How I Spent Eclipse Day

Jordan and her new license.

About 2:30 yesterday afternoon, while waiting for my daughter to obtain her driver’s license, I thought of two selections from two vastly different books.  The first was a passage from the first chapter of the Book of Acts.  In Acts 1 Luke describes the Ascension of Jesus; the moment Jesus leaves his disciples and returns to Heaven.  In the tenth verse he says, “Suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.  They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?””  It just so happened that millions of Americans were standing outside looking up toward heaven at that very moment, hoping to see a rare solar eclipse.  I was inside the DMV thinking about the words of the mystery man on the mountain who asked, “Why are you looking up?”

The second passage was from Douglas Adams’ novel “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe”.  It’s the kind of place where, Adams says, “Diners enjoyed watching the obliteration of life, the universe and everything whilst enjoying a nice steak.”  In scrolling through photographs and posts on social media, that’s what I felt I was witnessing.  People enjoying the obliteration of life while enjoying a nice beer, wine, cheese, and well, you get the picture.  It was a snapshot of how we approach the apocalypse; like a grand day out!  Except, I’d lived through several recent mini-apocalypses:  a hurricane, a flood, and extended blackout.  Those weren’t any fun.  In fact, they were more like the DMV waiting room than the pictures of “eclipse parties” I was seeing on Facebook.

Whether it is a thunderstorm or an eclipse, it is exciting to see nature do its thing.  Even the most basic thunderstorm is a grand spectacle.  On a day like yesterday, when the moon and sun align (for only minutes) and we return to our pre-Christian pagan roots to marvel at the grandest show of all, it’s easy to be stunned into silence.  As I watched and waited, I wondered, have we got this backwards?  The mystery man’s quote was ringing in my head, “Why are you looking up?”  The people of the United States, we in the path of totality, were expecting a show.  We bought tickets (i.e. glasses), traveled great distances and found the best seats all to watch a performance of celestial theatre.  One of the reasons we were looking up was this:  we were the consumers, the theatre-goers, the sun and moon were the performers, and we became the center of universe, the celestial bodies were putting on a show for us.  Something is wrong with how we see our place in the world, deadly wrong.  Narcissism this strong will kill a civilization.  The Sun and Moon are eclipsing because we are here to be eclipsed (and call it such).  The Moon and Sun will continue this dance until the Sun dies.  We are the ones who will fade first.

If the Psalms teach us anything, it is that God’s presence is eternal and is marked by the sun, moon, tides, wind, and rain.  God’s presence is seen in nature.  Our lives are impermanent and temporal.  As Psalm 116 notes, the celestial complexity of the cosmos doesn’t frame God’s relationship to humanity.  Simplicity does.  “The Lord preserves the simple, when I was brought low, the Lord saved me.  For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling, I walk before the Lord in the land of the living.”  Psalm 116 is a Psalm of looking down at your feet, wiping the tears from your eyes, and walking on solid ground.  It’s only one example of how we might answer the question, “Why are you looking up?”

Why, when the kingdom is right here in front of me in the DMV waiting room?  There are the two immigrant young men who don’t speak a word of English and need an identification card.  There’s the angry man who’s mad because he’d didn’t realize you had to take a number and wanted to fight with the DMV inspector.  There’s the family who just moved from Idaho and didn’t realize what North Carolina needed in proof of insurance, there’s a teenager getting her driver’s license, there’s the guy who smells like he hasn’t had a bath in a week.  Why are you looking up when there is a parable sitting all around you?  Why are you staring at your phone when this is exactly how Jesus described the Kingdom of Heaven; chaotic, anarchic, a little frightening, multi-lingual, smelly, and not in the sky.  It’s simple.  Here I am brought low (reduced to a number), waiting, with my daughter and my wife on a day everyone else said “you had to be” outside.

I can’t think of anywhere else I’d have wanted to be.  Save your hyperbole and photos for somebody else.  I saw the Kingdom of Heaven at the DMV and I feel fine.

Unpopular Opinion of the Day: I Never Thought Jerry Lewis Was Funny

I never got Jerry Lewis. I don’t think he was funny. So what? My kids don’t get Jerry Seinfeld. Since when do we have to share a collective sense of comedic taste? My daughters don’t see why I laugh at a show “about nothing”. Certain kinds of humor are generational. I laughed at Hee Haw because it was ridiculous, not because it was funny.

