Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Tomb Is Empty

The Empty Tomb, George Richardson

Why do you look for the living among the dead?

Sometimes, we do discover the living among the dead.  And in that discovery, we are given back our own life in ways we could not have dared to imagine. 

That is the theme of Jason Cohen’s documentary short film, Facing Fear.  No one was more surprised to find that the tomb was empty than Tim Zaal.  Tim grew up in the Los Angeles suburbs as part of a very homogenous Anglo community, yet he always felt like an outsider.  When his brother was shot by an African-American man, it reinforced his already nascent racism, nurturing a sense of bitter resentment against those who were different than him.

When Tim was exposed to his first hard core punk rock show, the sense of anger, fear, and violence that permeated the experience was intoxicating.  He found himself drawn into the neo-Nazi white power movement.  His life became centered around hate and violence.  He thrived on intimidating people and wreaking havoc.  It was like a drug to him.

The low point of his life came one night when his gang of neo-Nazi punks decided it would be cool to “kill some faggots.”  They drove into Hollywood looking for potential victims, and spotted a young gay kid on the street.  14 teen-age punks against 1 young kid.  They cornered him in an alley and started punching and kicking him.   He fell to the ground, but was still moving weakly. 

That was when 17 year-old Tim said, “What is wrong with you guys, don’t you know how to put a boot in?”  Then he kicked the kid as hard as he could in the head with his razor blade studded boots.  The kid stopped moving.   Tim and his friends high-fived one other, hooting and gloating over their sacrifice of this innocent victim, and left him for dead.

Later, Tim did prison time for attacking an Iranian couple.  He eventually married and began to raise his son in L.A.’s racist skinhead scene.  It wasn’t until he heard his little boy publicly parroting his own crude racist language that Tim began to look in the mirror.  Something shifted in him, and he was horrified to realize the person he had become and to acknowledge all the people he had harmed, especially the young kid he had killed in a dark alley. 

By 2001, Tim had divorced and left the neo-Nazi movement.  He was beginning to build a different life, and began volunteering at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, which is dedicated to inspiring people to act against prejudice and intolerance of all kinds.  He began working with a staff member, Matthew Boger, to develop anti-racism and anti-bullying presentations for school groups. 

Over several months, Tim and Matthew began to get to know each other and became friends.  One afternoon, as they were sitting in a coffee shop preparing a school presentation, they began to reminisce about their teen years in L.A. and discovered that they had frequented some of the same haunts.  Tim admitted he didn’t visit those areas anymore, especially in Hollywood, because of the shame he carried from the past.

Matthew began to ask more questions, and Tim confessed his participation in killing a gay kid in an alley off a park; a park with which Matthew was very familiar.  That was when it all clicked.  Matthew was the 14-year old boy that Tim had left for dead in the alley.  But Matthew survived, nursing his wounds alone for two months on the street.  The tomb was empty, and Tim now found himself confronted by the innocent victim he had sacrificed. 

Matthew grew up in a strict Catholic family just outside of San Francisco.  He always knew that he was gay, and became the target of relentless bullying in school.  Finally, when he was 13, it became too much and he just skipped his classes.  When his mother found out why he was truant, she grabbed him by the arm, drug him across the floor, and threw him out the door.  She told him never to step foot in her house again so long as he is gay.

Matthew survived on the streets of San Francisco for a couple of months, then tried to return home.  His mother slammed the door in his face.  Matthew was dead, as far as she was concerned.  That was when Matthew decided to catch a bus to Hollywood.  Maybe he could start over there.  That was when he met Tim and his gang.  He might as well have been dead after that.  In fact, he prayed that he would die.  But he survived.  More than that:  he lived.  Matthew was truly alive now.  And here he was with his new friend, Tim:  the man who had tried his best to kill him. 

What would you have done in Matthew’s place? 

Matthew did something truly amazing.  Not immediately, not readily, but slowly and completely, he forgave Tim.  No longer defined by the taunts of others or the pain of exclusion; free from the resentment of the past and the fear of death; given the capacity to see his enemy as a friend, a broken outsider much like himself, Matthew forgave Tim. 

