: Weird Sayings Continued…

“When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it.  Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’  When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order.  Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there.  And the final condition of that man is worse than the first.’”  Luke 11:24-26  

Jesus healed many demon-possessed persons.  Take Mary Magdalene, for instance, a woman whom Jesus healed “from seven demons” (Mk. 16:9, Lk. 8:2), often defined by tradition as the “seven deadly sins” of pride, lust, envy, anger, covetousness, gluttony, and sloth. Mary was the first to encounter Jesus after his resurrection and to fulfill his charge to go share what she had seen with the other disciples.

But, weirdly, Jesus’ remark here could be understood to call into question the permanence and authenticity of Mary’s and others’ exorcisms in Jesus’ time- and in turn to encourage a level of complacency or even despair about the demons we face.  Why fight them if the battle in the end is hopeless? Why not let them take up shop in our souls rather than seek their banishment, if in the end they will only come back to haunt us even more?  But is this what Jesus was really trying to say?

Demons are not a common staple of conversation these days.  When we speak of demons, we tend to attach them to, for instance, the celebrities who end up on newspaper pages dead from overdoses or who unleash maniacal tirades on YouTube videos when they’re off their meds.  Or, we associate them with movies like “The Exorcist”- as merely the stuff of horror flicks.

But Jesus speaks very matter-of-factly about demons, as if they are a reality to which all of us by virtue of our humanity are susceptible. Even Jesus had to confront his demons in the wilderness.  Pride.  Fame.  Kingship apart from God.  Worldly power and wealth.

It is tempting to fight our demons.  To declare war on these dissolute, frightening parts of ourselves.  Because demons force us to behold our own fragility, and in turn, to cause us to fear our weakness and our capacity to fall apart at the seams.  They threaten our perceived sense of control and the orderly identity we create for ourselves.

Anxiety.  Depression.  Perfectionism.  Regret.  Addiction.  A lust for power and significance.  Fear of failure.  A desire to impose my will on the world.  When these things rear their ugly heads, my first inclination is to go to war.  To take out my metaphorical AK-47 (or at least my four-year-old son’s imaginary “fart blaster”) and blow those nasty suckers out with every form of self-directed intervention I can think of.  Self-help strategies.  The therapist.  Confession to a good friend.  Or, in prayer, ordering my demons out “in Jesus’ name.”

But so often these efforts, if effective for a time, fail to rid me of my demons over the longer haul.  My demons know me well.  They know my Achilles’ heels, and so they’ll come back every so often and take up residence.  And sometimes, when they return having been gone for a while, their clamor can sound like an uninvited heavy metal band playing loudly in my living room.

Suzanne Guthrie, a sister of the Community of the Holy Spirit in New York, shares the story of the Buddhist saint Milarepa.  (You can find Guthrie’s article, “Teatime with my demons,” in the September 6, 2011 issue of The Christian Century.)  When demons came to torment him, Milarepa said to them, “How kind of you to come.  You must come again tomorrow.  And from time to time we must converse.”  And Milarepa invited the demons in for tea.

Guthrie’s story makes a point:  our demons are our worst internal enemies, and Jesus tells us to “love your enemies” and “pray for those who persecute you.”  There is a sense in which aggressive all-out-war on these unloveable parts of ourselves has the potential to give our demons more power than they really have.  Or, to feed the cycle of violence in our hearts using prayer as our weapon.

Which is not to say that we should not pray about our demons.  Only to suggest that when we pray, aggressive prayers for banishment in Jesus’ name may not always be the best way to go about it.  Instead of praying against them, so that we only reinforce our enmity with these parts of ourselves, what if we were to pray for them and for all of the deep psychological wounds and unmet needs they represent? What if we were to converse with them, much like Jesus did in the wilderness, using Scripture to reply?

Or, if we don’t know Scripture as well as Jesus, what if we like Martin Luther were simply to laugh?  ”The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn,” Luther said.  (Luther also said that sex with a spouse works well, too.)

Jesus heals the man from Gadarenes.

What, then, about those many places in Scripture where Jesus does in fact heal demon-possessed people?  Are these healings for real? The evidence suggests they are.  We don’t hear of Mary Magdalene running back to a life of prostitution, for instance, or, the demon-possessed man of Gadarenes (Mark 5:1-9) jumping off a cliff.  (His demons end up drowned along with a herd of swine, and I always feel a bit sorry for the pigs in the story.)

These are probably miracles in every sense of the word.  But as miracles, they are also exceptions. Because for every miraculous healing, there are dozens more people like me, whose demons may not seem as dramatic and over-the-top but are there just the same, and who keep on keeping on without the miracle.  Despite our prayers for miraculous deliverance. This is the reality in our time, and it was the reality in Jesus’ time, too.

