Posted by: dacalu | 16 February 2017

Bishop’s Silver Atonement

Over the past few years I have been asked for my position on the Christian doctrine of atonement.  Every time I want to link to the lovely blog I wrote a few years ago.  Every time I go searching for it and realize that I never wrote such a blog.  The subject is tricky and deserved a fuller treatment, but I decided that I should sketch something out in the meantime.  In my first post, I introduced atonement – how Jesus mends our separation from God. In the next post, I summarized popular Christian explanations. Now I turn to my own take.

 

The Bishop’s Silver

My own theory about atonement draws on the novel Les Miserables, written by Victor Hugo in 1962. The kindly Bishop of Digne is a figure of Christ. By saving Jean Valjean from the police, at personal cost, he shows what it means to love selflessly. This example leads Valjean to reform and devote his life to serving others. The Bishop is the moral example against which we are to compare the rest of the novel.

The first few chapters tell us that the bishop is a humble man who had given up most of his worldly goods. He had left his palace, so that it might be used as a hospital, and lives on one tenth of his income, giving the rest to the poor. His only extravagance is a pair of solid silver candlesticks.

The novel’s hero, Valjean, is an ex-convict. He cannot find work or a place to stay because no-one wants to deal with someone who has been in prison. With nowhere else to turn, Valjean stumbles across the bishop’s house, where he is warmly welcomed. Fearing for his future, Valjean wakes up in the middle of the night, steals the silverware and flees the house – only to be caught by the police. He tells them that he was a guest of the bishop, who had given him the silver. They didn’t believe him. But, when the police bring him to the house, the bishop confirms his story and goes a step further. He takes his candlesticks from the cabinet and says, “you left so quickly, you forgot the best part.” After the police leave, the bishop tells Valjean that God has saved him and now he owes God his life. After some misadventures and poor choices, Valjean takes this to heart and begins to live a life of service to others. The book explores this fundamental choice of compassion over justice as it plays out in several characters. The musical successfully introduces the major themes, but if you have the patience, the (1500 page) book covers the topic with poetry and sophistication.

The message for theology is clear enough. In Bishop’s Silver Atonement, God has given Jesus to humanity as a freewill gift. God loves us and shares life with us, becoming one of us and approaching us where we are. Humanity, in turn, attempts to steal the gift. Both Romans and Judeans take advantage of the power they have been given, trying to manipulate and control Jesus. Friends and enemies begin to see his vulnerability as an opportunity to gain power for themselves. They torture and kill the God made flesh. They literally steal Jesus’ life.

Like the bishop, God refuses to punish the thieves. Instead, God’s love transforms theft into gift. Without ignoring or endorsing human selfishness and malice, God turns the crime into an opportunity. It saves us from the immediate consequences and shows us how to live into a better life. We are forgiven and empowered to forgive by God’s sacrifice.

Posted by: dacalu | 16 February 2017

Atonement Options

Over the past few years I have been asked for my position on the Christian doctrine of atonement.  Every time I want to link to the lovely blog I wrote a few years ago.  Every time I go searching for it and realize that I never wrote such a blog.  The subject is tricky and deserved a fuller treatment, but I decided that I should sketch something out in the meantime.  In my last post, I introduced atonement – how Jesus mends our separation from God. In this post, I tackle some of the most popular theories for how this works.

How Does Atonement Work?

The interesting question for most of us is personal. How do we become at-one with God, neighbor, and world? The answer to that has to do with what faith, hope, and love look like in practice. It’s a big topic because there are so many ways to do it. One of them is research, reflection, and conversation about reality – which I’m attempting here. Other ways have to do with repentance, community, and forgiveness. For now, I will look at the traditional question of how Jesus brings about atonement.

Once we start looking at the details, atonement can be both confusing and troubling. This is one of the few areas that I do not consider myself orthodox. Despite finding them useful, I simply cannot accept the prominent Christian explanations. Let me explain why (with excruciating and problematic brevity). [Better yet, read this scholarly yet approachable summary.]

Ransom Theories (Christus Victor)

(“All your soul are belong to us.”)

  • Humans are in bondage (to death) because we sold ourselves to the Devil.
  • God ransomed us by offering Jesus in exchange for us.
  • Having captured Jesus, the Devil found him impossible to bind (keep dead).
  • Now we and Jesus are free.

Problems

  • Why did God set things up so people could be bound?
  • Who trades away their son? Isn’t God being a little deceptive?
  • Why doesn’t God simply command the Devil to set us free?
  • Does this set up the Devil as somehow equal to and in competition with God?
  • Did Jesus actually do anything?

Moral Exemplar Theories

(“Jesus show me the way.”)

  • Humans are clueless.
  • Jesus showed us how to behave to find God.
  • AND Humans are weak.
  • Jesus actions strengthened us so that we can follow.

Problems

  • Why are humans so clueless and weak?
  • Why did Jesus teach us in such an unpleasant manner (abandonment, torture, and crucifixion)?
  • Shouldn’t there be other (easier) ways for us to learn?
  • If Jesus action is a teaching and and empowerment, why does the Bible talk so much about priesthood, sacrifice, and penance?

Satisfaction Theories

(“Help, I’ve Fallen and I can’t get up.”)

  • Humans offended God and thus owe a debt (to God).
  • We cannot earn more.
  • We cannot pay off the debt.
  • Jesus, being divine, can pay.
  • Jesus, being human, can pay the debt of humanity.

Technically, that’s pecuniary (monetary) substitution, but the same idea applies to penal substitution – we’re in jail and can’t let ourselves out – etc. The most popular version invokes the dignity of God, which we have trespassed by not respecting God properly. To modern ears, it might sound better to say we are at a party have said something so offensive that the room went silent out of shock. We are too flustered to say anything more and they are all too aghast.  (You know you’ve been there.) Jesus steps in and saves the friendships. In any case, it all comes back to an un-repay-able; only the currency changes.

Problems

  • Who set up the banking system?
  • Why doesn’t God forgive the debt?
  • Isn’t cruel to take money from someone who can’t earn more – even if is “just”?

All three types of atonement theory set God up to be a bit of a jerk – to the Devil, to us, and to Jesus. If God is wholly in charge, why is the system seemingly rigged. I will admit, I think this is the sort of thing that may be beyond human comprehension. That’s not just an easy out; perhaps we are messed up precisely because our condition blinds us to both reality and justice. Still… I want my theory of atonement to be helpful. Once I admit that I don’t understand it, I can go back and say, “Let’s pick a theory that is least obnoxious and most useful.” With that in mind, I introduce my own take in the next post.

Posted by: dacalu | 16 February 2017

At-one-ment

Over the past 20 years, I have been asked repeatedly for my position on the Christian doctrine of atonement. Every time I want to link to the lovely blog “I wrote a few years ago.” Every time I go searching for it and realize that I never wrote such a blog. The subject is tricky and deserves a fuller treatment, but I decided that I should sketch something out in the meantime. So, here is my sketch in three parts.  First, what is “atonement”?

What is Atonement?