The one whom Tim left for dead was now alive, and appeared to Tim in the form of forgiveness.  In so doing, Matthew gave Tim a precious gift:  the possibility of beginning to forgive himself.  “Forgiving myself,” writes Tim, “is an ongoing process, a daily practice.  It probably will be until the day I die.”

Strangely, Tim gave a great gift to Matthew in return.  As Matthew put it, “I also experienced a grieving process when I forgave because I had so identified with the events that took place when I was 14 that by letting that part of me go, I mourned the person I’d known for so long.  But that’s also a very beautiful thing because what got replaced was a person who was more tolerant, more open hearted and a lot stronger.”

Tim and Matthew shared a moment of hate.  Now, they share a lifetime of forgiveness.  Shame and fear no longer trap them in a kind of living death.  They are being given their lives back in ways they never could have dared to imagine.  They are far more alive together, than they ever were apart.

Why do you look for the living among the dead?

Jesus confronts us much in the same way that Matthew confronted Tim.  God loves us so much that he comes to us in Jesus to occupy the place of shame, willingly, freely, as an innocent victim left for dead.  He does so to free us from our fear of vulnerability, so that people like Matthew can receive their lives back.  God loves us so much that he raised up Jesus, vindicating his innocence, so that he might also be for us the Forgiving Victim, lifting the weight of our shame, so that people like Tim can receive their lives back too. 

Matthew and Tim are a kind of contemporary Peter and Cornelius.  Peter was a Jew living under the brutality of Roman occupation.  Cornelius was an officer of the Roman army, complicit in the everyday violence of Roman rule.  Yet, Peter, who experienced the love of the Risen Jesus, who forgave Peter his betrayal, says to Cornelius, his bitter enemy, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”  The Innocent Victim is risen, and everyone who trusts him receives forgiveness of sins through his name. 

The tomb is empty.  The Innocent Victim turns out to be the Forgiving Victim, and continues to appear.  He was sighted at the Museum of Tolerance.  He occasionally even appears at a congregation near you. 

Why do you look for the living among the dead?

We can choose to live small lives defined by a moment of hate, or we can accept a lifetime of forgiveness.  In fact, we can become the means by which others are given their lives back.  Christ is risen; not just back then and there, but here and now, in us.

Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs
Bestowing life!
Alleluia, alleluia!  Amen!

Note:  The story of Tim and Matthew can be found at The Forgiveness Project.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Worship Like Green Wood: A Palm Sunday Sermon

There is a curious scene, unique to Luke’s account of the Passion Narrative, in which the crowd is following Jesus as he is escorted to the location of his execution.  Among the crowd, which by now has become a lynch mob, there are a few women who are beating their breasts and wailing.  These brave women publicly express their sympathy for Jesus right in the middle of the blood-thirsty crowd.  The contrast between their compassion and the crowd’s blood lust is striking.

In response to their display of grief, Jesus counsels the women to weep for themselves and their children, prophesying that the wave of violence that is sweeping him up will soon consume the whole city.  He concludes his warning by quoting a proverb: “For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?” (Luke 23:31).

Green wood is wet wood – it doesn’t make good kindling.  Jesus is making it clear that his movement was nonviolent.  He was not trying to spark a military uprising against the Romans.   If his nonviolent protest met with capital punishment, what will happen when the wood is dry?  The women of Jerusalem found out 40 years later, when a violent Jewish uprising brought down a Roman legion that raised the city to the ground. 

Implicit in Jesus’ comment is a recognition that his suffering isn’t unique, or even particularly horrific.  Plenty of people were executed by being crucified in Roman occupied Palestine. “You think this is bad?” asks Jesus.  “Wait until you see what’s next.”  Violence only enkindles more violence.  

There has been a strong tendency in Christian traditions to make a fetish of Jesus’ suffering, to treat it as uniquely awful and the fulfillment of God’s will at the same time.  Throughout his teaching career, however, Jesus makes two things perfectly clear.  First, that his suffering and death follows the pattern of all the prophets before him, including his cousin, John the Baptizer (and, we might add, those after him).  In other words, there is nothing new about the persecution and even execution of those who speak out for justice and peace. 

