March 27, 2009

This Year in Jerusalem!

by Kyle Childress
I’m back from the Holy Land; tired and exhausted yet inspired, challenged, and eager to share the stories with you. My experience of pilgrimage to the Holy Land was almost overwhelming. Every day, everywhere we went, there were biblical sites, holy sites, and historical sites, piled upon one another and impossible to see them all.

Galilee was beautiful. We were there during the rainy season and everything was green (green by Galilean standards). Standing on the top of the Cliffs of Arbela overlooking the western edge of the Sea of Galilee (which is no more than a modest-sized lake) one can see the very route from Nazareth to the Sea of Galilee that Jesus walked. Furthermore, clustered along the lake’s coastline, all within view because they are no more than a few miles from one another are the remains of the villages of Magdala (the home place of Mary Magdalene) and Capernaum. Beyond that, up where the Jordan River runs into the Sea of Galilee, is Bethsaida. All of these villages are easily within walking distances of one another and most all of Jesus’ Galilean ministry happened within these few miles.

Besides how close everything is – it is a very small country – I was struck by how hilly it is. Nothing is built on flat ground; even Jerusalem is built upon a series of hills. Those Galilean villages, so close as the crow flies, are separated by hill after hill. It made we wonder if Jesus walked on the water because it was the only flat and direct way to get somewhere.

We spent a week in Galilee, each morning taking bus rides to different sites and each afternoon we were free to explore more sites or to rest and reflect, pray and write in our journals. The second week we stayed in Jerusalem in a hotel across the street from the wall of the Old City. Outside the city wall, Jerusalem is a bustling modern city. Inside the old walls it is an ancient city with narrow streets made for walking, crowded with tiny shops selling everything imaginable to tourists and pilgrims, the shop owners all yelling, “Come into my shop!” “Very cheap!” and, “This rug is $80 but for you, my friend, I sell it for $40.”

We visited the holiest shrines in Christendom: the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem (inside are the traditional sites of both the crucifixion and the empty tomb of the resurrection). We viewed Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives and walked across the Kidron Valley, through the Garden of Gethsemane, and the Via Dolorosa (the way of suffering). We saw Nazareth up in Galilee and the Mountain of Temptation down near the Dead Sea where Jesus fasted for forty days and was tempted (there’s a restaurant for tourists built on the traditional site of Jesus’ fasting!).

But the highlights for me, without a doubt, were the conversations with Palestinian Christians who are seeking to be faithful to Jesus of Nazareth and his Way of Peace, in face of powerful oppression, violence, and injustice. For example, I visited with Rev. Mitri Raheb, pastor the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem about the ministries of education and empowerment for the Palestinian people. Mitri said there were five things about this Holy Land we needed to know:

(1) There’s too much “peace-talking” and not enough “peace-making.” Like Jeremiah, there is talk of “peace, peace but there is no peace.”

(2) There’s too much politics and not enough care for the polis (the cities where the people live). He said that Condoleeza Rice visited Israel and Palestine 28 times and not one checkpoint was moved.

(3) There’s too much religion and not enough spirituality and real faith.

(4) There’s too much humanitarian aid (it tends to go to agencies and organizations and the Israeli government) and not enough empowerment of the people.

(5) There’s too much “pess-optimism” and not enough biblical hope. “Pess-optimism” is the back and forth between how people feel about the situation in the Middle East. It is up and down, back and forth. But biblical hope is more solid, foundational and leads to the transformation of people from spectators to participants.

I discovered much of the same on a free day visit to the village of Ibillin in Galilee and the home of the Mars Elias School and the work of Archbishop Elias Chacour, whom many consider a modern-day Martin Luther King in Israel. Father Chacour, whom I had the great honor to meet, is a Palestinian Christian who witnessed as a boy his childhood home and village bulldozed by Israel. Nevertheless, he has spent his life and ministry working for the reconciliation of Jews, Muslims, and Christians. His school has Christian children and Muslim children learning how to respect one another. Jewish children are welcome but none come. The Israelis are deeply suspicious of all the school does and what Father Chacour does, although the school does have Jewish teachers along with Muslim and Christian teachers.

