If you watch the sunset
as stale Ra’s love
If you watch the sunset
as stale Ra’s love
Ash Wednesday Reflections
Offense, it’s what lost the Super Bowl on Sunday. No, that’s not the kind of offense I’m talking about. I’m really speaking about being offensive. Etymologically, they two are related. But I’m talking about something both obvious and subtle; the art of being offensive. Being crude is easy. Crudeness takes little skill or finesse. Like a malformed piece of fruit, crudeness just “is”. In most cases, the effort to be crude requires little more than the combination of respiration and basic brain functions. To be truly offensive is a real art form. It’s much more than politicians engaging in simple name calling on a debate stage. This is why we often confuse rudeness with offense. Rudeness, like crudeness, is a state of being. One either is or isn’t rude. This is where manners come into play.
Thought may be the epitome of crude, rude, and social unacceptable behavior. Thinking runs inimical polite social norms. If you’re in a situation where you’re attempting to use manners, invariably you’re involved with other people, necessitating some kind of polite behavior. You have to listen to the words of others. It’s incredibly difficult to listen and think at the same time. Thinking is innately rude, because when you’re thinking, you’re not listening to the other person. Meaningful conversations are impossible between thinking people. Persons who “think”, those who occupy this state of being, are far from popular, polite, or well-loved. Is thought itself the breeding ground for all offensive behavior? Sometimes it seems that way.
Taking offense and offensiveness exists beyond our identity as persons. Offense is a subject (a specific thing). To offer offense is to present someone with a gift which another person must choose to accept. When the gift is accepted, all the rights, honors, and privileges thereunto appertaining to the offense are now in the other person’s care. Our response, upon receiving the gift of offense, determines many factors: will it be offensive, was the gift intended to be offensive at all, will we be hurt, shall be angry, will we return the gift, or will we do nothing at all? This choice is ours. Once the gift leaves the offensive artist’s hands, their power is gone. We can return their power by returning the offense. Or, we can change the nature of how power is defined and dispense with old notions of what it means to “take offense”?
Saint Paul, prolific letter writer, offender, and sometime seller of illegal Rolexes on the streets of Ephesus, wrote a letter to his friends in Corinth where he talked about being offensive. As big and brash as Paul was, he wasn’t into sharing Christianity for the shock value. He says, “We don’t give anyone any reason to be offended about anything so that our ministry won’t be criticized.” He doesn’t want to intentionally give the offensiveness gift away to people. Paul doesn’t want to alienate anyone or make people angry, hostile, or mad. If he does that, it leads to criticisms he doesn’t want to deal with or need. Again, if he does that, they’ve got some kind of power of him. That’s not the way he wants to operate.
Paul knew there were parts of the faith which were hard to handle and difficult to hear. He doesn’t want to roll up into any church with plans, Power points, and ideas that don’t work. Paul knows more about manners and courtesy than we realize. What he wants to do isn’t divide people along the lines which will lead to obvious tension and rancor. Instead, he wants to bring people together with the one thing he knows holds everyone in common: stories.
I’ll tell you my story. I’ll not get you an offense. If anything, I’ll tell you of the offensives I’ve received on behalf of the Gospel. However, what you’re hearing are simply my stories, what it took for me to get here today.
In 2 Corinthians 6:4, Paul says there were “disasters” and things were “stressful”. We all know about disasters and stress. What started in hope, on the roadside outside Damascus has led to beatings, imprisonments, riots, hard work, sleepless nights, hunger, and riots.” It’s been a hard, beat up road. It’s a story that’s still being written. One offense after another has been given to Paul. In verse 7, he says unmistakably, “We served with the Holy Spirit, genuine love, and telling the truth and God’s power.” I was given the gift of offensive suffering, hunger, sleepless nights, riots, beatings, and imprisonments. Paul says, “I did not give back an offensive gift of hatred, pain, sorrow or guilt.” Paul told the truth, he told his story, a story that others now hear and feel set free to speak their own. God story, told among God’s people, beats giving offense every time.
