A Eulogy (John 14)

Moments like this are not for empty promises or clichés.  I have not seen a many roomed mansion over the hilltop.  Nor have I traveled to the far side of the Jordan to witness the gathering of the “church triumphant”.  I do not know if Heaven is paved with streets of Gold or guarded by gates of pearl.  Instead, I speak to you this morning from my own experience.  I am not here to describe to you where Betsy is or what she’s now experiencing.  However, I am here to tell you these truths:  God is with us in our pain.  God grieves with us in our loss.  Betsy is with God.  Her journey in life is over.  In eternity, the pain she knew in life is finished.  She has been healed.  In this moment, as our pain is real and tangible, God asks to share in our suffering and grief.  God invites us to heal together as family, friends, and a community.  We give thanks for all that Betsy meant to each person gathered here this morning.

The human body is a fragile yet wonderful creation.  Despite our persistent denials, weakness is woven into the fabric of our lives.  Our bodies are not designed for eternity.  Even when our hearts stop, our souls beat with a vitality that extends beyond physical death.  This is because there is more than one way to measure life, a good life, and a life well-lived.  In seeds sown among the hearts of people gathered here today Betsy’s life present.  The distance between the living and the dead is breached by the love a human body cannot contain.  Are we prepared to be witnesses to that love?  This is the difference is remembering someone and living out your love.  Death could not contain the love Christ’s love for humanity.  Betsy loved each one of you.  Will today be the end of Betsy’s story?  Shall no more be said?

Our challenge is simple.  Do we merely remember, consigning “love” to a memory, like a scrapbook we occasionally pull of the shelf and recall nostalgically?  Or do we do something with the love we received and pass that love and those stories we’ve heard on to others?

Richard Lowell Bryant

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Death Is The Ultimate Deportation

Don’t take this the wrong way, but I’m growing weary of s-holes and s-houses.   I need a break.  After nearly a week of righteous indignation, I’m worn out.  If my street credibility as an activist is measured by my perpetual anger at the latest verbal (or policy) assault the oppressed are suffering on behalf of the United States government; I’d be kicked out of the progressive club.  Why?  My anger is spent.  At some point, my frustration has to get up and go to work.  I can’t sit around and be angry all day.   I need to go love someone who is hurting.  Their hurt is mine.  In reality, we’re all in the same s-hole.

I don’t get to put on my clergy collar, Guatemalan stole, and take photos of angry ICE officers, and make eloquent statements about the failed policies of a corrupt regime.  Instead, while Rome burns, I need to sit with people who’ve lost their wives, husbands, daughters, and sons.  If you haven’t noticed, it’s winter.  Winter is hard on the frail, elderly, the lonely, the mentally ill, and the sick.  People are dying faster than the government is negotiating a budget resolution.   Death is the ultimate deportation.  There’s no deal we can reach to keep anyone here or bring anyone back.

No one from the news media would interview me were I to protest the great “Deportation Agent in the Sky”.  It’s true; people who’ve been here for decades and raised their children in my church are being taken away to a “better place”.  Only the local paper prints obituaries. Despite some people describing the life deportation process as a journey to “glory”, the family members who remain seem to find little comfort in knowing their relatives are in a well-cared for in location from which they will never return.  It’s easy to ignore the permanent “deportations” happening each day.  They are real, painful, and go on whether or not anyone is looking.  Young, old, black, white, Hispanic, men, and women all fall victim to these deportations.  You see my point.  There’s a great deal of pain just beneath the radar which we can’t ignore.  Yet, might framing a discussion of death as “deportation” inform how we help those who are facing the threat of actual deportations in our community?

How do we help the families of those who’ve been “deported” to eternity,  persons who are facing death, and people who fear deportation in a literal sense?  I believe our best plan is to be honest.  Would I want to be lied to?  No.  What are the words that might bring me hope?  What do I try to say?

  1. God does not give us pain. God embraces our pain.  We do pain together.
  2. Death is not a transfer of church membership from earth to Heaven. Please, let there be no church in Heaven.  Let’s just hang out with God.
  3. No one has permanent resident status. Life is temporary.  You are dreamer too.  Your life, your future, is fragile too.  Live like a dreamer.  Value lives and dreams of others.
  4. To picture where we might be going (i.e. Heaven) is to limit God. Try not to place boundaries on God’s bigness or smallness.  Heaven is not a country.  The Kingdom of God isn’t a nation state.
  5. Invite God into your personal s-hole. God wants to be there.

