Food for Thought- Jet Pack Jesus

Ascension-of-Jesus-Icon

I was thinking about sharing a few thoughts on this weeks lectionary text. We’ve come to the end of the “official” Easter season. Pentecost is right around the corner. Ascension Sunday is upon us. This week’s gospel lectionary presents a major problem. While it’s one thing to talk about the disciples encountering the risen Jesus in new ways following the resurrection, the story of the Ascension is just plain strange.  I embrace this strangeness freely, in case you’re wondering. The strangeness helps us ask the right questions and get to the heart of the larger question.   Yes, Jesus is here one minute issuing a litany of last minute Bible studies and in the next; he’s lifting off to resupply the international space station. Don’t get caught up in an overly literal reading of the text or we might miss the larger point altogether. Literally, we need to keep this down to earth.

From one perspective, it seems one of the hokiest ways to end the story of Jesus’ time with his disciples on Earth. From another,  it seems incredibly dramatic and cool.  Needless to say, I question the authorship and veracity of Luke 24:44-53. The vast majority of mainstream Biblical scholars share this same belief.  Do I know what happened? No, I do not. I do not believe that Jesus flew up into heaven and disappeared into the clouds. This is because I believe the early church used the phrase “ascended into heaven”, to mean simply “he is no longer with us”.  I don’t think the first century Christians took the word literally.  I could be wrong.  However, there’s outstanding research by first rate scholars in this country and Europe to support this idea.  The idea of “ascending” is a (i.e. a 1st century way of understanding the cosmos when you have no other words to describe it) way of saying “Jesus isn’t here”. The entire ascension event seems like something Luke created to tell a better story to transition to the next volume of his story, Acts.  That’s my educated guess, my opinion.

The question presented by the Ascension isn’t the veracity of the Biblical text. It’s the truth behind the image. How do we learn to live without the physical reality of Christ in our lives? That’s what Jesus himself was preparing his disciples for his entire earthly ministry.  Is it possible to be a Christian and follow the teachings of Jesus if Jesus isn’t here to guide us? This is the question we begin to wrestle with as we journey toward Pentecost. Who will guide us in the absence of Christ? What role does the church community play as the body of Christ when Christ’s physical body is gone? This is what this text is about; it is not about a jet pack Jesus.

Food for Thought-I Believe

download

I believe that a man was born outside the Greco-Roman city of Sepphoris some two thousand years ago. He was raised in the region of that city and around the village of Nazareth. Other than the occasional trip to Jerusalem, during his lifetime he traveled no more than 100 miles from the place of birth. He lived as itinerant carpenter, teacher, preacher, and faith healer. Among his closest friends were prostitutes, tax collectors, thieves, and laid-off fishermen-the most despised and hated people in his world. Near the end of his life, his teachings caused the political and religious authorities to call for his execution as a political subversive. He was murdered in the most inhumane manner known to humankind.  Yet despite his very visible and public death, his message lived. From what appeared to be the most brutal and appalling death emerged a new understanding of life. Each time this man’s existence and his message was pronounced final,  his life would appear in new and unforeseen ways. Here was life that could not be contained by force, power, or the traditional machinations of death. The people who shared his journey began to speak of life in unique ways. Death, as we once understood it, in all its finality, was no longer relevant to life. The man’s life had freed us to live in a way that allowed us to love others wholly, completely, and unconditionally. I believe in the irony of death giving birth to love. I smile when I say those words.  Our mission is to die to self, so that we may love everyone, and I do mean everyone, as this Jesus loved us. Who needs a mission statement any more complex? I certainly don’t.  This is what I believe.

Food for Thought-We Are All In A Gang

Police-and-protesters-scuffle-during-a-demonstration-in-support-of-Freddie-Gray-in-Baltimore-on-April-23-2015.-WJZ-TV-410x220

In one form or another, we are all members of a gang. Jesus was in a gang. He was the first leader of my gang. Please drop the self-righteous indignation. Our gangs may not be violent but they are still gangs.  The rioting in Baltimore was both atrocious and reprehensible. There is no excuse. It’s the expected rapid political polarization and the language of “gang” involvement that has piqued my interest. Gangs (such as the Bloods and the Crips) making treaties, gangs working for peace, gangs working for violence, the stories have been too numerous to count. It’s hard to follow the rumors from here.

What I do know is this, everyone is in some kind of gang. We may not use the term but it’s a distinction without a difference.  Not all gangs use physical violence. Some use emotional violence. Some bully people from afar. Others are implicated in systematic violence. I am in the American gang.  I am in the white gang.  I am in the Protestant gang.  I’m implicated, solely by my birth,  in a gang that has practiced systematic violence against African-Americans in this country for over four hundred years.