If a joke transcends generations it’s still funny when it is delivered well, long after it was first conceived. That’s when we’re talking genius level comedy. Shakespeare wrote funny stuff; really funny jokes. If the material is delivered right, what was funny in 1600 can make an audience laugh in 2017. Neither Jerry Lewis nor Jerry Seinfeld will still be funny in four hundred years. That’s what sets genius apart. Do Jerry Lewis’ jokes age well? No, they do not. Jerry Lewis, for all the good he did to raise billions for children with Muscular Dystrophy, didn’t tell jokes that will stand the test of time. God bless him for his philanthropic work. His comedy won’t be remembered. Now, Dean Martin could sing. Music, like a good balcony scene, will be recited forever.

If I’m not mistaken, wasn’t Shakespeare the first member of the Rat Pack?

Do Not Try This At Home (Matthew 15:21-28)

This is not a story I like to preach.  I do it because I respect the discipline of the lectionary.  The three year cycle of texts which covers most of the Bible is designed to take preachers and congregations through most of the Bible:  the good, the bad, and the ugly.  This story is ugly.  Ugly doesn’t win friends, influence people, and get comments like, “nice sermon, preacher” after the service.  Sometimes, however, you got to do ugly.

If I preach a seven part sermon series that’s some reworking of “Finding Your Destiny” or “Daring to Dance with Goliaths in Your Life” what have I done?  I’ve cherry picked the feel good texts which are easy to digest.  Some Bible stories are like that; they are like the warm blanket you instinctively reach for on a cold and rainy day.  But if that’s all we know of the Bible; then we are never challenged.  When we only read our favorite parts or I preach the texts I love; neither one of us grow, spiritually or intellectually.  In fact, we stagnate.  We stew in our own religious juices.  We’re more likely to come out of church feeling we’re great for being so in touch with our religiosity instead of realizing God’s grace is calling us to be a little uncomfortable.

The lectionary challenges our reality and gives us an opportunity to grow in relationship with God.  So let’s do the hard work of challenging our preconceived notions of Jesus.

The main way people get out of asking the hard questions about Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman is to say it’s a story about faith.  They focus in on verse 28, “Woman, you have great faith.” Oh, wasn’t she faithful.  What a model of a faithful woman!  That’s true.  If we have faith, God will answer our prayers and meet our most basic needs.  But by focusing on verse 28 to the exclusion of the rest of the interaction, you have to conveniently forget that this woman is a victim.  You must ignore how Jesus and the disciples treated her.  To focus on her great faith, is to justify Jesus’ unjustifiable treatment of an innocent woman who only wanted to save her daughter.  That’s the hard question.  That’s why this is a touchy question, that’s why you’ll never hear Joel Osteen (or anyone like him) preach on this passage.  There’s no way to feel good about what you’re reading.

Here’s where a bit of context helps.  Verse 21 tells us Jesus went to the regions of Tyre and Sidon.  Given the schedule he’s kept recently of walking on water and feeding 5000 people, he needed a Sabbatical.  Tyre and Sidon were areas northwest of Galilee.  They were technically different administrative regions made of Phoenicians and Canaanites.  Jews, like Jesus, were the minority in this area along the Mediterranean Sea.  Jesus was the outsider (always) but here he was an outsider among outsiders.  He was truly a minority.  Ethnically, culturally, linguistically, and it just about every way Jesus was in the minority.  He’s a tourist.  It would be like me taking a few weeks off to visit a friend in the South African Methodist Church and staying in Johannesburg.

A local Canaanite woman, who knows who he is, (we know this because she calls him the Son of David) recognizes him, comes up, and asks him for help.  Jesus is all the time approaching people and speaking to women (by the well, caught in adultery).  But if one comes up and speaks to him (a bold act in that day and time, the dynamic is a little different.  I told you this was uncomfortable.)  Apparently her daughter is possessed by a demon.  This should be garden variety stuff for Jesus.  Exorcisms are nothing for Jesus.  Jesus ignores her.  Maybe he doesn’t want to work on vacation.  But can Jesus ever really be on vacation?  He is Jesus, after all.  The idea of Jesus ignoring anyone is disconcerting. She seems to be making a fair and heartfelt request.  Removing her daughter’s demon is not the same as looking for a parking space at Wal-Mart.  Jesus doesn’t budge.

The disciples then enter the picture.  I sort of imagine them like a group of Mafioso.  “You want we should move her on, boss?”  She was shouting and making a scene.  God forbid we make a scene in front of Jesus.  We wouldn’t want Jesus to be embarrassed by us.  Again, I told you this was uncomfortable.  I’m just reading the text.

Now here’s where it gets both weird and hurtful.   Jesus says, “I’ve been sent only to the lost sheep, the people of Israel.”  Jesus plays the race card.  I know I’ve got the ability to help your demonically possessed daughter but the thing is; I wasn’t sent here to help you Canaanites and Phoenicians.  I was only sent here to help Israelites.