A Mennonite friend of mine and I went by car over to the village and toured the school and church. A young Mennonite woman intern from the U. S. greeted us. I got out of the car and she hugged my neck, telling me that she graduated from Elkhart Seminary last May when I gave the commencement address. She and a Palestinian Christian man, who is active in the church and is in charge of construction and maintenance at the church and school, gave us a tour. At one point, we paused in the beautiful Melkite Catholic Church (Roman Catholic but Greek Orthodox in its liturgy, doctrine, and tradition) and he asked me to stand in the back to hear the acoustics. Standing in front of the iconostasis (the screen between the altar and the nave) he began to sing and chant the ancient liturgy. I heard those old, old words, from the back, surrounded by icons of biblical heroes as well as contemporary ones like Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, and Archbishop Oscar Romero, and I was mindful of the witness of these Palestinian Christians who at great sacrifice and risk pointed to Christ. And I knew that I was near Jesus.

It was among those Christians where I found the holy land. Or as Father Elias Chacour says, “It is not the ancient stones and shrines which make this land holy but the living stones of Palestinians and Jews who sanctify this land by what they do to make God present.


March 23, 2009

Flunking Lent

by Debra Dean Murphy
Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-12; John 12:20-33 (Fifth Sunday in Lent)

"I have flunked Lent. I flunk it every year."

Fleming Rutledge writes these words in one of her many fine Holy Week sermons. But they're my words, too, this week, and perhaps yours also. We've flunked Lent. We always do.

But this is not the bad news it may at first appear to be.

When we set out on Ash Wednesday every year to observe a holy Lent, we pray Psalm 51 together, asking for mercy and cleansing, for wisdom, for an erasing of the record that stands against us—a blotting out of our iniquities. We pray that God will "create in us a clean heart and put a new and right spirit within us."

And then we often act as if we must accomplish these things ourselves. We embrace Lenten disciplines—a good thing—but we easily mistake them for what they are not: self-improvement programs meant to make us better (thinner, smarter, nicer) people. We come dangerously close to narcissism, shifting our gaze from Christ and our neighbor in need to ourselves and our trivial preoccupations.

And so this week, as Lent is rounding the homestretch, we return to Psalm 51—back to where we began. We re-assume the posture of the penitent one who knows she cannot do the work of transformation by her own power, who can only cry out from the depths: "Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me."

In their own way, each of the appointed texts for the fifth Sunday in Lent reminds us that the work of transformation is God's and not ours. In Jeremiah, Yahweh dreams of a time when the people of Israel will live by the law of love he inscribes on their hearts—when they will live and love intuitively, without striving, with effortless joy, deep in the heart of God.

In the gospel lesson, after Jesus struggles momentarily with his destiny (this is John's gospel, after all; no prolonged agony here), he declares firmly that when he is lifted up from the earth, he will draw all people to himself. God, in and through the cross and resurrection, will do the saving. Our task, to borrow a line from Marilynne Robinson's beautiful novel, Gilead, is to "put ourselves in the way of the gift"—to be still long enough, to pay attention carefully enough so as to avail ourselves of the Spirit's power to reform, conform, transform.

In another of her Holy Week sermons Rutledge relates this story:

"During the Persian Gulf War, one of the New Yorker writers was reminded of an incident described by George Orwell during the Spanish Civil War. Orwell wrote from the front lines that he saw a man from the opposing, Fascist forces jump out of the trench and run along the parapet in full view, presumably carrying a message to an officer. He had nothing on but a pair of ill-fitting trousers, which he held up with one hand as he ran. Orwell wrote, 'I refrained from shooting him . . . I had come here to shoot at "fascists," but a man who is holding up his trousers isn't a "fascist," he is visibly a fellow-creature, similar to yourself and you don't feel like shooting him.'"