Which is why I take assurance from Jesus’ words here.  Because maybe the point is not to be declaring all-out war in hopes of a miraculous victory in this life.  Maybe it is to recognize that these demons, like everything in this sad, beautiful world, including ourselves, are passing away.  That their hold on us will not be forever.  That within the framework of a God who loves us and whose power to love defeats even death itself, our lives and their messiness are but a blip on the screen of a huge salvation story that does indeed end with a new heaven and a new earth.

In that place beyond time, Scripture tells us, “God himself will be with [us] and be our God,” and “He will wipe every tear from [our] eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”  There, in that place, maybe we will one day not just argue with our demons but fellowship with them.  Maybe one day we’ll not just laugh at them but laugh with them.

Jesus as Renaissance Man: Weird Sayings Continued…

“No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth onto an old coat.  The patch will simply pull away from the coat, and you’ll have a worse hole than you started with. People don’t put new wine into old wineskins, otherwise the skins will be split; then the wine will be lost, and the skins will be ruined.  They put new wine into new skins, and then both are fine.”  Matthew 9:16,17

Maybe this passage seems intimidating because of the traumatic experience I had in an eighth grade home survival class: my teacher, Ms. Gibson, (who, by the way, contrary to any stereotypes about women in home economics, drove a red convertible, had her own tanning bed and looked like Barbie), made me sew pockets for my final project.  I got a “D,” with the result being that I now avoid most things sewing-related.

Personal hang-ups aside, this passage is still a bit weird.  In the previous verses, Jesus has just called Matthew (presumably the same Matthew as the writer of this Gospel) out of a dubious profession of tax collecting and into a life of discipleship. Now we find Jesus taking questions first from the Pharisees and then from John the Baptist’s disciples.  The Pharisees want to know why it is that Jesus spends his time with sinners like tax collectors, today’s equivalent maybe being Wall Street traders, to which Jesus replies that his job “isn’t to call upright people, but sinners.”  John the Baptist’s people want to know why Jesus and his disciples don’t practice the discipline of fasting, (which in their time was a way of remembering all of the tragic things in Israel’s history), to which Jesus replies that wedding guests can’t fast when the party is going on.

And then we get these two analogies from the two very different worlds of sewing and viticulture.  Which, by the way, suggests that Jesus was appealing to a very broad audience of men and women when he said this, since I cannot imagine that men in Jesus’ time did much sewing.  But what is Jesus really trying to say here?

N.T. Wright, in Matthew for Everyone, affirms that Jesus is drawing our attention to the new things Jesus is doing. In this sense, these three different pictures (of a wedding celebration, sewing project and wine-making) are meant to convey how impossible it is to mix the new with the old:  they “have in common…Jesus’ insistence that the new and the old won’t mix.  This doesn’t mean, of course, that the old was bad.  Jesus came, Matthew insists, not to destroy, but to fulfill.  It simply means that morning has broken on a new day, God’s new day, and the practices that were appropriate for the night time are now no longer needed.”

Wright doesn’t recommend reading too much into the details of each picture for what they might imply about Jesus in relation to the Judaism of his day.  I won’t.  But I am obliged to conclude here that Jesus was indeed a “Renaissance Man” in the two senses of the term. First, as an educated carpenter well-versed in the Scriptures, Jesus clearly also had at least some basic, working knowledge of two very different skill sets (sewing and wine-making).  We know that he later turns water into wine at a wedding in Cana, for example.  Who is not to say that he didn’t occasionally sew his own clothes, too?

Then there is also the “renascence” or “rebirth” to which Jesus is gesturing.  The entrance of this God-man onto the stage of human affairs represents a whole new way of “being” for human beings.  Yes, it is the fulfillment of Israel’s deepest yearnings for a Messiah who will redeem their tragic history, so long, sad faces and the dabbing away of tears with our Kleenexes really won’t work at the wedding celebration.  Just like it probably won’t work to put rusty hub caps on a brand new Saab convertible, or to ask a really geriatric model to wear Dolce & Gabbana’s newest line of clothing on a runway in Milan.

Can anybody see my legs in this?

But Jesus’ debut also represents more than the fulfillment of Israel’s longings for a Messiah.  It represents healing, restoration, and abundant life.  Not just for Israel but for the whole world in the form of “a new heaven and a new earth.”

God’s new world is “being born,” and from now on everything will be different, as Wright describes it.  ”The question for us is whether we are living in that new world ourselves, or whether we keep sneaking back to the old one where we feel more at home,” he writes.

Are we?

