Jumping The Shark (1 Corinthians 10:1-13)

Do you know the phrase “jumping the shark”?  It comes from a Happy Days episode where Fonzie, riding water skis, jumps a lake enclosed shark.  It’s widely panned as worst Happy Days episode ever.  Since then, the expression, “jumping the shark” has become synonymous with a TV show (or commercial venture) going too far and asking viewers to accept the implausible.  It’s usually indicative of “the end.”  The show is trying to avoid being canceled, they try a stunt, and it backfires.  I am being honest.  It’s not that Paul makes me uncomfortable.  I feel he’s “jumped the shark.” *

1 Corinthians 10 sounds like Paul is making stuff up.  I know there are parts of the Bible that are officially made up.  It’s OK to say it.  The lightning isn’t going to strike us this morning.  Remember the last time it happened, I was at home watching TV on a Friday night.  It was July 7th, 2017.  I never forget some dates.

I don’t believe in a literal man, a woman, a tree, and a snake.  I do think our earliest ancestors wondered how they came to be.  I envisage they thought long and hard about how God came into their lives and that of their ancestors.  They had heard this Genesis story about a “man,” whose name in Hebrew means “earth” and a woman.  She is his partner, friend, and lover.  It really is a beautiful story.  People should not be alone.  Whether they live on an island in paradise or in the inner city, we were made to be in community with one and another.

God realizes from the first moments of creation that relationships are essential.  If you don’t believe me, remember what Freddie Mercury said, “Everybody needs somebody to love.” I know that’s true because I see it every day of my life.  Do I need to know that there were two people in a garden between the Tigris and Euphrates River to affirm this belief?  No, I do not.    It makes sense to me beyond the story our ancestors told when looking for explanations millennia ago.  I get it.  I see God’s love expressed between two people I’ll never know, but they bind me together to everyone in this room.  It’s like every ancestry DNA commercial! In the case of the Bible, the story doesn’t have to be factually accurate to be true.  Our ancestors may have made up an explanation but in that attempt to tell a story was not an effort to mislead or confuse anyone.  Instead, they confirmed the essential attributes of God we’ve already witnessed in our lives.  In other words, truth confirms the truth.

Do you remember when you were kids and would go to visit your grandparents or older relatives?  They would tell you stories about their youth and maybe even the childhood of your parents.  These are the stories Paul is saying to the Corinthians.  While he’s phrasing them in “ancient Israelite” terms, they are related through Paul’s memories as if he experienced them first hand.  These are Paul’s recollections.  Paul talking about going through the wilderness with Moses would be like your granddaddy telling you about standing with Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday and the OK Corral.  He might tell it well, but he sure wasn’t there.  Paul’s perspective on the Exodus isn’t the same as the foundation myths which define Israelite society.  “They drank from the spiritual rock that followed them,” Paul says.  OK grandpa, tell us more.  “The rock was Christ.”  That’s fine, I guess.  Here’s the thing, the Old Testament says nothing about a rock that followed the Israelites in the wilderness.  It’s not there.  It’s certainly not Jesus.  That’s like your parents telling you they walked uphill, both ways, in yearly blizzards, to school, on Ocracoke.  It’s not true.    So why invent something to make a useless point about Jesus?  I ask this question because people still do the same thing today.  They create things about Jesus as if the reality of the resurrection isn’t good enough.  Can’t Jesus stand on his own two feet?

That’s not a rhetorical question.  Of course, Jesus is his own person.  The only thing preventing Jesus from representing himself is us.  We put words in his mouth.  We make up stuff.  Somewhere along the way we’ve decided that it’ be cool if Jesus grew a 3-day old scruff, donned a leather jacket, and jumped a mechanical shark.  No, it wouldn’t.  Let Jesus speak and watch what happens. That’s the purpose of Lent; to let the Jesus chips fall where they may.

Paul appears to be talking about idolatry.  One might assume that the Corinthians were known as idol worshippers.  Who knows?  It was probably no more or less than any large city in Roman Asia Minor.  Idols were everywhere in the ancient world.  To talk about an idol free city in the 1st century would be to propose an Ocracoke without beer or Ocracoke without Beer and fish imagery, or better yet Ocracoke without beer, fish imagery, and Pirate themed anything.   It’s not going to happen.

