I have to admit it, there are times when I don’t follow the United Methodist Book of Discipline. In fact, I openly flaunt its regulations. In the highly charged atmosphere prior to this year’s selection of delegates to the next general conference I should get it out in the open. I have openly violated the spirit and letter of the Book of Discipline. Let me tell you what I’ve done. In clear violation of paragraph 336, I’ve served my ministry in a status of debt, “enough debt to embarrass my work”. This debt was accrued, nearly $100,000 dollars worth not while gambling in Moscow, or on prostitutes in Las Vegas, but on studying for the United Methodist ministry in Durham, North Carolina. I admit it. I am in clear and flagrant breach of the Book of Discipline. I am ready for my judicial trial. Among the general rules of United Methodists, as noted in paragraph 104 in the Book of Discipline, proscriptions exist against reading books or listening to music which do not promote the love of God. I listen to Mahler, read Byron, and watch American Idol with my children. Each of these activities are in clear violation of the Book of Discipline. I am not only skirting the edge of what it means to be a good United Methodist; I have clearly left what remains of the big tent we once called United Methodism. Again, with this open and public admission I await my trial by the judicial council. I have openly violated the Book of Discipline, a book where all the rules are equally enforced and held together by decency, respect, good theology, and common sense.
After witnessing the epic winter weather across the United States and two recent snow events here in North Carolina, I have meditated upon the words of Psalm 51:7. The Psalmist writes, “Purge me with hyssop; and I shall be made clean, wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” For Christians, there is an obvious allusion within those words to Jesus’ crucifixion, death, and resurrection. However, it is helpful to remember, these are not Jesus’ words. In the opening chapter of Isaiah, the Lord says (in an appeal to the reason of the Israelite people), he has a desire to prevent the further destruction of Israel. “Though your sins are like scarlet,” says God, “they will be white as snow. If they are as red as crimson, they will become like wool. If you agree and obey.” Context matters. This passage has nothing to do with the salvation of humanity or Jesus of Nazareth. It does have everything to do with the imminent deportation with the Israelite nation to Babylon. God will square them with Babylon; not their sins with the cosmos. That’s not the issue.
Jesus never uses the word “snow”. The word was used to describe his apparel at his ascension in Matthew’s gospel. John recycles Isaiah’s prophecy and adapts it to early Christian apocalyptic thought in the Book of Revelation. That’s the sum total of snow in the New Testament. Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, made no mention of our bloody sins being washed away. Shedding and washing are two completely different words in New Testament Greek. Washing sounds folksy and like something you can imagine your grandmother doing. Someone “shedding” blood sounds like a man who was taken out to a Roman Imperial black site and executed on political charges. As a result, if Jesus never talked about our sins becoming as white as snow (as a result of his sacrificial shedding of blood). So why do we keep pushing this image? Is it because of the sanguine obsessions of late 19th century hymn writers? Because it’s not in the New Testament. It’s not something attributable to Jesus of Nazareth. Call me crazy, but I put a priority on doing things Jesus did, not stuff we make up and then later pretend he did or said.
I don’t want to be washed white as fresh snow. I don’t think Jesus wants me washed as white as the wind driven snow on a George Winston CD cover. Jesus needs me dirty, tarnished, muddy, and filthy. Because this is who Jesus has called me to serve, love, and live among. The people who can’t go inside, make chili, post pictures on Facebook, haven’t showered in days, have no one to love them, can’t afford their Lorazepam, the people who are broken and no one wants to sully themselves by stopping to look at the dirty mess by the side of the road. Because if you’re looking at them, how can you praise God for all the great things God has done for you, how blessed you’ve been, and how grateful you are that you are clean.
Lord, I beg you. Keep me dirty and muddy and free from unsound scriptural metaphors about snow. I need my sins to make me a better Christian.
Shortly before we left Northern Ireland, my daughter Jordan wanted me to watch a film. I’ll have to admit, for a 17 year old, she has fairly good taste in cinema. This one was something supposed along the lines of “The Hunger Games”. Dystopian fairy tales are right up my alley as well. However, all the girls (I am the only man in a house with four women) said this movie was fundamentally different and I might like it more than the “The Hunger Games”. So, we watched “Divergent”. One reason I note this is because a sequel to “Divergent” is about to be released. It’s called “Insurgent”. Both are based on a series of books by Veronica Roth.