Was Jesus Racist? Weird Sayings Continued…

“A Canaanite woman from [Tyre and Sidon] came out and shouted,  ’Have pity on me, son of David!  My daughter is demon-possessed!  She’s  in a bad way!’  Jesus, however, said nothing at all to her.

 His disciples came up.

 ’Please send her away!,’ they asked.  ’She’s shouting after us.’

 ’I was only sent,’ replied Jesus, ‘to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’

 The woman, however, came and threw herself down at his feet.

 ’Master,’ she said, ‘please help me!’

 ’It isn’t right,’ replied Jesus, ‘to take the children’s bread and throw it to  the dogs.’

 ’I know, Master.  But even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from their  master’s table.’

‘You’ve got great faith, haven’t you, my friend!  All right; let it be as you wish.’

 And her daughter was healed from that moment.”

 Matthew 15:21-28

(Translation from N.T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone)

I love Jesus, but if I were her (the Canaanite woman) I think I would’ve  slapped him!  When Jesus indirectly calls her a “dog,” he is using a common racial slur used by Jews for Gentiles in his time.  What is going on here?

Of course the larger context is that this woman is desperately seeking help for her daughter.  She has probably exhausted her options. She has heard about Jesus and his healing power and will endure even the most humiliating of interactions if it can secure her daughter’s deliverance.

What I have a whole lot more trouble wrapping my mind around is Jesus’ behavior in this passage.  First he ignores her when she throws herself on his good will.  Then he drops the grenades: first, the comment that he was “only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” followed by the rather racist analogy that “it isn’t right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

This passage is a tough nut to crack.  Which is why I solicited some help.  I put the question, “Was Jesus racist?,” before my now-retired New Testament professor, Christopher Bryan.  Chris has written a number of books, having most recently published with Oxford University Press The Resurrection of the Messiah.  He also sports a dignified English accent, which makes him even more authoritative on the subject.

Chris gives an answer with which I would have to concur: yes.  At one time Jesus was racist, and in Bryan’s words, “there is no sense in getting around it.”

Now that the angry outcry has died down and the pitch forks have been momentarily lowered, I’ll attempt an explanation.  Which begins with a few assumptions- the first being that we are holding in tension here the great mystery of faith that in the “Incarnation” Jesus Christ is both “fully God” and “fully man” (as elucidated most famously at the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D.).  This mystery can feed all kinds of fun speculation about what “fully God” and “fully man” in union looks like in practice.

What this does not look like is  ”God dressed up” as a man, as Chris is quick to point out.  As a human being, Jesus would have been to a great extent the product of his times.  He would have been born into a particular culture and steeped in its idioms.  He, like us, would have always been learning and growing.  In fact, Luke tells us this twice to make the point:  ”Jesus grew in stature and increased in wisdom in favor with God and men” (Luke 2:40) and “increased in wisdom and in age” (Luke 2:52).

What does this mean?   The fact that Jesus was once a fully human child, with a fully human mother, Mary, suggests- contrary to those spooky, early Renaissance pictures that portray the baby Jesus with the face of a grown man- that Jesus like everybody else had to “grow up.”  He had to learn things and could be wrong or in error at times and in need of correction.  To grow in wisdom is to learn from life’s experiences.  Wisdom requires real-life exchanges that chasten and transform us.

“The difference [between Jesus and us]…is that it took one encounter with one Gentile woman who looked him in the eye, and our Lord got it…he saw it immediately.  That was the perfection of his humanity,” Chris says.

In other words, this is a rare interaction- (in fact the only one we have recorded in our canonized Scriptures)- in which Jesus is brought up short and recognizes his own error.  He makes a mistake and corrects himself by honoring the woman’s faith and healing her daughter.  As Chris used to say in his New Testament Intro class, it is notable here that “the only time Jesus loses an argument” is “with a woman and a foreigner.”

Of course the evil of racism comes in many gradations, from sheer ignorance or error  to entrenched, willful violations of other human beings’ personhood.  In no way do we find any suggestion in Scripture or elsewhere that Jesus’ racism belonged to the latter category. He should not be confused with the few who in my time and place still put Confederate flags on their porches.

And a mistake is different from sin- or so it can be argued.  Augustine does so in his Enchiridion, for instance.  Sin in many instances involves an act of the will, as a willful disregard for what is known to be right.  In this sense, sin is like a child or subject’s rebellion against the known rules of the parents or established authority.

But what about racism as a systemic evil?  Can we reduce its impact on individuals to a matter of mere ignorance? I’m not so sure.  Isn’t sin by definition in the original Greek (hamartia) a broader notion of “missing the mark?” If so, isn’t Jesus “missing the mark” in this passage?  Maybe.  In which case we are left to wrestle with the idea that Jesus was “like us in every way only without sin,” as the writer of Hebrews puts it.  But if Jesus was truly one without sin, then to what degree was he subject to systemic evils like racism, such that he had to, in a sense, relearn how to be perfectly human?  This passage would suggest that at the very least, Jesus made a mistake and had the humility and courage to correct it more quickly than most of us could.

