Tuesday, June 4, 2013

God's Power and the Roman Centurion

Luke 7:1-10

When the President of the United States of America speaks, he speaks with authority. Power. Sometimes he goes to the General Motors plant in Flint, Michigan and speaks in a colloquial tone with the workers. Sometimes he wears blue jeans, and a collared shirt with sleeves rolled up. On other days, he may be campaigning for re-election, at a town hall in New Hampshire hearing the concerns of senior citizens. Or, he may be dressed to the hilt speaking from the podium in the House Chamber for his state of the union speech. Regardless of where he is, and regardless of which President we’re talking about—when the President speaks—at least in public— he speaks with authority. With the full weight of the US government and military behind him. We may not like what he says. We may not have voted for him, we may not have voted at all. We may disagree with his policies, and many of us will vigorously debate what he says. But, for some strange reason, when the President of the United States speaks—we listen.

The Roman Centurion in Luke 7 speaks with authority. When he gives orders to his 100 or so men, he dispatches authority with the full weight of the Roman Empire behind him. These men under his command listen. But this powerful and decorated military man has met the limits of what is possible with Rome’s backing. He’s met the limits of his power in the way that many of us meet the limits to our power—through suffering. Through grieving. The centurion’s servant is dying, and he cares for this servant very much. He values him highly, as Luke puts it. The Greek entimos used here is stronger than mere “value”: the servant is held in honor. He’s prized, he’s precious. (There’s even some scholarship that suggests the centurion and his servant were lovers—apparently it was a common military practice of the time for Roman soldiers to have younger servants who were also their male lovers—if that’s true it would make this centurion today also a centurion with a broken lovers heart).[1] That may or may not be the case, but what we do know is that this man is hurting. This precious and honored and valued servant of his is sick, and Rome’s armies can’t do a thing about it.

The centurion has heard about the authority of another leader, a different type of leader, a Galilean homeless Jew named Jesus of Nazareth. This other leader operates not under the power of Rome, but under the power of he calls God’s kingdom.

So the centurion sends two groups to speak with Jesus—first, Jewish elders and then second, a company of friends. The Jewish elders that he sends to relay his message are his clients or dependents—they have a lot to gain by staying cozy to Roman power. In first century Palestinian culture relationships were often ordered along what social science researchers call patron-client lines. A rich patron, such as a Roman military man, was expected to give back to the community, his clients, not unlike how we expect corporations Apple today to pay taxes. This centurion had fulfilled his patronage responsibilities—he paid his taxes, so to speak. The Jewish elders, his clients or recicipients of his generosity, plead his case to Jesus. “He is worthy,” they say. “He loves the Jewish people.” He’s not one of those centurions whose men brutally crucifies peasants in the countryside—he’s one of the good guys. “It is he who built our synagogue for us,” they say.  So Jesus goes with them, and heads towards the centurions house.

When Jesus gets closer, the centurion dispatches the second group: he sends a few close friends. You see, his message didn’t quite get communicated. What he really wanted to tell Jesus was “I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.” I think he tried to tell the Jewish elders this message already, but their flattery overcame them. They probably debated what to tell Jesus on the way: “We can’t tell Jesus that the centurion isn’t worthy. We’ll lose our patronage. Half of the yearly synagogue budget comes form his annual donation. Let’s tread lightly.” So it falls upon these close friends, the ones he really trusts, to run out to Jesus before he arrives and relay the truth.

And here’s the crux of the passage: the Roman imperial centurion recognizes God’s power through Jesus as superior to his own. “I am not worthy to have you come under my roof...Only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me.”  It’s a total reversal of social relations. The Roman general treats the Galilean homeless Jesus not only as an equal, but as more powerful. He assumes Jesus, like any Roman leader, can command by his word, and he defers to Jesus as the one higher in the chain of command. The one whose words can heal his precious servant. The one whose authority surpasses his own. If anyone had reason to think himself worthy in relation to God, this man did. A soldier of soldiers. A patron of the Jewish leaders. A faithful citizen of Rome. And yet this man, with the prospect of Jesus coming to his house to heal his precious servant says “I am not as powerful as I thought.”  Rome’s power only brought me so far. It couldn’t heal my servant. It couldn’t stop my grief. I need a higher authority, a higher power, God’s power.

What is the source of power in your life? What keeps you going? Is it your money? Your intelligent opinions? The people you know? The esteem in which the community holds you? Is it anger or past resentments? Is it success?