"When God looks at us," Rutledge goes on to say, "he does not see titles, bank accounts, club memberships, vacation homes, net worth. He sees frail, vulnerable creatures trying to cover up our spiritual nakedness. When Jesus came down from heaven to live among us, he lived among us at that level. The Son of God gave up all his divine prerogatives and came into the world to be a fellow-creature with us in our deepest need. We were God's enemies, deserving of death; but he looked on us trying to hold up our trousers with one hand and declared that we were not enemies but friends."

“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Leave it to John’s gospel to interpret Jesus’ death liturgically, sacramentally—to see that the gift of Christ’s body on the cross and the gift of Christ’s body in the Eucharist are the same gratuitous, divine self-giving that makes friendship with God possible. “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). When the gift of bread, made from the wheat that falls to the earth, is lifted up at the Lord’s Table, it draws us together in friendship and love, in unity and hope. This is not our doing. We don’t make Eucharist—Eucharist makes us.

We've flunked Lent. But it turns out that in not making the grade, we are now free to see our failure for what it is: the freedom to give up the illusion that we are in control; to make visible our vulnerability as pilgrims on the Lenten journey toward friendship with God; and to learn what it means to live and love intuitively, without striving, with effortless joy, deep in the heart of God.


March 19, 2009

For God So Loved the World

by Debra Dean Murphy
Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:13-21
(Fourth Sunday in Lent)

With a group of friends, I'm reading a new book entitled Why Go to Church? The Drama of the Eucharist. Written by a Roman Catholic priest--Dominican and Englishman Timothy Radcliffe--and commissioned by the Archbishop of Canterbury as his Lent Book for 2009, this text is interesting reading for us American Methodists in the suburban south.

In a chapter on preaching (the book takes in the whole of Word and Table), Radcliffe warns against taming the Bible's strangeness in the Sunday sermon. "The beauty of the Bible," he says, "is that it is not clear, simple and unambiguous. Its words are puzzling, intriguing and slippery."

He could have been talking about the appointed texts for this week, especially the Revised Common Lectionary's appointed reading from Numbers (Catholics read from 2 Chronicles on Sunday). The account of the plague of snakes and the serpent on a stick in chapter 21 is puzzling, for sure. (Let's face it, it's plain weird). It has perplexed Jewish and Christian interpreters for centuries, and no single, definitive interpretation has won the day.

The Numbers passage is paired with the gospel text because John mentions the strange, puzzling incident: "Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life" (John 3:14-15).

And here's where the text gets all tame again. These words from John are so familiar, perhaps especially so in the revivalist culture of southern Protestantism, that we assume that everything in this text is "clear, simple, and unambiguous."

Isolated from all that precedes and follows it, John 3:16 has become the gospel distilled to soundbyte, to manageable bumper-sticker slogan--the whole truth and nothing but the truth, all you need to know to be a Christian. Believe in Jesus. Accept him into your heart. (The phraseology, interestingly, is found no where in the Bible).

As another great churchman, Peter Storey, has put it: "Some tell us that following Jesus is a simple matter of inviting him into our hearts. But when we do that, Jesus always asks, 'May I bring my friends?' And when we look at them we see that they are not the kind of company we like to keep. The friends of Jesus are the outcasts, the marginalized, the poor, the homeless, the rejected--the lepers of life. We hesitate and ask, 'Jesus, must we really have them too?' Jesus replies, 'Love me, love my friends!'"

John's gospel knows something about friendship. And it knows something of friendship's connection to "belief" (a word that appears five times in these eight verses from John 3). "Belief," says Radcliffe, "is the beginning of friendship with God." It isn't mere intellectual assent to doctrinal talking points. It isn't "head knowledge" that culminates in "heart knowledge" (accepting Jesus).

We are friends with God, according to Radcliffe, not because we think or believe certain things about God but because we see things with God--through God's eyes, as it were. Learning to believe in God is learning to see all things in the way God sees them: infinitely worthy of our understanding, interest, and care. It is to love the world as God so loved the world.

