This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

The Reason for the Season.

First of all, let’s be clear: the literal, actual, physical, astronomical reason for the season is… the Winter Solstice.  That is, to people living in the Northern Hemisphere, for six months, the sun appears to be swinging lower and lower in the sky until it seems to stop, and then come back.  That’s why we have seasons at all.  That’s why it gets colder in winter.

Obviously, humans have noticed and dealt with this for millennia.  This time of year became a time of feasting first of all because crops were harvested just before the coming of winter.  And decisions had to be made about which animals to feed for months and which it made more sense to slaughter.  The fact that people had more produce in good years than they could immediately consume meant that they would sell or give away their excess.  The days prior to the Solstice  became a time for feasts and parties, as people prepared to hunker down for the winter.

The Winter Solstice was therefore a holiday long before the birth of Jesus.  In the Roman Empire it was called “Sol Invictus,” which means “Invincible Sun.”  

The early Christians, having no actual date for the birth of Jesus, eventually settled on this time of year for that.  This was, depending on who you talk to, either because they were trying to piggy-back on the celebrations that were already happening culturally, or they wanted to offer an alternative celebration in resistance to the debauchery, gluttony, and general excesses — often at the expense of poor and working people — that were going on all around them.  Christians said that the season was really about the return of the Son, prefigured in creation itself as the return of the sun.  Advent, the Christian season leading up to the Nativity, was originally a preparatory time of fasting, that is, non-consumption, conservation of resources, and generosity to those in need.  

So we see that the conflict between the two different ways of celebrating the season is very old.  (The best book on the last few centuries of this is The Battle for Christmas by Stephen Nissenbaum.)

The Church never wins this battle.  At worst, it gets coopted and subverted so thoroughly that when people go shopping they think they are doing something Christian.  At worst, saying “Merry Christmas” is part of the ethos of consumption, waste, spending, nostalgia, sentimentality, greed, and corruption that dominates the economy.  At this point it is more a confession of Capitalism than Christ.  And that is why many insist on forcing everyone to say it.  They are trying to baptize and apply a “Christian” veneer to an orgy of buying and selling, from which the main beneficiaries are the wealthy. 

If we want to make Jesus The Reason for the Season, and if we want to make “Merry Christmas” a confession of faith in him, then we need to radically change our behavior.  If we pay attention to our mainly Scriptural stories, we find things like: a woman with an illicit pregnancy, a baby born in extremely humble circumstances, the witness of animals, the testimony of working people, a visit from exotic foreigners, signs in the sky, a bloody assault by government troops against an innocent community, a family seeking asylum in another country, and elderly witnesses in the Temple.  

Maybe an authentic Christian response to these stories surrounding the birth of the Lord would pay attention to, serve, advocate for, and associate with the same kinds of people today.  What can we do to support pregnant women and children?  How can we make the lives of the working poor better?  How can we welcome and provide for refugees and asylum seekers? And so on.
It seems to me that policies that cut food assistance to hungry people, maintain an absurdly low minimum wage, slash aid for children’s programs, cut Medicaid and threaten cuts in Medicare and Social Security, and perpetrate acts of barbaric hostility towards people who come to our country feeling violence and seeking shelter, are rejections of what Christmas is really about.  When people who support such policies sanctimoniously mouth the words “Merry Christmas!” is a hollow, cynical lie.

More than an empty seasonal greeting — let alone the self-righteous, sentimental, and angry political slogan it has been twisted into — “Merry Christmas” needs to be embodied in our acts of compassion, generosity, welcome, and justice on behalf of poor, rejected, marginalized, and victimized people now.  Then Jesus will be The Reason for the Season.  


Monday, December 2, 2019

Advent 2019 + The Way of the Future.

We have just done a year or so on the book of Revelation.  It may be argued that the main point of that book is the collision between the weight of our past and the glory of God’s future.  As it happens, this is also the overarching theme of the Advent/Nativity/Epiphany time in the Christian Year.

It is in these days, inching across the interface between darkness and light, that we are almost violently torn between the two opposed lifestyles that John describes in Revelation.  On the one hand the world confronts us with a loud orgy of consumerism permeated with nostalgic sentimentality.  On the other hand we hear in church a message both critical and affirming about God’s unlikely yet majestic entrance into our lives.  

