Disruptive Grace

Month: November, 2013

A Theology of Thanksgiving

This is the fourth and final talk in a series on A Theology of the Holidays.

1Cor. 11:23   For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread,  24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”  25 In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”  26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (NRSV)

This morning we come to our final holiday – Thanksgiving.  To be sure, a time of turkey, gravy, canned cranberry sauce (because, no matter how wonderful your aunt’s recipe might be, it doesn’t compare with the glorious stuff that comes out of the can).  A time to give thanks to God.  Thanks for what, though?

It is a time to look back upon the truth of our humanity – a story that is full of kindness, love, gentleness, giving, friends, relatives, fun, joy.  And we usually go around the dinner table and take note of these good things.  But imagine that we also, in a strange way, look back at all the things we talked about: Christmas – being born a baby, vulnerable, tiny, fragile.  And, if there’s one thing you realize you cannot choose in life, it’s your parents!  We should be thankful that our parents and caretakers actually took care of us, even though they did it in imperfect ways at times.  By being thankful for the way we came into the world, we let go of the need to wish we had been someone else or something else.  Halloween – being born into a world of suffering, violence, and death.  Yes, in a strange way, we also come to be thankful for this world, in all its imperfection.  By being thankful for this world, right here, right now, that we live in, we cease wishing that we had been born into some different world, with better people.  The limitations of death and suffering help us not to take our bodies for granted, to accept them, and yet to feel free to cry and to mourn the losses that hit us in life.  Finally, with Good Friday and Easter, we give thanks for the death of our false selves, of the old life, the death of our superhero identities and our masks that we hide behind.  When we experience these things being crucified, it feels like death to us.  How could we possibly live without these things?  And yet, we find on the other side of this death that there is life.

This morning, the sacrament that marks thanksgiving for the life that we live in these bodies is communion.  It is the place where we choose this body that we’ve been given, and we choose this collective body, with each of us here, belonging.  I do not wish to replace you with someone else.  I do not desire to fix you.  I accept you as the person that you are, and you accept me as the person that I am.  We accept all of the problems that we bring with us, because we all have troubles, and this is okay.  You may think you left all of your problems behind at home, and that’s why you had such a wonderful time this weekend.  But no, we all brought our problems with us.  Perhaps, during the last few days, we learned to hold our problems differently, carry them differently, see them differently.  Our problems are there, but they do not define us.  Our problems, our drama, our battles, our striving to be better, to get attention, these things followed us here.  But they are not our true selves.

Let us now enter into new life together one last time while we are together here, though this is just the beginning for some of us.

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A Theology of Easter

This is the third talk in a series on A Theology of the Holidays.

Mark 15:25   It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him.  26 The inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.”  27 And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left.  29 Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days,  30 save yourself, and come down from the cross!”  31 In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself.  32 Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also taunted him.

Mark 15:33   When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon.  34 At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  35 When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.”  36 And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.”  37 Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last.  38 And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.  39 Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (NRSV)

So we talked about Christmas, the day where God so loves all of humanity that God proves it by becoming one with us in Jesus, the true human being.  God joins us in a Halloween world, a world that is unsafe and full of horrors.  Now we come to Good Friday and Easter, where the full horror of the world actually leads to the one thing we cannot conquer and that we fear: death.

Not only does God take the risk of living in an unsafe world, but God actually suffers and dies.  The fears and horrors that we talked about, they aren’t just a fantasy, not just something we dress up as or create scary movies about – they are real.  Jesus is betrayed by a friend, Jesus is abandoned by his followers, Jesus is whipped and beaten, humiliated in public.  But perhaps the most utterly horrifying thing happens to Jesus – he is abandoned by God.  “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

This is sometimes called the Cry of Dereliction.  It has the same tone as the cry of Psalm 88 that we read earlier.  Some have gone as far to say that, on the cross, Jesus becomes an atheist, that God becomes an atheist.  I’m not sure I would go that far, because Jesus is still speaking to God, asking “Why?”  Nonetheless, it seems as though Jesus is, in a very human way, let down by God.  Jesus told God he didn’t want to do this in the Garden of Gethsemane, but he said “Not my will but yours be done.”  Still, Jesus asks “why?”  Where is God?

Just as the Psalmist experiences that sense of being abandoned by God, and is free to feel it, and to talk about it, so it seems that Jesus is free to feel abandoned by God, and to question God: “Why?”