As first world Americans, we can identify with the centurion. We will most likely not get a chance to speak with Presidential authority, but we still are the powerful ones. We are the new Rome. Our country makes up 5% of the global population but consumes 24% of the world’s energy.[2]  We are literally burning the planet. And so the story of the centurion reminds us of the limitations of power. The centurion models the surrender to God’s power that is needed for any true spiritual authority to be formed in us. It is exceedingly difficult for the centurion to come to the end of his resources and ask for help, because it’s much more challenging to recognize God’s power when we have a lot of worldly power ourselves. There’s so much more to lose and let go of. Jesus knows this, and praises the centurion, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”  True spiritual power understands that it’s God’s power that heals and sustains and saves us—not Rome or America or our possessions or jobs or successes or education. May the power of God through Christ galvanize our lives.

[1] The article “Text, Culture, and Ideology in Luke 7:1-10” by David B. Growler is particularly helpful. See http://userwww.service.emory.edu/~dgowler/RobbinsFS.htm

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

New Parenting: Chaos, Kenosis, Community

            It’s been a while since my last blog post. Here’s why: our son Ian Longhurst-McClellan is nearly two weeks old. I am biased, to be sure, but he is the most beautiful boy I’ve ever seen. With large and curious blue eyes, he soaks in color and movement, mommy and daddy—everything new. He gropes and grasps with his tiny fingers. My favorite moment: after sleeping, he throws his stubby arms overhead and gives a yawn and stretch.

            These two weeks of fatherhood have me reflecting on three themes in particular from Christian spirituality: chaos, kenosis, and community.
            Parenting is chaotic, as most Canaan newsletter readers will know from experience. The house becomes messy and laundry loads multiply. Bodily fluids overflow.  I walk to one end of the house hoping to accomplish something, and by the time I arrive there, my tired mind has lost that thread of purpose. We who are Christians know, however, that chaos does not mean abandonment by God’s presence. In fact, just the opposite: chaos in Scripture can be a productive space of creation. Remember the opening scene of Genesis? “The earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep” (1:2). According to Clarke’s Bible Commentary, the Hebrew terms for void and darkness (tohu and bohu) convey confusion and disorder—chaos. But what happens to this confusion, disorder and chaos? The next line of the verse tells us: “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” Chaos becomes creation, a new universe. With the Spirit’s help, what could easily become an overwhelming and anxiety-ridden time of new parenting transforms into a time of creation, abundance, and joy.
            The chaos of parenting invites me into kenosis, which is the New Testament Greek word meaning self-emptying love. The word is used in Paul’s hymn in Philippians 2: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” Writers like Cynthia Bourgeault claim that kenosis sums up the basic energy and thrust of Jesus’ entire ministry. His whole ministry, Bourgeault claims, is a demonstration of kenosis. She writes in her book The Wisdom Jesus, “In whatever life circumstance, Jesus always responded with the same motion of self-emptying—or to put it another way, of the same motion of descent: going lower, taking the lower place, not the higher” (p. 64).
            In my brief two-week experience of parenting, it seems to me that loving parenting is all about kenosis. It means that I will rise in the middle of the night to change his diaper, even if I’m getting up at 5:30am to visit hospice patients. It means that if Faith needs a break to breath the air outside the house, I will gladly hold and bounce Ian in my arms. It means that if he’s crying I will find out why he’s crying and attempt to soothe him. It means that my agenda and desires do not come first—they are forsaken, emptied for a larger loving purpose. This is a tall order, and let me be the first to admit that I fail utterly at it (as Faith will tell you). A crying baby and sleep-deprivation pushes at my emotional trigger points. Sometimes I get angry. Sometimes I become impatient. But reflecting on Jesus’ ministry as a ministry of kenosis provides an inspiration and spiritual call for those 3am moments of quick and less-than-compassionate response.
            Finally, and a bit less esoteric: new parenting requires community. This is humbling for both Faith and I. We like to think of ourselves as “do-it-yourself” people. Strong and capable. But we have by necessity needed to lean on others to make it through this transition into parenting. The Canaan Church so thoughtfully stocked us with blankets, baby clothes, cash, and a solid changing table (which is getting a lot of use!). Personal friends have brought home cooked meals by at just the right times. Our parents have stayed with us to provide support in ways that we needed: taking a midnight feeding or diaper shift, going grocery shopping, even doing our laundry. We are filled with gratitude to have such a supportive community, and we are humbled by the generosity that has sustained us. We couldn’t have done it without you.
             Chaos, kenosis, community. These three themes run through all aspects of our lives, whether we are parents or not. Our jobs, relationships, commitments, caregiving, volunteering, and family lives offer us the opportunity to respond with kenosis in chaotic situations, all while relying on the support of community. May it be so, and may Christ’s witness and the Spirit’s presence be our guide. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Fourth Sunday of Lent: The Cross and Reconciliation