Richard Lowell Bryant

A Letter to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dear Rev. Dr. King,

I’m writing to you on what would have been your 86th birthday.  This is not an update on race relations in America.  Bishop White’s yearly epistles carry the heavy lifting in reminding those of us in pulpits and pews how far we’ve come and the great distance that remains.

My letter is to pose a series of questions; many of which may never be fully answered.  Your legacy continues to be debated in our society today.  As a prophetic voice, you saw how racism, poverty, and militarism worked together to alienate the idea of America from all Americans. I wonder, in the years following Birmingham and the passage of the Civil Rights Act and as your vision expanded toward injustices beyond America, how did Jesus shape your message?  Did the kingdom of God matter to you in 1965 the same way it did in 1955?  Had your views on Jesus evolved?  I’ve been in ministry almost 18 years and I’ve never been beaten or arrested.  Yet, my theology is still evolving.  Surely, over time, how you saw the kingdom and the meaning of the resurrection changed.  If you’re that close to reality of evil do you start to rethink the reality of good?  I would love to talk to you about this; preacher to preacher.

In those crucial years of 1964-1968,  how did you see the Poor People’s Campaign as your ministry?   During the dark nights of the soul, who did you think was listening?  Was it a God beyond the “ground of all being”?  You’d studied Paul Tillich at Boston University in graduate school?  I like to think it wasn’t some man who lives on a cloud in the sky.  Who was God to you?

You came to realize that religion isn’t solely a matter of belief. Religion also involves a measure of action.  God is found in the interactions between people.  Then men who wrote to you while you were in the Birmingham jail had religion of the heart but they couldn’t translate it into positive change.  They wanted the kingdom to wait.  Why, I wonder, are we still asking God to wait on our schedule?

Blessings,

Richard Bryant

Come and See (Thoughts on John 1:43-51)

1. When you’re a child, two of the most important words you’ll ever say are “come and see”.

2. When you’re a Christian, two of the most important words you’ll ever say are “come and see”.

3. We go to Christ as often as we bring Christ to others. (See John 1:43-51) Meeting Jesus beyond the confines of the traditional church is sometimes more likely than seeing him in church. We speak of “finding” Jesus when in fact; we are the ones who’ve been found.

4. The coming (or going) is never over. The seeing is never complete, even when we think we are blind or so jaded by the world that’s passed before us.

5. Here’s another important key: If we’re saying “Coming and See” and we’re bringing people home to meet Jesus, he ought to be here. This place and our lives ought to be reflective of the love of God.  People ought to be friendly, the bathrooms clean, the church warm, the worship not boring, music lively (that doesn’t mean drum sets), and generally down to Earth.

6. If we’re headed beyond our door, “Going to Look and See”, we need to be prepared to see Jesus at work in unexpected people and places.

7. Once we’ve been looked at and seen, do we remain invisible? Is it ever possible to remain hidden once we’ve encountered Jesus? After we’re seen by Jesus, is it ever possible to be unseen?

8. If we want to draw a parallel between Jesus’ interactions in John 1 and Samuel’s call it would be this: once we’ve heard God, can we ignore what we’ve just heard?

9. God knows our responses, according to the Psalm, while we’re still working out the pros and con and asking for feedback from our friends on line. If God needs us, public opinion is irrelevant. If God needs us, this means real people have a need of our gifts, skills, and abilities. God calls Samuel, Philip, and us for a reason. We are not on retainer.

10. Anger will mess with your head. Love will enrage your enemies. Find an enemy to love. The Psalm tells us God knows us beyond our anger. God knows you like your barber or hairdresser.  God hems us in with a warm towel and love.  God knows us.  God’s knowledge of our lives redirects our energy, emotions, and priorities.  Ask Philip and Samuel.

11. The world will say the conditions are never good to do the moral thing. Nothing could be further from the truth. Time is neither right nor wrong. Time is not moral quantity. If Jesus is calling, if the breach is real, we act now; whatever the hour.

12. Jesus told Philip the truth about himself. We have a responsibility to do the same. We should tell the truth about Jesus. He is who he is. Jesus isn’t our American idol. If you don’t believe me, come and see. It’s here in this book.

On Shitholes

I want to speak frankly of “shitholes”.  I do not want to justify the President’s vulgarity or embrace my own.  Instead, I wish to pose a thought experiment.  If we are to embrace a worldview where some places are “shitholes” and other places are first world paradises, what does this mean for our Christian faith?