So…was Jesus a racist?  What do you think?  Leave a comment below to prove that there are other people reading this besides my mother.  (I love you, Mom!)  If you’re too shy to post a comment, send me a note (kristinarobbdover@gmail.com) or post a remark on Facebook and I will post these at the end of the week.  This is after all a “fellowship of saints and sinners.”

Was Jesus a Macho Kind of Guy? Weird Sayings Continued…

Photos by artist Stephen Sawyer

“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth.  I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.  For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law- a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’”  Matthew 10:34-36

Was Jesus a macho kind of guy?

I mean, any man who turns over tables in the temple would have to have rippling biceps and an Alpha male temper, right? And then there is that whole handyman mystique: as a carpenter, Jesus would have spent a lot of time in the sun building things, like those tan, rippling abs and tight body.

“Macho Jesus” is gaining popularity in certain circles, apparently (or, at least according to a recent article inThe Guardian).  Jesus is a man’s man- or, so the theory can go. He is the raw, uncensored embodiment of ultra-masculinity.  That rare combination of GQ’s ”Man of the Year” and the red-meat-eating, beer-guzzling guy next door- if such ever existed.

But is this depiction of Jesus really a fair and accurate interpretation of the man we meet in the Gospels?  Or, is he the product of our own culturally influenced self-projections?

The other day a large, gas-guzzling truck drove by with two bumper stickers on its rear.  (One day I will write the book on bumper-sticker theology.)  They read back to back, “Jesus is Lord” and “We buy guns.”  It hadn’t occurred to me until then that Jesus and guns could be such a well, “natural,” fit.  Macho Jesus…or macho Christian?

How is this for another example?  Just today a friend shared the relatively recent news story about New Welcome Baptist Church in St. Elmo, Alabama. Apparently the music minister, upon dismissal from his post and receipt of his last paycheck, tased the pastor- at which point a deacon stepped in with his pocket knife and stabbed the music minister’s mother (who by this time had stepped into the fray to protect her son).  Macho Jesus…or macho Christians?

But then there is this weird saying from the mouth of Jesus Himself.  A lot of talk about wielding swords and war mongering.  None of those feel-good, “all the people, living in harmony” lyrics of John Lennon.

So what is Jesus really saying here?  Is he making a case for the right to bear arms, especially in dangerous places like church?  Is he flexing his proverbial muscles for us?  

A helpful clue in deciphering Jesus’ intended meaning here is the reference to the Old Testament book of Micah:  ”I have come to turn “a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law- a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household” (Micah 7:6).

Have you ever heard someone say, “I have a word from the Lord for you?” When I do, my first inclination is to duck.  There is a sense in which in this passage the prophet Micah is preparing the people of Israel to duck- or at least to brace themselves for what will happen when God does do something new in their midst.  Something that departs from the old script of gloom and doom that they have been reading.  And this new something will not make everyone happy.  It will cause conflict for the reason that there will be those who liked the old status quo, which in this case was a skin-deep religiosity and a disregard for God’s hard call to justice and mercy.

So Jesus by quoting Micah is really drawing his hearers (the disciples) back to an old, familiar passage from their Scriptures, with a view to preparing them for the new thing He is doing. This new thing will involve a disruption of the same old, same old.   The empty salutes to the “form” of God’s law, with sheer disregard for the “spirit” of that law? The perpetuation of injustices against society’s most poor and vulnerable?  God’s way will put an end to all of this “business as usual.”

And this divine way of doing things will not please everybody- especially when embodied in the person of God Himself, Jesus is saying here.  A death on the cross for the sins of the whole world and a rising to new life and all of the implications contained therein?  They mean that something really new and beautiful is taking place.  A new creation is underway, little by little, one person at a time.  In the person of Jesus and through relationship with Him, God will write God’s “law” on people’s hearts.

And this new creation will make some people turn away in violence.  Because they had liked the way things were.  The rich guy with the great big bonuses and the luxury everything who cannot share even his table scraps with the poor man.  The woman who spends all of her time hording her money and possessions, so that she has a great, big storehouse of plenty all to herself.  The religious keepers of the law (often ministers like myself) whose status and self-justification are now threatened.  They all have reasons to dislike and even fight against this new order.  They all have their excuses for chafing against God’s justice and for violently rebelling against God’s mercy. They- we- like to brandish our swords and wave our guns in the air.  Now who’s being macho?

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