In short, “atonement” is the word Christians use when speaking about our separation from God and how Jesus managed to bridge the gap. It usually goes something like this.

  • Adam and Eve messed up, resulting in a falling-out with God.
  • This original mistake passes from generation to generation; we are born with a broken relationship to God, neighbor, and cosmos.
  • Humans alone cannot mend the break.
  • Jesus did, though the process is still working itself out.

Hopefully that gives you the basics of what Christians call “The Fall,” “Original Sin,” “Salvation by Grace (gift) alone,” and “Atonement.” I tried to avoid using those words, because each one is loaded with centuries of commentary and some doctrines that many Christians disagree about.

I agree with that statement wholeheartedly (as stated). Still, I can see where people might have concerns:

  • about Adam and Eve – did they literally exist?
  • about what sin is and how it is transmitted – is intention required?
  • about our role in fixing the problem – how much power do we have?
  • about the effect of Jesus – did he save all or some?

Great questions. I’m not going to deal with them here.  So, let’s give a simpler, more immediate statement that I see as more useful, if you’re just getting into Christianity – or theology.

  • The world is unsatisfactory: I don’t have the relationships I would like, my priorities seem messed up, and I can’t even do the good things I want to do.
  • The problem seems to apply to everyone.
  • I’m at a loss to figure out how this might be fixed through any of the obvious solutions (e.g., getting power, physical discipline, self-denial, education, introspection) – and after serious attention to those options.
  • Jesus, by act and example, appears to be opening a way to make things genuinely better.

The word “atonement” has a wonderful history. It is an English word coined literally to capture “at-one-ment.” It is the process of coming together with someone from whom you have been separated. In other words, atonement is reconciliation.  Other meanings – including reparation, satisfaction, paying compensation, and doing penance are more recent and based on atonement theologies to which I will not here commit. And, of course, the Bible talks about atonement at length, both technically (in Leviticus and Hebrews) and more generally (everywhere else). It’s a pretty central concept.

The key element is this. It works for me. As a Christian, I find the world less unsatisfactory. My relationships are easier more fulfilling, my priorities more satisfying, and my actions more effective.

But how does it work? That’s the interesting question. You can read about popular historical answers or jump to my own position.

Posted by: dacalu | 6 February 2017

Grand and Modest Goods

Today, I had the pleasure of worshiping with the people of St. Stephen’s Laurelhurst. Here is the sermon I shared.

Prayer

Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings

Isaiah 58:1-9a (“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice”)

Psalm 112:1-9 (“They have given freely to the poor”)

I Corinthians 2:1-12 (“we speak God’s wisdom”)

Matthew 5:13-22 (“You are the salt of the Earth” and “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”)

Sermon

There are many ways of being good, of being righteous.
There is visible good and invisible good.
	The first, the visible good, 
includes things we do for others
in the public eye:
philanthropy, piety,
going to church, public service.
	The invisible good
		Includes things we do in private:
		anonymous gifts, daily prayers,
		living simply so that we have more for charity.
Jesus makes fun of the Pharisees 
for practicing their piety in public,
for doing good works so that they will get credit from others.
We must do visible good somestimes, of course.
	How else can we set a good example?
	Most of our life is lived in public, after all.
And yet, Jesus tells us this kind of good is already rewarded – 
	Just about half a page after today’s gospel line:
	“let your light shine before others.”
It’s a little confusing, a little contradictory,
	but I think the message is clear.
We must do good for the sake of doing good,
	without thinking too much about what it does to our image,
	or even thinking about what it will do for spiritual health.
One benefit of Christianity is that, at its best,
	it frees us from thinking about ourselves at all.
We do what must be done.

Raise your hand if you’ve heard this sermon before.
Excellent. It’s a good sermon and worthy of repetition,
	but today I want to use it as a jumping off point.
I want to remind you that it is difficult sometimes to figure out
	the good.
Even Jesus gives us measured words for a balanced approach
	to the good.
Doing good takes work, first to find the good:
	praying, reading scripture, talking with others,
	and, of course, paying attention to whether the good we want
	is the good we accomplish.

When you have the time, I encourage you to sit down with
	the Sermon on the Mount.
Read chapters 5-7 of Matthew in one go.
	We can only read so much in church,
	and it’s easy to view it as a collection of little advice,
		one anecdote or parable or rule
		after another.
If you sit down with the ten commandments,
	and read it beginning to end,
	you will see a pattern.
Jesus is giving us commentary on what it means
	to fulfill the law.
The law says: don’t commit murder.
	Jesus says: love one another and avoid anger (5:21-26)
The law says: don’t commit adultery.
	Jesus says: respect one another;
	do not treat people as disposable objects. (5:27-31)
The law says: don’t swear falsely.
	Jesus says: only speak the truth. (5:33-37)
The law says: don’t steal.
	Jesus says: do not stop others from stealing from you. (5:38-42)
	I promise you that’s in there.
	We don’t talk about it much because it’s rather uncomfortable.
Jesus goes on to say: 
don’t even bother owning things in the first place. (6:19-34)
Yup.  That’s in there, too.

Just as with the visible and the invisible good,
	most Christians recognize a need for balance.
	Jesus tells us to use our talents wisely
“For to all those who have, more will be given, 
and they will have an abundance; 
but from those who have nothing, 
even what they have will be taken away.” (25:14-30)
To be honest, I think our society has strayed
	a long way toward personal ownership,
	and we need more common goods
	to balance that out.
Still, I am not going to sell you on radical poverty or pure socialism.
	Neither one seems to work quite as well in practice
		as they do in theory.
Doing good can be a challenge.
So, we think about it, both alone and together,
	and try to work things out.

The balance of the day relates to what I’ll call
	“the grand good” and “the modest good.”
The grand good is a societal or long-lasting good.
	We want to eliminate poverty, 
create just governments,
use clean, renewable energy,
and end war and slavery.
More concretely, we want to
	reduce unemployment,
	get health care for everyone,
	pollute less,
	reverse climate change,
	and get out of the conflicts,
	we’re already in.
Grand goods are noble and worth fighting for,
	but we can only make very small, incremental change.
	Because they are so big and so important,
		we cannot achieve them alone,
		or quickly.
The modest good is the little good we do day to day.
	We feed the hungry,
		visit the sick and lonely,
		speak kindly and positively,
		tell the truth,
		and treat all property
			our own, others, or no-one’s
		with the respect due to God’s creation.

When Jesus calls you salt and light,
	he means that it is in your very nature to do these things,
	to do the modest good.
We are most fully human, when we act, daily
	for the daily betterment of all.

We do not blame Jesus for failing to bring down the Roman Empire
	(though many of his contemporaries did).
We do not blame Paul for failing to condemn slavery
	(though some theologians do).
We recognize the balance of striving for the greater goods,
	while actively and continuously doing the modest goods.

This is key to Christianity.
You are not responsible for the world.
God is.