If we want to limit people from so-called “shitholes” from coming to America, we’ll have to stop Jesus.  By the President’s standards, Nazareth is a “shithole” and so is Bethlehem.  Christianity began, grew, continues, and is strongest today in the ill-defined presidential “shitholes”.  The Christian church is growing the fastest in Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America.  Christianity is all but extinct in Western Europe, particularly the Scandinavian countries.  If America accepts what the executive branch terms as “shitholes” it means we close the door on Jesus Christ.  The culture war idolatry we now practice (and call Protestantism) is a pale resemblance of the “faith of shitholes” we were called to embody.  If Jesus is no longer central to what we do then we are no longer Christians.  The game is up.  We might as well call ourselves civic groups who pray.  We sure aren’t churches.

Like many of my colleagues, I am in ministry because of my desire to go to and live in actual “shitholes”.   When I sang “Here I Am Lord”, I meant it.  I wanted to witness the impact of diseases, preach in the jungle, and build new churches in the middle of nowhere.  I still do my job.  I see firsthand:  God is in the shit.  I’ve found that to be true time and time again.  In the poverty, emotional, psychological, and physical crap we discard onto the most vulnerable people in our world God is working to heal broken souls.  I am blessed to help carry the bandages.

Do you remember the parable of the Good Samaritan?  At the end of the story, Jesus asks, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”  In Luke’s gospel, the Lawyer said, “The one who showed him mercy.”  Do you know what that means?  It means the one from the “shithole”.  The one from the “shithole” showed the other man who was in a literal “shithole” (a ditch) mercy.

Take away the “shitholes”  and you take away Jesus.  Take away Jesus and you don’t have shit.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Jesus Is Not A Dreamer-He’s More Like a Rohingya Muslim Baby

 

Jesus was not “dreamer” in Egypt.  I realize it depends how fast and lose one wants to use the term “dreamer” but given the framework of our current national debate, Jesus was not a dreamer.  Mary and Joseph did not bring Jesus to Egypt as a teenager hoping that he’d eventually gain Egyptian citizenship, go to college in Cairo, and live a normal middle class life in the suburbs outside Alexandria.  Maybe he might learn to speak the Demotic Greek (common in Egypt) and by the time he as 18, he’d have no memory of the Aramaic spoken by his relatives who still lived in Galilee and Judea.  Were the Romans to ever deport him back to Palestine, he’d be unable to speak to his relatives.  Home was a foreign country.

Nothing I’ve said is true.  However, this is the logical implication of arguing Jesus was a dreamer and lived a life like those facing deportation if DACA isn’t settled by Congress and the president.  It’s bad theology.  This is proof texting at worst, eisegesis at best, and something we should avoid altogether.  Arguments like this sound good to an audience of casual listeners.  However, when the religious left realizes that knee jerk reactions to public policy don’t make scriptural sense and may hurt our ability to influence the larger debate on immigration and refugees, where are we then?  We’re in the same place our brothers and sisters on the right are; using scripture as a weapon, a means to an end to achieve a political goal.

It’s difficult to make specific, one to one comparisons regarding current public policy decisions and the record of Jesus’ life we find in the gospels.    It’s similar to last year’s debates regarding immigration.  Progressive Christians quoted Leviticus 19:33, a well known text about welcoming aliens and not oppressing those from foreign nations who live in our country.  At pro-immigration rallies across America, Christians (and non religious groups) Leviticus 19:33 was emblazoned on signs, banners, and shirts.  No one wanted to acknowledge that in Leviticus 20:13, some 16 verses down from our new progressive rallying cry, was the central Old Testament prohibition against homosexuality, “If a male lies with a man as with a woman both of them shall be put to death.” Sixteen verses earlier, we’re taking the word of Leviticus literally when it comes to being welcoming to the stranger, orphan, and refugee.  I’d say, as we did then, we had the making of a credibility problem.  You can’t have your Leviticus and eat it too.  If we’re going to start quoting scripture and making Jesus into something he’s not, our credibility will eventually come into question.  Who do we want to be?  Leviticus quoting social justice warriors or Leviticus spewing hate mongers.  Is it any wonder the world doesn’t know what to believe when it comes to Christians making right with a past that’s been marked by violence, sexism, and racism?