Other gangs simply identify themselves around a common vision and purpose. Persons then enter gangs by rituals and ceremonies designed to set them apart from the wider world. This is the basic definition of a gang. By this most simple standard, the Christian church was one of the original gangs. Many non-denominational Christians eventually constitute themselves as a  collective nondenominational gang. Political parties are gangs. Alumni associations are gangs. I’m in a middle class white person gang called United Methodism. Of course, we don’t use the term “gang”. We say “denomination”, “group”, “class”, “church” or at TED conferences “tribe”. We’re still a gang and we’re still angry. You should read the comments I receive. The gangs to which I refer use hurtful and destructive words that can emotionally destroy a person. As I said, violence can take many forms. Again, I repeat: somehow, someway, we are all in a gang.  So before you board your emotional high horse and start to say, “how could ‘these people’ ” do this or that”, take a look in the mirror.  We’re all these people, we’re all sinners, in clear need of God’s love and grace.

Food for Thought-What’s In A Name A Homily on Acts 4:5-12

Slide1

Why do you do this? In whose name do you do this? By what power do you do this? Those are the questions asked of Peter and John when they’re hauled before the High Priest and assorted big wigs after healing a man in the temple. Take a step back. Ask yourself the same questions. Here you are, in church, in life, on Earth, and the Chief Priests of our day have posed the questions: “Why do you do this? In whose name do you do this? By what power do you do this?” How would you answer?

Peter wants to answer on the basis of his actions. He asks, “Are we being examined today because something good was done for a sick person, a good deed healed him?” Peter is putting a question back to the High Priest. Do you want to know the answer to these questions because I did something tangible (in this case make a sick person better)? Have you seen a specific action which has raised questions about our motivations and intentions? Peter’s question is important. He’s saying, “I’ve done something tangible and real. My motivation for doing this action (healing) is equally tangible and real.” Peter wants the high priest to realize his reasons for this simple healing are rooted in a simple explanation.

Look how Peter puts his explanation, the man is now healthy, “because of the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene-whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead.” Remember the guy you just killed, about two months ago, him; the one who was raised from the dead. It doesn’t get much simpler. There is a relationship between what we’ve done (and will continue to do) by restoring health and life to people and the death and life of a man you ordered executed. A life which you deemed to be worthless, subversive, and of no value carries a greater purpose and value since his death and resurrection. Notice what is absent from Peter’s answer and this text as a whole: a body. This isn’t a post-resurrection appearance. There are none after Acts 2. Jesus is physically absent from this scene, yet like Romeo’s spirit when Juliet realizes he’s dead, Romeo is everywhere. Jesus is present in name only. No wounds, no tombs, just words.

It’s amazing what emotions the name, presence, and memory of Jesus can evoke. Those words need not be uttered by priest, pastor, prince, or prophet. At the name of Jesus, Paul says, every knee shall bow and tongue confess, because he is a Lord who ate with prostitutes, embraced sinners of all shapes and sizes, and asks us to reorder and well-worn preconceptions about how we are convinced the world ought to run. You see, ultimately, it’s not about the name. It’s about the real, tangible guy behind the name. Are we worshiping a name? You can whoop and holler, “in the name of Jesus” until you’re blue in the face but the name of Jesus means nothing unless it is accompanied by Christ like actions of love, empathy, and grace. Maybe we ought to spend more time trying to live up to the actions and relationships of the man who held the name.

If we were to answer this same question, “why, whose, power” how simple could we be?

Food for Thought-The New Testament in Song

Slide1

Matthew –Tax Man (The Beatles)
Mark – The Weight (The Band)
Luke – Good Lovin’ (The Young Rascals)
John – Your Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You (Dean Martin)
Acts- Blinded By The Light (Manfred Mann Band)
Romans – Mama Told Me Not To Come (Steeler’s Wheel)
1 Corinthians – Love Will Keep Us Together (Captain and Tenille)
2 Corinthians – Never There (Cake)
Galatians – Forget You (Cee Lo Green)
Ephesians – I Say a Little Prayer (Glee Cast)
Philippians – I Get A Kick Out of You (Frank Sinatra)
Colossians – Nothing Suits Me Like a Suit (The Cast of How I Met Your Mother)
1 Thessalonians – Nice and Easy (Frank Sinatra)
2 Thessalonians – Criminal (Fiona Apple)
1 Timothy – What Makes a Good Man (The Heavy)
2 Timothy – Shake It Off (Taylor Swift)
Titus – Wayfaring Stranger (traditional)
Philemon – Try a Little Tenderness (The Committtments)
Hebrews – Revolution (The Beatles)
James – The Letter (Joe Cocker)
1 Peter Be My Yoko Ono (The Bare Naked Ladies)
2 Peter – God’s Gonna Cut You Down (John Cash)
1 John – Come and Get Your Love (Leon Redbone)
2 John – You Know That I Know (Hank Williams Sr. / Jack White)
3 John – The Power of Love (H. Lewis and the News)
Jude – Hey Jude (Paul McCartney)
Revelation – It’s The End of the World as We Know It (REM)

Food for Thought-How To Be A Freak* in Methodism

Slide1

1. Reject the conventional wisdom of those who insist on telling the emperor his clothes look great.

2. Reject the conventional wisdom of those who insist the emperor is naked and there are no clothes in sight.

3. Use the words “I don’t know” more than you say anything else when it comes to Methodism or faith.

4. Resist the urge to play God and believe we have a monopoly on anything when it comes to faith.

5. Drop out of the pre-packaged Christian culture of concerts, events, and companion DVDs which is pulling Methodism deeper within its shrink-wrapped tentacles.