Second, Jesus maintains that the fate of such prophets is entirely due to the readiness of both leaders and people to marginalize and kill them.  Their deaths are the result of a very common pattern of human violence, and not the fulfillment of divine providence.  The pattern works like this.  A prophet comes along and points out the greed, exploitation, and violence that already is dividing and destroying people.  The prophet begins to get a hearing, and it starts to threaten those who benefit from the status quo.   The people begin to question the way things are, but are ambivalent about the prophet’s message and tactics.  They doubt that nonviolent resistance will have much affect. 

The authorities exploit this ambivalence, mounting a propaganda campaign against the prophet and the movement he or she is inspiring.  They accuse the prophet of blasphemy, immorality, treason, and insurrection.  The prophet becomes a scapegoat, the bearer of all the tensions and fears of the social body.  The community begins to unite in opposition to the scapegoat, discovering a renewed sense of social solidarity by directing their energies to destroy him or her.  The authorities arrange a show trial and the people become a lynch mob.  The scapegoat is sacrificed to restore social order, and everything returns to normal.  

This scapegoat mechanism, a kind of sacrifice or offering to the gods of race and nation, is given a theological or ideological veneer of legitimacy, diverting our attention from the everyday violence, the sacrifice of innocent victims that is simply the cost of doing business that the prophet tried to make us see in the first place.   What is genuinely unique about the passion narrative, and the prophetic arc of the biblical witness as whole, is not the violence it portrays, but rather its insistence that the victim is innocent.   The theological relevance of the passion narrative is the revelation that God is entirely identified with the mission of the prophets, and not with the perpetrators of unjust violence.  The theological veneer of legitimacy is stripped away, leaving nothing left but a pack of lies told to cover-up collective murder.

The execution of Jesus is just another sacrifice of an innocent victim to the gods of an unjust social order.  God, the One Jesus called Abba, does not desire the death of innocent victims.  This God reaches out to us through Jesus to become conscious of the violent patterning of our common life, to awaken a nonviolent, compassionate response.  In waking up to this consciousness, we find ourselves on the inside of God’s relentless love, empowered for service and participating already in a new creation, the kingdom of God, that builds social solidarity on the basis of compassion rather than rivalry.  

Jesus, in his walk toward death, shows us that the only bases for authentic human community is sacrificial love, self-giving service; not the sacrifice of others.  What is more, Jesus willingly becomes the Other whom we sacrifice, so that we might learn that our salvation lies in a change of consciousness that allows us to receive the Other as sister and brother, rather than as rival or scapegoat. 

Which brings me back to the women of Jerusalem following Jesus as he walks toward his death.  They share the consciousness of Jesus.  They are vulnerable to their own suffering and that of others, not denying it or displacing it.  They bear witness publicly to the innocence of the victim until the end – and beyond.  They refuse to be caught up in the frenzy of the lynch mob, seeking relief from the anxieties of life in the projection of guilt on to innocent victims.  In their refusal, the church is born, and the hope of the world is kindled anew – not with the dry wood of violent sacrifices, but with the green wood of compassion.

We are living through a season in which the frenzy of the lynch mob, the kindling of dry wood, is a very present temptation.  It is easy to be seduced by simple solutions, projecting all our anxieties on to some new – or old – scapegoats, and blaming them for all our problems.  Expel the immigrants, exclude the Muslims, beat up and arrest the Black Lives Matter protestors, and all our troubles will disappear!  There is nothing new about this scapegoating mechanism.  It is as old as the passion narrative, the oldest story in the book, going all the way back to Cain slaying his brother Abel.  Why do we continue to believe that setting brother against brother is the answer? 

It isn’t easy to go against the grain of what passes for normalcy and social conformity.  Even Peter denied Jesus when confronted with the pressure of the lynch mob, the ecstasy of sacrificial violence.  It isn’t easy to accept the vocation of the prophet, marching into the capital city to nonviolently protest the hidden, but real daily violence of poverty, inequality, and ecocide.   It takes real courage and faithfulness to God to march with the women of Jerusalem behind Jesus, fully in touch with the world’s sorrow, trusting that it is possible to experience real human communion without scapegoats. 

