Sunday, March 24, 2013

Cross Purposes

TEXT:  Luke 19: 28-48 and Luke 22-23

Because we’ve compressed all of Holy Week into this one day, you may now be experiencing spiritual whiplash. We started meditatively in the 4:00 hour with the somber Stations of the Cross. Then this worship service began jubilantly with our Palm Sunday processional.  Now we are back at the cross, the darkest moment in the Christian year, the "crux" of the Christian story and faith.  But maybe the wildly veering emotions of Holy Week are best experienced in the liturgical equivalent of time-elapsed photography.  To move abruptly with Jesus from his triumphal entry in Jerusalem to his betrayal, arrest, trial, torture, and death—to hear the cheers turn to jeers over the course of mere minutes—may allow us to fully appreciate the fleeting capacity for human devotion, the fearsome power of mob mentality, and the truest meaning of the cross.

I must say, however, that I would prefer NOT to preach about the cross. It has caused too much confusion and conflict.  I would prefer NOT to preach about the crucifixion. It is a horrific act that has sometimes been memorialized in ways that glorify violence. At times I feel about sermons on the crucifixion the way some people feel about the media attention given to mass murderers.  The less said, the better.

But Holy Week is upon us. The cross demands that even progressive Christians like us answer for this dangerous symbol, acknowledge this dark event, and align ourselves with this crucified Jesus. The cross still has power. And we can contribute to either its harmful or its healing effects.  The cross is never neutral.

If you think the cross of Christ harmed only one man, Jesus, over 2000 years ago, then you have not seen the injurious way others continue to use it.  From the Crusader's cross that led Christian soldiers onward to slay people of other faiths—to the KKK's fiery crosses that terrorized people for their racial or religious differences, the cross has sometimes been used to sponsor and sanctify violence.  When women and minorities have been counseled to just accept injustice because "we all have our crosses to bear," the cross of Christ has been used to silence and intimidate.

And in more subtle ways, the cross sometimes inadvertently promotes violence because our culture's most popular Christian interpretation of the cross says it’s an instrument of God's righteous anger. That’s a problem because as your God behaves, so you behave. For many, the cross teaches that God required innocent blood to be spilled to pay for the sins you and I have committed, sins for which the penalty is eternal punishment in hell. 

It’s understandable that Jesus’s first followers immediately began trying to make sense of their beloved leader’s death, so various theologies developed early to construct meaning for Jesus’s undeserved death.  But the Church never settled on one theology of the cross.  Perhaps the most common explanation today for Jesus’s death is often called sacrificial or penal or substitutionary atonement theology, a branch of Christian soteriology which posits that the life of a completely innocent human was the price a just God required to forgive human sins. 

Certainly this theology “preaches well.”[i]  The gruesome details of Jesus’s torture can evoke sympathy in all but the most heartless.  Add to that story the explanation that he endured all of that so that we could be spared eternal torture—and we are moved from compassion for this innocent man to guilty gratitude.   “He suffered for YOUR sake,” the preacher accuses.  “Imagine that crown of thorns pressing into YOUR brow.  Imagine those nails being driven into YOUR hands and feet.” We proceed through the stations of the cross or a sermon about the cross wincing at each blow.  There is power in such preaching. Power. Or manipulation.

That’s not a sermon I can preach.  I cannot.  The problem with that interpretation of the cross is that it describes a rigid God whose punishment for any and every sin is the death penalty, but who will allow an innocent to stand in for the guilty.  The problem with substitutionary atonement is that God the Parent and God the Son are fractured into the punisher and the punished in ways that strain the unity of Trinitarian theology.  The problem with this theology is that the God Jesus served in order to usher in a kingdom of peace is a God who resorts to violence.   

But the God we’ve seen Jesus pointing to, as we’ve been reading through Luke’s Gospel this year, is a God who blesses the peacemakers, who is pictured as a forgiving father of a prodigal son who welcomes home the lost one without any punishment, much to the consternation of the son who never strayed.  Today’s reading similarly underscores Jesus’s rejection of violence, even as his enemies plot his death.  When the temple police come to arrest him and a disciple defends Jesus by cutting off the ear of a man in the arresting party, Jesus rebukes both those arresting him and his own disciples drawing swords to defend him.  “No more of this!” he cries (Luke 22:51).  No more of this cycle of violence, he says with his own death.  We cannot end violence with violence.