That is a question that never really gets answered, in the same way that our suffering really never has an answer to “why?”  Why does Jesus die?  What does God abandon him?  I think it’s because the only way one can live a truly human life is to lose that which is most precious to us.  This is the tragic nature of what being human is.  The thing that we think will not fail us, that will always keep us safe and secure – sooner or later we find out that we’re not as safe and secure as we thought.  I wonder if that’s what Jesus felt.

What I find fascinating about this story is what happens immediately after Jesus dies.  What happens to the curtain in the temple?

37 Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last.  38 And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.  39 Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

What was the temple?  The temple was the place where God was the supposed to reside, in the Holy of Holies, behind the curtain.  Only the priests could go back there.  Now, when Jesus dies, the temple curtain is torn.  And what is behind that curtain?  Nothing.

And this reveals the great paradox of Christian faith: GODISNOWHERE

This can be read two ways: God is nowhere.  Or God is now here.

God is both greater than we could ever imagine, and less than we could ever imagine.  God is both that which is too much for us to comprehend, like standing up close to a infinitely large LED TV.  And God is absent, like the cold vacuum of space.

And Jesus’s life, death and resurrection is an invitation for us to live a truly human life.  Do you want to be saved from your sins?  Too bad.  You are a sinner.  The only thing Jesus seems to be interested in is whether or not we own it.  So own it, own your humanity, and stop waiting for someone else, even God, to come fix you.  People have this idea that Christianity and religion is all about trying to find something out there that will finally satisfy.  The Gospel is that there’s nothing out there that can fill you, that can fix you.  There’s no job, spouse, no church, no God behind the curtain waiting for you to say the secret password.  You’re already enough as you are.

Guess what Jesus does after he resurrects from the dead?  The same stuff he was doing before.  Eating, drinking, loving, living.  And he tells us disciples to go and do likewise, to be good news.  Be enough, and be at peace.  When you come to the point where you are born again, such that you love yourself enough to be born again as the person that you already are, when you love yourself as much as God loves you, then you will experience resurrection, you will begin to experience new life and new creation.

And this is not just your own experience, but you will become resurrection for others, because you are already enough for yourself.  And that means you have an excess amount of love and energy to give to others.  Jesus teaches us to love others as we love ourselves, but that means that you have to love yourself first.  And there are too many people out there, including me, who have to pretend that we’re loving and caring and nice just to get attention.  The problem is, we know it’s pretend, that it’s not genuine, and we aren’t all that satisfied with the attention that we get.  The stuff out there will never be enough, including the God out there.  What we need to learn is that what’s in here is already enough.  It’s good, in all of its tiny-baby-needy-fragile-vulnerable way, it’s all good.

Now, what I have just said is probably very different from how most of you have heard the cross and resurrection spoken of.  You’re probably used to hearing about the cross and resurrection with Jesus as a superhero who conquers death, and that if we believe this then we get to go to heaven.  The problem is that the New Testament doesn’t talk about resurrection as this reward for believing the right things.  The resurrection is a way of life – it is new life.  This is why Paul talks about the body of Christ, because the body of Christ is the resurrected Jesus in the world.  And when start by knowing who we really are as children of God who are loved for who we are, and when we do the things that Jesus spoke of: loving the poor and the oppressed, loving our enemies, forgiving those who hurt us – when we do these things, that’s when we really show that we believe the resurrection.  But when we don’t do these things, even though we might say we believe in the resurrection on a Sunday morning, we actually deny the resurrection.

The New Testament teaches us that if we really want to receive new life, then we must pass through crucifixion first.  We must lose.  We must die.  We must change.  We must suffer.  This is the only way.  Anyone who promises otherwise is speaking a lie.  The Good News is that, in retrospect, when we receive new life, we realize that the things we were holding onto – our masks, our superhero identities, our money, our talent, our ideas about God, our possessions, our relationships – all these things pail in comparison to the God who dwells within us.

My hope and prayer is that you and I will be the body of Christ, and that we will pass through our crucifixions together, that we will help each other let go of the old life, and pass into the new.

A Theology of Halloween

This talk is the second in a series on A Theology of the Holidays.

Last night we talked about Christmas – the holiday that celebrates God’s love of our humanity – all of it, warts and all.  And so the question is: if God can come down and be one of us and love us, will we also love ourselves this way?

