Category Archives: Sacred Memory

It Ain’t What you Think

“I hate, I reject your festivals, Nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer up to Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them; And I will not even look at the peace offerings of your fatlings. Take away from Me the noise of your songs; I will not even listen to the sound of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:21-24, NRSV)

The last forty years in American public life have been the most socially and culturally divisive, perhaps since the Civil War. The American republic has always been made of complex perspectives on a wide variety of issues.Throughout American history the divisions of black versus white, free versus enslaved, indigenous versus immigrant, North versus South, Christian versus “everybody else”, gay versus straight, east coast versus west coast, and just about any other division has dominated our portrayal of our selves as Americans.

While our divisions were built into American identity from the outset, the last half century has given way to consequential tears in the fabric of the Republic. We have used certain divisions to reinforce other in order to build coalitions, voting blocs and larger groups of influence. Our social discourse complexifies with compound descriptors like “Christian-southern-whites”, or “non-immigrant native-speaking persons of color”, or “black Southern gay men”. All of these descriptors are not just describing realities, but in fact are making out tribal distinctions. The carve out new spaces for entrenchment-home encampments to find like-minded believers  in order to feel “at home” somewhere. We shape these tribes (with their particularly ascribed stereotypes, ideologies and political instincts) in order to make the world digestible and manageable.

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BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE!

Probably the most maligned of these complex tribal distinctions is any one of them that include the moniker Christian-a very well earned distinction. Throughout the centuries, Christianity has perpetuated some of the most egregious crimes or acts on other people. Slavery, indigenous conquest, and the subjugation of non whites, were all perpetrated with Christian institutional endorsement. Continuing in that surrogacy, we as Americans have used the Christian moniker to create new and distinct tribal groups to reinforce political and social beliefs. Since the Moral Majority of the late 1970s, to be Christian in America is to be part of the “Conservative” tribe and political party. For the mainstream, to be Christian means believing in creationism, being pro-life, for a singular definition of marriage (between a man and woman) and to believe in the divine right to American Manifest Destiny.

The problem will of this is the truth of the Judeo-Christian faith; it does not neatly fit into such well constructed, poll-tested, hermetically sealed demographic voting categories. Jesus was not a republican or a democrat. He didn’t defend unborn life at the expense of the living. He didn’t campaign for tax reform or wrap himself up in anyone’s patriotic symbology. He didn’t promote biblical adherence in schools, idolatrous belief in a state-sponsored savior, and he sure as heaven didn’t count on America as being the vehicle for the Kingdom of God.

Jesus wasn’t a progressive either. He wasn’t an American liberal seeking to harmony with everyone and promoting peace, love and soul. He didn’t believe in pro-choice, a government sponsored social safety net, and the unity of all humanity under one banner of peace. He wasn’t a socialist who believed in the redistribution of wealth (despite what you might read in the Gospel of Luke). He’s not the Jesus of the elitist and pontifical Left, or the xenophobic hypocritical Right. A pox on both our houses!

The American tribal adjective- Christian is a perversion of the ancient teachings of the one called the Christ. We lack the seriousness to believe the faith we practice. No, I am not suggestion that “we all fall short of the glory of God”. I am asserting that we (as Americans) intentionally avoid the hard practice of The Way! To be a follower of Jesus means leaving “stuff” behind, denying yourself, and taking up a cross. It means hearing the voice from eternity call you to “drop your nets” and follow him. It means you (and this nation) are far from the kingdom values we espouse and say we believe. Its just easier to pervert the gospel than to live it.