And as he hung from the cross, Jesus forgave and empathized with his torturers, realizing they did not know what they were doing (Luke 23:34).  If Jesus is the human face of God, then God is not interested in retributive justice.  God is interested in restorative justice that offers the possibility of restoring relationships and transforming lives.  Certainly there are consequences for sin, but if Jesus is our best revelation of God, then the Gospels completely contradict a theology that says Jesus had to pay for our sins with his life.  The cross is what humanity does.  Jesus’s forgiveness is what God does—and what we can do by God’s grace and Jesus’s example.

I cannot preach a message of the cross that Christ suffered in my stead.  In fact, I agree with Charles Hefling that “it is the other way around. [Jesus] accepted [the cross] because we have to.  His was a cross that had always been ours, the one way open to us, in a skewed world, for putting a stop to the consequences of our own malice without adding to them—an appeal for us to follow him by willingly taking up whatever crosses the world imposes” and  “forgiving.”  By the power of God’s Loving Spirit still at work for peace in this world, we can reject retaliation.  We can follow Jesus’s third way—which is neither the way of violence nor the way of passive acceptance of injustice but instead is the way of creative, transformative nonviolence.[ii]  Sometimes that way does lead to a physical death. Always it leads to a dying of false values and a false self and the rebirth of a truer self in union with Christ. 

The cross is how God in Christ Jesus entered into our human suffering, so the cross also draws us into solidarity with all others who suffer.  It is a terrible calling—to stand with those who suffer.  But it is how WE are saved—from our own egos, our isolated little lives, our sense that we are the center of the universe. 

The cross can save the world.  It shouts to us that violence can never end violence, and our world will never be safe until we learn that.  The cross instructs us in forgiveness, in compassion for neighbor and for creation.  It widens the door to the kingdom of peace, our saving hope.  It shows that God is all-sufficient.  To misread the cross and turn it into a symbol of divine violence is dangerous theology.  Preaching AGAINST sacrificial atonement theology is, I believe, an important corrective to popular Christianity.

Nearly two years ago we began, with Todd’s excellent leadership, a process to create Open Table’s logo. I initially hoped we would not use a cross in our logo because of the bad theology that often gets associated with that most traditional symbol of Christianity.  It’s just so hard to say, with a silent symbol, that WE view the cross differently. But the stylized, modernized, subtle cross in our logo mitigates against associations with “The Old Rugged Cross.” And the truth is, even progressive congregations that don’t hang out a literal cross or don’t use it prominently must still grapple with the theology of the cross. 

Oddly enough, you may have noticed that Open Table’s logo has been fading away from the front page of our worship bulletins.  And oddly enough, it’s the cross that is no longer visible.  I promise this has not been my intent.  I’m trying to find a way to correct my technical problem with our logo’s jpg image.  But it’s an unintended irony that I’m speaking today about the primary Christian symbol at a time when it has disappeared from our worship bulletins.  To paraphrase Robert Frost, “Something there is that doesn’t love a cross.”

You know, I’m a little envious of the symbols of other world religions.  Other folks went with images of beauty and light:  a 6-pointed star for Judaism, a crescent moon for Islam, a lotus for Buddhism. Christianity’s symbol?  An instrument of death.[iii]  Who was in charge of our marketing 2000 years ago? There have been other Christian symbols over the centuries—like earliest symbol, the ichthus (fish).  The cross didn’t gain prominence for several centuries.  New Christian symbols may emerge in the future.

Maybe we should gather some focus groups and hire Todd to create a new logo for ALL of Christianity and do a rebranding. This symbol has been taken too literally, has stirred up vengefulness when its purpose was the opposite, has been appropriated for some bad stuff.  This image is at cross purposes with its intent. 

The cross’s beneficence, of course, can’t be rightly judged on this side of Easter.  On this side of Easter, it may seem, for now, the cross produces only death. 