This morning, I want to talk about Halloween.  Well, actually I guess I’d prefer not to talk about it.  You see, my parents came up with the worst costume idea ever.  They took a giant black trash bag, cut holes for arms and legs, and while I wore said trash bag, they proceeded to stuff it with leaves.  Then they taped rakes to my arms.  And they would hide behind a bush while I waddled up to the porch.  And when I say “waddled,” I’m talkin’ about the way a kid waddles when they know they’ve got somethin’ in their diaper.  And then I’d have to ring the door bell and say, “Trick or treat, I’m Leaf-man!”  Worst superhero ever.  At least attach leafblowers to my arms.  But no, just those cheap plastic rakes with broken… teeth, or whatever you call them.  They were on sale at Walmart.  The rakes, not the outfit.  No retailer would ever consider selling such a horrible outfit.  So yeah, from now on, you can call me Chris, Pastor Chris, or Leafman.

Why do we celebrate Halloween?  We dress up, pretend to be things we’re not.  Some of us actually do dress up like superheroes, and that’s all good and fun.  But what interests me about this time is the fact that we dress up as the things that scare us, that frighten us.  We dress as our fears and nightmares.  Even though God loves us, and even if we love ourselves, there are some pretty scary things out there, and as we grow up, we begin to learn about them as we grow older.  We learn that there are people who walk into schools and shoot kids for no reason other than pure hatred, or who bomb buildings to create a sense of terror.  We learn that there are natural disasters like earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes and tsunamis.  We learn that there are car accidents, diseases that can’t be cured.  And we learn that some people just decide to pick on us, to make our lives miserable because they have nothing better to do.  In other words, we learn that, indeed, the world that we are born into, and the world that Jesus is born into, is not safe.

When Jesus comes into the world, as a baby, as a young boy, and as a man, the horrors of this world begin to appear.  Jesus, as a baby, escapes death as the first-born male while other children are slaughtered by Herod.  Jesus is tempted by the devil in the desert.  Jesus comes across demon-possessed people.  And we know the bloody and horrifying end he will meet with on the cross. 

Sometimes we talk about this realization of the horrors of this world as a “loss of innocence.”  You and I, when we were little kids, used to be innocent and naïve.  We just played and had a good time, and we did so because we thought we were safe.  Our parents probably have done as good a job as possible to make sure of that.  But word gets out.  And sometimes, horror comes knocking on our front door. 

When I was 12, my uncle called our house one last time.  He was an unemployed alcoholic who lived in Texas.  I remember building a computer with him, and that he was actually a very kind and gentle person.  But he suffered.  He called our house over and over, trying to talk to my mother.  And she was crying, telling him that he needed to seek help.  He never did.  A month later, the police called to say that he had overdosed on his drugs, combined with all the alcohol he’d been drinking.  The man who had just spent Christmas with me, building that computer, was gone.

This was the first time I began to question whether God even exists.  How could God allow such a thing to happen?  Why would God allow my uncle, who was also born as a little baby with needs (just like Jesus), to die in such a terrible way?  Why didn’t God answer his prayers and fix things?

What we find out in the Bible is that the world is full of monsters, and that sometimes we even have a little monster in us too.  One of my favorite Psalms, Psalm 88, describes just this feeling.  It’s a Psalm of lament, where the author allows himself to cry over the horrors of this world.

Psa. 88:0   

1          O LORD, God of my salvation,

                        when, at night, I cry out in your presence,

2          let my prayer come before you;

                        incline your ear to my cry.

Psa. 88:3            For my soul is full of troubles,

                        and my life draws near to Sheol.

4          I am counted among those who go down to the Pit;

                        I am like those who have no help,

5          like those forsaken among the dead,

                        like the slain that lie in the grave,

            like those whom you remember no more,

                        for they are cut off from your hand.

6          You have put me in the depths of the Pit,

                        in the regions dark and deep.

7          Your wrath lies heavy upon me,

                        and you overwhelm me with all your waves. Selah

Psa. 88:8            You have caused my companions to shun me;

                        you have made me a thing of horror to them.

            I am shut in so that I cannot escape;

9                      my eye grows dim through sorrow.

            Every day I call on you, O LORD;

                        I spread out my hands to you.

10        Do you work wonders for the dead?

                        Do the shades rise up to praise you? Selah

11        Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,

                        or your faithfulness in Abaddon?

12        Are your wonders known in the darkness,

                        or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?

Psa. 88:13          But I, O LORD, cry out to you;

                        in the morning my prayer comes before you.