Many people already think the church is weak on perverts and pedophiles.  Churches are giving standing ovations to pastoral confessions of sexual immorality.  Roy Moore almost became a United States Senator.  It is hard not to walk away with the impression that some churches (even mainline denominations) are behind the times when it comes to misogyny and sexual ethics.  If we’re going to drop Jesus into a public policy debate, shouldn’t we do it responsibly and accurately?  Isn’t there a way of finding the broad Christian response to issues of war and suffering without making Jesus into a Voodoo doll for each one of our pet political causes?

Jesus was a refugee.[i]  He fled his homeland under the threat of violence and lived in Egypt.  His family never intended to stay or become citizens of Egypt.  Those two facts alone provide the opportunity for church to speak about refugees, immigration, and violence.  It’s part of our origin.  We don’t need to add specifics to the story or make Jesus’ details identical to our current political narrative.

Jesus is a refugee.  Jesus knew no permanent home.  He remained a refugee for his entire life.  In Matthew 8, Jesus tells a scribe, “Foxes have holes and birds of air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere lay his head.”  John’s gospel tells of the word dwelling among as part of a larger, ongoing cosmic journey.  Jesus was never at home in this world.

Jesus died a refugee on the cross.  Paul tells us that Jesus’ empty godliness found a home only in the death of his humanity.  Jesus was not a dreamer looking for a chance at stability.  We are Jesus’ dream.  He is our stability.  His life, death, and resurrection enable us to make stability a reality for anyone who can’t stand on their own two feet.

Where does this leave our witness to the world?  The DACA participants are part and parcel of Jesus’ dream.[ii]  One of our tasks is to speak of for those who don’t have a voice and who society ignores.  To do this, we don’t have to go to great lengths to make brief episodes in the Bible conform to the dominant political narrative.  We do it because it’s the right thing to do.  Jesus didn’t find an Old Testament text to make himself relevant each time he took on the temple.

Despite soaring stock markets and tax cuts, there are refugee crises and wars to which the church must call attention.  Where is there are children, war, and violence fleeing genocidal religious oppression?  Is it possible to find those broad categories, as seen in scripture, to which the church might speak?  The Jesus we read about in Matthew 2 has more in common with the Muslim Rohingya children fleeing Myanmar than he does the DACA dreamers.  I see Jesus embodied  people who aren’t culturally Christian,  from this hemisphere, and don’t speak English as their first language.  Jesus looks more like a Muslim baby fleeing a genocidal Burmese military regime.  No exegetical pretzels are required.

That’s a harder emotional sell but truer to scripture.  What a tremendous need! Can you imagine the response from a skeptical public, “look at those Christians, how they love their Muslim brothers and sisters (as well as their immigrant neighbors)?”  We might actually inspire others to be compassionate.

[i] In fact, I would argue that we are all “Resident Aliens”.

[ii] The Jesus Dream is greater than the American Dream.

Richard Lowell Bryant

A Theology of Walking

Certain writers have particular styles.  People can try to mimic greatness but true genius is evident in the work of a craftswoman at first glance.  If you were to come across a flea market in northern Michigan and find a manuscript about a young man in World War I and spot those short, declarative sentences there would be no doubt:  you’re looking at something written by Ernest Hemingway.   No one weaves dialogue with stories of decaying southern families like William Faulkner.  Whether it’s how one uses punctuation or the other misspells words in order to convey the physicality of language; each writer has a unique way of saying this is who I am and this is the story I am about to tell.

That’s how I want you think about the Gospels.   Each of the four people we call Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are unique and yet interdependent.  One book cannot exist without the other but each one has something different to say about Jesus’ life and ministry.  However, everything begins with Mark.

We are beginning this year working our way through Mark’s gospel.  Mark is the first, the oldest, the benchmark, and the one on which Matthew, Luke, and John relied when checking their facts.  Written about 20-25 years after the Easter events; it’s the next best thing to having a tweet or a Facebook post.  It’s a window worth opening and looking in on.

Here’s what I’ll say about Matthew, Luke, and John:  they are better writers than Mark.  You know how they open their stories, don’t you?  Matthew and Luke both have Christmas stories.  Matthew’s got that long genealogy but he’s the one with the actual wise men, Mary and Joseph, and the Herod’s genocide of the children.  Luke is Luke. That’s the traditional Christmas story we read year after year.  Everybody knows Matthew and Luke.  John’s the poet, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and Word was God.”  It’s beautiful retelling of the incarnation that leads up to Jesus meeting John the Baptist.