Nevertheless, he chose to address an incident Jesus never referred to.  Paul is saying:  Jesus never talked about this and I’m going to die on this sword, alienate people, and keep jumping sharks.  Is this the way to follow Jesus?  I ask because people still do this today.  Are we following Jesus or Paul?

In verse 8, he tells the Corinthians that 23,000 people fell in a single day after engaging in sexual immorality.  That’s a made up number.  Because I’ve heard people make up numbers to scare people into acting right.  I do it myself.  I’m a parent.  You know 100 % of everyone who goes out on a date with a boy gets pregnant, herpes, or blindness.  I wouldn’t do it.  I might have said stuff like that.

We don’t have to make up numbers (who was saved, who was sinning and sent to Hell) to scare people into following Jesus.  No one comes to heaven via fear, pushing, anger, or resentment.  The only number you need is 1. That’s you. You are the one who matters most.  You are loved, worthwhile, and valuable to Jesus and the world in which you reside.

Paul concludes the passage under the heading of “testing.”  Maybe it’s not been about idolatry.  Are the idols a test?  That’s a good guess.  In one way or another, we are all being tested.  I can buy that.  Life tests us.  I don’t believe God tests.    This is not a game of “God giving us more or less than we can handle.”  Instead, it’s about the journey.  Some days are violent and other days are designed for cruise control.  Here’s Paul last word on God and the “test”: “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing, he will also provide the way out so that you be able to endure it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13)

I don’t I buy it.  We’ve all been tested beyond our strength.  The first half of the verse is pie in the sky thinking that doesn’t do anyone any good.  God is with us on those days, but it would be a lie to admit that aren’t times we’ve gone beyond our strength.  God is not a puppet master controlling the test, severity, or outcome of our tests.  These tests happen with our without God in our lives.  However, here’s what I do like; the reminder that endurance and a way out are part of the bargain.  God is with us on those days in which we are beaten.  Those words point me back to Jesus.  In Lent, everything, in one way or another, should keep directing us toward Jesus.  Jesus, standing on his own, speaking for himself, and ready to meet us where we are, at our point of greatest need.

Richard Lowell Bryant

*It should be noted that PG Wodhouse did have Bertie’s cousin Angela jump a shark on the French Riviera in 1922’s Right Ho, Jeeves.

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The Day After Today

Our shared values define us more than our differences. And acknowledging those shared values can see us through our challenges today if we have the wisdom to trust in them again.

–John McCain

Today.

You know what I thought going in? Today was supposed to be the day after everything was decided. From here forward, every day in Methodism would be the day after February 26th. Perhaps, it still is. Methodists are the people who ran from a monster truck rally.  February 27th, the day American Methodism became something it was never intended to be. Yes, today is the tomorrow we can’t forget.

Those who were elected to the General Conference; whether by name id, popularity, or on their qualifications to represent their annual conference would come back home with the good news. Today was the day that Methodism would welcome everyone, officially, into the open arms, doors, and minds of the United Methodist Church. Today was the day to officiate at wedding services for black gay women who wanted to marry gay Hispanic women. Today was the day to move forward and free of the threat of sanction. Our LGBTQI family seeking ordination would walk into boards of ordained ministry and be questioned like their straight sisters and brothers. Today was to be a new day. Instead, today is just like yesterday and tomorrow will be just like today.

For almost three weeks, some of United Methodists have continued to wait on a tomorrow that remains under debate. However, there are other Methodists who received their Utopia and have checked in at the front gate. My church isn’t invited to their party. I’m not sure they’d let my friends, colleagues, and parishioners in the door.  That’s a pity.  We have more in common than they realize.

Our today, the perpetual moment of expectant hope, so familiar in seasons like Advent and Lent, is making us less hopeful and frustrated. Instead of feeling liberated by the gift of spiritual reflection, I feel little need to ask God, “What’s next?” There doesn’t feel like much of an immediate future. Another conference, decision, judicial council ruling, or threat of schism, will do no more than they have already done; they will bring us to today, unable to see tomorrow and longing for a yesterday which never existed.

At the moment, I believe, we are well and truly broken.