There’s a German aphorism (attributed to the Austrian poet Elazar Benyoëtz), Je größer die Hoffnung, umso fruchtbarer die Enttäuschung (the greater the hope, the more fruitful the disappointment). I think it speaks to both this passage and the hope of the resurrection. Christianity grows and thrives out of the most fruitful, stressful, and disastrous disappointments. We are who we are because of the fruit grown from shattered expectations. This is the essence of Christianity. We have nothing but own everything. We are beaten but not killed. We live in pain but are always happy. Tonight is the night we begin the beautiful embrace of nothingness. We walk toward the fruitful disappointment of Good Friday. For in Good Friday’s disappointment, we find the fruits of the resurrection.
*Je größer die Hoffnung, umso fruchtbarer die Enttäuschung-The greater the hope, the more fruitful the disappointment.
There are certain words and phrases which always grab your undivided attention. I mean, when you hear these specific words, your mind focuses on nothing else other than the words, sounds, and emotions which come next. Why is that? Because you know they’re going to be important. Why are they important? They person speaking these words is usually someone who has your best interest in mind. For instance, when your parents or relatives (teachers, principals, or even spouse) call you by your full name, “Richard Lowell Bryant”, you know they mean business. When you hear your full name, you know the person who called it is following up on something with your best interest in mind. We know, what comes next is going to be important. The “what comes next” is as important as what grabs your attention in the first place.
Here we are in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus says two things that always grab my attention: “Be careful!” When Jesus says Be Careful, we better pay attention. I can’t stress this enough. This is not someone talking about Jesus. This is Jesus saying, from his own mouth, something he thinks we ought to remember, do, hang on to, live up to, and make happen in our daily lives. This is huge.
Preachers, pastors, and theologians love to talk about Jesus and interpret what Jesus said and meant to say. Here, Jesus is going to come right out and say it for himself. If we don’t like what he says, we take it up with him.
What does Jesus say? Why does he want us to be careful?
He wants us to be careful about being religious. Specifically, how we express our religious beliefs in public. Religion can be dangerous. Jesus saw how poor people were being oppressed by a religious establishment which used piety as weapon. Hence, we need to be careful about becoming weapons after being the victims of religious blunt force trauma.
Jesus is all over Facebook. Sometimes I even put him there. However, just because Jesus lived over 2000 years ago doesn’t mean he didn’t have social media. Twitter, Google, Instagram, and Facebook all took different forms in 1st century Galilee. In his time people still interacted with each other in very public, social means.
Who is on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram? If you are, you’ve no doubt seen pictures that say something to the effect, “if you love Jesus, type Amen”. Jesus is usually holding an outstretched hand. While the premise seems innocuous enough, it’s very similar to the warning Jesus gave in today’s text. Be careful about putting your religiosity on display.
“When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites. They love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners so people will see them. I assure you that’s the only reward they’ll get. But when you pray, go to your room, shut the door, and pray to your Father who is present in that secret place.”
I think Jesus would say, “you know it’s nice that you want people to type Amen when they see my picture but it would be even nicer if they would simply go in their rooms and pray in private where no one sees anything. My ego doesn’t need that kind of affirmation.” It would be even better if instead of typing four letters as a sign of their love for me they might do something about hungry people in Hyde County or Malaria in Africa.
Two faces. That’s a hypocrite. It’s the Greek word for an actor who wears one mask with two sides. That’s how Jesus refers to those who were generally thought to be the super-religious of his day. They seemed one way in public and another way in private. Jesus is about consistency across the board. But there’s something lost in translation. Jesus is not only saying “don’t be a hypocrite” he saying, “don’t be a ridiculous looking hypocrite.” You have to step back from the text for a moment. Jump out of the words and see this like a motion picture.
Jesus says, “And when you fast, don’t put on a sad face like the hypocrites. They distort their faces so people will know they are fasting.” Now what do you think Jesus did? Do you think he sat there (he usually taught from a seated position) with a stern face and deep preacher voice and said? “Do not contort your faces like the hypocrites?” Or do you believe to make his point a bit more memorable, so his people would know to be careful, he might have twisted his face a little, made a funny voice, messed up his hair and said, “don’t be like the hypocrites?” Those are the things we lose in the translation. Yet, they are right there are on the big screen of the real live Jesus movie for us to see. Jesus laughing, Jesus making a point, Jesus saying, “don’t be ridiculous, use some common sense about your faith, you’ll turn people off by making ugly faces.” Ugly faces might reflect ugly souls. Who’s going to want to get to know God if you look like that? Jesus taught us to be careful, be real, and not take ourselves too seriously while still taking our love of God as seriously as ever.
