Monthly Archives: February 2013

Relatively Triumphant

A Song of Ascents. Of David.
1 If it had not been the Lord who was on our side
—let Israel now say—
2 if it had not been the Lord who was on our side,
when our enemies attacked us,
3 then they would have swallowed us up alive,
when their anger was kindled against us;
4 then the flood would have swept us away,
the torrent would have gone over us;
5 then over us would have gone
the raging waters.
6 Blessed be the Lord,
who has not given us
as prey to their teeth.
7 We have escaped like a bird
from the snare of the fowlers;
the snare is broken,
and we have escaped.
8 Our help is in the name of the Lord,
who made heaven and earth
(Psalm 124, NRSV)

A few weeks ago we were all riveted to our televisions to watch the Super Bowl XLVII ( Forty-seven for us ordinary folks. Why do they still use Roman numerals anyway??). Regardless of what our regular team was, we watched the Baltimore Ravens battle the San Francisco 49ers. An exciting game complete with the drama of a blackout in the Superdome no doubt! Of particular interest to many was the subplot of the retiring Ray Lewis who in his final appearance in the pinnacle game of any football player’s career, helped to put the Ravens over the top to win.

Ray Lewis has been an interesting figure in athletics (not that there is a lack of any). A highly gifted athlete with a passion for the game he was surrounded with scandal in the early part of his career in the NFL. In 2000, he was charged with the murder of Richard Lollar at a night club in Atlanta. Eventually, he struck a plea bargain in exchange for testifying against the other persons who were involved. Prior to this incident, Lewis’s life was marked by intense partying, showmanship and a generally embracing of the culture that is so stereotypical of the NFL in the 21st century.

After this incident, Lewis “found” (or rediscovered) the Lord and sought to live a life that was (at least by public expression) dedicated to the Lord. He continued to play but began to be a great deal more outspoken about his faith. He could be seen before and after games in intense prayer and praise. None of this is bad in any way. He obviously has had an experience that changed his life and as a result that has changed his view of the world. Of interest to me are the underpinnings of his proclamations for winning and losing…..

Ray Lewis Triumphant

We live in a culture that is so often shaped and defined by winners and losers. Political winners and losers, cultural winners and losers and ever-present sports winners and losers define all of us in our life together. There are times when we are celebrated for being on the winning side, and derided when “our team” has lost. Winning and losing is everything in our society. So much so that we have placed God into our obsession of winning. Triumphalism is essentially the exuberance for victory to the point of devaluing the loser (an all others who identify against you). Triumphalism celebrates the winner at all costs and associates all things ‘right’ and ‘good’ with the winner. All things wrong and bad are associated with the loser. (Triumphalism is at work when we say “God Bless America” with the intent to elevate the blessings of the Almighty as  being fully expressed in the United State of America.)

One of the things that happened as the Ravens advanced from the playoffs to the Superbowl is that each time the mic was put in front of Ray Lewis, he would proclaim that God was “on his side”. Many of his statements would infer that God had chosen a side in a football game and that was the reason for the win. Time and again, his attempts at attribution for the win devolved into triumphalism. Ray Lewis’s isn’t special in this regard, for we can all very easily move to a triumphant position when we believe that our cause is somehow greater than our adversary’s.

Our text today is a Psalm of Ascents, that means that this was often sung as Israel would prepare itself to enter Jerusalem or the place of worship. This is a celebratory Psalm, acknowledging the power of God in Israel’s history and all the ways that God has been faithful in delivering the people from traps, snares and danger. However, in its celebratory context, the Psalm appears to be a form of triumphalist pronouncement. The text speaks in such a way as to suggest that our triumph over the enemy comes from God’s deliberate choice to pick a side, (“If it had not been for the Lord who was on OUR side). While this was true in the Old Testament when it was believed that when two nations fought, two gods were fighting, what happens when in today’s world when two Christians are in conflict, (Or even broader when people fight each other)?

Triumphant Jesus

Put simply, we should have a problem when allow others to suggest that God chooses sides. Jewish theology can handle such a God. The election of Israel is without question in the Exodus narrative and God is overt in his choice of Israel OVER the gods of Egypt or anywhere else. However, Christian theology suggests that the only side God chooses is oppressed humanity. In the context of Jesus Christ, God makes a choice to be on the side of humanity and specifically oppressed humanity. Wherever Jesus goes and whatever Jesus does, God does and chooses to do.