Maybe tomorrow…

Richard Lowell Bryant

What I Tell Myself

“As the tide washed in, the Dutch Tulip Man faced the ocean: “Conjoiner rejoinder poisoner concealer revelator. Look at it rising up and rising down, taking everything with it.”

–Peter van Houten “An Imperial Affliction”

Here’s what I tell myself. Sometimes it’s necessary to go through the swamp before you reach the road. If you live around here, you know what I mean. The swamp, the marsh is nasty ground full of foul creatures that bear the human race ill will. The road is high ground, and it will save your life. For our purposes, the highway might as well be Kilimanjaro or Everest. The road represents safety, perspective, and the ability to move from point a) to point b) without being mired in muck. You can see what’s coming and going. It’s there, on the pavement, only a few feet above the swamp, where you want to be. At one time or another, we’re called to make the journey outward and upward. Sometimes life pushes us up, at other times we jump. For some reason, the swamp slog is too much to handle. We want to see more than the trees. We know we can go faster than mud encased arms and legs currently carry us. One way or another, we find ourselves moving to the road.

So, I will tell you one more thing: Lent takes us off course. From Ash Wednesday onward we’re wandering in the wilderness, just by the highway, in the swamp. The exit seems obvious. Turn left, go right, and take one step in the right direction. However, the self-evident doesn’t work in Lent. The usual rules don’t apply. We’re stuck for a reason. There’s something about the idea of passive captivity we find appealing. Despite the uncertainty of our environment, Lent, as manifested in the marshy swamp, demands little from our consciences. Lent feels easy. We can hunker down, wait for Hurricane Jesus to blow over, and look for sunrise on Easter morning.  No one will ever realize we missed our chance to feel the fear.  When we see the crowds walking toward the beach, we’ll free ourselves from the slime and blend right in. No one will notice. None the wiser they’ll ever be when they hear our swampy voices proclaim, “He is risen indeed?”

No, I don’t think that’s how it should or ought to go down. We need to figure our way out of the swamp well before Maundy Thursday. Lent is something we do, somewhere we go, and we need the road to get there. You never know, it might rain all day. We could flood. The swamp, for all its apparent benefits, could get much worse. To arrive on time for Easter, finding the road is crucial. Moving on toward the sunrise, looking for the ebb and flow of high tide, that’s where we’re going. At least that’s what I tell myself today.

Richard Lowell Bryant

The Last Fact

“I write because I am going to die.”

–Karl Ove Knausgård

We are going to die. Death, for all of its mystery and ambiguity, is the last undisputed fact in a world committed to the marketplace of ideas. We like to believe the most disgusting ideas are still up for debate, all in the name of free speech. Death needs no deliberation. It is the square peg which fits in every round hole. One moment we’re here, the next we’re gone. Death resists arguments over language, gender, violence, and income inequality. Why? In the end, both reactionaries and progressives are going to die and the world they left behind, damaged irreparably by climate change, is dying. Death claims all political agendas, facts, ideas, beliefs, and environments. Yet death belongs to no one, property of no ideology or theology. Death is a fact of life. In the life and death struggles of a polarized world, the “You’re dumb, I’m smart” political discourse, who wins when everyone is going to die? No one is victorious.

Why am I talking about death? In Luke 13, Jesus is focused on mortality. I’m taking his lead. He’s asking hard questions. Much like the questions many of us have wondered over the past week, “Why do innocent people suffer in senseless tragedies?” “Where is God amid violence?” Jesus is also posing questions that have no answers, answers we don’t like, refuse to hear, and don’t want to acknowledge.

What are we not acknowledging? Between our incredulity at Pilate’s brutality, towers collapsing in Siloam and the gun violence of our own time; what are we missing? Most people would put it this way: in one way or another, we are on the hook for our own death. Death is our fault and responsibility. We say this because it is Jesus’ response. “No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.” (Luke 13:5)

Death is inevitable but not as I’ve described. For Jesus, our mortality depends on a change in our hearts and lives. This is what we ignore. Death is once again up for debate because our hearts and lives are subjective. If the way we live impacts the way we die then rules of the game have changed. Jesus alters the parameters of what defines human existence. We step back from the 1st-century headlines of these first few verses of Luke 13 with one message: how we think, talk, understand, approach, and relate to death is up for debate. As was the case when we started, all of death’s cards are on the table. Now, we’ve been dealt in. We have a hand. We’re in the game. Death can and (spoiler alert) will lose.