Only the words of the prophet Amos can give us the wisdom we need in our hypocritical and fiercely partisan time. God wants none of our worship, festivals or pomp when we cannot see the third way of moral justice. The vision of truth can only be revealed when we let go of our tribalism and let Christ challenge us all…

 

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A Sacrificial View…

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgins name was Mary. And he came to her and said, Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you. But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end. Mary said to the angel, How can this be, since I am a virgin? The angel said to her, The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God. Then Mary said, Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word. Then the angel departed from her. (Luke 1:26-35, NRSV)

One of the most under appreciated roles in our society are the roles of parents. Parenting is one of the most difficult, rewarding, confusing, enlightening, perplexing and stressful positions any human being can undertake. For many of us, parenting is a job that we didn’t sign up for (at least when we intended) and when it was thrust upon us, there was never any clear manual to of ‘dos and don’ts.’ Many more of us (those who planned and those who did not) felt, and feel totally ill-equipped for the position of parent. Having a life depend on your reasonable decision-making, responsible actions, and moral guidance 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for 18 or more years is a level of stress and microscopic supervision that can overwhelm.

The work of parenting on the whole is most fully realized in the office of mother. This is not to say that the father is somehow ‘less than’ mother in the life of a child. Fathers and father/mother figures make up a half of the parental unit that contributes to a stable and balance upbringing. Yet, the mother is so often the one who experiences the full brunt of parenting even before the child is born. It is the mother that first makes the sacrifices that are indicative of parenting, when she gives of her nutrients and gives her body over to the child growing in her body. The mother is first among parents to intuit her child’s feelings and pains. She is also the first to be present when that child is realized in the world. Sadly, mom is often the one who is there when tragedy strikes her child and feels the agony in her very being when her child suffers.

Sure, there are many parents and mothers who fall far short of this exercise of the best of the office. But it does not mean that those delinquent mothers are somehow less in the experiences of carrying another human being for 9 months and living with someone for 18+ years.

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At the heart of motherhood (and parenting) is sacrifice. Parents must give of themselves from the beginning, for the sake of their children. Biologically they give genetic material. Emotionally, the give their tears, joys and hope. Physically, they make space, room and provision. Financially, they give all they have to ensure stability and well-being. Psychologically, they give their fears and their psyche. These actions of giving are not just characterized by simple sharing, but sacrifice. As a parent, you give your ALL to your children, for the sake of your children. So many parents and mothers give up or defer their hopes and dreams for the sake of their children. So many parents and mothers give up ‘themselves’ so their children might be greater than they.

The lens of parental sacrifice is the frame through which I approach the above text. What was the life Mary gave up to be the mother of Jesus? She (and we) shall never know. We usually glorify Mary’s faithfulness to God and her ready willingness to serve. However, like all of us in the journey of faith, what we choose in God comes with unintended effects and consequences. Choosing God always results in many actions and events that were not foreseen when you made the initial decision (see Moses, Isaiah, Peter, etc.). So to, being a parent also comes with that same ‘hidden portfolio’. Debt, sadness, happiness, disappointment and gratitude are all parts of the portfolio that you never fully know as emotions until you become a parent. So then, imagine Mary making this choice for God, to be a parent. A child that has never been born before and never will be again. A special class of motherhood that comes with all the stresses of being a parent PLUS working with and by a mysterious and powerful God.

Mary gave up more than we will ever know to be the mother of Jesus. She gave up her life to see that child grow into the fullness of being that we know as God incarnate. She gave attention, time and energy as any parent would. She would give up all of her hopes and dreams for him so much so that she would suffer as he suffered at Calvary’s cross. Now celebrated as chief among mothers we cannot know the agony of the loss she experienced or the joy of reward she felt because of what her child is to the world.

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I simply offer the following vision of truth: We do not know what many of our mother’s have given up for the sake of (or in spite) of their children. We blame wayward mothers for the indiscretions of their choices. Challenge unwed mothers and unconventional motherhood as being ‘bad for the child’. We undermine the work mothers do by limiting time off of work and limiting places for motherly activity (breastfeeding, play and growth, etc.). We even somehow lessen the experience of a mother when she makes a decision that does not line up with our view of parenting.

The simple truth is we don’t know what was given for the sake of being a mother. Only a select few of our parents in our society understand the power of such a choice. Let us celebrate our mothers/parents for what they gave up and what we are. Not just because of what they did, but because of who they are.