But Jesus bet everything on that cross, maintaining faith in God’s nonviolent love.  Recent translations of Paul’s epistles suggest we’ve perhaps not only misunderstood the meaning of the cross but also a key phrase in Christian theology.  Verses like Romans 3:22 have traditionally been translated to say that we are saved by having faith IN Jesus. But the preposition “in,” implicit in the original Greek phrase, can as easily be translated to mean we are saved by having the faith OF Jesus.  Many scholars now believe Paul was talking about living faithfully, as did Jesus, who trusted absolutely in God’s nonviolent love.  The cross saves if it strengthens our faithfulness to God’s loving ways. 

As our service concludes tonight, we'll extinguish the Christ candle, another fitting symbol since Jesus is the Light of the World.  We’ll extinguish the candle not because we believe Christ's presence is absent from us, not because our faith has dimmed, but because we're recalling a dark time in human history when it perhaps seemed that love had been conquered by hate. 

The cross seemed to have obliterated all that was good.  But it’s too early to know if the cross was ultimately salvific—for you, for me.  It’s too early in the history of humanity, too early in the liturgical year, to know if the kingdom of peace has a chance.  But come back next Sunday.  Maybe by the dawning of Easter light we’ll see the cross marking a moment that is not about pay back but about paying it forward.  Maybe Easter will tell us the rest of the story. 

[i] Hefling, Charles.  “Why the Cross? God’s At-one-ment with Humanity” The Christian Century (11 March 2013). 
[ii] This idea of Jesus’s third way is from Wink, Walter.  The Powers That Be. New York: Doubleday, 1998.
[iii] Buechner, Frederick.  “Cross” in Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC.   New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993. 21.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Guided Meditation: Knowing Christ, Pressing Forward

Text:  Philippians 3: 7-14

Paul tells the church at Philippi that knowing Christ Jesus is the most important thing in his life.  In order to experience this mystical knowledge of the risen Christ, Paul has been willing to give up all that was previously important to him. The value of knowing Christ surpasses all else he values in life (Philippians 3: 8).

But Paul never knew Jesus.  Not in the flesh.  Paul became a Jesus follower—as we have—without having ever known Jesus literally, personally, physically.  Paul’s knowledge of Jesus the Christ is mystical. And in a rare moment of modesty, he’s careful to say he can’t claim to have attained that goal of knowing Christ YET.  I’m glad Paul admitted that his Damascus Road conversion was just a start toward this spiritual transformation.  But he’s moving toward that goal.  To pursue that new goal of knowing Christ, Paul has come to believe that all his previous goals were rubbish.  Actually the original Greek word means excrement and is best translated as a term I can’t say from the pulpit.  Paul uses that crude term for its shock value, to stress how little he now values what used to be so central to his identity.

Take a moment now to call to mind goals you have set for yourself—formally or informally.  These, no doubt, are worthy goals.  They are things you have pursued with some earnestness and energy. 


How do these things compare to “knowing Christ”?


Maybe you’re not quite sure why Paul so ardently longs to “know Christ.” Maybe you’re not quite sure how one comes to know Christ.  The answer may lie in verses 10 and 11: I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”  Knowing Christ, for Paul, requires that we, like Jesus, experience a death followed by a resurrection. 

Hmmm.  You may be getting even less interested now in this goal of knowing Christ if it requires death and suffering.  Resurrection sounds good—and we’re looking forward to Resurrection Sunday in two weeks.  But suffering and death before that can happen?

Fortunately, Paul is not prescribing literal deaths.  But just as Paul gave up his old life, so too, in this process of spiritual maturation, our old selves must die in order to be raised up into a new way of living.  We cannot know Christ and the power of his resurrection otherwise. 

Paul, a religious leader, a highly positioned Pharisee and Roman citizen, and a highly feared persecutor of the early Christians gave up his status—did a 180 in his position on Jesus and followers, even changed his name from Saul to Paul—to follow Jesus, to try to KNOW the Christ.  In doing so, he became one of the persecuted.  In fact, Paul was writing this letter from jail.  He would eventually be killed, suffering and giving up his life for his faith.