It’s the same way with money. Believe you me, even Jesus knew that it took more than good vibes and love to keep things going. Giving was crucial to sharing God’s love. It’s not a way to gain personal attention. Be careful. If you ever get confused about those two points go back to square one. Check and see that you’re not running for president. Which is better, Jesus is saying, announce to the world by singing a song and hiring a band, “look at me and how rich and holy I am?” Or, (step back again-look at the sly look on his face when he says this), give in such a way that the one hand that puts the money in the plate does so without the other hand being aware? He wants it to be that low key. What you’re giving is not a big deal to you, let alone anyone else. That’s how this is supposed to work, like you’re keeping it a secret from yourself. Can you imagine the befuddled looks on their faces?
I can. Jesus’ audience had been raised to believe in what I call “the scene”. God was about “the scene” (bloody sacrifices, ritual offerings, and God in the temple) and making a “scene” in response to God’s “scene”. The whole process got out of hand. One of the later prophets, a guy named Micah said that God was no longer interested in offerings or sacrifices but humility and kindness. Jesus picks up where Micah left off. Jesus says these religious rituals may make us appear publically religious but we’re only fooling ourselves. They eat away at our humanity, humility, and our ability to be kind.
The last thing Jesus reminds us is to not be a hoarder. You’ve seen the hoarding television shows. They’re difficult to watch. People who’ve collected years of junk and now live in absolute emotional and physical chaos. No matter how little or how much stuff we have, it will rot and rust. Stuff is impermanent and will eventually go away. If we’ve over prioritized stuff, things, possessions then we’ve can’t prioritize God. God will not share a shelf, corner, or garage with your boat.
Hoard God, collect God, and surround yourself with the intangible and tangible presence of God. God will never rot, wither, or rust. You can’t flaunt God but everyone will notice it without you having to say a word. God’s presence and abundance in your life will be so obvious people will want to take it from you without you noticing. That’s ok. Let them steal it. Bands of marauders can take God’s presence all day long. You may want to put out little cans of God’s presence (like cat food) all over town and invite people to come and take some when and if they’re ready. God’s presence: where you are, so God is.
Using only the Biblical text, are we able to make affirmative statements about God’s identity? I believe so. If we can make definitive, Biblically supported statements about who God is, are we also able to see who God is not? For instance, if God is love can God exist as anything but love? Here’s a sample of who God is, drawn mostly from John’s gospel.
God is. Genesis 1:1
God is a means of communicating divine truths and eternal realities. John 1:2
God is unseen and indescribable. Yet the results of his presence are seen in the basics of giving and receiving. God can be seen in the charitable living we are called to model. God is much a way of life as disembodied person with whom we claim to be in relationship. John 1:16-18
God loves in expansive orders of magnitude. How much did God so love the world? John 3:16
God’s brand is crisis. Personal, political, or family, God is a God of crisis. John 3:19
God is not a solo actor. John 5:20
God is a listener. John 5:20
God is not here to get our vote. John 5:34
God is also a good shepherd. God is love. So says John. Each makes sense in one way or another. They ring true to our well-worn Christian sensibilities. God is everything I’ve shared and more. As God is, so are other things.
Cancer is. Let’s put all of these together in a series of scripturally sound statements. God is. God is love. God is the good shepherd. God is the Word. Cancer is. Which one stands out as different? Why is cancer included among all the goodness that “God is”? Some people will say it’s because of “free will”. What does that mean? It’s more like a party line we’re taught to recite at moments of inexplicable tragedy and illness. Because we are sinful (as the human race in general-the person with cancer has usually lived a life of such exemplary goodness), cancer is an unexplainable aspect of being hateful, fallen, sinful people.
I’m sorry. No, I’m not. I’ll come right out and say it. I don’t buy that reasoning any longer. I will no longer attempt to comfort the dying because of the story of a fruit tree, a reptile, and two people in a mythical garden. Adam and Eve’s poor decisions are not giving good people cancer today. It’s a lie.