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Wait on the Posse…

I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord (Psalm 27:13-14, NRSV)

We live in an age of instant gratification. Constantly, we seek to decrease the time between ‘pushing the button’ and ‘engaging the device.’ Whether it is commuting to work, waiting for your computer to ‘boot’ up, sending a text, making a call, or just standing in line, we HATE to be found waiting. For many, anytime spent waiting is time wasted. After all, time is one area of human life that is irredeemable. As a result, we find all manner of ways to ‘fill the time’ so that we maximize our usage of time.

I would suspect that this obsessive fixation on time came with the march of technology, progress and ingenuity. (More specifically that fixation is unique element of most Western societies. But more on the that later…) Much of the technology revolutions of the Renaissance, Enlightenment, Industrial Revolution and the Modern eras all came about as ways to save time and increase efficiency. In fact we measure an object, institution or person based upon their ability to move swiftly and (perhaps secondarily) effectively. Everything from fast food restaurants, Emergency Rooms, airlines and even your local dry cleaners tout their ability to minimize waiting times and delays. Ultimately however, this fixation has created a high level of impatience among many of us.

In the Christian life, waiting has also become annoying. The disease of impatience has crept into the life of discipleship. Instant gratification has grabbed hold of many of us in the faith to our detriment. We expect prayers answered immediately, preaching to be brief, worship to be ‘efficient’ and our purpose to be instantly clear. Essentially, we as Christians want our faith to conform to the fast paced, hectic and aggressive schedules that we all keep. We expect to multitask our faith with all of the other elements of work, family, and recreation that define the competition of so many of our lives.

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In my vocation as a Pastor, I run into so many Christians (and others) who wrestle with patience. They pray for it, and use mantras to govern their mind while they are forced to wait. The loathe the moments when they have to wait on spouses, traffic and all of the mundane moments of life that seem to lead ‘nowhere’. Consequently, they find horrifying, the moments of wrestling and contemplation that characterize the Christian faith and discipleship. “You mean I have to wait”, or, “I know I should be more patient”, comes the reply to the task of discipleship. Most frightening for even more us is the idea that we have to wait on God.

This simple admonition of the power and purpose of waiting in our above passage is often lost on many of us. The Psalmist pens this as a song of confidence and boasting in God. Posing the question of “Whom shall I fear?”, the writer is clearly strengthened in the power of God. However, what seems to be subtly present, is that the revelation of the Psalm have come through an intense wrestling of faith, or spirituality, or strength or some other existential struggle. Verses 13 and 14 puts forth the faith of what he believes he shall see in his life: The vindication of his hurt and pain, if he can just……..wait. The most powerful revelation of the Psalm is that in waiting, he found peace in the midst of struggle.

The psalmist seems to fly in the face of much of our conceptions of time and waiting. Western cultural mores are built around the clock. Everything we do is governed by time and its infinite worth as a commodity (which never devalues). Trains, planes, and careers run on the clock. However, in other cultures, time is a construct of the community. African (and African Diaspora) communities embody a culture of ‘communal time’ as one historian suggested. In our collective experience, we experience ‘beginnings and endings’. An event or activity does not begin until all the necessary parties have assembled, which may be later than the clock. The emphasis is placed on the assembly and the power of the community as opposed to the abstraction that is time. (Of course this is problematic when it comes to bus schedules, airplanes and other aspects of modern living.) 

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The worldview of the Psalmist might be similar to our African brothers and sisters in that the importance of waiting on the ‘necessary participant’ is critical to the journey of life. In other words, the psalmist might be offering us the challenge of communal formation with God while we are waiting. Said differently, your journey is not worth its goal if you leave ‘before time’ and without all of the proper personnel. Being mindful of God and God’s plans in the midst of the journey is worth the wait, as God’s actions are critical and directions are essential to the life of faith and success. Anything less is just ‘keeping time’.

God’s plans for our lives, and even our own plans for our lives take time, effort and energy to come to fruition. Efficiency and fast don’t seem to be good partners when it comes to discipleship. A hallmark of discipleship is patience. A willingness to wait after done all you could do is incredibly difficult but worthwhile. For in the ‘sacrament’ of waiting, we will find a reason to boast in the power of God to see God’s plan through. Patience for you and patience for me is a vision of truth that we could all use. Again I say, WAIT!!!