We give thanks for the light that came into the world,
	for the gradual working out of truth, peace, and justice.
And, whatever you may think of the overall historical trend,
	we have much to be thankful for just now.
Historically, war is at an all-time low, 
and appears to be declining decade by decade for at least a century.
Worldwide, illiteracy has dropped from 85% to 15%
	since 1800 and continues to decline.
Poverty is much harder to define and measure, 
but estimates of people barely making it, look similar,
dropping from 40% to near 10% just in the last 20 years.
In the US, despite the media frenzy,
	violent crime has been declining rapidly
		for 25 years.
	Rape, gun violence, and police shootings all show consistent improvement.

To trust in God does not mean we stop fighting for these things,
	but it does mean we can live with the struggle,
	leaving the results up to God.
Jesus was obedient unto death,
	not because death was good,
	but because God asked.
Jesus gave himself into human hands
	to achieve a reconciliation between God and humanity.
And God made that reconciliation happen,
	though not in a way anyone would have imagined.

So, we give thanks for grand goods,
	we work for grand goods,
	and we accept that, in the long run,
 they are God’s to achieve

Meanwhile, we are responsible for the modest goods.
	We are responsible for the homeless man on our stoop,
		while we fight to end homelessness everywhere.
	We are responsible for having
		honest, open, caring conversations
		with people whose positions we detest,
		while we fight for a more civil society.
	We are responsible for voting, persuading, and speaking out
		while we fight for a government that represents us –
		and represents our values.

I know I am not alone at being frustrated by American politics.
It is always hard when the country is divided.
	It is hard for any group, 
struggling to come to a common idea of who they are.
It is hard for people who feel unrepresented,
	and for leaders who do not know how
	to best represent the people.
It is always disappointing when the powers of the world
	seem to align so poorly with the Spirit of Christ.
But this is the time when Christianity is most important.

I know that Danae has mentioned the feast of Candlemas,
	or the Presentation of Jesus Christ in the Temple.
On February 2nd, we remember a young Jesus 
being brought before the community and offered to God
according to tradition.
We remember Simeon, an old man who was inspired with these words:

“Lord, you now have set your servant free
    to go in peace as you have promised; 
For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior,
    whom you have prepared for all the world to see: 
A Light to enlighten the nations,
    and the glory of your people Israel.”

Simeon gave thanks that he had lived long enough
	to see the promise of a savior fulfilled.
I think we, too, can give thanks, if we remember three rules:

First, give thanks for good in the world,
	above all for Jesus Christ,
	whose life and message is slowly working out God’s plan for us.
Give thanks for the obviously good,
	but also for the confusing, challenging, and frustrating.
Saint Augustine has this to say.

“Faith tells us only that God is. 
Love tells us that God is good. 
But hope tells us that God will work God’s will. 
And hope has two lovely daughters: anger and courage. 
Anger so that what cannot be, may not be. 
And courage, so that what must be, will be.”

We can give thanks for anger and courage,
	even when we are sad they must be used.

Second, work for the grand good whenever you can.
	Keep your eyes open for the Savior,
	and what God is calling you to do for the whole world.
Fight as though the world depended on it.
	The world depends on your fighting.
	It does not depend on your succeeding.
	That’s God’s job.
	And God will make of your fighting
		a more amazing future than you imagined.
We must have patience, creativity and humor to live in that tension.

Third, work small works of modest good here and now,
	today, tomorrow, and the next day.
Act quietly, patiently, invisibly, and diligently
	for justice.
Love one another.
That love does not change the world.
It is the world.
The Spirit of God is that very life and light 
that moves between us when we love one another.
We are the Kingdom of God, here and now.
Jesus brought that into the world,
	and I am thoroughly grateful.

“Lord, you now have set your servant free
    to go in peace as you have promised; 
For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior,
    whom you have prepared for all the world to see: 
A Light to enlighten the nations,
    and the glory of your people Israel.”

Posted by: dacalu | 25 December 2016

Mary and Joseph

Merry Christmas!  Today, I am celebrating the feast of Jesus Christ’s birth with the people of St. Stepehen’s, Laurelhurst. Recently, I challenged myself to tell the Christmas story more dynamically, so here is my attempt.

Prayer for Christmas

God, you have caused this holy night to shine with the brightness of the true Light: Grant that we, who have known the mystery of that Light on earth, may also enjoy him perfectly in heaven; where with you and the Holy Spirit he lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Christmas Readings from the Bible

Isaiah 9:2-7 (“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light”)

Psalm 96 (“sing to the Lord, all the whole earth”)

Titus 2:11-14 (“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all”)

Luke 2:1-20 (Angels and Shepherds speak of Christ)

Sermon

“He did what?”
I imagine the Blessed Virgin Mary saying this to Holy Anne, one bright morning.
“Joseph is really a lovely man. I know you’ll like him.”
	“Your father has arranged for a spring wedding.”
“But, mother…” And so on.

The Bible gives us very little in the way of details, 
though tradition suggests that Joseph was older, 
perhaps on a second marriage,
while Mary was in her late teens.
They must have been very special people, 
to do what they did, to raise Jesus,
so I imagine they knew and loved one another soon after they met,
though you never know;
perhaps they grew into their love.
In any case, Mary was nervous and Joseph was nervous.
	People did not date – probably did not socialize.
	They just might meet one another before the engagements.
Engagements were made by the groom and the father of the bride,
	or perhaps both sets of parents.

Mary, no doubt, took things in stride.
	She was that kind of person.
A friendship was born.
I’d like to think there was a romance as well.
Joseph with expectations from his first marriage,
	Mary not knowing what to expect,
	both discovering the other
	and finding themselves better for the relationship.
Still, it was a tenuous thing, this new couple.

So this is Mary, nervous and feeling somewhat alone,
	when an angel appears.
Perhaps Gabriel came as a flash of blinding light,
	an angel with wings and a halo,
	or as a strange man greeting Mary on the street.
Again, the Bible doesn’t say.
	I’m not sure which would be most frightening.
And again, I imagine Mary saying,
“He did what?”
My favorite image of the annunciation was painted 
by Jan van Eyck in 1435.
The angel Gabriel has beautiful rainbow wings
	and such a look of kind mischief on his face.
	I cannot properly describe it:
	all the wisdom and wit and compassion in the world.
“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 
And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, 
and you will name him Jesus.”

The implausibility of this has worn off in the past thousand years.
A virgin birth was no more expected 2000 years ago than it is today.
She could have said
	“Right….”
Instead, showing both humility and curiosity –
and perhaps a bit of awe, she said,
“How can this be, since I am a virgin?”

I must confess, the answer would not have satisfied me.
	Perhaps it did not satisfy her.
“God will breath on you, and the shadow of God’s power will fall on you,
	and you will have a child.”
To call it a miracle is to gloss over
	the sheer magnitude of it.
God breathed on Mary, just as God breathed on the mud to make Adam.
The truth broke into the world, that day.
	Something more real than we are,
	something eternal and dependable and kind,
	the very thing that holds up the order of creation.
God acted.

Nor was this insignificant to Mary, emotionally.
I worried about that for a bit,
	but no, the angel announces first, 
and then Mary accepts God’s proposal:
	“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; 
let it be with me according to your word.”
Mary participated.
And the world was changed.