I know what you’re thinking. Didn’t Jesus say, “Change your hearts and lives; you will die just as they did.”? Yes, you read him right. Doesn’t that mean we need to shape up or risk eternal damnation in Hell? No, it doesn’t. A God who embodies and gives love does not send people to Hell. Keep reading: we all receive one more year. No one is going to Hell. Even the most barren fig trees find themselves blessed with a load of holy poop and another year to live. We keep getting “one more year.” The gardener loves me, this I know. When I die, it will be from natural causes, not because the gardener cut me down or burned me to the ground.

Richard Lowell Bryant

What If We Were Told To Stay Away From Church in the Wake of A Terror Attack

The murder of innocent people at two separate mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand is a tragedy beyond description. To hear the country’s Prime Minister tell her Muslim citizens to stay away from their houses of worship; out of safety, caution and fear is a request I’d have never imagined hearing from a western head of government. What a comparable declaration would do in light of a similar attack in this country is hard to fathom. Because, to paraphrase Richard Gere addressing his drill sergeant Louis Gosset Jr in An Officer and a Gentleman, “We’ve got nowhere else to go.”When such tragedies occur we go to our churches, synagogues, and mosques. The quiet corners of these dimly lit buildings are our safe spaces. In them, we find space at our own pace to listen to God amidst the chaos. There is room for our anger, sorrow, and sadness. We have the opportunity to realize: we are not alone.

The idea of church, for my own safety, being taken away from our community is frightening. As much as being murdered in a house of worship terrifies me, I’m scared of not being able to go to church at those times when I most need to be in church. At the end of a lousy day, times when I’m sick and disconnected from those whom I love; that’s when I really need to be inside the church.

What we’ve seen in New Zealand today reminds us that violence, hatred, bigotry, and religious intolerance prevent the church (or any religious institution) from doing what it does best. Churches, mosques, and synagogues are here to care for their communities and embody the reality of God’s presence. When people filled with hatred choose to manifest their prejudices, so much so that they believe in taking human life, it’s hard to find a safe place for God in our modern world. Nowhere feels like the right place to pray, love, and exhibit God’s priorities for humanities. Where do we go? What do we do? Here a thought.

In one sense, I’m reminded that it’s always been dangerous to be publicly identified as a person of faith. The 1st-century church, those in the earliest generations following Jesus never knew safety. Their churches were “movable feasts.” From house to house and building to building, they worshiped when and where they were able. Their fellowship, their presence, made real in communion constituted the church. The church wasn’t about a building holding services or a property defined by a deed. If the believers found each other, they found the church and could see a glimpse of God at work in the world.

Yes, it would be frightening to be told not to visit our house of worship. We should pray for our Muslim sisters and brothers in New Zealand. This is a horrific and barbaric attack. Remember, even if we cannot get to a place; we know we can go to each other.

Richard Lowell Bryant

How To Survive Lent

1. Get off Methodist Twitter. You may want to take a break from Twitter altogether. However, Methodist Twitter is sometimes detrimental spiritual growth and the ability to love your neighbor as you love yourself.

2. Make your bed. You’ll sleep better at night if you come home to a bed that’s already made.

3. End every phone call with “God Bless You.” Who doesn’t want to be blessed?

4. Listen to early Taylor Swift (2006). It was a simpler time.

5. Delete a life draining application from your phone.

6. Go for a walk. You need it.

7. Turn off the television. Programming is crap.

8. Read Psalm 27 once a day. It’s a great work of art.

9. Don’t carry any extra baggage that you don’t intend to leave at the foot of the cross.

10. Remember: our citizenship is in heaven. If that means anything, it means something now.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Don’t Be Hurtful, Harmful Religious Jerks (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21) Ash Wednesday

The scripture readings for Ash Wednesday are much like those we hear in Advent. Each year, as we approach Christmas, we hear of Mary, John the Baptist, and the story of Jesus’ birth. So it is tonight. We come to the beginning of Lent and once again find Psalm 51’s plea for mercy waiting to be read and heard. Joel’s prophetic calls for the Israelites to return to God stands close by. Then, lingering at the end, there is a word from Paul for the Corinthians. Paul says: “Be reconciled to each other. For God’s sake do not receive the grace of God in vain.” A theme for the day quickly emerges. Ash Wednesday is about seeking God’s mercy and being reconciled to live among each other as people of faith. Yes, the tradition of the church tells us today is a marker of our mortality. The ashes remind us that we are dust and to dust; we shall return. However, scripture lays a course like stones through a garden path. We go from one to the next, ever mindful of our mortality and the need to listen for the Good News all around us.