 

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Learning to Get Unstuck…

At that time Jesus went through the cornfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. 2When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, ‘Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.’ 3He said to them, ‘Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests. 5Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless? 6I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. 7But if you had known what this means, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice”, you would not have condemned the guiltless. 8For the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.’ (Matthew 12:1-8, NRSV)

In our life together we are so often bound by the traditions, rules and regulations of our own creation. Traditions that shape our familial practice, careers, and religious practices all shape our life. After all, these traditions can help to keep us grounded and focused when the vicissitudes of life keep us in flux. Our morning routines, the rules we follow on our jobs, the expectations and standards that we promote in our lives all serve to create consistency that we rely on in the day-to-day moments of existence. But what happens when those rules that guide become ties that bind? When do our traditions and experiences that so helpfully regulate our lives, become limiting and restrictive to the life?

There are times when our expectations and life traditions do in fact hinder us. The rules we make around dating and relationships, what we will and won’t do, and the circumstances by which we would perform and extraordinary task all have the dangerous propensity for limiting life as much as they define it. I have talked with people who have grown old and bitter because of the rules they have made for themselves. They didn’t get married because they wanted a particular type of spouse. They didn’t work in the field of their heart’s desire because of the traditions that their family assumed about being a musician or artist or teacher. They have limited their lives because of the rules and ideologies they made for themselves.

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Such is the case in the New Testament with respect to the rules and traditions of religious practice. Jesus is born into a religious context that has long been shaped by thousands of years of religious tradition and interpretation. The laws and regulations that shape Jewish religiosity are strict and specifically enforced by the Pharisees. Despite the intense regulation of obedience to the laws (and the traditions), Jesus is countercultural in nearly every respect of those very traditions.

In the above passage, Jesus has finished providing instructions and teaching to the disciples. After he concludes they begin their journey to a new town. Nothing wrong in this except that their travel begins and continues on the sabbath. Traveling on the Sabbath means that he is already in violation of the laws concerning work for Jews during this period. Worse yet, in the middle of the journey, the disciples get hungry and instead of stopping and resting, they decide to keep walking through a grain field and pick off the heads of grains. All is well until the disciples gets caught by the Pharisees.

The interchange that takes place between Jesus and the Pharisees is one in which Jesus critiques the understanding of the purpose of the law and not just a general interpretation. By challenging the very notion of the function of tradition, Jesus exposes the risk of strict adherence to the rules. Rules can be dangerously limiting and deny life when you focus on the rule and not the purpose of the rule. Jesus reminds the Pharisees that rules exist for a reason and to ignore the reason and keep the rules makes the rules irrelevant and legalistic.

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The truth of the matter is that we too, build fortresses of rules and traditions and hide inside. We often forget why we create these rules and what purpose they served in our life. Instead we cling to the rules blindly and watch happiness in life pass us by. Jesus in the passage reminds us that rules have a purpose. Once the purpose has changed, the rules need to be changed (or maybe even omitted). Our hypocrisy, contortions of belief and the undermining of relational happiness emanate from blind allegiance to the rules.

Life is happening all around us. Life is engaging and changing in the brief moments of love, charity and interaction. Traditions are important to shaping and defining life for each one of us. Traditions do not, however, bring life, they merely maintain the status quo. Doing what you always have done because it’s what has been done, is never good enough and will never yield life. Being responsive to the needs of life  and the needs you have means sometimes changing (or breaking) the rules. It’s not the end of the world, but the promise of life. After all, the visions of truth only come outside of the rule box!

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Following a Different Policy

Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. 9 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel? He said, “I do not know; am I my brothers keeper?” 10 And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brothers blood is crying out to me from the ground!” (Genesis 4:8-10, NRSV)

This past week a stunning thing took place at a assisted Living facility in Bakersfield, California. A woman had gone into cardiac arrest and had stopped breathing. A nurse (remember that) on staff called 911 and was waiting for instructions. The operator on the line stated quite clearly that CPR was needed and that it needed to be performed immediately. The nurse’s response is bone chillingly inhumane and robotic. The exchange went as follows:

911 dispatcher: Are we just going to wait and let this lady die?

