Out of Egypt

After the election I read an opinion piece that was memorable because it appeared in a self-consciously liberal newspaper. It was a call by a Roman Catholic activist for Catholics to double down on their anti-abortion efforts in the new year because he suspects the Trump administration, and Tom Price in particular (Trump’s nominee to head Health and Human Services), will be friendly to these efforts. In the commentary he refers to the slaughter of the innocents, and says it is time that we work to stop the slaughter in our day and age.

When I read the essay I didn’t think much about his biblical reference, but when I opened up the lectionary readings and read Mat 2:13-23, it struck me how utterly off point the commentator was when referring to this specific text. It is the terrible story of the slaughter of children two and under by Herod while Mary and Joseph, with Jesus in tow, flee to Egypt. There is nothing in the telling about stopping the slaughter nor any thought of attempting it, just an angelic warning that the Family should run! It is a text full of the inevitability of grinding human political power and the mourning and weeping of loss by those who suffer under a despot’s heavy hand. It is a story of helplessness, and even divine helplessness, and desperate plans in the face of disaster.

In one of Jesus’ more cryptic parables, he claimed it was harder for a rich person to enter heaven than a camel to pass through the eye of a needle (Mt 19:24). The parable came to mind as I compared and contrasted the Gospel Lesson with the activist op-ed. For the most part we are a wealthy people. I am certainly comfortable in my life and so I am unequivocally speaking to myself at this point. Wealthy people are typically not in the business of being overwhelmed by problems, we’re in the business of fixing them.

I suspect this penchant for fixing problems seeps into our perceptions of salvation every bit as much as it seeps into our reading of Matthew’s recounting of the Holy Innocents. When we think of the corruption that lies at the root of our eternal predicament, we see a fixable problem. Given enough time, resources, and effort, we can overcome anything.

But the Gospel is given to those who have to flee in the face of a despot, whose only possible response to slaughter is mourning because it is too dangerous and too impossible to even hope for revenge. Throughout Advent, when Isaiah spoke of crushing those who oppress us, he was not speaking of a political or diplomatic solution because such solutions require at least a tiny bit of power that can be leveraged. He was saying that in the Kingdom of God, the impossible will become true. The Gospel is the impossible addressed to the destitute and hopeless.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted,” says Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. If our first thought is, “We have to do something about this!” when we see genocide, disaster, and unspeakable evil, chances are we are not yet capable of understanding the Gospel. Only when our best option is to simply stop and mourn will we be in a position to hear God’s quiet voice.

Those who are capable of bringing healing and comfort to the world are those with tears streaming down their cheeks. The unexpected gift of the Gospel is that those who are truly in a position to offer real help are those who have no ability to help at all.

“Out of Egypt I have called my Son” (Mt 2:15). Out of despair and bondage has God called his church.

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The Really Hard Part

It started with a rereading of Tuomo Mannermaa’s Christ Present in Faith, I have re-engaged with Protestant theology and thinking in a manner that I have not done for over a decade. What I have found most striking is the differing emphasis on the individual and the society.

From an Orthodox perspective, the really hard part of salvation is the transformation of the individual. When that is taken care of the societal and cosmic effects of sin and death will take care of themselves. Orthodox theology prides itself in being a cosmic theology, and yet the cosmic implications of the gospel begin with the person and grow outward from there.

From a Western perspective (and this is largely true of both the Latin and Protestant branches of the Western church), the really hard part of salvation is the transformation of society while the transformation of the person is largely taken for granted as an act of pure grace. (For by grace you have been saved by faith, not of works, lest you should boast.) There is a perceived duality of divine and human, of grace and effort, that is largely absent from Orthodoxy, and the effect of this duality in Protestantism is to accept as a given that God will transform individuals apart from human effort. The human effort is then focused on serving the world, evangelism, and through these things, the transformation of society.

It is the epistle lesson for Dec 24/25, Proper I that brought this to mind. Titus 2:11-14 says,

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.

One thing I love about this text is that the author calls Jesus Christ “the grace of God.” It’s not so much that Christ offers grace, he is Grace.