Let’s be clear: Our victories come as a result of God beneficence but not because God didn’t bless our adversaries. Winning a earthly victory doesn’t equate to being on God’s side. God’s being and sovereignty means that our human victories and losses are part of a larger plan that bring us closer to God. Simply put, our winning and our triumph is not God’s winning. God is not concerned with blessing one group and against the other. God blesses one to be a blessing to the other. Zero sum games are not in the plan, knowing that gets us closer to a vision of truth this week.

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Triumph Over the Test

And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. (Matthew 3:16-4:1)

I am an educator by vocation and by profession. I teach several classes at local colleges and work with others in teaching at a Seminary and in the parish. I enjoy my work and in fact I get a deep sense of purpose in doing it.

Despite this satisfaction, one of the struggles of the teaching profession is test administration. There is a great deal of work and study that goes into developing a test for your students. You have to review the material and condense the material into a “package” that can be learned  by the students. Additionally, once the instruction of the package has been completed, you then have to assess how well your students have integrated the material that you have presented. The challenge of testing involves the nature of the test in relationship to assessing what a student has learned. That is to say, you have to ensure that the test allows the student demonstrate the knowledge that you have designed it to. All of us have taken tests that were not relevant to the material that we studied and that we were totally unprepared to deal with.

A good teacher however, spends a great deal of time preparing the students for the upcoming test. And a great teacher spends a good deal of time crafting a test that ‘fits’ the student in order that the student can be who they are while demonstrating what the teacher has intended for them to know. (This is part of the intrinsic problems of the standardized tests. The test is so generic and the information so broad that they are not as effective at assessing certain student populations or even the materials that they purport to assess.)

Testing

Our text for today is considered one of the two places where Jesus is tested (the other is the cross). Known as the temptation of Christ, this passage in Matthew (Matt 4:1-11) is a perplexing one for many Christians. Jesus is baptized and then pushed into the wilderness “to be tested.” If you believe in the power of the Christ and his divinity, then the obvious question arises, “How an the incarnate God be tested?” and “What purpose does it serve?”.

Traditional Christian teaching has so often hinged on the temptation passage as a model for resisting the tempting of the satan. So often looking at the superficial questions ans answers between Devil and Jesus was thought to reveal how the enemy attacks and the ways we ought to successfully resist. Through this lens, the text is about God’s refining of Jesus and in the test as one might put a car or plane through ‘testing’ to guarantee reliability. This makes God a bit like a tester or puppet master that designs test to get us to continually prove our worth in the work of the kingdom.

However, I want to view the testing of Jesus through the lens of an educator and that of a great teacher. In starting the temptation narrative where Jesus is baptized (as opposed to the beginning of chapter 4), we find a clear moment of instruction. Specifically, God says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” This statement is both instruction and reminder. God establishes Jesus’ identity and God’s satisfaction with that identity. Jesus in turn learns something about himself that will most likely assures and guarantees his self-identity before  the test. Through this lens, God confirms the lesson that Jesus will be tested on. The test is not about proving readiness, but affirming identity. God is pleased and assured of who you are, the test is about whether or not you know for yourself.

Temptations

We have for so long interpreted the trials and tests of our life as mere tricks of the devil. Sometimes we have even interpreted them as punishment for disobedience to God and so we have to prove ourselves as being faithful again to being “God’s will.” I submit to you this week, that the test may not be either of these things. Instead, the test is the sign of God’s pleasure and assurance of your identity. The test is not about God’s proving your worth, but an acknowledgment of it. The teacher already knows who you are, the test is to find out whether you do.

It is time to see the test as a vision of truth. The truth that God has already found something that makes God pleased. The test is to affirm that you are all the things God has already said about you. Now go and pass your tests…..

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The Scandal of it All…

Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. You say, “We know that Gods judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.” Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that Gods kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? (Romans 2:1-4, NRSV)

I must admit that I am a “gladiator in a suit.” For those who are watchers of the ABC hit series Scandal, the preceding phrase is the mantra of ‘discipleship’ in the series. I hesitated in getting on the bandwagon but decided midway through the second season to give it a shot. Needless to say, I am hooked. The show features wonderful storytelling and riveting plots. While those elements of television plots always make for good drama, this is not why I am hooked. The element that has drawn me into the series is its theology.