Jesus did not come to tell us about friendship with God. He is God's friendship with us made flesh and blood. Of course, they killed him for this. "People loved darkness rather than light," observes John. But the good news we are making our way towards this Lent is that the light has overcome the darkness, and God has saved us for friendship with himself.


March 10, 2009

Asleep at the Wheel

by Jessie Larkins
John 2:13-22; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; Exodus 20:1-17 (Lent 3B)

There is a joke that occasionally passes through pastors’ circles now and again with a bit of light-hearted commentary on the passion (or lack thereof) of worship in a particular pastor’s church. Says one pastor: “My congregation is so dead in worship that if someone were to have a heart attack, when the EMTs arrived they’d wonder to whom they should attend.” Those of us who worship regularly in congregations that bear any resemblance to that description chuckle uneasily at this joke. Yet truth be told, it hits a little too close to home. What has happened to our practice of worship that it has become yet another instance of a religious institution “going through the motions” rather than true, life-shaping (rather than sleep inducing) encounter with the living God? I don’t know about you, but a few cattle and sheep in the narthex of my church might be just the ticket to breaking our somnolence and accommodation to the “way things are” in congregational worship.

It seems to me that what is at stake in this gospel lesson of Jesus storming the temple is that the worshipping body, and more importantly the religious authorities, have simply fallen asleep at the wheel and accepted all of these marketplace practices (and the implications thereof) without much thought or question. Why not sell animals in the courtyard? It will make worship easy and accessible to all. Why not place some money-changers inside the gates? It will make it possible for all to give their temple offerings in the proper currency thus keeping the people right with God. Can’t we leverage these harmless activities for the sake of proper worship of God? And so, what began as sensible ideas suddenly was exposed by Jesus as idolatry and accommodation. The temple was a market place; the political powers were satisfied. Somewhere along the way the efficiency and survival of the institution supplanted the sanctity of worship in that place.

It is easy to read this story and distance ourselves from its lesson. There are no cows or exchange officers in my church…we must be doing OK. (Yet, woe to the mega church with the in-house coffee shop and bookstore!) Or, we create elaborate policies and procedures to shield ourselves from possible association with these temple practices. (For example, my congregation has a policy about money changing in the narthex—no bake sales for mission in the sightline of the chancel! (The adjacent hallway, on the other hand, is fair game.)) While policies such as this have their proper place, both of these excuses miss the point of the story. The nuance, too, is one to which we pastors and laity tempted towards quick criticism and judgment do well to attend.

Jesus’ critique of the temple practices challenge us all to question what “activities” of our congregational life together we have made into idols, assured that they are “necessary” for the functioning of our life together yet which fail to lead us to true worship of the Triune God. What busyness of church life do we foster such that worshippers (better yet the God whom we worship) find little in the way of sacred space in our churches? Though these many activities: meals, committee meetings, children’s programs, projects, task forces, studies, book groups, and support groups each appear to fulfill a necessary function, have they led us to forget our purpose?

I am reminded by W. Hulitt Gloer in his commentary on this passage that “the trappings [of the temple] were still in place but the place had no heart for its raison d’etre. It has been taken over by buyers and sellers, consumers and marketers who knew how to fill pews and meet campaign goals. The ways of the world invade the church gradually, subtly, never intentionally, always in the service of the church and its mission” (Feasting on the Word, Lent 3B, p. 97). It is a wake up call to me as a “religious authority” of my own time and place when I read the account of those temple authorities who question Jesus’ authority to disrupt “the way things are.” Gloer again reminds me, “After all, they were doing the things the way they were doing them because they believed they were doing them right. They had no intention of violating God’s purposes, and they would never knowingly oppose God” (97). What better time than Lent for us to examine our congregational lives together and ask where we have settled into comfortable behaviors that allow us to plug along, asleep at the wheel, blind to the manure piling up in the narthex? Would that we would align ourselves with the God that we meet in our other two lessons for the day: the God calling to his people from Sinai, “I want my people back” (Exodus 20: 2-4); the God who reigns from the weakness and foolishness of the cross and exposes all of the world’s foolishness and the failings of human strength (1 Cor 1: 18-25).


