A Tale of Two Judicial Councils: Jerusalem and Evanston

In the days following Easter, the church usually has the opportunity to take a deep breath. The hectic pace of the services leading to Easter morning comes to a sudden stop. For United Methodism, this pause is deceptive. Easter Monday has led us to today, Tuesday. The Judicial Council, our highest legal body, begins the work of evaluating the constitutionality of the decisions made at February’s extraordinary General Conference. While we live into the Resurrection, uncertainty surrounds the future of our denomination.  To be honest, I live in a permanent state of queasiness.

Of the four readings selected for the second Sunday of Easter, the first, from Acts 5:27-32 speaks directly to our denomination. The apostles are brought before their version of the judicial council. In the wake of Jesus’ death, their continued preaching, teaching, and healing run counter to the “discipline” they were expected to uphold. This wasn’t happening.

The apostles are given a choice: stop and stay in line or keep preaching Jesus and live beyond our version of God. If they leave, their lives and that of their families will be at risk. After all, if they could do it, Jesus, it could happen to them. What are they going to do?

Peter replies in verse 29. “We must obey God rather than humans.” That’s how I feel. I want to do what is right by God, and not the prejudices humanity blames on four verses of scripture. I do not want to harm people or participate in a system that propagates emotional violence in the name of a loving God. I can’t keep looking at myself in the mirror knowing I am a part of a systemic culture of exclusion. So yes, I agree with Peter in Acts 5. We cannot obey humans, no matter how angry, intense, or holy they sound if their version of Christianity and United Methodism says, “God only loves and welcomes certain people to a specific point that we flawed humans then administer-all under the banner of going on to perfection.”

Or, we can obey God, who has a history of saying yes, to all flawed people (without asking anyone, “change the way I made you before I’ll love you or allow you to celebrate the sacraments”). And who knows where we’re going “on to”? If we’re with God, it will be fine.

Richard Lowell Bryant

 

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If You Want To Tango On Easter, You Got To Waltz on Good Friday

Nobody comes in to ask me: when is your Maundy Thursday or Good Friday service? Lots of “When is Easter Sunrise?” Everyone wants to skip the hard parts. I can’t blame them, but that’s not how this works.  Nobody wants to sit in church.  Everybody wants to come to the beach.  Such is the world we’ve inherited.

I’m glad you’re here, we’re together, and we can ask the hard questions. You can’t avoid Good Friday. This is the moment history changes. Most of what happens in the world from this point forward is a reaction, in one way or another, to the events of Good Friday. Easter is a response to Good Friday. In one way or another, history begins here. We don’t want to skip one of the most important days in human history.

Good Friday is dense, a multilayered web of events and hours. There are more characters than in most of Shakespeare’s plays. The action moves frequently, and the dialogue can be challenging to follow. Our challenge, now that we are here, is to pull back the layers. What are the things that make Good Friday necessary? “Good” is an adjective that we’ve come to ignore on a day fraught with suffering. Good Friday isn’t exceptional in any conventional sense of the word. That’s not our question this morning. Here’s what we want to know: beyond the action, harassment, and denials; what matters most?

Jesus is completely alone. We talk about loneliness.  In truth, we don’t know a thing about being forsaken.  Our language is quite limited when it comes to those times we are genuinely by ourselves. An empty house, no noise other than the sounds our bodies make, it’s a strange and unsettling feeling. Some people are very comfortable with that degree of personal space. Others of us can’t handle more than a few minutes without the background noise from a television or radio.  Who among us could live without the comforting buzz of our phones?  I’m not talking about that kind of loneliness.

Jesus isn’t alone, he’s abandoned. Not only is he taken from his friends and family but they remove themselves from him. That’s what hurts. I can just imagine but if it were me, seeing the people you love deny they know you would hurt worse than death.

How many times did Jesus die on Good Friday? There was Judas’ betrayal, Peter’s betrayal, and on and on. He died more times than I can to count. We read obituaries that tell of people dying at home surrounded by friends and family. Jesus died over and over again in a single day. Why? The people who knew him best got up and walked away. So when we say “Jesus died for us” that’s only partially true. Jesus died because of us. That’s the whole story. It’s the Good Friday we’d like to forget. The more natural path is to move on to Easter show up at Sunrise Service and act like the crucifixion never happened. We can’t do that. That’d be wrong, and we’d be selling ourselves short when it comes to the joy embedded in the emptiness of Jesus’ tomb.

Richard Lowell Bryant

10 Maundy Thursday Theses

1. The “Last Supper” is misnamed. Only when the last Christian celebrates the Eucharist for the last time will it be the “last supper”. If one believes in the resurrection, there can be no last supper.

2. Everyone betrays Jesus. Some betrayers become famous. Others are forgiven. While one is demonized. No one is innocent.

3. What we call liturgy, Jesus calls conversation. Our words to each other and God are not proscribed responses in a book. When we gather at the table, we are friends speaking among friends. When is the last time you mumbled stilted words to your best friend?

4. It matters that we’re together, not that everything is perfect.

5. The notion that God washes feet, our feet, should make you feel uncomfortable.

6. If Jesus washes feet, we wash feet. It’s not like Jesus has asked us to walk on water.

7. Judas’ father was Simon Iscariot. We all have families. Everyone comes from somewhere.

8. Everything about this evening is a celebration of life.

9. Forgiveness is not a one-way street. Jesus teaches Peter (while he’s arrested): you have to forgive yourself to move on from the “stuck places”. Be forgiven by owning forgiveness.