There was a hope that had never been there before.
God became human in that moment.
God, the will and order of the universe,
	was also and for the first time,
	fully present with us,
	as one of us.

That probably didn’t make it any easier for Mary.
What would Joseph say?
How could she live with a child that was not from her husband?
Who would believe her?

Mary was perplexed.
It is one thing to be told your child will be the living God,
	the savior of Israel.
It is another to figure out what you’re going to do
	with an unexpected pregnancy.

Let us switch scene to Joseph finding out about Mary.
I imagine he was a little less calm about the whole thing?
“She’s pregnant?”
He was a kind man.
	For both of their sakes, 
he wanted to end the engagement quietly.
It made no sense to him to raise someone else’s child,
	but there was no reason to call undo attention to Mary,
	no matter what kind of trouble she’d gotten herself into.
Again, an angel appeared,
	telling Joseph to be unafraid,
	for Mary’s child would be the Son of God,
	and God who is with us.
Joseph too, was perplexed,
	but he had faith,
	in God, in the angel, and in Mary.
He would marry her, anyway.


Our hope is based on the decisions of two people,
	who had no idea what was going on.
They asked questions.
	I’m not talking about unquestioning obedience;
	I’m talking about struggling to get things right
		while being utterly confounded.
If anything, we are in a far better place to deal with the mystery than they were.
We have a better understanding of human reproduction.
	We have a better understanding of physics and medicine and custom.
	We have two thousand years of commentary to draw on.
And yes, we’re not caught in the middle of the mess.
They were.
Our hope is based on two people,
	who had reason to doubt each other,
	and fear their situation,
	even their sanity, I suppose.
They chose hope.
And so, we have hope.
They chose one another.
And so, we have Christ, God with us.

Joseph and Mary set out for Bethlehem.
Their own troubles were not enough.
We have no idea what their families thought about the whole thing.
We have no idea whether Mary’s parents believed them.
We have no idea whether Joseph’s parents believed them.
It was a mess.

Add to this, a foreign occupation.
Israel was under new management.
For two generations, Roman legions had been tromping around,
	sacking cities and messing with internal affairs.
Even that was fraying, as the puppet King, Herod the Great,
	died, dividing the land into three separate countries.
Shortly after, Rome marched in and took direct control,
	installing a prefect or governor.

It’s not clear when Jesus arrived,
	during the reign of the puppet king,
	during the breakup of the kingdom,
	or after the Romans had officially moved in.
In any case, it was a mess.
The Emperor in Rome wanted to know how many subjects he had,
	so that he could tax them properly.
This was extremely unpopular and small scale rebellions were common.

This was the situation as Joseph and Mary set out from home,
	pregnant, confused, and still getting to know one another.
When they arrived, they could not even find a room to stay in,
	they had to sleep with the animals.
This is kinder than it sounds; the animals were warm and dry,
	but it would still be a serious inconvenience for a pregnant couple.


God was not born into a palace, or even a hotel.
God was born into our world,
	a place of discomfort and confusion, doubt and challenge,
	in a war-torn land, to parents who barely knew each other.

That should be normal for Christians,
	strange as it sounds.
We are a people who find hope, living in confusing, dangerous times.
We are a people who look for love and compassion
	in the faces of strangers.
We are a people who listen for angels – 
who may come in a flash of light,
	or meet us on the street.
We look for the coming kingdom in strange people,
	who never meet our expectations,
	but still live in faith, hope, and love.

 This was the political turmoil faced by shepherds,
	disreputable, poor, possibly anti-social souls,
	who caught the night shift with their sheep.
These were not the cream of Judean society.
	Nor would they have been inclined to trust authority,
	As they were the last and least.
An angel appeared suddenly, popping out of the darkness
	surrounded by light.
Again, I cannot say if it looked like an alien,
	a flying man,
	or just a very well dressed, glowing stranger.
Does it matter?
It was a person of power such as they had never seen.

And the angel said, “Do not be afraid! I have good news!”
Funny how they always start that way. “Do not be afraid.”
	Apparently, fear is the normal reaction.
“A savior has come to you. A Messiah.
	And you will know him because he is a baby
	lying in a feed trough.”

“Um. Excuse me, could you repeat that?”
Or perhaps they were so surprised that they couldn’t speak.

We think we are wiser now, more savvy to the ways of the world.
Perhaps we are.
We have physics and telecommunications and twitter.
But on that night, these shepherds knew something known only to a few.
And it was utterly beyond their comprehension.
It was, I think, more miraculous to them,
	more amazing,
	more unbelievable.
When suddenly the sky opened to reveal 
	more angels than they could count,
	singing praises to God,
	and wishing peace to everyone on Earth.
I don’t know about you, but if was visited by a stranger 
who wrapped up with
“Merry Christmas to you, and all the other Earthlings,”
it would give me pause.

In some ways, this is the first apocalypse in the New Testament,
	the first unveiling of the heavenly kingdom.
The shepherds saw a fraction of the heavenly court,
	the Divine order by which the cosmos is governed and sanctified.
They glimpsed the real underneath the illusion of daily life.
They saw the fulfilment of creation, just begun in Christ Jesus,
	born in a manger.
And so, they followed the instructions of the angels.
They went into Bethlehem, saw the child,
	and became his heralds and his choir,
	just as the angel host.
They were worthy to spread the news
	and they were the first to hear it
	despite expectations.

God calls us.
	Like the poor shepherds, terrified in the night;
	like Moses, stammering before the Ruler of Egypt;
	like Mary, asked to do something she never could have imagined.
God calls us to come and see the coming kingdom.
God calls us to visit the stables.
	There were quite a few barns in town.
	We must not assume they found Jesus right away.
	“Excuse me, sorry to barge in.
	Any chance you have the Messiah out with your livestock?
	No?  Mind if we check anyway?
	It’s just that an angel said…
	Why no, we’re not insane.
	Thank you anyway.
God calls us to look in the most unlikely of places,
	the neglected places,
	the difficult places,
	the places seemingly without hope.
That is where the Messiah is.
And when we find him,
	we have been asked to tell the world.

This is not reasonable.
This is messy, and complicated, and hopeful,
	and just a little bit mad,
	just a little bit anti-social.
We don’t get to be the angel host, awful and wonderful, musical and heavenly.
We are the shepherds, poking our head in uninvited,
	and saying, “Good news! God is here.”

Miles away, three wise men saw a star in the sky,
	a point of light, impossibly distant,
	but telling them of wonders beyond imagining.
They gathered gifts and left their home to find the wondrous child.
	They even stopped in with the local King,
	expecting to find Jesus at the very center of the world.
	He was not there.
The King encouraged them, 
	but secretly planned to kill Jesus when he was found.
After all, if you are already a King,
	who needs a Messiah.
If you are favored by heaven, 
	why would you want to meet the king of heaven,
	and ruin a good thing?
If you are not favored by heaven,
	but powerful in the world,
	how much less would you want to know the will of God?

We too, can only see God if we are willing to set aside the power
	we think is ours by right.
Whatever we own, whatever we have earned, 
	whatever respect we think we are due,
	all are paltry gifts for the God who made
	all that is,
	that set the planets in motion,
	around stars without number.