Jesus, I thought you were sent to save everyone.   What would it hurt to help this little girl?  Why do you have to make it an ethnic issue?  After all, you’re in their country, Jesus.  How smart is it to insult their people when you’re in their country?  It’s not only limiting God’s work to a small group of people it’s insulting a group of people in the worst possible place, their own country.  I told you this was uncomfortable.  If you’re not feeling a little topsy-turvy, just wait.  It gets worse.

She pleads in the most basic way possible, “Lord, help me”.  Jesus does something utterly remarkable, he calls her a dog.  The English translations clean this up in various ways.  But in Greek, it’s clear; he calls the woman a dog.  “It is not good to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”  What that means is this; his power and healing abilities are compared to “children’s bread” and he doesn’t want to waste it by giving to her, a “dog”.  So not only has he said “no” to her, he’s said no a second time by insulting her in the most degrading manner possible.

Yes, this woman has faith but also she has perseverance.  Does she love her daughter or what?  To put up with this kind of racial and verbal abuse and harassment from foreigners (one of whom happens to be the son of God) to save the life of her daughter is real miracle in this story.  Even Jesus can’t stop the love a parent has for a child.  If I learn anything from this story, this is what I learn.  Love doesn’t always win.  But love will die trying to save love.

The idea that Jesus was toying with her faith, to see how long she would last (because she eventually had a good comeback, “But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall of their masters’ table.”) is repulsive.  Jesus shouldn’t play games with our faith.  Faith isn’t about putting together the right words in the right order in the right formula to please God.  Faith is about meeting the present need:  a girl dying with a demon.

There’s one more crutch preachers like to use in order to explain away this passage and make Jesus’ words seem less uncomfortable.  (Again, I think we grow and become better Christians when we confront the awkwardness head-on.)  It’s this:  Jesus was having a bad day.  Jesus was tired and he just snapped at the woman.  Sure, Jesus can have bad days but I don’t buy it.  Jesus can walk on water, feed 5000 people, and then when he’s on vacation in another country a poor woman with a demon possessed daughter causes him to act like someone who is totally unrecognizable.  No, this isn’t a bad day.  I have bad days.  You have bad days.  Jesus when he was being beaten to death and crucified wasn’t this vicious to other human beings.  Jesus doesn’t have bad days.  We read “the bad day” idea into the story because we find no other good explanation for Jesus’ meanness.  We want a reason to justify our own meanness, petty racism, and justifications for ignoring the simplest cries for help.

Perhaps that’s why this story is here; to remind us how not to be.  There is no justification for how Jesus acted or what he said.  This is not a “what would Jesus do” story.

When all is said and done, faith is the great equalizer between people; whether they are Canaanite or Jew, Black or White, or whomever.

The Canaanite woman’s faith made Jesus uncomfortable.  That’s why her daughter lived.  I hope her story made you a little uncomfortable.  I hope Jesus made you a little mad.  I pray that what we feel now will keep us alive for another week.

Points Where I No Longer Care

1) I no longer care about the moral gymnastics it takes for many to justify treason, human bondage, and the church’s historic complicity in such actions. There is no justification. Those who bore arms against the United States are not heroes. Churches aren’t places where human brutality and immorality can ever be justified. This may have been the case when traitors were heroes and God endorsed slave-holding. Not any longer. Ocracoke United Methodist Church is out of the historic moral gymnastics business.  If your church is in the historic moral gymnastics business, leave now.

2) I no longer care about your love of history as embodied in statues to fallen generals. Idolatry is a sin. Statues have been a problem since Moses left the Israelites to go and pick up the 10 commandments. Scripture is replete with God’s people being divided and conquered by idols and the theologies those idols represent.

3) I no longer care who owned slaves and who didn’t own slaves. I don’t care how far the tradition goes back in western or non western civilization. Slavery is and was repugnant. The argument ends there. Anyone who endorses slavery is justifying evil.

4) I no longer care that your great-great grand father fought beside General Lee and while you yourself are not a racist you can see the bigger economic picture driving the South’s desire to secede. I don’t care. Traitors are traitors. There’s no bigger picture with Benedict Arnold, Nazis, ISIS,  Emperor Hirohito, Kim Jong-un, Osama bin Laden, the 19 hijackers,  Ho Chi Minh, or the Army of Northern Virginia.

5) I no longer care that you believe the expression “It is heritage not hate” will fool me into believing you’re not a racist.

6) I no longer care about your arguments. I do care about the love of Jesus Christ. I will preach from the pulpit a counter-narrative, a counter protest of scripture; against idolatry, against human bondage, and for the equal love of God for all humankind.