14        O LORD, why do you cast me off?

                        Why do you hide your face from me?

15        Wretched and close to death from my youth up,

                        I suffer your terrors; I am desperate.

16        Your wrath has swept over me;

                        your dread assaults destroy me.

17        They surround me like a flood all day long;

                        from all sides they close in on me.

18        You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me;

                        my companions are in darkness. (NRSV)

The author makes no bones about this.  God is responsible for this world.  So why on earth would God create a world in which we could get hurt?  If you were God, would you do that?  And remember, God not only creates this world, but enters into it too! 

There is nothing about the Christian faith that magically takes away the things that threaten our lives.  I was talking to one guy who said he had been given these superpowers from God through prayer.  I asked him what he could do, and he said “When that lightbulb goes out, I don’t have to change it.  I just speak to it, and it turns on!  That’s the power of God!”  Then, he told me that there was a tornado heading towards his house.  And he spoke to the tornado, and it moved away.  What I didn’t ask him, but really wanted to ask him, was whether or not he made sure the tornado didn’t veer in the direction of someone else’s house.   Right?  I mean, no matter how many miraculous stories we all hear about survival, and it’s always tempting to say that “well I survived, so God must have some sort of special plan for me.”  WHAT ABOUT THE OTHER POOR FOLKS WHO JUST HAD THEIR HOUSE KNOCKED DOWN, BURNED DOWN, FLOODED OUT?  WHERE’S THE SPECIAL PLAN IN THAT? 

Just a note of caution: if your friend is suffering from something, an illness or some accident, don’t ever say anything like “Don’t worry, it’s all part of God’s plan.”

This world is not safe.  God does not give us special protection.  We just happen to live in a part of the world that is relatively safer than the other parts.  But we could have just as easily been born in Syria, and then we’d really be in a pickle. 

The other part of Halloween lies in recognizing that we are not just afraid of things out there, but we learn to become afraid of ourselves.  We don’t like being vulnerable in such an unsafe world, and so we put on masks.  We decide to become little superheroes, each with our own superpowers, because we want to protect ourselves.  The problem is, once you do that, you lose yourself.  People begin to think you ARE the superhero.  They mistake you for something you’re really not.  And then you feel trapped.  Maybe people think you’re nothing but the computer nerd, or the musician, or the athlete, or artist, or the film-maker, or maybe you’re just day-dreaming about what persona other people would like the most. 

So I have two questions for you to talk about in your groups:

1.)   Does it bother you that God allows terrible things to happen?

2.)   What mask do you hide behind to protect yourself?

A Theology of Christmas

Why do we celebrate Christmas?  The birth of Jesus.

The birth. The beginning of life.  Which means Jesus was born as a human being … specifically, as a baby.

Luke 2:1    In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.  2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.  3 All went to their own towns to be registered.  4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.  5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.  6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.  7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (NRSV)

So he didn’t come out as a man, but as a baby.  Now, how would you describe a baby?  What is a baby?  “A tiny fragile human being.  Can’t talk.  Can’t feed itself.”

What do you feel when you’re around babies?  How do they make you feel when you hold them?  What goes through your mind?  Maybe some of you remember holding a little brother or sister for the first time.

Now, what do you remember about being a baby?  Nothing probably.  The thing is, as a baby, you can’t remember anything.  Most of you probably have little to no memory of what happened to you before you were four years old.  That’s because your brain is changing so rapidly, learning all these new things like how to walk and how to talk that memory doesn’t really happen till later.

All of us were babies at some point.  We were tiny, fragile, breakable, crying, wailing, rash covered poopy little things.  And somebody had to help us out, from the moment we were born.  We could not help ourselves.

God could not help God’s self, because God was a baby.

What does that say about God?  To me, it says that we need to think about God differently.  I don’t know about you, but when I was growing up, God was always pictured as this old man with a gray beard, kind of like Gandalf.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I like Gandalf.  He hugs the hobbits, takes care of them.  Maybe you have a grandpa like that, and that’s how you’ve known God to be.  But I also picture this loving God as also extremely powerful – he can’t get hurt.

But now that you’re getting older, I want you to imagine God is something tiny, just like you were.  Tiny, fragile, needy, vulnerable.  Jesus was vulnerable.  God was vulnerable.  God can get hurt.  God is born into the world and cannot speak, cannot eat, cannot do anything for himself.  God needs Mary and Joseph.  God needs food, water, clothing, shelter.  God needs to be loved.  And the risky thing is that, in this world, God might not get it!