This is a text that I have run into quite often in Orthodox writing because it lays out the purpose and path of salvation. We must renounce impiety and passions and we must live a life that is self-controlled, upright, and godly. Those aren’t future things, but the expectation of the here and now as we await the revelation of the “glory.” The Hebrew word for glory is “shekinah,” is frequently used in this particular sense in Hebrew scripture as a synonym for God. The “Grace of God” has appeared, and it turns out that the “Grace of God” is one in the same as the “Glory of God.”

In the Old Testament the Glory of God is often a frightening thing implying potential judgment, but here there is no judgment in the angry or frightening sense, only “Grace,” accomplished through God’s purification of his people.

This is in contrast (and I think that in the context of the two very different approaches to the Christian life in the East and West that I described above, you could call it a stark contrast) to Titus that we find this in the Old Testament Lesson from Isaiah 9:4-5.

For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.

Back when I  was a Presbyterian I would have likely treated this as a social justice passage, but seeing it with Orthodox eyes, there is no command to do anything found here, it is rather a description of what Christ, the Glory of God, will do when he reveals his Glory. It is a description of the kingdom (ie, God’s pure grace) in contrast to Titus’ description of the things we’re supposed to do while we wait for for the pure grace of “the blessed hope.”

I don’t believe we should make the contrast too stark. The personal emphasis in Titus and the societal emphasis in Isaiah are two sides of the same coin. But as I have read these Nativity texts this week, what struck me more than anything else is the difference in primary emphases of the two great traditions of the divided Church.

Which is the really hard part of salvation and which is more a matter of patient waiting because it is a description of the blessed hope? Well, in fact both are. In the end the Gospel is simply too big for us to effectively comprehend. And we will not be able to just grow into it either, the bigness of the Gospel is so big that we will ultimately have to wait for the bigness of the Kingdom to see how it all fits together.

Joseph’s Story

The three lessons for the 4th Sunday of Advent are each about the nature of the Messiah: his humanity his sinlessness, and his deity. Isaiah 7:10-16 deals with it in a prophetic/poetic voice. Paul comes closest to what we might call a theological statement on the subject with his utterance of praise in Rom 1:1-7. The Gospel (Mat 1:18-25), deals with it as a story.

Historically the church has tended to focus on the theology of the incarnation. And for good reason, because, as seven ecumenical councils and hundreds of years testify, getting the doctrine wrong on these matters leads to seriously bad consequences.

The story itself, on the other hand, has much to tell us about the effects of “God with us” (the meaning of the name “Immanuel”) rather than its meaning, and I’ve been thinking about that this week. For those involved God’s direct involvement with humanity led to inconvenience, chaos, doubt as to how to proceed in life, etc.

Joseph was a righteous man and betrothed (a state of affairs that doesn’t exist in modern culture – pretty much all the legal entanglements of marriage without the “benefits”). Furthermore, the woman to whom he was betrothed was pregnant. He knew he didn’t do it, so he began the process of a quiet divorce. The law suggested he might want to have Mary stoned to death in the city square but he chose to spare her life, and to the degree possible, save her family from shame.

This is the immediate effect of the incarnation: utter chaos in the fabric and family and community life.

The second effect of the incarnation is God’s secondary involvement in life. God comes to Joseph in a dream an explains the situation: the baby’s not illegitimate, the child is from God. Go ahead and marry her.

Notice that this secondary divine involvement in the lives of the people involved doesn’t solve many problems and essentially creates more for Joseph. It saves Mary’s life and makes the baby sort of legitimate, but it doesn’t solve any of the disruptions in the family and social fabric.

We overlay our Christianity with religion. Religion is awe-inspiring, comfortable and predictable, and we use it to solve a lot of our problems. Christianity, on the other hand, is anything but. Since we’ve had Christianity around for two millennia, we’ve settled quite comfortably into it’s religious façade. In this text the façade is torn away and we are reminded of the real thing, of what actually happens when God chooses to dwell among us.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of choosing a congregation because the preacher is really good and then to stay there because it meets our needs. That doesn’t exactly line up with Joseph’s story in Mat. 1. So as Christmas approaches, I wonder … are we going to celebrate the actual chaos of Christmas, escape into the false comfort of the gentle Christmas celebration at Church, or dive into the alternative chaos of consumerism?