What about Mark?  It’s like the Big Bang.  One minute there’s nothing and the next moment, “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”.  It happens that fast.  There’s no Christmas story, no angels, no shepherds, wise men, Joseph, Mary, stables, donkeys, Herod, or anything.  It’s almost as if Mark never went to Sunday School.  The first words of the gospel are spoken by John the Baptist, quoting Isaiah, announcing Jesus’ imminent arrival.

John says he (Jesus) is coming (ultimately to be baptized).  Coming where?  Here, he is physically walking up to us.  Mark’s Jesus is God made flesh, without the Greek metaphysical poetic introduction provided by John.   In an instant, Jesus is here.  Jesus happens.   From moment one, there is an urgency to Mark’s message.  Mark wants to do one thing:  introduce the world to Jesus and his message. It’s not important who he’s related to, where he was born, or who brought him presents after he was born.  What matters most:  this is Jesus and you need to listen to what he has to say.

Dr. Martin Luther King used to talk about the “fierce urgency of now”.  That’s Jesus in Mark’s gospel.  Most of us are not prepared for Jesus to show up unannounced with little notice.   Sure we complain about ads for Christmas coming earlier each year but that’s one way we keep Jesus at arm’s length; we are keeping Jesus at a safe distance.  Jesus is the inanimate infant, easily put away after pageants and Nativity scenes.

This is different.  John and Jesus stride into our comfort zones, without much warning, to proclaim that God’s kingdom is happening in the here and now.  That sense of suddenness ought to stir us from our spiritual complacency in the same way the cold has shocked our physical bodies all week long.

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus (the Good News) appears all at once, fully grown, bearded (I’m guessing), and ready to go but that doesn’t mean Jesus arrives out of nowhere.  Jesus walked from Nazareth in Galilee to be baptized by his cousin John in the Jordan River.

Using modern roads, it’s about a nine and a half hour walk of nearly 30 miles.  On ancient roads, with bandits and wearing sandals, I’d double the travel time.  Verse 9 tells us a story we’ve never read.  The walk from Nazareth to Jordan might be the prologue, the back story, the set up we’ve been waiting to here.  You may have never met three Wise Men, a virgin who had a baby, or the angel Gabriel.  I’m willing to bet you’ve taken a walk to clear your head, sort out future, and have a chat with God.  I think we underestimate the walk in preparing Jesus for his baptism and beginning to be the Good News.

Even the shortest walk can put things into perspective.  A brief stroll offers innumerable benefits to the body.  However, I’m not talking about our cardiovascular health.  When we walk, we are compelled to pay attention to the world around us.  If we don’t, we’ll end up flat on our face. Home, work, and the computer are momentarily forgotten while you place one foot in front of the other and navigate the path, curb, sidewalk, trail, beach, and people around you.  The journey and what it takes to move becomes our mind’s priority.  In that sense, walking has the ability to suspend our physical routine and grant a measure of spiritual freedom.   Walking provides an opportunity to disconnect from inertias of fatigue, neglect, and complexity that await our inevitable return.   This is true for the loop walker on Lighthouse Road or the Appalachian Trail Hiker.

Is it any wonder that hours of walking precede Jesus’ baptism?  Because walking, spiritually and theologically, sounds like a warm up act for how Jesus (and John) wants us to understand baptism.  What does it mean to walk into (and from) our baptism?

Baptism is about being on a lifelong walk with God.  Baptism means: in a powerful symbolic way (using water) and a spiritual way (using words) and embodied way (your life) you’re disconnected from destructive inertia some people call “sin”.  After Baptism, it’s impossible to tell where you begin and Jesus ends.  Baptism isn’t something you do or decide.  In Baptism, Jesus has overwhelmed your life to such a degree that when you fall back into destructive routines or reconnect with unhealthy spiritual apathy; Jesus isn’t going to walk out on you.

We’ve come face to face with Jesus.

Do we accept who is standing before us?  The obvious distractions that might get in the way of us hearing or seeing an unfiltered Jesus have been removed; it’s us and him.  For that, we give thanks to Mark!  Baptism, like walking, like our faith, requires our presence.  Find your shoes, coats, and gloves! Let us pass from inside to outside.  All it takes to begin this journey with Jesus is to place one foot in front of the other.  We remember our baptism one step at a time.

Richard Bryant