10. You have to know when to hold them, know when to fold them, know when to walk away, and know when to run.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Holy Week Diary – Monday

Today was mean. Mondays are never good in any palpable sense of the word. The scene in the temple should have got him killed right then and there. He walked in, picked a fight in the most public place possible, and asked to die. Monday is about making the right people with the right jobs good and mad. At that, he was a success. He cut into the temple treasury for all of two minutes. Money wasn’t the point. He wanted to show them he could do it. Their system, however grand, was fragile. One man, with the tip of his hand, could turn over the tables they desperately needed. He embarrassed them.

He will not be allowed to leave Jerusalem alive.  Jesus Christ is a dead man walking.  I told you Mondays were mean. Four more days, that’s all they need. You’re going to help them. Yes, we are all in on this. Tick-tock, tick-tock. They’re coming for us. Are you ready to be a betrayer? The Pharisees need your help to keep America  (and the world) safe from people like Jesus.  Are you going to do it?  Will you give him up?

Richard Lowell Bryant

Things To Think About When Preaching Palm Sunday (Horse Thievery Addressed)

1. Everything that happens on Palm Sunday is contextual. The palms, colt, and clothing must be understood in their larger Biblical context. They are present for a reason. Those reasons may be large or small. Whatever the case, they matter to the overall outcome. Do not discount small or traditional elements because they appear insignificant or overly familiar.

2. Yes, Jesus asks his disciples to take an equine (of some nature). The owners have no foreknowledge of this request. It’s OK to point out the strangeness of two men walking off with a horse without first asking then offering a vague religious explanation to the befuddled owners as to why they need the horse. In the American West, you could be hung for such an offense. It’s weird. We should be free to say so. Keep pushing and look for the bigger picture.

3. Jesus is lifted onto the colt. I always saw Jesus as a board his own horse kind of Messiah. Just saying.

4. There are no Palms in Luke’s Palm Sunday Gospel. What craziness!

5. Does this mean that Palm Sunday is about more than the Psalms? Yes. Much the same way The Force is more than lightsabers. You get the point.

6. We focus on one moment of one day. There is a group of people running after and alongside Jesus’ procession toward the Temple. They are shouting and praising, laying their cloaks along the road, and according to some waving palms. This is our image of Palm Sunday. The triumphal entry of Jesus, his disciples, and followers into Jerusalem. We’ll recreate that singular moment as children process down the aisles of our sanctuaries waving palms and singing “Hosanna in the Highest.” Imagine what we’ve missed about Palm Sunday by focusing on one instance of one day? What else is happening that we’ve failed to see? Jesus is heading toward the Temple. Why are we caught so off guard when he arrives at the Temple? It shocks us when he turns over the tables. We’ve missed most everything happening around us.

7. What we miss is dependent on our perspective.  If you change your perspective, you might see Palm Sunday from the view of a Roman Soldier, Pharisee, a Temple dove seller, a woman following Jesus, a leper, or even Pontius Pilate.  Different perspectives matter.

8. Remember, Jesus is NOT marching against Judaism.

9. There’s another parade on the other side of town led by Pontius Pilate. You might want to make a comparison. Yes, at the same time as Jesus is walking in from the east; Caesar’s army is marching in from the west.

10. The people from the margins, those following Jesus, are finally coming to the center of religious life. That’s a huge deal that gets lost in all the palms.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Appomattox Day (April 9th)

April 9th is the anniversary of the official end of the Civil War. On this day in 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. What would have been the empire of slavery, a divided United States, a former shell of its intended self, was not to be. The rebellion built on treachery, treason, racism, and economic self-interest was over.

The war, in an official sense, of armies engaging in the field, came to an end. One hundred years later, in the wake of the Voting and Civil Rights acts, a low-level guerilla war was still being waged across the former states of the Confederacy. Poll workers were murdered. Protesters were brutally attacked. Violence was still commonplace for those wanting to exercise the rights guaranteed by a war fought a century earlier.

In many ways, that’s where we are today. Stalled in the present, angry at being challenged about the lies we believe, and comfortable living as a backward dwelling past people. We find our identity in early 20th-century soldier statues to a war no living remembers. Our cars fly a flag that symbolizes so much hate that it can barely be contained in the Chinese made stickers that dominate our bumpers.

This is who we are in the 21st century south on Appomattox Day. We are not free people. We are held captive to our own racist imagery and the ignorant notion that hate isn’t hated. The war never ended. We pretend Lee won, Jackson lived, and Confederate raiders make life a living hell for the impoverished thousands who can’t come to swallow the “heritage not hate” red pill being offered by our neighbors.
No, you cannot erase history. Lee surrendered. Take down your banners. Remove your monuments to racism, brutality, and defeat. The war is over. On the scale of death and carnage America witnessed, no one can be said to be victorious.  People talk about the “religion of lost cause”.  Hate is the original lost cause.  You are worshiping hate.

Heritage is remembering a family recipe, not recalling a distant relative who fought to keep human beings in bondage. There is no honor in dying to keep rich men rich and slaves in chains.  Today, I want to give thanks and remember how we were saved by a drunk from an Ohio.  I’m grateful the God-fearing Episcopalian from Virginia lost.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Richard Lowell Bryant