Scripture: Ephesians 2:11-22, Mark 15: 33-39
(4 of 5 in a series of the death of Jesus)

The cross overcomes division.[1] In Paul’s writings the cross becomes a reconciling symbol of breaking down exclusive barriers. But how did Paul get there and how is it connected to Jesus life and ministry?

The Jews were God’s chosen people. God took Abraham from his home in Ur, and on a particularly clear evening, an evening not unlike the one’s we have here in Canaan, God showed Abraham a starry sky. You could see Venus and Mars. And God said, “I will make of you a great nation. You see those stars? So shall your descendants be.” Throughout the Hebrew Bible, we hear this continuing story: God creating a people, choosing a people, giving laws and land and religious rituals to this people that God names Israel.  

But you know what happens so often when we see ourselves as chosen? At first it’s great and liberating. At first it’s healing to know that God chose me, that God loves me, that I’m special. But after a while, if we’re not careful, we may forget that God chooses other people as well. We may start to feel entitled. We may judge other people. We may forget about the poor, the needy, the excluded. We may start to feel that we have a corner on the truth. So in Israel’s history this happened, and it falls on a group called the prophets to rise up and criticize the exclusion and superiority complex that develops in Israel. They forgot that God chose other people as well. The great poet-prophet Isaiah takes this issue on: in chapter 56 writes about how God welcomes the eunuchs, the sexual minorities of his time. God welcomes the foreigners, the illegal immigrants of his time. Isaiah reminds his people that God’s house is not a house just for the Jews, it “shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel” (56:7-8). Isaiah reminds his people that God’s love is always going beyond the boundearies.

Then Jesus comes along—formed and shaped by that prophetic tradition—and he shakes things up by identifying with the most excluded of society—even Gentiles. In his life—and in his death—he overturns the central dogma of his religion—that “we” are chosen and they are not chosen. “We” are holy and “they” are unholy. At his birth, the chief priests and scribes aren’t there—who shows up to witness the Messiah’s birth? It’s Magi from Persia, who work in the Persian kings court. They’re the one’s who follow a star and show up. When Jesus and his followers are passing through Samaria—he stops and talks with a woman at a well who is thirsty for living water. We know the story. Jews didn’t talk to Samaritans—they had had an ancient conflict about the proper place to worship—Jews thought you had to worship in Jerusalem, and Samaritans had a mountain called Mt. Gerizim as their sacred place. On top of that, Jewish men definitely didn’t talk to Samaritan women. But Jesus crosses all these boundaries and says to the woman at the well: “The hour is coming when true worshippers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth.” As if to say, “these boundaries are not ultimate—we are one in our worship of the divine.”

Before his death Jesus is betrayed by the leaders of his own religion and “handed over to the Gentiles,” the Romans. It’s a key repetitive phrase in the gospels: “handed over to the Gentiles.” The leaders of his own religion reject him as an outsider, as a pagan. As theologian Ted Jennings points out, the typical Jewish treatment for a false prophet was stoning. The chief priests and scribes could have stoned Jesus—but their rejection and repudiation of his goes far beyond that—they hand him over to the pagan Gentiles, the imperial oppressors. Jesus doesn’t even deserve a Jewish death to them. And so Jesus, as Hebrews 13:12 puts it, “suffers outside the city gate,” outside the boundaries of the chosen people. He dies on a hill called Golgotha outside the city. This is the ultimate symbol of God’s solidarity with the excluded. Crucified outside the gate. Abandoned by his people. God’s Messiah becoming the excluded himself.

The Jewish Temple was structured on exclusive boundaries—separation by degrees of holiness. And it’s not that Judaism was particularly exclusive—it functioned as any normal religion should and would in that time. The Gentiles could come to the Temple—but they had to stay in a special outer court. That’s where the sacrificial animals were sold, and where Jesus had his controversial outburst of “cleansing the temple.” Women could come to the Temple—but they had to stay in their own section too. Male Jews who were ritually pure had their own section, and they could go a little further into the Temple. Priests proceeded still further, they had the run of the place. And once a year, on the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur, the High Priest could go behind a veil into the inner sanctuary called the Holy of Holies.[2] Once a year.