On the yearly journey through grace, mercy, and the need to be reconciled; where do we end up? Ash Wednesday places us among a group of Jesus’ disciples. They are listening to him explain the cost of discipleship. Sometimes we encounter passages whose relevance to our lives feels distant. The first century is not the 21st. Jesus and his disciples lived in a world where slavery was the norm, brutality defined daily life, and the average life expectancy was 30 years. Women died much sooner, due to complications in childbirth, in the early to mid-teens. Those whom Jesus taught didn’t need reminding of their mortality. Their lives were their admonitions.

When Jesus spoke, his stories were for his listeners and disciples. He didn’t know, nor did anyone in the crowd, that one day his words would be recorded in a book called the Bible. Jesus’ words do not arrive silently in our lives. Much of what Jesus says speaks to the universal reality of the human condition. When he addresses poverty, being a good neighbor, love, and prayer; these observations are not unique to the 1st century. In this way, our world has changed very little. We see his context and its relationship to our own. It becomes clear: the Good News and the Resurrection mean more than the disciples understood or we realize on any given Sunday morning.

Jesus tells his disciples, “Be careful you don’t practice your religion in front of people to draw their attention.” That’s a verse that anyone going to a United Methodist General or Annual Conference should re-read. Why does Jesus say this? We are quite accomplished at practicing our piety in front of others in an attempt to draw attention to ourselves. Our conditioning is such that we ask, “Who will believe us and see Jesus in our lives if we’re not public with our piety. We have to stand out against the creeping cultural war and secularism.”  Each year, at the beginning of Lent, we listen to these same verses.  Jesus isn’t ambiguous.  He says, “What we’ve come to believe about how to be religious isn’t true.”  Are we asked to read them again because we’ve yet to hear them? Do we not believe Jesus?

“Whenever you give to the poor, don’t blow your trumpet as the hypocrites do in the synagogues.” He goes on. “Whenever you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites. They love to pray standing in the synagogues and the street corners so people will see them.” Did you catch that? He said, “So people will see them.” Finally, he talks about fasting. “Don’t put on a sad face like the hypocrites. They distort their faces, so people know they are fasting.” In rapid-fire succession, Jesus outlines three ways the people around him go over the top with their public displays of piety. We don’t have synagogues, too few of us fast (me included), but we all get it what he’s saying. We pray and come to our version of the synagogue, and we’re all old enough to know what Jesus means. Jesus is talking about us, people we know, and how easy it is to become superficial about our faith.

Why are these behaviors a problem? Of all the many things Jesus could specifically address, why choose public displays of piety and religion?

Firstly, we are the religion that the world encounters. People don’t see buildings. Unless you’re offended by some styles of architecture; buildings don’t alienate people from God. Instead, they talk to other people. You may have heard the cliché, “You’re the only Bible someone may ever read.” It’s a cliché because it’s true.

Secondly, we may be the only encounter some people ever have with Christianity, Jesus, or a Methodist. We don’t want to turn people off with outlandish or exclusionary acts of faith. The behaviors that Jesus describes do more harm than good. Excessive public displays of piety, as Jesus outlines, hurt people and turn them away from the church. As we read Matthew 6, I think about the Special General Conference of the United Methodist Church. Three days of public piety, prayer, and deliberation led to pain and harm we are only beginning to realize. To the world, Methodism is just another church that hates gay people while claiming to love everyone. We know that’s not true. To those watching from the outside, we look the hypocrites Jesus is urging us not to become. Ask yourselves, “Are our public gestures and words consistent with the work of Jesus in the New Testament?” If not, then we need to rethink, retool, pray Psalm 51, and try again. If not, we need Lent more than ever.

Richard Lowell Bryant