March 02, 2009

Closer to the Brink

by Brian Volck
Last Sunday’s readings (the First Sunday of Lent for the Western Church) were stories of destruction turned into rescue and peril into triumph. Noah, at God’s urging, saves a remnant of Creation and receives God’s covenantal promise. Jesus, upon being baptized, is immediately (euthus, one of Mark’s favorite words) driven into the wilderness (the verb, ekballein, suggests being tossed, hurled, or expelled, as in an exorcism) where her is unsuccessfully tempted by Satan before being waited upon by angels.

This week – with the Revised Common and Catholic lectionaries diverging – peril and destruction are nearer than ever. In Mark 8:31-38, Jesus calls Peter “Satan,” for advising against the path of suffering, death and resurrection. It doesn’t help that the phrase, “pick up your cross,” has lost its terrifying charge over the centuries. We might have to try a contemporary paraphrase, something like: “renounce your citizenship, lie down willingly on your waterboard, and die.” Yes, there’s the promise of the Father coming in glory with his angels, but Jesus makes plain you can’t get there from here except through the valley of death (not its shadow, mind you, but the real, mortal, unavoidable deal).

Catholics hear Mark’s transfiguration account (which frightened Peter enough to leave him muttering that nonsense about tents), preceded by Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac at God’s command. “Terror on the mountain,” is how I once heard this episode called, and even if Isaac squeaks though in the end (reader’s note: whenever someone’s name is repeated in short order, as in “Abraham, Abraham,” “Moses, Moses,” or “Saul, Saul,” it’s time to listen good and hard.), Abraham has his knife out and ready.

Times are perilous in 2009. Millions of Americans have lost their jobs in the past year, the Dow Jones has lost nearly half its value, and this year’s schemes to jump start an economic recovery will quadruple the national deficit.

And that’s just the U.S. The virus of instability incubated in American lending institutions has infected the world. I received ashes on Wednesday of last week in a small village church in rural Honduras, where locals are getting used to the idea that remittances from relatives in the US are vanishing, perhaps forever. Yet the villagers were there, ahead of me in line, waiting to have their foreheads daubed with a cross of ashes, to be reminded of their humble origin, their certain mortality.

It’s disturbing contrasting my poor Lenten efforts at simplicity and penitence to the struggles of campesinos in one of the poorest states of a very poor country. What hardships I undergo in Lent are chosen and brief, while theirs are imposed and enduring. The growing burden of suffering in the US still pales in comparison to the immense historical and present weight borne by the peoples of Latin America. Yet we’re called into this mystery together, as a body, as Christ’s body, and I can hope to share some small part of their greater wisdom in the traditional practices of prayer, fasting and alms giving.

Lent has never been about making oneself lovable in the eyes of God. That was and is forever beyond our control. What the practices of Lent can do is cast away the inessentials, those parts of ourselves so precious to us, so ridiculously extraneous from any other perspective. It takes a shipwreck in deep water for a rich man to see what hindrances bags of gold are. It takes near-drowning to persuade him to let them sink so he may live, to hurl them into the sea as Christ was hurled into the wilderness.

In so doing, I may come closer to sharing the lives of my rural Honduran mentors in faith, who evangelize me through the testimony of their struggle. I may come closer to you, whose silent pain I know nothing of, being so taken up by my own petty concerns. I may come closer to Christ, whose wounds still bleed for me and for the many.

May your Lenten observances bring you to the spiritual brink of disaster. (I pray they don’t bring you to material disaster, though, if they do, I pray the rest of us fully embody what the Body of Christ does in such times.) It profits us everything to gain our souls in exchange for what we wrongly imagined was the world.