Something incredible happens as Jesus dies and breathes his last breath: The temple veil is torn in two. The door is thrown open.  The whole world becomes the holy of holies. The structure of exclusion, of insiders and outsiders, is torn down. The separation between the sacred and the secular is torn down. We all will worship in Spirit and Truth now. And then, to make the point even further, A Roman army commander is the one who recognizes the Messiah.  A centurion sees Jesus’ last breath, maybe he even hears the tearing of the temple veil, and he exclaims, “Truly this man was God’s Son.” So the cross becomes a universal symbol of reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles, between insiders and outsiders, between chosen people and not chosen people. This is what Ephesians means when the author writes: “But now you who were once far off (you Gentiles, you outsiders) have been brought near in the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility.”

All too often, in our history, we Christians have not been a community reconciled by the cross. Our history is full of the same things that Jesus and Paul critiqued Judaism for doing: becoming an insider club based on exclusion. It’s almost as if institutional religions can’t help it—it’s as if it’s in the DNA of becoming an established religion. We thought that we had the truth and that no one else had it. In the Middle Ages, we forced people to baptize or die. In our American history, we used our religion to justify whatever social exclusion was contemporary with the times:  Jews, African Americans, women, poor people, disabled people, immigrants, sexual minorities, most recently—Muslims. But that is not the way of the cross. The way of the cross is reconciliation. The way of the cross is solidarity with the excluded. The way of the cross is peace. 

[1] This sermon inspired by chapter 3 of Ted Jennings’s Transforming Atonement, “The Cross and Division.”

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Third Sunday of Lent: Jesus' Cross as Nonviolent Action Against Evil

3rd in a Series on the cross and Jesus' death

Matthew 5:38-44, Mark 15:21-32, Colossians 2:15

Jesus responds to injustice and violence with the active force of love and nonviolence. He does this in his life—and he also does this in his death. In fact, his death is a continuation or culmination of his life and teachings. We sometimes have this view of Jesus in both his life and on the cross that he teaches people to accept suffering passively. But that’s a misinterpretation: Jesus is anything but passive. Walter Wink has shown that turning the other cheek is anything but a passive thing to do in Jesus’ culture—it is a way of an oppressed and suffering person standing up for their dignity when they are being insulted and they have no other resources. The only way someone could hit someone on the right cheek was either with the left hand, which was considered unclean and used for going the bathroom OR with a back-handed slap—either way it’s an insult to be hit on the right cheek. It was like saying, “you are beneath me, you don’t even deserve to be struck equally on the left cheek with my right hand.” A back-handed slap demeaned someone with less authority—masters slapped slaves, men slapped women, Romans slapped Jews.

Jesus offers what Walter Wink calls a “Third Way” beyond the fight or flight response. A third way of active nonviolence. He doesn’t say grin and bear it, take the humiliation. He doesn’t say hit them back with everything you’ve got. He says turn the other cheek, offer them the left cheek, force that person in authority to at least recognize your dignity by striking you as an equal.  This is the counterintuitive logic of Jesus; this is the counterintuitive logic of nonviolence; and I’d like to propose to us that it is also the counterintuitive logic of the cross.

I’m starting to read parenting books—and feel free to check in with me in five years about this—but I’m convinced that the most successful disciplining of children’s misbehavior takes place through a nonviolent response, through responding to misbehavior with creativity and love rather than anger. That might seem obvious, but a generation ago it was not. It was not obvious to Mell Lazarus, as he tells in his story “Angry Fathers” (I’m sharing this story nearly verbatim from his original piece). Artie, Elie, and Mell are visiting the Catskill Mountains from the city. They’re staying at a country boarding house, and, being 9 year olds, they are getting restless. So they hole up in what the boys call the “casino.” It’s the public space where the guests hang out and play games like Bingo and Monopoly. But, Mell writes, “Gradually, inspiration (for their boredom) came: the casino was too new, the wood frame and white sheetrock walls too perfect. We would do it some quiet damage. Leave our anonymous mark on the place, for all time.” So, as Mell Lazarus tells this story, the boys pick up a wooden bench and use it as a battering ram to bash a hole into the casino wall. And another hole. And another. The owner, Mr. Biolos, arrives and finds out what they have done—and he is furious, he’s craving justice, he’s foaming at the mouth until their fathers arrive so these disobedient boys will receive their due corporal punishment. Mell says that Arties father comes first. He carefully takes off his belt—and viciously whips his screaming son. All the guests in the country house are by this time looking on, angry and waiting for the fathers to punish their boys. Eli’s father comes next—Mell writes that he knocks his son off his feet and kicks him. And then Mell’s father arrives in his car from the city. He takes a look at the holes in the wall, and then he gets back in his car and drives away. But then, about an hour later he comes back—and he’s got a hammer and a car full of sheetrock board. And Mell’s dad hammers through dinner and late into the night—while everyone is trying to sleep, he is fixing what the boys have done. His midnight hammering a testimony of their destructive behavior. And here’s how Mell ends his amazing piece: “My father made his point. I never forgot that my vandalism on that August day was outrageous. And I’ll never forget that it was also the day I first understood how deeply I could trust him.” Mell Lazarus’s dad found a way beyond the fight or flight response.