Three alternatives. Joseph’s story shows us a glimpse into the best of the three.

A Word on what’s going on

I’ve been attending St. Thomas Episcopal Church for a while. (Yes, I’m Orthodox, there’s a story, but that’s between me and my confessor and not for thee general public, so don’t ask.) Pretty consistently after the sermons (by Fr Jay Denne), I think, “That’s not how I would have approached the text.” In nearly every case the way that he approached the text was far superior to how the text struck me when it was proclaimed minutes before the sermon.

But it raises the question, how would I approach the text if I actually gave prayerful thought about them rather than reacting to them moments after their proclamation from the center of the nave.

Since the blog has been rather dead lately, I decided to reflect on next week’s text starting on Sunday afternoon.

These are not sermons because they lack community context. I am no longer a pastor and thus no longer have my pulse on a community. On occasion they may be a response to my crazy “Emerging Church Cheerleader” colleague at work, or possibly a riff on the current news cycle, etc. But they are not aimed at edifying a community of faith, rather they are (for me) pre-worship preparation. They occur, not in the hurly-burly of community, nor in the collegiality of a study group, but in the quiet of my own head.

You may find them interesting or you may find them self-indulgent. As always (for this is how I have used my blog for years), they are a repository, or possibly a filing cabinet, for ideas, thoughts, and inspirations I have as I reflect on scripture. The previous post was the first of this little exercise. They probably won’t be every week. I do hope you find them helpful and interesting.

Pandas and Prophets

Juan Rodriguez, panda keeper at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., is evidently fond of belittling people who like pandas in his public speeches. In the speech I heard, he insisted that there was nothing special about pandas. They’re even quite ordinary among bears. In the larger scheme of things, pandas could disappear, and the universe would barely notice.

Bats and slugs, on the other hand, are vital to the earth. If they disappeared, the earth’s ecosystem would simply fall apart and it would be disastrous on a global scale. People who love pandas and ignore bats and slugs or miss the big picture are shallow and insipid.

Of course all of this was said with tongue firmly planted in his cheek. While this sort of banter is part of his regular spiel, he is, in truth, a loud defender of pandas. They are indeed a minor cog in the environmental structure and do in fact contribute little to the greater good, but it is also true that they are cute. His hope is that a few of thousands of people who adore pandas will mature into actual environmentalists that care about the whole environment and not just the cute stuff.

It was Jesus’ take on the John the Baptist that reminded me of Juan Rodriguez riffing on panda fans. John, of course, was the opposite of cute, but he provided spectacle and entertainment in much the same way Bao Bao and Bei Bei entertain the visitors to the National Zoo. In both cases there is a much larger and more important story going on, but there is evidence that most of the crowd went to watch the crazy prophet guy, not for his message, but for the outrageous things he had to say.

When a character such John comes along, we tend to get distracted and miss the point. But Jesus didn’t want them to miss the point.

Jesus turned to the crowds and asked, “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind?”

John was anything but this. He was unbending, opinionated and loud in those opinions.

“What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes?”

In these two sentences Jesus sums up the essence of the spectacle of John the Baptist by describing the exact opposite. John was crazy prophet guy dressed in camel’s hair and who probably smelled bad, but who was loudly opinionated in an utterly politically incorrect manner. In short, a great spectacle to fill a slow Saturday afternoon.

And note that Jesus never denies nor condemns the spectacle. That is indeed who John was. But John wasn’t just a spectacle.

“Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

The world is full of pandas and spectacle. And the world is better for it. But we need to listen to Juan Rodriguez and Jesus. The point is neither pandas nor an early version of reality television. The point of Advent is that something far greater is coming. John is pointing at something. Heaven and earth will be united in Christ. When John points at Christ in the iconography, Jesus tells us he’s not pointing at Jesus, but rather the Kingdom, that is the union of heaven and earth in the God who became human, Jesus Christ. We will never fix this crazy world in which we live, but our very selves can be united with God’s very self and a transformation will begin that will imbue all creation with divine life. The lame will leap like a deer and the waters will break forth in the desert.