Our bodies wear out and die. Illness is part and parcel of life. If I believed we were spiritual automatons or puppets on pieces of divine string, perhaps God would just cut the illness chords and makes us all better. It doesn’t work that way. God isn’t pressing life, health, and death buttons from on high. Adam and Eve’s actions aren’t making us healthier or sicker. Their actions, whether mythical or not, don’t change or who God is or isn’t. God is, we are, and it would be wonderful if we didn’t die in such painful ways. God is compassion. God is love. There should be a path for us to die without acknowledging that “Cancer is”. We are loved so much, after all. If we are so loved, why not free us from the pain of radiation today? If we are so loved, why not hold promises of physical restoration beyond the Jordan in locked silence?
These are the questions I ask when I’m forced to explain a seemingly absent God’s compassion to someone who has heard the words “Cancer is”. I ask these questions in prayer. I pray for the living and the dying. I pray for the journey. I pray as plainly as I can for words, silence, and the ability to be present. Pray with me. Pray for those who are ill. And let us pray for each other.
I want to be loved
like one of your
Whilst watching the coverage of the Iowa Caucasus last evening, I grew tired of hearing the words “evangelical voters” used ad nausem by analysts who clearly didn’t know the meaning of the term. In an attempt to further muddy the waters, I present “Richard’s 10 Ways To Define Evangelical Voters”. While it may be too late for Iowa, 49 contests remain. I believe my definitions describe evangelicals from American Samoa to San Juan.
1. An evangelical voter goes to a church with an awesome drum set, keyboard, and bass guitar. If you don’t have all three, two out of three are a must. Evangelical voters only listen to popular, adult contemporary, and modern music. All other forms of music alienate non Christians and those seeking a deeper relationship with Jesus. Johann Sebastian Bach and John Coltrane have been known to make evangelicals and those wanting a relevant church home extremely angry.
2. An evangelical voter goes to a church with a transparent pulpit. There may not even be a pulpit, let alone the communion table. In homes where no one gathers around dinner tables, why would church mirror a world that is no more? So is the world of many evangelical voters.
3. An evangelical voter goes to a church where Holy Communion is rarely served. Regular Communion is for liberals like Methodists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, and Presbyterians.
4. An evangelical voters goes to a church with its logo printed on everything (polo shirts, wind breakers, water bottles, and tote bags). Evangelicals are masters of marketing their faith through secular/corporate means. The will know we are Christians by our logos, not our love.
5. An evangelical voter goes to a church that does more Power Point or Key Note presentations than Steve Jobs did in the last 10 year of his life. Evangelical voters look for churches who idolize technology as much as they do.
6. An evangelical voter spends more worship time with their hands in the air than their eyes in the Bible. This is a question of style over substance. Evangelical voters prioritize certain styles of contemporary worship over mainstream Biblical reflection.
7. An evangelical voter is a member of “small group”, where their ideas about the world are reinforced but never challenged.
8. An evangelical voter likely attends a multi-site campus style church. In this environment, evangelical voters are franchise owners, not members of the body of Christ.
9. An evangelical voter thinks a “Creed” is a recent movie starring Sylvester Stallone.
10. An evangelical voter goes to a church where the pastor might dress very casually because pastoral leaders who wear ties or shoes alienate those seeking a deeper relationships with God.
Evangelical is a word that can mean everything and nothing. It can be a semantic battering ram to Christians and non-believers alike. I am sick of hearing it. The more it is used to describe a class of voters the less it means to the people who are trying to share the “Good News”.
A Believer In the Good News of Jesus the Christ
Whenever I go home, I will invariably hear someone say, “I know you” or “I’ve known you since you were (fill in the blank)”. It never fails. To truly be known, it takes two people, doesn’t it? Someone beyond you has to identify something about you which defines you to the wider community. This is how we are known; to our friends, families, and the world. This is how our lives are lived and our stories get told.
When I was growing up in Randolph County, North Carolina, I spent a great deal of time at my grandmother’s house. With both my mother and father at work, she was essentially, my third parent. I went there after school and on holidays. I was there probably six days a week. For most of that time, my grandmother was a seamstress. She made her living hemming pants and altering clothes for people who traveled to her tiny house. Many of these people brought their ill fitting clothes from one or two of the neighboring counties. Women in late model Mercury sedans were always knocking on that little screen door, asking to come in, and drop off their clothes. Everyone knew my Grandma and for some reason, many of them seemed to know me.
“I know you,” they’d say. I did not know them. “I’d know you anywhere,” the person would go on. I didn’t know them from Adam’s house cat. “I know that face, you’re Bettie’s little boy, that’s little Bettie.” But I wasn’t little Bettie. I’m little Richard. People knew me because of my striking resemblance to my mother. Though, this doesn’t happen much anymore. She’s not bald and has yet to adopt the bow tie.