These ideas seem remote to us.  Dying for our faith is an unlikely possibility.  Besides, Paul was not aiming to be executed.  So consider the death he describes in a more spiritual sense: the death we must endure before being resurrected is a death of a false self we and our culture have constructed, death to a self made of external things like education, personality, social status, family expectations, moral rectitude.  It is not our truest self.

Richard Rohr taught us, in his book Falling Upward, that we’ll remain in the first half of our spiritual journey forever, as many people do, if we continue to think we are our occupations or our personalities or our relationships or our culture or our religion. But in his most recent book, Immortal Diamond, Rohr explains that our “True Self is the only part of us that really has access to the big questions” in life. “Once you make contact with your True Self, there's a natural correspondence between who you are and who God is. When you discover your True Self, it's easy to recognize the presence of God”*  And know who you are: in essence you are a soul that is connected to all other souls; you are God’s beloved, loved in a way that is not dependent on what you’ve done or failed to do. “When you're living out of your False Self, you tend to be more attracted to externals--external beliefs, external rituals—without being touched at any deep level because it's not really YOU that's making contact. It's your temperament, your personality, your culture, all of which are okay, but your True Self is that part of you that already knows God, already loves God at some unconscious level. When you can connect with your True Self, the whole spiritual life opens up.”

He continues:  “Once you have experienced the loss of the old self, you’ve learned how to die. If you don't learn how to die early, ahead of time, you spend your life avoiding all failure, humiliation, loss, and you're not ready for the last death. Your True Self, your soul knows spiritual things, and knows God. So if you don't awaken it, you really don't know God. You can be religious, but if you don’t encounter God at any depth, it isn't really transformative religion.”  What Richard Rohr describes is what I believe Paul is talking about here and what all the major religions understand: that we must die in order to live. Christians see in Jesus a life that became so stripped down and laid bare that God shined through.  This is the Christ event that Easter represents to us, the possibility held out for each of us.
Maybe each of us has spent years and energy creating a self that is based on “rubbish.” Maybe our identity has been built upon skills or talents or personality traits, some belief system or some view of the world.  These are not bad things. But they are transient and insufficient for an authentic life. What if a worldview starts to fall apart?  What if the image we’ve constructed begins to crumble?   What if some former self dies? Can we let God resurrect us?

A truer self is ready to be emerge, stripped of all the images we’ve created to bolster our fragile sense of self.

Paul saw this possibility for us in the life and death of Jesus.  Jesus rejected the labels the world tried to place on him, giving up all claims, trusting only in being God’s very child, purely connected to the source of all that is sacred.

Paul recognized this in the Christ he met through the stories of others.  Paul yearned for this kind of spiritual maturity.  Paul admits he hasn’t really arrived.  But he’s “pressing on” and moving toward the goal that is truly worthy of his life:  a true self in relationship with God, in touch with the God he experienced in Christ Jesus.  Paul perhaps has glimpses of the false self falling away, and in his very core he is connected to the Spirit that connects us all and binds us in a love that is not contingent, that is all-inclusive. To share in Christ’s sufferings is not masochistic.  To aspire to suffer with Christ is to be willing to strip aside all that is false, to endure a first death, to be unafraid of the second death. 

I’m certainly not there yet.  But at moments in my life I, too, ardently want to "know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.” This may be your prayer, too.

* See interview with Richard Rohr at

Monday, March 11, 2013

Welcome to the Lost and Found

Sermon Text:   Luke 15: 1-32

I love restoring antiques.  I don't mean antique items. Antique words.  Theological words.  I love pulling out a well-worn word from my evangelical past, dusting it off, and holding it up to the Light.  Usually something beautiful glints at just the right angle. Even items previously used badly can be salvaged for good.  Like those folks who re-purpose a rusty old something into a handy something else, I almost always find these words a useful and fitting place in my rearranged theological home. We have previously refurbished several of these old words at Open Table, words like "salvation" and "sin." Today's antique word is . . . "lost."