But maybe we missed all that because we are typically too busy looking at pandas and the crazy prophet John.

And once we learn to and begin to participate in this thing that is coming, we can in turn mediate it outward to a creation that is in desperate need of this new thing. John was greater than all who came before because he saw what was coming.

And it leaves us with a question: This season are we looking at John? Or are we looking outward in the direction he is pointing?

Oppressed-a-non

‘Tis the season to be reminded of the poor and oppressed. We hear it every week in the Advent scripture readings at liturgy. We are asked to give financially to a whole host of charities during this season. And inevitably, we hear some harangue about how “we” (the “we” in this harangue may be aimed at one’s local congregation, or denomination, or city, or nation, or even the U.N.) are simply not doing enough to help them.

My thesis today is that such harangues are likely a product of what those in recovery call an “enabling” or possibly a “codependent” relationship. At the heart of codependency is the reality that both parties are broken and use the relationship in order to either cover up or pass blame for their own brokenness. As long as I am helping the addict (no matter how inappropriately), I can avoid dealing with my own issues and deny my own brokenness.

So it is with the poor and oppressed. Jesus said we ought to help them, but oddly he never told us to fix the problem. The Old Testament prophets certainly went after kings, nobles, and governments for allowing these conditions, but fixing poverty seems to have never been high on the agenda of God’s commission to the Church. In fact Jesus said that the poor would always be among us. As a result almsgiving – helping – (in  contrast to social justice – fixing) is given a high priority.

I propose the reason for this is that poverty and oppression are not the problems; they are rather symptoms of a much deeper problem. The deeper problem is sometimes called “sin” and sometimes called “injustice” in scripture, but both terms are notoriously vague and difficult to pin down. Paul even calls it “death,” which seems a bit weird given what we mean by that term today. Within a couple of generations after Christ the Church began to identify this part of the sin problem specifically as “corruption.”

Because of their initial sin, Adam and Eve “died” and passed death on to their offspring. In this context death refers to our separation from God, who is the source of Life (because he is Life itself). Like a Christmas tree that begins to dry out, fade and lose needles, even though it’s kept in water chock full of nutrients, cut off from the root, the tree begins to die. For us humans that death manifests itself as “corruption.” Our bodies don’t work right, our social systems don’t work right, etc.

In Christ we are joined back to true Life and in the Holy Spirit true Life begins to once again flow. The Spirit is the Source of Life and we (the Church in its grandest mystical meaning) are, in a sense mediators (or as Peter calls us, “priests”) of that Life to all creation. (Don’t ask me exactly how it works; this point clearly falls under the category of “ineffable.”)

But we can cut off the flow of this true Life because our sin (either our ignoring of the effects of the corruption on others – the poor and oppressed – or the outrage and anger toward all those people and institutions that aren’t fixing the problem) is not dealt with. We must become vessels that can hold true Life before we can effectively be the priests and mediators through which that Life enters into the world.

But dealing with our outrage and anger and a whole host of other sins, from pride to miserliness, to lust, to laziness, is extremely difficult. It requires humility and discipline and the gentle help of those around us (whether confessor or friend or person who sits in the pew directly behind us). It’s far easier to become an “advocate” and rage against the system that has failed the poor and oppressed than it is to deal with the rage.

Helping the poor and oppressed and enacting systemic change so that the oppressed get a fair shake is not a bad thing, but rather than rage, it must grow out of our joy and wonder of God. Just as oppression is symptomatic of a much deeper issue, so is our rage against the system is symptomatic of our own codependency and denial. Instead of joining an advocacy group, maybe we need to first join Oppressed-A-Non so that we can become the priest and mediator of true Life that we are called to be. Only then will our almsgiving and advocacy become truly transformative, both for me and for those being helped.