One story is about the past.  In this season we invoke selected childhood memories and a sanitized (and largely invented) history of cultural festivities, all dedicated to only one thing: selling consumer products.  Jesus’ birth is also reduced to a distant, irrelevant, historical event.  It is oddly out-of-place, and apparently obligatorily woven into the corners of this gaudy tapestry as “the reason for the season.”  This is the story we all grew up with.  Most people, even most Christians, are unaware that there is another one.   

But Christians witness to a very different, even contradictory, story.  That concerns the way God’s future breaks into our world with a vision of peace, compassion, justice, grace, and love, in the person of Jesus Christ.  He is born in the humblest of circumstances and first greeted by the lowest of society.  He offers his life in service, healing, liberation, feeding, and finally in dying to give us life.  

Our season of Advent is about this other story, and we Presbyterians have been in the process of recovering it over the last half century or more.  Advent, of course, is not about buying or selling anything.  It is about an awesome gift: light in our darkness.  (That is one of the reasons why the church scheduled the Nativity around the Solstice: to connect with the hemispheric experience of sunlight returning.)  

The two main characters of Advent are St. John the Baptist, representing the wall-to-wall critique of the forces who appear to rule in our dark world, and St. Mary, in and through whom the Light  emerges into our world as one of us.  They show us God’s firm “no” to the-world-as-we-know-it, dominated by destructive, mercenary principalities and powers, and God’s “yes!” to the true world of God’s future, which Christ announces, embodies, and calls us into.

Advent is really important because it sets the tone for the rest of the year, and for our Christian life generally.  For we always live in anticipation of the fulfillment of God’s future among and within us.  This future has broken into human experience in different ways over time.  The Bible is the “unique and authoritative witness” to this.  The events described in Scripture are not important as history; their essential importance is found in how they point beyond themselves to God’s Reality.   In other words, they are less about the past than they are about the future.

I was taught that human identity is a story we tell ourselves about our past.  That may be accurate for our ego-centric, personality-driven identity.  But I am coming more to the view that our real, deep, and true identity in Christ is better related as a story we tell about our future.  Where we are going is more important than where we have been.  Advent is about where we are going.  In Scripture we hear stories from the past which serve to inform us about our future.  In Advent this is most explicit.

And by “where we are going” I don’t necessarily mean when we die.  A. J. Muste once said, “There is no way to peace; peace is the way.”  So it is with the followers of Jesus Christ.  There is no way to Christ; Christ is the Way.  That’s why the early Christians referred to themselves as the Way.  We live now in anticipation of, and participation in, something that is in the process of being fulfilled in us and in our world.  To live now according to his teachings and commandments is itself both the destination and the Way.  

December is the hardest month to stay with focused on the future Jesus gives us.  We are harassed by other voices yelling at us all month long to follow another path.  Let’s keep following John’s advice and make our lives a living witness to Jesus Christ.  In this season, let’s prove his Presence within and among us, by our service to those in need, our humility, gratitude, and forgiveness, and our peace, joy, and hope in our knowledge of the Truth revealed in him, which is God’s love.  That is the future we need to let shine in and through us, into a broken world.


Saturday, November 2, 2019

The Open Table.

The Presbyterian Church USA practices an open eucharistic table.  That is, most of the time, we will gladly serve the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper to any who present themselves.  The actual rule in the Book of Order is a little more complicated; we prefer that people coming to communion be baptized, for instance.  But even that is not a hard-and-fast rule.  

I generally support an open table.  When I preside at the eucharist, I do make a point of saying that “all are welcome.”  I have never refused anyone.      
The early church, however, did not have an open table.  They lived in an oppressive situation where outsiders, including government authorities, would have broken up the service, were they allowed to know about it and show up.  Only baptized members known to the presiding elder as legitimate disciples of Jesus were permitted to commune in the Lord’s Body and Blood.

Marginalized and oppressed populations need separate, dedicated spaces and rituals, places outside the control of the rulers and owners.  African-American slaves engineered secret worship, without the overseers and the Plantation owners knowing about them.  In Ernesto Cardinale’s classic, The Gospel in Solentiname, representatives from the wealthy planters and their death-squads were not invited to the Bible Study meetings of the poor campesinos.  

We don’t live in that kind of context.  Our culture does not oppose Christian faith with violence.  It tends to use other, more subtle and often more effective, tools.  Like the trivialization of the spiritual/religious life, turning it into a private, personal hobby.  Most American Protestants buy into a Zwinglian view of the Sacrament as a little commemorative snack which may or may not be added on to a worship service, depending on people’s preference.  Under this ideology, participation in the Sacrament is optional, immaterial, and constitutive of nothing in particular.  It is a matter of one’s personal spiritual taste.  It should be available to all who want it, the way they want it.   