This was one of the most theological movies, particularly for young adults, I’ve ever seen. The movie starts with the same underlying premise Jesus shared with his disciples shortly before he died. In John 17:21, Jesus prayed, “that they may be one.” One body, in agreement, with no divisions; this was Jesus’ prayer. This promise of unity-social, cultural, moral, legal, and ethical is where this movie begins.
The film’s basic premise is that (at some point in the future) peace can only be achieved by organizing people into groups (factions). These groups then become the main source of an individual’s identity. Upon reaching their mid-teens (it’s ultimately unclear exactly what year) the young people are tested to see which group or faction they are best suited.
When the test results are announced, the teens leave their biological families to join their respective factions. They will remain with these factions for the rest of their lives. The faction will come define their identities. Who they were before they were they joined their faction, especially if they choose the defense faction, is expected to be completely forgotten. Each faction is expected to contribute something unique to the common good. One faction functions in a political role, another group works as bureaucrats or administrators, another serves as a defense force. As is it conceived, each group needs the other faction in order to survive. This means one group is less likely to launch a coup to overthrow one faction to consolidate their own power. In theory, the world they’ve created works, up to a point.
Except, when they do this testing, to see which group people are most suited for, some people blow up the test. By that I mean they don’t come back with standard results which are easily interpreted that say, “Yep, you fit in here, there, or there.” These people come back with no clear answer of where they belong. As such, they are called, “Divergent”. A divergent person is someone who is gifted and skilled in every area of life. A divergent is someone who can’t be pigeonholed as any one type. As you might imagine, a divergent is a danger to the well-prescribed hierarchy and order which had been created. If the “divergents” let the cat out the bag that the factions and groups are just a way to control society then the jig is up, the game is over. Divergents were to be stopped and killed.
Jesus was a divergent. Jesus was the original divergent. You and I are called to be divergents; to borrow the language of the film, especially if we’re honest with our own test results.
Jesus refused to be placed in a faction. We let ourselves be put into constituencies, factions, and groups all the time. Despite the fact Jesus comes to us and says, “You don’t have a faction or a group. I’m you’re group, me, Jesus. I’m the only faction you have and we work and love everyone.” We are divergent.
Being a divergent is about denying factionalism a place in our lives. What we know from our own lives (not just from the movie) is that factionalism and factions doesn’t work, labeling and ordering the world in some pre-conceived notion of the common good is the very opposite of freedom-whether you’re motivated by politics from the left or right. It’s the opposite of what Jesus envisioned.
How does Jesus say we, as divergents deny the power of faction, the go along to get along idea that sucks so many of us into this mentality?
In this week’s lectionary lesson, Jesus says you’re going to be rejected by the factions you may so desperately want to join. The factional people, those who place stock in the factional way of life, he calls them out. (The elders, the chief priests, and the legal experts in verse 32.)
The factions are going to come after us if we’re living according to how Jesus teaches us to live.
Divergence is also about denial. When we welcome divergence, you start by saying no to the things with which you normally converge. Divergence is about moving away from those things that normally define you.
Jesus also tells his early followers and disciples to “take up our cross”. I do think the statement “Everyone has a cross to bear” minimizes Jesus’ identity and the reality of his execution by the Roman Imperial authorities. The cross is the great equalizer. The function of the cross is to draw humanity to Christ. When you’re a Christian it becomes the means in which you define yourself, the locus of you identity, you can’t talk about yourself without talking about the cross. At the foot of the cross there are no factions. It may seem counterintuitive, but in order to get to that level ground at the foot of the cross, we have to become more divergent, more like Jesus. We have to move beyond factional, Pharisee theology (believe like this or else) and diverge from the divisions and pray that they may be one.
Divergence is the way of Christ. Divergence welcomes everyone and empowers us all to live, love, and serve without the boundaries created by humankind. Serving Christ may not be as clean and clear as serving a faction but why would you join a faction when you could gain everything?
This Morning’s Sports Report from the Sport Reporting Preacher, download and listen now.
Love at last sight,
The bitter clamour grows,
In your absence,
The world slows,
Not sure how to take it,
Ambiguous tales passed to me,
Now to say in an inopportune way,
Towards you I can only see,
It will take only a glance,
To let me know,
I have a chance.
At stepping inside,
Your well-formed world.
Here you’ll find a link to download an mp3 of soothing music and my reading of a classic fairy tale. Perhaps it will help you rest or entertain you. I hope to make more available in the near future.