The relationships created by being truly known form and tell the stories of our lives.
“I know you when you made a makeshift parachute out of garbage bags and tried to jump off the back of the house,” someone might say to me. They know me for the stupid.
“I know you when you slipped and fell on the ice in Russia and someone stepped on your face,” another might add. They know me for the what have I done and where in the world am I moments.
To be known is to be known for the good, bad, and all the instances in between.
This is where Jeremiah begins his story. In fact, for Jeremiah, it begins before the beginning. I bet you didn’t know that was possible; to begin a story before the beginning. From creation onward, God is always stepping in, while events are already in progress. The Hebrew Bible is clear: God moves onto the scene as events are already unfolding. Just as the people around us, like those women who climbed those back steps into my grandmother’s kitchen to drop off their sewing and recognized me, people we have never seen or heard seem to know us and all about our lives. God says to Jeremiah, you, and to me. I know you and I knew you long before you were born. This idea, the story, this notion called YOU began long before you knew who you were. How? Why? Because others see the best in us before we see it in ourselves. God brings out the best in people. If we’re not seeing the best, then perhaps, we’re not listening to God say, “I know you when.” It’s much easier to listen to ourselves say, “I remember me when I was.” That leads to personal and spiritual messes.
Here’s how that kind of thing can happen: Take “The Jersey Boys”. Do you know the film or musical about the Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons? I’m sure many of you have seen one or the other. If not, let me recommended it. In the movie, Frankie Valli, Tommy Devito, Nick Massi, and Bob Gaudio are reminding each other, “We are Jersey Boys”. No matter how famous, how many number one songs, or appearances on the Ed Sullivan show, it was important to remember who they were, where they came from and be surrounded by people who knew them when they were just kids singing on a street corner. When those connections fell apart, the Four Seasons fell apart.
God is pulling Jeremiah out of some comfortable surroundings and placing him in the middle of an uncomfortable prophetic venture. Jeremiah was known for being the son of a well-known priest, up and coming Levite himself, and part of the religious establishment. God sabotages all of that. God says, “I don’t know you that way.” “I know you in a different way, apart from who your momma and daddy are, or where you went to church, or who your Sunday School teacher was.” God says, “I know you as Jeremiah.” “You are Jeremiah with something important to say.”
Being known is an important part of being heard. If people know you, you might get a hearing. Others will listen to what Jeremiah says on God’s behalf. God has known Jeremiah for so long now he knows he’s the right person to speak to parched ears and dry souls. Israel has lost the ability to tell its own story. It is Jeremiah’s turn, like a child, to help but the most basic words, feelings, and emotions together for those who are ambivalent to what God is calling them to do.
It’s not easy being a prophet or prophetic. Prophets are not fortune tellers. Prophets are truth-tellers. This is what Jeremiah’s being called to do. At their most basic level, prophets are people who call the status quo into question. Where we are now is never good enough for an Amos, Micah, or Hosea. It will be the same for Jeremiah. Prophets have an innate interior compass that points toward an unreasonable expectation of hope. The prophet’s idea of hope sounds like science fiction when compared to the down to earth dry realities of the status quo. Here’s the thing, God is in the hope. Like cheap hot dogs, we have no idea what’s in the status quo. We’re also certain God’s been factored out of the recipe. The prophetic task is also tinged with grief. It is emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically challenging to see and say the difficult things God lays before us. God’s words are enormously troubling, “dig up and pull down” and “destroy and demolish”. And yet they are book-ended by the hopeful command to “build and plant”. Out of the oppressive, violent, death dealing status quo, grows hope.
You are in your church home. So I will say this, “I know you”. I knew each one of you when you sat in Ocracoke United Methodist Church. You know it will not be easy to be a prophet or live prophetic lives. However, like Jeremiah, you are called. From this moment, you are called. We have big decisions to make this morning. Are you going to say, yes that’s me? God you do know me. I’m the one. The second big decision to make is this: are we going to live prophetically, like Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah and countless others. This is not about old guys in the Bible. It’s about you and me today. Are you able to call the status quo into question, point your interior compass toward hope, and live with the challenges of grief? If you can do that, remember, you’re a prophet too.