Nurse: Well, that’s why we’re calling 911.

911:  We need to get CPR started

Nurse: They’re refusing CPR. They’re going to let her just die.

911: I understand your boss is telling you you can’t do it but if there’s anybody, a      human being, I don’t…. is there anybody that’s willing to help this lady and not let her die?

Nurse: Um, not at this time.

I must admit that when I first heard this I was struck by the irony of it all. A woman who is a nurse, and is trained to help people, quotes company protocol and policy when someone has a heart attack. In a “Assisted Living” facility no less!!(Worse yet, it has been reported that the deceased daughter is “satisfied with the treatment” her mother received.)

Apparently, the company that owns the “assisted living” facility has a policy that does not assist people in active medical distress other than calling 911. This company has effectively enshrined into company policy the phenomenon that we occasionally see from people in the streets. You see it through the hidden camera footage when people see someone on the streets in distress and then do little to nothing to aid that person. Sometimes they don’t even call 911 or reach out for anyone.

Cain and Abel

This behavior is not new. If we trust the witness of the scriptures, we find the first such incident in our above text. Often called the first incident of murder in creation, the above passage seems bigger than just sibling rivalry gone awry. Likewise, this tale is not merely about what happens when we are not forthright in our feelings. All of those explanations can be found in the text but Cain’s response to God’s prompt seems to be particularly telling.

When God “stumbles” upon the scene of fratricide, God asks,Where is your brother Abel?”, to which Cain offers a stunningly blunt and sarcastic retort, ““I do not know; am I my brothers keeper?” The response seems on the surface to be both disingenuous and pompous. At a deeper level, the writers of the passage are placing a double entendre into Cain’s mouth. The retort is both a denial of Cain’s familial responsibility for his brother and is a passive slap in the proverbial face of God. In other words, when God poses the question of Abel’s whereabouts, Cain’s response in our vernacular is, Don’t know what you are talking about. Keeping people isn’t my job, it’s yours!!

More importantly in the passage, Cain’s response reveals a truth of our own human shortcomings. When we fall short of expected behavior and fail to be human in our behaviors to our fellow sojourner, we resort to hiding behind the ‘policies’ we craft for ourselves. Whether it’s Cain hiding behind the witness of God’s character as humanity’s caretaker; the Pharisees being scolded by the Jesus for hiding behind the sabbath; or a nurse in Bakersfield, we use the convenience of policy to cover our ineptitude or inhumane practices to one another.

Beloved, we are made to be connected to one another. We cannot live a part from each other and thrive. We are meant to live in community and even though communities don’t always get along we are called to do it together. Resorting to legalistic interpretations of ‘policy’ stifles what has always been intended for each one of us. ‘Policy’ has a place in so far as it helps us to understand our relationship with one another and the ways we relate to God. However, our heavenly mandate is always answer yes when the question is asked, “Am I my brother’s/sister’s keeper?”. The 911 operator almost seems to be asking that very prophetic question of the nurse when she simply asks, “is there anybody that’s willing to help this lady and not let her die?” In the same way that Cain killed his brother Abel, this nurse willful inaction stole the chance for life for that woman. The nurse’s response to the operator says it all: “Um, not at this time.”

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We are better than what this nurse and this company offered this dying woman. It is insufficient for the company to say that they let all of their residents know of the CPR policy in advance. There is still a human standard, a basic standard or life. This standard applies to all areas of our life together. We can do better in our conversations about guns and violence and not hide behind a policy that “guns don’t kill people”. We can do better in our policies toward war, healthcare, poverty and all the ways that we should be “keeping” our brothers and sisters. God requires more and Abel’s blood cries out for me. We should demand better from each other and from those who lead us.

Getting the lesson from the Cain and Abel narrative without the death of another one of our brother’s and sister is a vision of truth…

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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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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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