It’s been called the greatest story ever told,
	and this is certainly true,
	but it is not great because it features the Ruler of the Cosmos.
It is not great because of the host of angels, the empire, wars and conflicts.
It is not even great because the Son of God 
	is pure brightness and eternal glory.
The story is great because it features people like you and me,
	beset by doubt,
	surrounded by strife,
	struggling through a troubled world.
They were overwhelmed and dumbfounded,
	but in that, they kept their eyes open in hope,
	their minds open in faith,
	and their hearts open in love.


They reached out to one another in spite of expectations,
	they navigated propriety and society and taxes and empire,
	to bear the good news and be the good news of God with us.
The story is great because Jesus Christ 
	would be precisely this kind of person:
	a man, a son of loving parents, a sibling,
	a carpenter, a tax-payer, an outcast,
	a wedding guest, a rabble-rouser, a teacher,
	a criminal.
Jesus Christ would be attacked by hunger and doubt in the wilderness.
He would be befriended and abandoned.
He would face his fate with fear and uncertainty,
	as he asked God on the Mount of Olives to 
	give him a different task.
He would be silent before Pilate,
	and accept his execution with peace,
	surrendering his spirit to God,
	even while asking why he had been forsaken.
Jesus Christ would travel through doubt and danger,
	on the road to Jerusalem,
	just as his parents traveled, 
	pregnant toward Bethlehem,
	thirty years before.
They listened to God,
	hoped in the darkness,
	trusted in the danger,
	cried out for justice,
	and shared what good news they knew,
	knowing it would be enough.

This is the Christian story,
	and this is the Christian mystery,
	that humans do these things,
	that God, Creator and Governor of all that is or ever will be,
	came to be feeble with us,
	to hurt with us,
	to love with us and love us,
	as we struggle with reality.

This is the Christian story,
	that, implausible as it seems,
	humans do the work of remaking reality,
	bringing truth, justice, and peace.
We aspire to the clarity of angels in our singing,
	but we croak along all the same,
	because this is the voice we have,
	and this is the road we walk.

I love you,
	and I know how to love you
	because God loved me
	and because you loved me.
I love that this is our story,
	and it is my honor to tell it on this most holy day.
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
 	and on earth peace among those whom he favours!”
Merry Christmas!





Posted by: dacalu | 23 December 2016

Steaders and Sailors

A chasm has opened in America. Two cultures compete for the soul of the country. They view the world differently, care about different things, and speak different languages. Though both care about the common life of the United States, each imagines that life in a different way. To one side, we live on homesteads, settled by pioneers, built with hard labor, and invested with all the pride of human skill. We made them and they are ours. To the other side, we live in a lifeboat, hard won from disaster, filled with refugees, but rowing steadily to the shore. Only by pulling together can we pull through. In the last election both sides felt threatened, because both sides see life as precarious. Both the steader and the sailor fear starvation and exposure. Both know our actions matter. Tragically, they see hope in different directions.

Homesteaders ask for buy-in, but saying “I’m in” isn’t enough. They want people who have shown their commitment by digging the soil and putting up barns. Thus, the world is always divided between us and them. “We” have tilled. “We” have built. They have not. More to the point, they have not tilled and built here. They have not bought into our homestead, so they don’t deserve the benefits of our food and our roof. Deserving will be key to homesteaders, who think in terms of property, the fruit of their labors.

Homesteaders are careful with their resources because they live in the wilderness. If their homestead fails, there will be no harbor for travelers. They feel obligated, practically and morally, to care for their property. Their idea of hospitality embraces both charity and reciprocity. In charity, they are willing to share – on a temporary basis – those without a home. The guest only deserves their charity if they are truly in need, and only receive it if the house has room to spare. Guests must be both undeserving and needy to receive charity. In reciprocity, steaders give in hopes of getting. You can stay at my place, if I can stay at yours. I’ll go to your party, if you’ll come to mine. In short, you can’t be hospitable unless you have a house. Not only will the steader turn away those who cannot pay, those who cannot pay will refuse to enter, for fear of creating a debt they cannot repay.

Homesteaders fear vagrants – unwelcome, undeserving, needy people who take hard earned bread from the house. Ownership means everything. If I made it, only I can say how it is used. Only I can say who gets the fruits of my labor. Their default view of a stranger will be a vagrant unless and until they can be shown to be another steader – to have bought-in to the system. Categories of in and out, us and them, family and outsider are useful because they tell you who has bought in and who has not.

Sailors in a lifeboat see the world differently. They arrived by chance, not choice, and must get along to survive. Whatever goods are in the boat, also arrived by chance, so they belong to the boat and not to individuals. Everyone is quite literally onboard, sailors by default. They are expected to contribute to keeping the boat afloat and moving toward shore. Those who do not contribute are demoted to passenger. They have opted-out. Passengers, however, still deserve all the food and shelter the boat can offer. Only by acting selfishly – by hoarding, stealing, or lying to other passengers – can they lose that status.

Sailors are careful with the boat’s resources because they are at sea. If the boat sinks or if they stop rowing, all souls go down. Food and shelter are distributed so that everyone gets what they need, regardless of what they deserve. The steader worries about letting people in, but the sailor worries she might have to leave someone out, or worse yet, cast them overboard. The sailor feels responsible for all the passengers. Every stranger is a survivor, a passenger, and potentially another sailor.

For the sailor, stewardship embraces both charity and equity. Charity means sharing with those in need, without thought to excess or deserving. It involves self-sacrifice. It means pulling people out of the water, even when the boat is packed. It means keeping the passengers comfortable, even when the crew suffers. In equity, sailors distribute food by some standard of equality. Everyone receives the same ration. This means sailors are more likely to give things to people who have less. Useful divisions identify people who can help and people who need help so that the one can serve the other.

Sailors fear defectors – passengers willing to get to shore by harming others. The mission means everything, but not just any mission, the mission of getting everyone home. They have a particular horror for defectors pretending to be crew – claiming to work for the common good while plotting to save themselves alone. Not only does it get in the way of the mission, it poisons the trust between passengers, because trust necessary for us to work together.

Smart steaders will doubt the need for crew or the idea that we are headed anywhere together. They made a homestead so that they could get away from others and others, as deserving as they might be, can pick up their own hoe and plant their own crops. Smart sailors will reply that the only alternative to the boat is the ocean and that even the boat will not work without rowers and bailers.

Steaders want a minimal government that they can opt into when it suits them. They want government of the deserving, by the deserving, and for the deserving. Sailors want a strong government that insures long-term cooperation, because cooperation is essential. They want government of the needy, by the needy, and for the needy. Both sides find the other horrifying.

The more I think about the two mind-sets, the more they explain the recent election. Steaders see Trump as a powerful ally. He represents a convenient associate for the moment to achieve personal success. They think that their support of him will be reciprocated. More than that, they find his ideas appealing: us and them, the deserving and the undeserving, mine and yours. Evangelicals and Libertarians have been thrust together by a common language of deserving, in and out, and the charity that flows from the laborer to the needy. At the same time, steaders fear that Obama and Hillary wanted to make them responsible for too many vagrants and strangers.