Jesus’ cross functions in a similar way. Jesus’ cross is the ultimate example of responding to injustice and violence with love and nonviolence. But in order to get there we need to cover a bit of ground and unravel some common assumptions about the crucifixion.

The Roman Empire didn’t crucify people for nothing—they crucified people who they perceived as a threat to Roman rule.  Crucifixion was a Roman torture tactic for political insurrectionists, for violent bandits, for threats to the peace. And if you pay attention to the details of the crucifixion story, as we’ve heard today, the story tells it as a Roman military execution. Why would Jesus have been perceived to pose a threat to Roman rule? Why would he be given the Roman death penalty? It’s not just because Pontius Pilate didn’t want to rock the boat. There’s a broader context: Jesus led a movement of the disenchanted and disenfranchised, the poor, the mentally ill, the sick, and the outcast. He claimed that a different kingdom, a kingdom of God—was here. For folks who thought emperor Caesar’s kingdom was the only game in town—this was challenging news. How dare this man claim another authority higher than Caesar? And because of this, because of his teaching about the kingdom of God, because of the unseemly company he kept, because of the miracles, and the boundary-breaking meals he ate, he was perceived as a revolutionary, a threat to public order—in the same family as Barabbas, and crucified alongside two violent outlaw bandits. Mocked by the Roman soldiers, wearing a crown of thorns, and a sign near him that read: “King of the Jews.”

But as we know, Jesus was not a revolutionary; he was not a Jewish political Messiah. He was not the King people were waiting for. Jesus pursued a third way of nonviolence rather than the fight path of revolution or the flight path of passivity. A Third way beyond “Fight or Flight.” We often think of Jesus on the cross as a passive, innocent victim—but he had agency in his ministry right up until the end. If passivity was his stance he never would have led his followers to Jerusalem during Passover anyway! All throughout the gospel of Mark we are given signs that Jesus knows what’s on the horizon when he gets to Jersualem. He foretells his fate three times, even in detail in Mark chapter 10. If Jesus were a passive victim, he would have stayed home, or at least waited until the festival was over, until Pilate took his chariots and soldiers home, until the plots against his life cooled down a bit.

But instead he marches into Jerusalem with his ragtag movement in a so-called “triumphal entry.” It’s not subtle. He heads into the Temple—the center of both Jewish religious authority and Roman power—and he announces that the Temple will be destroyed. You don’t need to pay a Temple tax and purchase animal sacrifices to worship God, he says. Does this sound like passivity to you—the flight response? No! But this also doesn’t sound like the revolutionary violence of a political Messiah—it’s not the fight response either. He’s not attacking the Roman guards and trying to free the Temple from Roman influence like his ancestor Judas Maccabeus did, a seminal event that Jews remember at Hanukah. He’s not minting coins with an inscription “Year 1 of the Liberation of Israel” like revolutionary Simeon Bar Kosiba did. Jesus is up to something different—he is pursuing the way of love, the way of bold confrontation with injustice—all the way until the end, despite the inevitable consequences of death.

The cross, then, is a nonviolent direct action against structures of evil. Through Jesus’ submission of his own body, the cross protests against both the Jewish and Roman structures of exclusion, intimidation, and violence—and it protests against those same structures in our day. Like turning the other cheek, or like Mell Lazarus’s dad’s response, the cross is a third way beyond fight or flight. That’s why the author of Colossians can claim that through the cross Jesus “disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.”

May Jesus’ nonviolent witness and suffering disarm our own violence, and the violence of our world. With God’s strength, response to challenging situations with creativity and love.