If you and I pull out that word from the churches of our past, we might see it colored with intimations of our unworthiness.  "Lost" sounded like a word dark with God's disapproval.  "You are lost," someone once told you, or implied, in sermon or song. Or you were told that our beautiful world is lost.  Or your much loved friends outside the church were lost.  Meaning they were going to hell because they didn't believe the exact same things your church taught or they were not baptized into the one true Church and adhering to its teachings.  Meaning they needed to assent to these same beliefs in order to get found, to get saved from that state of being lost.

Many of us are no longer convinced that God "finds us" by convincing us to believe certain, often improbable, things.  Many of us no longer believe in a literal hell that God prepared for those who never get back on track by believing those certain things.

Can this "lost" metaphor hold meaning for us today?

The television series named "Lost," wildly popular from 2004-2010, may attest to the continuing relevance of this metaphor in our day. And our own hearts teach us that feeling "lost" is part of the human experience. You don't have to be as prone to literal lostness as am I--so dependent on my GPS that I can't go around the block without it--to long for a stronger sense direction and destination in life, a deeper feeling of being at home with others on this planet, a keener awareness of the love that lures us on.  At various times we all feel lost: uneasy with all life’s changes, unmoored from a dependable worldview, distanced from others, unwelcomed, or simply perplexed.  Lost.  I think that word still describes a spiritual state that many of us recognize.

One way postmoderns might wrest this resonant metaphor from our past is to consider that lostness is not--at least not according to these parables--our original state--as in "original sin.” Nor is it necessarily our perpetual state.  We may wander back and forth between the poles of Lost and Found. Most importantly, the lost are not condemned. Not according to these parables.  The Good Shepherd, the Good Housekeeper, and the Good Father do not blame the lost sheep or coin or son. Instead, they celebrate when they are found.  No blame.  No punishment.

So how do we become found?  What is the spiritual practice or process whereby we find God or God finds us?

According to the first two parables, God has to find us.  We apparently can do nothing.  The coin and sheep need to be found NOT because they are doing harm but because they are dear to the woman, to the shepherd.  They are valued.  They are loved.  They need to be returned to their rightful place of safety.  But there is nothing the coin or sheep really CAN do to be found and returned home. The Christian concept of grace says that God seeks us.  It is the very nature of the Divine to seek and to save.  The first two parables are completely unconcerned with how the sheep or coin became lost. These parables are simply not interested in the lostness but rather in the foundness of the spiritual journey.  These parables say in times of our lostness, God is always seeking us out.  In times of foundness, God is celebrating our reconnection. 

Then where is instruction for those of us who are, in the words of an old hymn, “prone to wander?”  The answer runs counter to our Western penchant for action and self-reliance.  When our spirits feel disconnected from the Spirit of God, we wait to be found.  We wait.  We cannot work our way into achieving a state of spiritual union with God any more than a coin can, through its own exertion, reunite with the woman who'd been holding it in safekeeping.  We cannot work our way out of grief or disappointment or anger or loneliness.  As we wait, we simply rest in the knowledge that we are beloved at some fundamental level.  Spiritual maturity is not something we earn like a merit badge.  In fact, it's the opposite.  It's letting go of all other measures of worth and all methods of striving.  It’s about resting solely in the awareness of God's love for us and for all.  When we give up trust in the externals  and rest on love alone, we realize God's love all around us, within us, before us, beneath us—and we have been found.

A couple of weeks ago I played a small role in helping reunite a lost sheep with its owner. That sheep was actually a large yellow Labrador retriever.  I was at the salon where I get my hair cut when a woman brought a yellow lab to the front door. She explained she'd seen this dog wandering along Old Shell Road in front of the salon and feared he would be hit by a car.  She wondered if anyone in the salon recognized the dog, who wasn't wearing a collar but seemed clean and healthy, as if he'd just slipped his leash.  No one in the salon knew him.  But the salon owner offered to keep the dog inside for a little while as we considered how to help this lost lamb. She knew one of her clients had a male yellow lab, so she called that client and left a message about the one we'd found. 

Soon an entire battalion of smocked and wet-headed women went into action. Several called husbands to see if their household might accommodate a new dog. There were no takers. Someone brought a bowl of water to the dog, and he lapped it politely.  I took a picture of him with my iPad camera and posted his picture on Facebook with a plea for help to find his owner.  Meanwhile, the sweet ol’ fellow quietly curled up at my feet as if waiting for his turn to be clipped and coiffed.  