Sailors see Trump as a proud defector. He brags about both his self-sufficiency and his willingness to take advantage of others. They believe he will willingly sacrifice the good of the ship for his own interests. Worse still, he is putting steaders in charge of the boat, knowing that they will intentionally dismantle the systems that make cooperation possible. Sailors felt that Obama and Hillary represented responsible, self-sacrificing leadership that effectively moved the country in the right direction.

The two mindsets have radically different ideas, not only about the nation, but about charity and morality. Steaders find the obligatory charity of the lifeboat to be tyrannical – true charity must be freely given. Sailors find the surplus charity of the homestead to be arbitrary and condescending – true charity does not judge. Only by recognizing the size of the gap can we begin to bridge it. It truly is a question of how we view the world.

Posted by: dacalu | 12 December 2016

Waiting for Christmas

This week, I had the pleasure of worshiping with the people of St. Stephen’s, Seattle.  Here is my sermon.

Collect for the third Sunday in Advent

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and forever. Amen.

Readings

Isaiah 35:1-10 (“Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened”)

James 5:7-10 (“The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth”)

Matthew 11:2-11 (John the Baptist asks Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”)

Sermon

For what do we wait?

It’s all fine and good to speak of the end times, of peace and justice for all,
	but how does that relate to today?
	What are we to do while we wait?
	And what are we to do when the time comes?
Critics of Christianity have been quick to point out how vague scriptures can be
	when it comes to prophesy
and yet strangely – perhaps arbitrarily specific –
	when it comes to morals.
And this is not entirely unfair,
for we are told both that the end is near
	“the kingdom of Heaven has come near” (Mk 1:15)
“this generation will not pass away 
until all these things have taken place.” (Mt 24:34)
and that we must wait
	“Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord” (Ja 5:7)
Indeed, many Christians have asked,
	why the Lord waits so long to return.

I cannot give you the answer.
	All of us must bring our heart and mind to God.
But I can give you one key to these passages
	from my own experience.

We hear again and again the story of the farmer.
My favorite version comes from Mark’s gospel (4:26-29):
Jesus said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if 
someone would scatter seed on the ground, 
and would sleep and rise night and day, 
and the seed would sprout and grow, 
he does not know how.
The earth produces of itself, 
first the stalk, then the head, 
then the full grain in the head. 
But when the grain is ripe, 
at once he goes in with his sickle, 
because the harvest has come.’

I don’t know about you, but this never sounded immediate to me.
I think of gardening as a hobby.
I am separated from the earth,
	and from the growing of plants
	by industry and markets and travel.
This is not so for the farmer.
	He sows and waters so that he may eat.
He is dependent on the mystery 
	of seed that is buried and rises.
He waits for the wheat,
	so that he may eat,
	so that his family may live.

It is not a mystery in the sense of an academic puzzle,
	or a religious ritual,
	or a curiosity.
It is something profoundly important,
	necessary for daily life,
	that occurs hidden from our eyes,
	guided by rules we do not fully comprehend.
Do not misunderstand me;
	I would never invoke mystery to stop someone from asking questions.
We fight to understand, as we fight to live.
Meanwhile, we recognize our profound dependence
	on plants and animals that grow
	in wondrous and awe-filled ways
	that continue to surprise us.
Every gardener knows this.
Every parent knows this.
As much as we seek, there is always more to learn
	about life and growth.
It requires patience, and yet, it also requires tending.
We must plant and water and weed and prune.

The Kingdom of Heaven is no less mysterious,
	and no less important
	in the life of the world
	and in our daily lives.
It is no less a matter of life and death
	than childbirth – another common image in the Bible.
In Romans (8:22), Paul says:
	“We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 
and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit,
groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”

So the mysterious now and not yet
	is not an uncertainty.
Though we do not know how things will turn out, 
	we do know something is growing within us.
So with the farmer we wait for the food we need,
and with the mother, we wait for the child to come,
knowing that we cannot know
how long we will wait,
or exactly what the outcome will be.
And we are actively waiting,
	doing all we can to encourage new life.
Those are the rules we follow,
	and that is the hope we bear.

So, yes, we have been told to plant the seeds of love and truth,
	to spread word of Jesus Christ and the coming kingdom,
	to do justice and mercy,
	to foster forgiveness and community and faith.
We do these things not because they bear fruit immediately.
	They seldom do.
We do them because they will hide in the ground,
	growing in people’s hearts,
	as the new kingdom comes to fruition.
Though we rarely harvest the seeds we ourselves have planted, 
	we find the fruits of the Holy Spirit
	everywhere we go.
We live on love and truth, justice and mercy,
	on the strength, forgiveness and faith of others.
Those gifts came from seeds planted long ago,
	by other farmers.
And, though they grew in the dark,
	their product was sure –
	the light and the life of the world.

Never forget that justice and mercy are daily bread
	to the people of the world.
Never forget that love and truth are needed for the world to grow.
You have a part in that harvest.
	You have a part in planting the seeds,
	in tending and watering and weeding.
And, when the time comes, you must reach out and grasp the truth,
	offered from the lips of friends – 
	and enemies.
We all live by eating that wheat, that bread.

The mystery of this table is many things,
	but we must not pretend it is secret or obscure or convoluted.
It is Christ’s body made flesh.
It is the seed that was buried and rose from the earth to feed the world.
It is life and death and community and faith,
	present in a the most common aspect of our lives –
	eating.

Every time you talk to another human,
	you plant seeds of one kind or another.
Every action affects the harvest – though often we do not know how.
Have patience and pay attention.
I promise you that the seed planted in Jesus Christ is bearing fruit.

Christian morals are not arbitrary – 
	though many Christians have tried to make them so.
Nor should we pretend we fully understand them –
	life and growth are tricky.
Still, the general rules are simple.
	Listen for and talk to God.
		All things come from God, who cares for all.
	Rest from your labors once a week.
		Really.  I know our society frowns on it.
		Forget work and entertainment and simply
			reflect on the life of the world
			what is growing inside you
			and inside those you love.
Forgive and pray for everyone, including your enemies.
		Only God knows what grows inside of them.
	Honor the parents and peacemakers,
community builders and teachers,
		those who have their eyes on hope.
And remember that you do not live for yourself alone,
	but for the light of the world,
	growing inside you.


Mary, the God Bearer, the mother of Jesus,
	has a prominent place in the Christian tradition,
	because she models this for us.
She models patience and peace, listening and caring.
Nor was she a passive bystander.

I admit, I have not always appreciated the work of Mary.
I tried too hard.
I tried to make the story more complicated than it is.
She went through labor,
	she bore Christ within her body,
	never understanding the how or why of her condition,
	never comprehending the full importance
		of her labor for the world.
She raised Jesus and taught him,
	and surrendered him to the world.