Now let me ask you a question – do these needs ever go away when you get older?  Do you stop needing help?  Do you stop needing food, water, clothing, shelter, and love?  No.  You might learn how to better get these things, but you still might not get them.  You might get hurt.  That’s what this world is like.

And God decided to come live in it anyway.  God could have been all-powerful, but God decided to take the risk of getting hurt, of being vulnerable.

Which begs the question: did God become Superman?  No.  Did God become Batman?  No.  God has no superpowers, like Superman does.  And God has no money to build cool gadgets, like Batman does.  God comes down as a poor Palestinian Jewish boy, who will learn how to be a carpenter.  Nothing special really.

Now, I want you to think about what you would do if you were God, and you could be in control of what you would be born as.  Who would you become?  Would you be Batman or Catwoman?  Would you be Superman or Superwoman?

But, like all superheroes, the truth is that there’s someone behind the mask.  Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne – these people were babies once too.  Human beings.  And what’s so fascinating about Jesus is that he is not a superhero.  There is no mask.  There is simply a vulnerable human being.  Maybe that’s what sets him apart.  God is born as a human being, and that means as a baby.  Is a baby good-looking?  Does a baby have superpowers?  Does a baby get all the girls or all the boys (ok, yes, they are cute and get lots of attention).  Does a baby have anything to offer the world?  No.  No wisdom, no skills, nothing.  Just pure need, and the fear of not getting that need met.

God became that baby, that part of us that is just pure need, which means God loved that part of us, just as God loved that part of himself.

Which leads me to ask you: if you were God, would choose to come down as… you?  No mask, no superpowers, no superwealth to create lots of amazing gadgets.  Just… you.  Baby you, toddler you, little elementary school you, middle school you, high school you.

As some of you know, the Gospel of John talks about being “born again.”   What Jesus is talking about is this: are you willing to believe that God loves who you are, right here, right now, all of you: your bad memories, your bad dreams, your warts, scabs, pimples, your fears, needs, failures, crimes, pains, secrets, addictions, hurts, traumas, as well as all of your body-size, hair color, physical and mental disabilities, your lack of possessions, talent, money?  Do you believe this so much that you would be willing to love yourself as the person that you are, such that, if you were God, and you could choose to be born, you would do it all again to become the person that you are?

I admit – I spend most of my time wishing that I could be someone else.  Someone better, stronger, faster.  And I envy people who are better, stronger, faster, more beautiful than I am.  I wish I had abs like in 300, and I wish I could read 600 words a minute.  But I don’t.  What I really wish is that I could be loved for who I am.

And what Christmas is all about is that God says “yes.”  Yes to our humanity, to our fragility, to our vulnerability, to our imperfection.  The question is: will you say it to yourself, as the person that you are?

My hope is that, during this weekend, you will be loved and cared for by others, by those you know really well, those you kind of know, and those who are complete strangers.  I also hope you will show that love and care to others.  But the adventure of a lifetime all comes back to this: would you love yourself so much that you’d be willing to be yourself all over again?

Because everything that you are, everything that you feel, everything that you think, everything that you say and don’t say – it all belongs.  In the same way that God came to live among us in the flesh through Jesus, God says yes to your body, to your mind, to your heart, to your soul, and says “I already live in you.  The question is: will you live in you?”

My hope and my prayer is that we will all live as the people that we already are – this weekend, and as we go home.

 

A Theology of the Holidays (Christmas, Halloween, Easter, & Thanksgiving)

A few weeks ago I was honored to give four keynote addresses to junior high and high school students at NaCoMe Camp and Conference Center.  I love NaCoMe – it’s a place that never fails to give me the rest that I need.  You can’t get cell phone reception there, so the dead-zone provides freedom from technological distraction.  Plus, the cinnamon buns are to-die-for.

The four keynotes were designed on the theological significance of the holidays of Christmas, Easter, Halloween, and Thanksgiving, as they each describe themes and movements that are necessary for living in this world.  I’m told that they were not only significant and meaningful for the kids, but for many of the adults as well.  Even my 5-year old daughter was able to repeat a few significant points (then again, she is a Pastor’s Kid).

So here they are:

A Theology of Christmas

A Theology of Halloween

A Theology of Easter

A Theology of Thanksgiving