Yes, The Religious Resistance Needs New Music

1. We sing “We Shall Overcome” like we’re at a funeral. When we sing this song today, there’s a rarely a sense the group of people singing believe they might actually overcome anything.  I think this is an important point.  To be honest, nothing sounds more like dying felines than a group of privileged white clergy attempting to gain civil rights street credibility by moaning out verses of “We Shall Overcome”. Let’s leave it in the hymnbook. We need something positive, upbeat, and a little hipper.

2. “This Little Light of Mine” seems to be the only song religious liberals can agree on. None of us, me included, can clap on the beat. We look ridiculous singing this song. I am a huge fan of “This Little Light of Mine”, particularly at Vacation Bible School. That’s where it ends. Leave it with kids. It’s not the right anthem to use when taking on shield wielding fascists. Stop clapping and defend yourself. Might I suggest Twisted Sisters, “Were Not Going to Take It”?  It’s not a hymn but it sends a message.  I’d settle for “Standing on the Promises”.  Would our Unitarian colleagues be cool with direct references to Jesus?

3. These are the songs you hear at most protests.  I speak from experience.  The religious left’s repertoire is limited. This is shocking, especially if you consider that most mainstream Protestant denominations have HUGE hymnbooks with awesome songs. Let’s find some new material.  This will help the movement.  Share your playlists.  Pump up the jam!

What People of Faith Should NOT Do After Charlottesville

 

nottodo

1) Exclaim that Love Wins. Love does not always win. People died on Saturday. Hate took the field and won. To say that love always wins denies the reality of human suffering and minimizes the pain of three families and countless others who were wounded. Love wins is a vapid platitude.   It actually hurts.  Don’t say it.

2) Pray for unity. We’ve been praying for unity since General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox. Even the most progressive of Civil Rights leaders now admit that the idea of a post-racial America was a myth. It’s time to stop praying for unity from the comfort of our largely white congregations and start working for unity with others who do not look like us. Praying for unity sounds good and it feels good. Then we go home. We post memes of solidarity. We weep at the violence. Our prayers lead us back to church and the vicious cycle of racism continues. It’s time to stop praying and start acting. Our vigils are poignant and our words are eloquent but the Nazis still came. We can do more and we can do better.

3) Fail to confront and confess the racism we aid, abet, and enable. I was trained in a divinity school that won’t come to terms that Robert E. Lee guards the front steps to Duke University’s chapel. That’s a racist legacy.  The Divinity School is worried about diversity training among its faculty but won’t address the Civil War history engraved on its flagship church.  I’ve inherited racism from family members who died for the Confederacy. I drive by the Confederate flag on my way to lead Christian worship because I’ve given up on a battle to see it removed from local shelves. I don’t want make to make waves in the community.   Being a pastor means being uncomfortable and unpopular;  sometimes with others and sometimes with yourself.  I could go on and on. We’re all implicated to one degree or another. I’m confessing. It’s 2017 and I’m part of the problem. It’s me. It’s us.

4) Give hate groups any credit for sparking the next great American Reformation. If it takes Neo-Nazis and the Klan to motivate a new American church to form, count me out. That’s not a church, that’s a  counter-fascist movement with religious roots.  We may need that but don’t call it a church.  We lose something of our own identity in trying to out Christian radical the Nazi radicals.

What People of Faith Can Do Today in Response to Yesterdays Events in Charlottesville

1) Condemn Racism, the Alt-Right, Neo-Nazis, and Fascists in as specific terms possible. Call evil what it is.

2) Remember: Jesus calls us to love our enemies. Love does not mean to forget. We can learn much here from holocaust survivors. There are many ways to love someone, even from a distance. We can love each other without killing each other. Jesus doesn’t endorse violence.

3) Pray for specific needs in the world, your community, and your life.

4) Read scripture. Look at what happened when Jesus encountered religious zealots and political bullies.

5) Come to a community gathering. Whether it is a church or other meeting. Come to sing, pray, and find strength for the days ahead. If there isn’t a gathering where you are, create one.

6) Offer words of encouragement to oppressed persons.

7) Find a way to stand and be counted.

8) Don’t argue with people who are brainwashed. No one comes away from those encounters looking good.

9) We’re all in this together. Racism is America’s original sin. Grace counteracts original sin. Be graceful. Give grace. Receive grace.

10) Don’t minimize yesterday’s events. It was a big deal. Some people will be in great pain or fear. Acknowledge this and be present.

Rev. Richard Bryant

Ocracoke United Methodist Church

August 13th, 2017