What is the Kingdom of Heaven?
	It is a place where we all may be our fullest selves –
		alone and together.
	It is a time when God remedies injustice immediately – 
		and love alone moves us.
	It is a condition of blessedness and community,
		when the labor is over,
		and we meet the children of our hearts,
		the fruits of the Spirit of Christ,
		that have been growing all this time.
All will be fed.
And all will be satisfied.
And all will behold the face of God.

In the meantime, we wait with patience.
Not the patience of the bored,
	but the patience of the hungry farmer,
	the curious gardener,
	and the expectant mother.
We attend to the mysteries of faith,
	the planted wheat and the harvest.
We look for the fruit of the Spirit:
	“love, joy, peace, 
patience, kindness, generosity, 
faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5:22)
Whenever we find these gifts,
	we give thanks, enjoy,
	and re-plant the seeds that make them grow.
Whenever we find them growing within us,
	we give thanks and nurture the life that is to come.

It is a wondrous and awe-filled life
	we remember at Christmas.
This world is coming to an end,
	as a new world comes to light.
There will be grief and sorrow,
	but all these pains are only the first signs
	of something greater than we can ask or imagine,

Posted by: dacalu | 6 December 2016

Telling the Story

Yesterday, I had the honor of worshiping with the people of the Church of the Ascension, Seattle. We were celebrating the second Sunday in Advent – the season before Christmas – and I shared this sermon.

The Collect

Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

The Readings

Isaiah 11:1-10 (“The wolf shall live with the lamb”)

Psalm 72 (“He shall defend the needy among the people”)

Romans 15:4-13 (Christ is the fulfillment of Jewish scripture and the hope of the nations)

Matthew 3:1-12 (“In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.'”)

The Sermon

A friend of mine posted on Facebook recently.
Her children, ages 4-7, discovering Advent calendars,
	wanted to know more about the season,
	so she told them a bedtime tale,
	billing it as “the Story of Christmas.”
They were unimpressed.
"That's it?"
"What happens next?"
"That's not a real bedtime story."
I can’t tell you exactly what she said,
	but if I were asked to tell the story,
	I must admit, my first attempt would be rather bland.

Joseph and Mary are a young couple, recently wed.
	Mary was pregnant with Jesus 
and travelling was difficult,
	but the Roman emperor called for a census,
		so they packed for a short trip 
to Joseph’s hometown of Bethlehem.
The young couple set out on the road, but
when they arrived in Bethlehem,
	there were no rooms available
	so, they had to settle for a stable.
Jesus was born there, in Bethlehem, in a stable,
	“because there was no room at the inn.”
He was surrounded by sheep, visited by shepherds and angels
	and three wise kings, 
who followed a star from distant lands.

And that seems to be the modern take.
The bit at the end is a bit more interesting,
	because it has kings and angels in it,
	but they don’t do much.
Nor do I think we ever pause on even the most obvious of details.
	The shepherds are strangers,
		probably not great socialites,
		considering they spend their nights with the sheep.
	The kings are strange foreign astrologers,
		who show up out of nowhere.
	Angels are just strange.
	We’re talking non-human intelligences,
		Appearing out of the sky with a loud noise.
	There’s a reason, they always start with “be not afraid.”
And that’s just the periphery of the story.
	What about a young woman who’s never had sex
		discovering she’s pregnant?
	What about a young man who finds out
		his wife is pregnant and the baby’s not his?
	That must have led to some awkward conversation
		along the road.
	There’s an Emperor 1500 miles away,
		a military occupation,
		and a bunch of forced travel so that the locals can be counted.
	And you thought Americans got upset about taxation.
	There’s a local puppet King who wants to kill the baby.
	We don’t even know who’s side the astrologers are on 
until the last minute.
Add to that the idea of a tangible God and you have a Summer Blockbuster.
	Scratch that.
	The critics would say it too contrived.
	The audience would feel too much was crammed in.

Now, I need to add two caveats.
First, I am not talking about the historical Jesus.
	You have no doubt heard attempts to reconstruct what really happened.
	They are very interesting and valuable,
but I want to make a different point.
	Both the real events and the Biblical accounts
		Are quite dramatic.
	They would have been intense to ancient listeners
		and should be intense today.
	We only yawn because we’ve heard it so many times.
Second, I’m not talking about the so-called “War on Christmas.”
	Non-Christians can package the holiday however they wish.
	I love peace, goodwill, and our common humanity.
		I’m happy to watch “The Grinch That Stole Christmas” 
and “Miracle on 34th Street”
and the Dr. Who Christmas special.
	It’s Christians that I’m worried about.
	We are the ones who have forgotten to tell the story
		as it was meant to be told.
It has the King of the Universe, wrapped in a blanket and set in a feeding trough.
It’s a romantic comedy with a road trip, chance encounters, and mysterious strangers.
And, at its heart, it is a drama about
	people struggling with the difference
	between the world as it is
	and the world as it should be.
It is about alight shining in the darkness 
of politics, greed, miscommunication, and social expectations, 
and the plain old darkness of a winter’s night.
We must learn to retell this story with the magnificence it deserves.
	The old catchphrases of Emmanuel, King of Kings, and Son of Man,
	have become too familiar to us.
God is many things; boring is not one of them.

I’m not going to tell you the story the way it should be told.
I’ll leave that for Christmas Eve and Christmas morning.
The season of Advent exists for precisely this reason.
	The story is too big for us to tell it in one night.
	The characters are too interesting
		and the implications too profound.
	We must prepare for it.
	We must ready ourselves to hear the story
		and tell it with a twinkle in our eye
		and hope in our heart.
	We must believe what we say.

Part of that will be setting the stage,
	remembering where we are,
	and where we were,
	and what came before.
Part of that will be reminding ourselves
	that the coming of Christ
	was, and is, and will be
	the end of the world.
Isaiah and Paul and Matthew remind us
	of the difference between the kingdom of heaven
		and the kingdom of the world.
	This year, perhaps we don’t need a reminder
		of how awful Earthly powers can be,
		of corruption and greed in politics,
		of how hard it can be to love our neighbors.
	Or perhaps we do.
	Perhaps we need reminding that in Jesus’ time,
		Judea was occupied by Rome,
		and Rome was at War with the Parthian Empire,
		just across Judea’s Eastern border.
	War was a part of daily life.
		As it is just a little North of there in our own day.
	There were rulers and insurgents and international politics.
		It was difficult to tell who to trust,
		who the good guys were.
If it is difficult to imagine the very real dangers of Jesus’ world,
	it is only because our world is so much safer.
And yet, I think it is even more difficult to imagine the kingdom of heaven.

What would it look like to have justice and peace – everywhere?
What would it mean if we could truly see one another,
	understand the cost of our actions,
	and feel the love in others’ hearts?
Isaiah speaks of the peaceable kingdom,
	where righteousness is rewarded,
	and wickedness swiftly punished,
	where we don’t have to worry about predators and thieves,
	where we can trust one another.
“They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; 
for the earth will be full 
of the knowledge of the Lord 
as the waters cover the sea.”
The Psalmist speaks of God stepping in personally
	to defend the needy and rescue the poor.
Jesus is that intervention.
Jesus is that King – better and closer and more powerful than the emperor –
	who showed up from (it seemed) even farther away
	to set things right.