I had seen right away the deep soul he had and how easily he felt at peace in the world.  So I was prepared—maybe even eager—to bring him home with me if necessary.  But you could tell he was someone's beloved pet and I especially hated to imagine a child separated from him. When our first level of efforts to find his owner didn't pan out, I agreed to take the dog to my vet to see if he had a microchip ID--and if not, I was deputized take him home and keep looking for the ol' boy's home. Happily jumping into my car, the lab stretched out on the back seat, not very interested in where he was going, which was straight to my vet.  There a microchip was found and scanned and Jack--that turned out to be his name--was soon reunited with the grateful mother of two children, who sent me a gorgeous orchid plant the next day.

The point of this story is that a concerted effort reunited Jack and the family who loved him.  But Jack helped not a whit.  That lost lamb depended on a swirl of loving energy to get him home. He simply remained still and quiet, trusting that all would be made right in his world.  Sometimes our own state of lostness requires just that kind of trust that love is all around, and grace will lead us home.

In contrast, the longest and most complex parable of lostness gives agency to the lost one.  The lost son--unlike the lost coin and lost sheep--has to take responsibility for finding his way home again.  The prodigal son very intentionally, willfully decided to leave home. He did so in a way that was overreaching and disrespectful, and he later engaged in foolish behavior. It’s up to the "lost" son to return of his own volition. 

If the first two parables challenge activists like us to accept that we are not in charge of the universe, progressive Christians are also challenged by this third parable of lostness to face a universe that is not morally neutral.  We are quick to profess that there are many paths to God. But let’s also admit that not every path leads to God.  There are some dangerous roads that can lead folks into dark and terrible deeds.  Excessive moral relativism will not lead us home.

There are times to wait for God to act; there are other times when we know it's up to us to take the first step: to ask forgiveness, to reconnect with a loved one, to make amends, to set aside bitterness, to give up crippling habits, to speak truth to others and to ourselves.  As the Apostle Paul said, we have been given “this ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18), so we are charged with reconnecting, reuniting.  And after all, sometimes we’re the ones who’ve gotten ourselves lost.  We have wandered into places where we shouldn't have gone.  We're not the innocent lost coin.  We're the prodigal son who has crashed and burned. We're still beloved.  But we're not exactly innocent. So we have steps to take to try make things right.  We have steps we need to take toward the God and Goal of Love.

But if there is a strong and unmistakable theme running through all three parables, it is this:

God doesn't shame.  God celebrates.   

When we make a mess of things, we may rightly feel grief and regret.  We need to make amends.  But Luke’s parables stress God (in the form of a shepherd, a woman, a father) only rejoices at our return. And God commands us to likewise rejoice.  These stories ring with joy—not a single note of recrimination. 

Well, except from the elder brother, who does blame the prodigal.  Jesus has been responding to the Pharisees’ complaints that he’s been partying with known sinners.   So he places them—and us, too—in the role of the disapproving “good son.”  Grace seems unfair to those who are not at that moment in need of it.  Like the Pharisees still loyally but joylessly inside their religious rules, the elder son’s unwillingness to extend grace to the lost one prevents him from being caught up in the celebration. Like the Pharisees and elder sons, when we start parsing up who deserves what, we can cut ourselves out of the celebration that God is always throwing.  We don’t know, as the story ends, if the elder son will join the party.  Yet another open-ended parable helps us keep chewing on its possible meanings for us.

I suspect the word “lost” is not as simple as its one syllable suggests. When I was a child, I thought I was over being “lost” after I made what was called a “profession of faith.” But maybe you and I travel between Lost and Found on a regular basis. Through spiritual discernment, we determine if the time is right to wait to be found or to engage in the hard work of reconciliation.  The good news is that the Spirit of Joy is always ready to greet us: lost, found, and in between.

Giver of Amazing Grace,
Make us patient in waiting for you to find us; make us eager to work for reconciliation; make us joyful with all who celebrate being home again.