The most potent argument against fencing the table is the fact that Judas shared in the Lord’s last supper, when the Sacrament was instituted.  Jesus, who knows what is going to happen, does not wait until Judas leaves before offering the bread to him along with the other disciples.  No.  He deliberately includes his own betrayer in the holy meal.  In doing so, the Lord explicitly dismisses any moral worthiness qualification for participation.  Indeed, all of the disciples were clueless about what he was doing and what would happen in the next 16 hours.  No one comes to the table personally deserving to share in this Sacrament.

So participation in the Sacrament is not a reward for the righteous or a privilege for religious insiders.  That may be how it got twisted under Christendom.  For instance, in the Presbyterian Church it used to be that children were not permitted to share in the Sacrament.  The reason I was given was that children “do not understand” it.  Yo, no one cognitively understands what is going on in the Sacrament!  It’s not about how smart or informed or educated we are.  It’s about how we are included in the love of God.    
That being said, God’s love is not whatever we want it to be.  In Judas’ case, he barely had time to swallow the bread and wine before he went out and ratted on Jesus to the police.  It does not end well for Judas.  Eventually he offed himself rather gruesomely out of overwhelming guilt and grief.   We may reject God’s love and choose to exist in a web of self-serving mercenary treason.  Then we experience God’s love as judgment and condemnation.    

What does it mean for someone who has invested their energy into actively betraying and killing God, poor people, and God’s creation to receive the Body and Blood of the Lord?  Are they not eating and drinking the blood/life of those whom they have murdered?  Are they not therefore consuming their own judgment, punishment, and condemnation?  Are they not expressing their own hatred for God and God’s creation, and spiraling into a profound alienation?

I wonder if this isn’t why the Sacrament has been so degraded in the Modern world.  Maybe our historical reticence in participating in this meal was based on a subconscious awareness that to do so while systematically wrecking God’s creation in a nihilistic orgy of profiteering might earn us the fate of Judas.  Maybe it has.  I would not be the first to suggest that the engine of Modernity is ecocide and therefore suicide.  If Modernity had a patron saint, perhaps it would be Judas.

The Apostle Paul says that “all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.”  So it matters how we see what is going on in the Sacrament.  We have to “discern the body.”  This has nothing to do with having a particular theological opinion about the bread and what does or does not physically happen to it.  That’s a distraction.  Discerning “the body” means awakening to the universal oneness revealed in the Sacrament.   

The earliest eucharistic liturgies talked about how the grain that had been scattered in the fields was gathered into one loaf.  The loaf represented the disciples of Jesus, gathered together in that time and place, around that table, participating in that rite.  The gathering in turn represents the oneness of all humans, as Christ reveals that in him there are no divisions among us.  That awareness of oneness extends to all creation, breathed into being by the one Creator.  Finally, there is the oneness we therefore share with and in Jesus Christ, the truly human One, who is the Word of God by whom all things were made, and who is God-with-us.  

In this Sacrament the confession that “God became human so that humans might become God” begins to be realized.  In and through the particular elements we begin to perceive — discern — the glorious oneness of an interconnected/interdependent universe in which, as Richard Rohr has said, everything belongs. 

Discerning the body, the oneness, the unity, the integrity of creation, precludes and prevents the animosities and manipulations, the fear and the anger, the abstraction and analysis, that drives us to destroy the planet and each other in order to “save” it.  

So, while we should not be denying the Sacrament to anyone who comes trusting in the Lord Jesus, no matter how faint that trust may be, we do at the same time need to impress upon people what they are in for.  This is a radical participation in the eternal truth of God’s love for and in the world.  It is a humble proclamation of our place as part of and dependent on the wider creation.  It is the negation of all privilege and profit, exclusion and condemnation, domination and retribution.  Indeed, the Sacrament is, in effect, chemotherapy against the ego.

But for those who trust in the Lord Jesus, the One who gives his life for the life of the world, the Sacrament is holy medicine.  It awakens, feeds, and expresses the Presence of Christ-in-us, uniting us to every person, every life, and every thing God breathed into being.  If we perceive in the Sacrament the infinite love God has for the world, and if we also discern that it is all in some sense God’s body in which we participate, then this, as the primary way Christ gives us to remember him, incorporates us into him, revealing how he is all in all.