Yet that is where we are called to be, in the space between corrupt authorities and violent mobs: unyielding in our commitment to building bridges rather than walls, healing victims rather than sacrificing them, putting the common good above private gain.  When we occupy this space, we discover that God is no longer “out there;” or even “in here.”  Rather, we are all – everyone of us – on the inside of God and God’s project of reconciling the world.  When we live and worship like green wood, we discover that Easter already is here, even as we follow Jesus to the cross.    

Monday, March 7, 2016

The Parable of the Brothers' Rivalry

The Return of the Prodigal Son  - Rembrandt
In our Sunday school program, Godly Play, we say that parables are not easy to open.  You have to be ready to get inside a parable.   Parables are easy to break, but they are hard to open.  On the face of it, today’s parable may seem easy to open.  It is probably the best known of Jesus’ parables, perhaps the greatest story ever told.  Our familiarity with it, however, may present the greatest barrier to opening it without breaking it. Finding ourselves on the inside of the parable requires imagination and vulnerability.  Let’s see if we can open it. 

There is more than one way to open a parable, as indicated by the various ways this parable has been described.  Tradition refers to it as the parable of the prodigal son.  One of our greatest living preachers, Barbara Brown Taylor, calls it the parable of the dysfunctional family.  Brother Andrew Marr calls it the parable of the prodigal father.  They are all correct.  I’d like to add another possibility:  the parable of the brothers’ rivalry.

Understanding their rivalry requires an act of imagination.  To begin, imagine the situation in which Jesus tells this parable.  He is teaching in the synagogue, or perhaps outside the synagogue to accommodate the crowd that has gathered.  Many of those assembled to hear him would not have been allowed to enter the synagogue because of ritual impurity.  So Jesus goes out to them.  The religious authorities begin to grumble that Jesus defiles himself by associating with such people.  The scribes and Pharisees are genuinely curious about Jesus, but see the crowd as unworthy competitors for his attention.  There is tension in the air.   Jesus picks up on this tension, and tells this parable in response.  This is our first  
clue that rivalry may be an interpretive key to this story.

Imagine also, that Jesus is commenting on a particular set of texts appointed for that day.  For more than 100 years before Jesus, the books of Moses, the first five books of what we call the Old Testament, had been divided into 150 sections so that they could be read in their entirety over a three-year cycle.  More recently, readings from sections of the Prophets had been added.  So, Jesus would not have been commenting on a text at random, but would have been commenting on the appointed lessons.[i]

Some scholars have suggested that Jesus may well have been commenting on Genesis 46:28 – 47:31 and Ezekiel 37:15-28.  Both readings are about the resolution of sibling rivalries.  The Genesis text is about Joseph being reunited with his father, Jacob, and his brothers; brothers who had previously left him for dead before selling him into slavery.  Ezekiel prophesies that the divided tribes of Judah and Joseph will be reunited into one kingdom in which God would make his dwelling place.  Interestingly, these are the readings appointed for the feast of the rededication of Temple.  The Temple was thought to be God’s dwelling place, and its purpose was to offer ritual sacrifices to guarantee reconciliation with God. 

So what is at issue in these readings is rivalry and reconciliation, and the stories are read in the midst of a tense rivalry among the people who have come to hear Jesus.  Like any good rabbi, Jesus responds with a midrash on the texts:  he interprets the stories in terms of another story: a parable about sibling rivalry.

Now, imagine the dynamic driving the parable’s storyline.  Have you ever wondered why the younger son left home in the first place?   Years ago when I lived in Chicago, I worked with homeless youth.  These were not bad kids.  They didn’t have many options available to them, and didn’t always make the best choices among the options they had.  But I’ll tell you one thing:  they generally had very good reasons for leaving home.  I imagine this younger son had his reasons too. 

Given the context, my guess is that he was having a serious conflict with his older brother.  Maybe it was about their inheritance.  It isn’t like siblings never fight about that, right?  Maybe the younger brother was tired of living in the shadow of his “perfect” sibling; never measuring up, never feeling good enough.  Maybe the older brother resented the attention lavished on the “baby” of the family.  Maybe the younger brother was just tired of living with such a self-righteous, uptight prig.  We don’t know.  The parable doesn’t tell us.  But we can imagine. 