6. Cancel your cell phone. Live off your email and house phone alone. It will blow your colleagues’ mind. (It will also save money.)  You don’t need it.  Set an example for your church and others.

7. Jesus was a peasant carpenter, not a middle class family with three kids coming to a contemporary service. Let’s not apologize, hide, or minimize his poverty.  Let’s not make him fit our lifestyle.  Let’s emphasize how out of touch we are with his.

8. If this were a Roma Downey/Mark Burnett Biblical movie, we’d be the Pharisees. We are so heavily invested in our status quo, pensions, and health care. We are the Pharisees. We need to own our sin.

9. Let’s not be the equivalent of poorly worded scam emails asking people to invest in eternity if they let us hold their cash for a moment. We can do more with less.

10. Allow our manufactured theologies and ideologies to take a back seat to your God given humanity.

*My title is inspired by the work of University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt and his colleague Stephen Dubner’s series of works collectively titled “Freakanomics, Superfreakanomics, and Think Like a Freak”.  

Food for Thought-Both Extremes Are Wrong: Christianity and Islam

Slide1

With more beheadings in Libya come more pundits on American television. As a culture, we seem keen to explore political, military, and the occasional diplomatic solution when it comes to rise of Sunni extremism in Syria and Iraq. I wonder if there are less obvious religious approaches. No one is going to invade Indiana or Arkansas for considering RFRA. Yet the approach in addressing either side of the issues, by many, has been exclusively religious. Politics has become a means to implement religious ideology. Certainly I believe this to be the case in Indiana. The sooner we understand how the fundamentalist impulse for control ( create religious uniformity through the appearance of a political process) functions within the Christian tradition; we’ll begin to grasp the apocalyptic, exclusionist thought inspiring violence in North Africa, Syria, and Iraq.

I think the key to defeating radical and conservative interpretations of the Quran is to defeat radical and fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible. If they both make similar claims, both venture into the realm of divine exclusivity, they both need to be subject to serious criticism. Both Jesus and Mohammed were real men. The books which relate their stories are sacred to billions of people. However, both books, the Bible and the Quran are historically constructed texts and not manuals for running a society. Cobbled together, sometimes centuries after the events described, they are not infallible guide books for living. Instead, they contain contradictory versions of historical episodes that few agree represent authentic history, either Christian or Muslim.

This conversation needs to occur before new beheadings, more hyperbole, and both faiths become entrenched in their belief that both are wrong and only one carries God’s true imprimatur. There is much wrong with both Islam and Christianity. The Quran and the Bible are not infallible texts. Both books are littered with inconsistencies, religiously sanctioned brutality, and virtually identical claims of divine involvement in human affairs which Islam discredits in Christianity and Christians discount among Muslims.

There is an unwillingness to speak honestly about the Bible among certain elements of Christianity. As the recent murders at Charlie Hebdo demonstrate, any depiction or questions regarding the historic role of the Prophet Mohammed can lead to violence. Both traditions have groups of people who don’t want anyone to pose questions threatening age-old orthodoxies and interpretations of scripture. While violence isn’t a way of life in American evangelical culture, no one wants to discuss the brutality in the Old Testament, inconsistencies in gospels, and how one interpretation of Christianity is shaping the American political landscape. These same questions can be asked throughout the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa. We see, from a distance, how one interpretation of the Quran, is shaping the political landscape of the Islamic world. Under the penalty of death, many share the consensus that the Prophet’s life and teachings form an unquestionable body of work. In fourteen hundred years, this basic message has gone unchanged and unchallenged.

Christianity’s reformations have stalled in the United States of America. The impetus of Luther, Calvin, and Wesley has given way to something unique to the consumer driven culture of late-modern capitalism. Our faith, like our lives, is a narcissistic expression of self-fulfillment cloaked in the language Joel Osteen’s God, love of stuff, and “me”. We understand that “this” is how God wants us to be. Others, who have not understood, are wrong. We don’t want the hard questions. We know who we are. Them, they, the other, the industrial religious complex tells us who to hate and who to love.

The world is trapped between competing fundamentalisms. To question the authority of the Bible and the honor of prophet may be the first step to peace; it may be the only fair place to start. Someone must be able to ask harsh questions of both Christianity and Islam’s most sacred texts. No one life is worth a single word of any book.  Both can’t be right. Both dominant versions, vying for prominence in the world today, are fundamentally wrong.