Scandal is pure entertainment that draws (in part) on the real life ‘fixer’ and PR consultant Judy Smith. Its entertainment value is strengthened by the strong plot and storytelling of veteran producer Shonda Rhimes. Even with the good stories in the plot, there is a strong theology at work. The drama centers on the work of ‘Olivia Pope & Associates’ as legal and political masterminds that help clean up the mess that powerful people can get themselves into. On one level the work of ‘Pope & Associates’ is about covering the sins of people who perhaps are undeserving of such grace. (MESSAGE #1!) The series features everyone from preacher’s wives to potentates seeking to hide their behaviors from the prying eyes of the society that so respects and reveres them.

Scandal

A second theological motif centers on the persons of Olivia Pope and the dysfunctional married President of the United States, one Fitzgerald Thomas Grant III (or ‘Fitz’ for short). These two characters are involved in a mind-numbingly complicated and incredibly passionate love affair in which both seem to think more with the Freudian ‘Id’ than with the intellect that both of them are effective at wheeling. The audience falls in love with the intelligence, power and will that both Olivia Pope and Fitz exude while at the same time abhorring their choice of behaviors that make them so reckless and chaotic. (MESSAGE #2!) They conduct trysts in the most obvious of places (to include the Oval Office on Inauguration night!!) demonstrating their careless blind love/lust.

These two characters (in particular) are trapped by the sum of their choices and their wild reckless abandon toward each other, forsaking all the rules of life. These are very same rules that make each character so powerful, so able and so confident in themselves. Each week, we ‘gladiators in suits’ are addicted to the potential nobility in moral living while at the same time witnessing the hypocrisy that is so often caused by selfish desire and unbridled passion. All of the characters are so much more complex and poly moral than any television show should ever portray. It so often allows for us to take the moral high ground in denying the truth of what we see each week.

 

Fitz and Olivia

Our text for today highlights the irony of our attempts at comparison and competition before the holiness of God. Paul, in writing to the church at Rome, reminds the Romans of the power of our human desires and willingness to compete and compare our behaviors and beliefs to achieve a moral relativism. Our morality is always insufficient in comparison to the righteousness of God. Most pointedly he asks, “Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God?” In other words, do you not see that your behavior is of consequence in God’s economy just as much as your neighbor’s?

Paul’s admonition points to the fact that we always see how bad our neighbor’s behavior is (in spite of our identical behavior), simply because it’s our neighbor that acts in that way. Our morals can be relative to our experience. We compare our behavior to the lowest common morality to make ourselves better than the next person. We subsume God’s righteousness into our own morality and make gods of ourself in the light of another’s behavior. We neglect the scandals of our life in order to shine the light on the scandals of others.

We watch television and compare ourselves to fictional characters and say how much better we are in living (“At least I don’t do that” or “I would never do that” syndrome). However, ‘Pope & Associates’, ‘Fitz’, and the entire cast of ‘Scandal’ are not the worst of human behavior, but reflections of it. They are the personification of our most conflicted, confused and complicated selves. We so often do exactly what many of these characters do (except our behavior is real). True we are not conducting an intense extra marital affair with the POTUS, but we do so often make decisions around what makes us feel good and not what makes sense. True we never rigged a national election to get our candidate elected, but we have rigged the truth to portray ourselves in a positive light! True we never exploited a relationship with an US Senator in order to further a goal for our client. We have exploited our friendships and relationships in order to further our own desires.

Scandal of the Cross

We are Olivia Pope, Fitz, Huck, Cyrus, Hollis and Mel. We seek to enact our will and live out our passions in the most complex of moral circumstances. Behaving in such a way as to be scandalous in all the ways that Shonda Rhimes so effectively displays each Thursday night. This week’s post is not merely about how “bad we are” in our “sin”. Instead, the vision of truth this week is about recognizing ourselves in the behaviors of others. We are no better than our neighbor in the sight of God (nor are we any worse).

Indeed we are scandalous…..but thanks be to God there is a “Gladiator in a suit”who died for you and for me.

 

 

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