This is the Bible, after all, and the Bible is chock-full of sibling rivalries:  Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, Moses and Aaron, Solomon’s sons who divide the kingdom of Israel.  And it isn’t just a brother problem, although the patriarchal character of scripture gives far less air-time to other rivalries:  Sarah and Hagar, Leah and Rachel, Tamar and her brother, Judah.  It’s all there, all the ways we find to set ourselves against one another. 

In fact, it is not too much to say that rivalry, distorted desire marked by envy and resentment, is the fundamental human problem according to the Bible.  I want what you have.  I need to protect what I have.  From rivalry for the objects of our desire flows violence, even death, and the lies we tell to justify our violent conflicts. 

Does this seem far-fetched?  I’m an only child.  I am told that when I was a young boy, I would hide my favorite toys before my cousins came over to play.  Today, I can own the ways in which I have viewed my husband as a rival for my son’s affection: my secret desire to be the favorite parent (after all, I was the favorite son – and grandson, I might add).  I am told that husbands can become intensely jealous of the attention their wives give to their newborn children, leaving the women feeling like they are caring for two needy babies!

The rivalry of parents in relationship to their children isn’t always a laughing matter, as any parent or child who has lived through a divorce can testify.  And sibling rivalries for the attention of parents can last a lifetime, sometimes irrupting explosively when an elderly parent becomes ill and dies. 

These dynamics play out in the workplace and the wider community as well. When I leave for sabbatical, will the congregation have buyer’s remorse if they decide they prefer the sabbatical priest to me?  Is the new rector in town a better preacher?  Such insecurities fuel envy and resentment.  We only need look at the current election cycle to see how tensions and resentments between races and social classes are nurtured and exploited for political gain.  Interpersonal rivalries and social rivalries create division and death at every level of our common life.   Bible stories about brothers killing each other, and nations descending into civil war, are like mirrors in which we see ourselves all too clearly.

So, when I hear the older brother in today’s parable says to his father, “this son of yours” and not, “my brother,” I’ve got to believe there is a backstory.  Maybe the younger son who ran away from home isn’t just a bad apple.  Maybe he was a victim of a rivalry that drove him out.  Maybe his return is an opportunity for reconciliation. 

James Alison suggests that Jesus identifies himself with the younger son, providing an illustration of his own mission of reconciliation.  Remember that this younger son’s return is the occasion for a feast, much as Joseph, a younger son, provides food for his family during a famine after their reunion.  And the younger son of the parable, like Joseph, was thought dead; but is alive.  Jesus, too, will die the death of a rebellious son, but will be alive again, much as the dry bones of Ezekiel’s vision come to life and form a reunited kingdom.  The one who was dead, the victim of rivalry, is resurrected and offers the possibility of reconciliation.

Through his dying and rising, Jesus, like the younger son, reveals to us a God who is pure compassion.  It was not the father who drove out the son to begin with, but rather who continues to give of his substance, his very life, so that the son may live.  This father prepares a feast, a celebration of new life, and welcomes the older brother, forgiving his rivalry with the younger brother.  This older brother, too, is provided for out of the substance, the very life, of the father.  It is freely given, and always has been his.  The invitation to reconciliation is now in his hands.  How will he respond? 

Opening the parable requires an act of imagination.  Entering into it also requires an act of vulnerability, allowing the parable to open us, so that we can receive its meaning and its promise.  How are we in rivalry with others?  How have envy and resentment distorted our desires, cutting us off from our own brothers and sisters?   What have the consequences been for us and for them?  Do we trust that God is an unconditional source of life, forgiveness, and reconciliation?  Are we willing, like Jesus, to identify with the victims of our rivalry, to enter into their suffering and courageously show them the way back to the party that God is throwing for them?  Will we invite our older brother to the party?  Will we accept the invitation? 

It is easy to break a parable.  It is hard to open it, and to stay open. 

[i] James Alison, “He opened up to them everything in the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27b):  How can we recover Christological and Ecclesial habits of Catholic Bible Reading? at  Alison offers a brilliant reading of the parable, illuminating the scriptural background upon which Jesus was very likely commenting.