Paul and Matthew tell us how we can see the world to come,
	and how we can step into it.
The kingdom of the world and the kingdom of heaven
	are separated by a veil,
	a curtain that hides the truth from us,
	that Love is Lord
	and that we are called to live in that love.
First, we must pull aside the veil, uncover the reality of the world,
	which is light and truth and justice.
We must recognize our true Lord, who came and is coming
	so that we might be free.
Second, we must turn away from the ways of the world
	that have conditioned us to doubt and fear and hurt one another.
No matter how difficult the journey, we must walk as though
	we were already in the world that is to come;
that is the only way to arrive.
Third, we must share the story,
	unveil it for our neighbors
	with the hope of Christ 
and the love of neighbor
	that are, at this very moment, reshaping the world.

I can love the Grinch and Kris Kringle and Dr. Who
	because they hint at the world the way it is supposed to be,
But I should not forget to tell the story
	of a time when the world truly was as it truly is.

It is not a boring story,
	nor should it be sanitized or softened or distilled
	to give it a G rating.
Frequently children are dealing with as much uncertainty
	and fear as their parents.
Maurice Sendak once pointed out that life can be even scarier for children, 
	who have less control and less understanding of the rules.

The Christmas story is about a young woman, 
who should have been terrified by an unexpected pregnancy, 
but was not.
It is about a young man, who had every reason to doubt her,
	but did not.
It is about the two of them, struggling to love one another
	in the midst of tragedy, war, and heartbreak.
The Christmas story is about their slow progress toward Bethlehem…
	and ours as well.		

Posted by: dacalu | 29 November 2016

Christian Goodness

In a previous post, I mentioned my philosophy of the Good. In short, things that are Good are worthy of my attention, love, and respect. I recognize the Good. I do not label it. All things are Good and curiosity is my creed. Without curiosity, there can be no love and love is the highest good. I can imagine several potential objections that Christians might make. I wanted to address them. For many Christians, my position will even sound heretical. It’s not. It is in fact a fairly traditional interpretation Genesis 1 and the position Thomas Aquinas. It is close to the positon of Augustine and C.S. Lewis, just to name two other prominent theologians. Still it is hard for many to believe.

Many, perhaps most, Ancient religions proposed theomachy – war between the gods. They held that the universe – at the most fundamental level – represented a conflict between competing forces. The Babylonians had kingly order (Marduk) slaying the watery chaos (Tiamat). The Greeks had a whole pantheon of Gods with competing interests. There was no absolute goodness, only the goodness of your faction. Heroes sided with Athena over Venus, or perhaps Venus over Athena, but they were never Good with a capital gee. Plato makes a compelling case (in Euthyphro) that the gods cannot agree on goodness, therefore they cannot be the arbiters of a single standard. A higher, unitary Good must apply even to the gods. This appeals to Christians and other monotheists who feel that God is to the gods as Goodness is to goodnesses. There is exactly one universal worthiness found in the will of God as it could never be found in the wills of the gods.

This universal worthiness is essential for understanding the meaning of Genesis 1, which can be read in contrast to the Babylonian mythology. In Babylon, the primal waters are slain by Marduk. The two are at war. In Genesis, the primal waters become the stuff of light and life when God breathes on them. God finds them Good.

Despite a constant temptation to return to a war narrative, Christians have affirmed again and again that conflict occurs within the Good cosmos. All things are made Good and for Good at the most fundamental level. God is not the ruler of a faction, but the ruler of all. That’s why the major creeds of the Christian faith start with God’s omnipotence.

 

We believe in one God, the Father, the All Powerful,

Maker (of heaven and Earth, and) of all things visible and invisible. –Nicene Creed

 

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,

Creator of heaven and earth. –Apostles Creed

 

It was central to early Christian understanding that God was not one among many, but the source of all that is. Vast effort went into the Athanasian Creed, the Chalcedonian Definition, and other arguments about the divinity of Christ for precisely this reason. Gnosticism, Arianism, Dualism, and countless other strands of thought were labelled heresy to avoid the two god problem. If we allow God to become two, they cannot both be God, they must be gods. And if gods, then less than the Good.

But, you ask, if God is all powerful and Good, where does Evil come from? The Thomist answer is that there simply is no Evil. Where, then does sin, disease, death, and general badness come from (I hear you asking in an exasperated voice). Not from God. Anselm dives into this in extensively in De Casu Diaboli as does Augustine, Aquinas, and many others. The most straightforward answer is that God gives us free will. That will is a good in and of itself, for there are many ways to pursue the Good and human creativity – in the image of Divine Creativity – makes the world a better place. Having received this good gift, however, humans (and angels) used it to cut ourselves off from God. In so doing, we lost proper perspective on how to balance our Good desires. Above all, we taught ourselves to value self over other (lacking love), even over God (pride). Therefore, humility is the greatest virtue in medieval ethics; only in looking to God can we see the Good which puts personal goods in perspective.

Jesus says this again and again. You cannot love God and wealth. You must choose one over the other. You must hate father and mother and follow Christ, not because parents are Evil, but because they are only Good in the context of God, in the context of love. All things shall pass away, but hope, faith, and love, and the greatest of these is love.

Once you label a person Evil (or even Neutral), you can harm them with impunity; you can cease to care for their well-being. That leads to apathy, if not active violence.

Once you label a thing Evil (or even Neutral) you can start to think of it as personal property and not as Divine creation and a Divine trust.

Once you say a person has evil desires, you stop listening to what they want and choose for them, taking away their dignity. If they are, in their creativity and free will, made in the image and likeness of God, I must respect not only their existence but their choices. I need not agree, support, or like, but I must recognize the Goodness inherent in their ability to choose.

Once you label a state of affairs Evil – no matter how bad it seems – you affirm that God’s power is less than complete. You turn God into a god. This may be necessary for emotional and pastoral reasons, certainly. There are other truths to be maintained and this is one of the harder ones. Still, it is idolatry. It admits of a Good that is greater than YHVH and represents a form of idolatry. Worse still it is almost always an idolatry of personal judgment about Good and Evil – the very sin of Adam and Eve that set us on our wobbly course.

I would add that the sin is not the taking of the apple – though that was bad – nor the disobedience – though that was also bad. The ultimate sin, the original sin that blinded us to Goodness was our refusal to talk to God and work it out. Adam and Eve denied and blamed so that they could keep their own sense of good and evil and not be forced to deal with the sense of Good that is God’s will.

This is not abstract theology – call it academic, theoretical, systematic, dogmatic, or what you will. This is concrete day to day relationship with God and neighbor stuff. Any position other than “all things are Good” leads to treating others badly. Any other postion, no matter how benignly phrased, contributes to actions that harm others, because it does not account for their intrinsic worth.

Genesis 1 comes before Genesis 2-3 for a reason. It is the foundation upon which the Fall and Original Sin make sense. If they are to make any sense at all, God must first be all in all, the font of all light and life, the source of Goodness, the ground of being, and the Father Almighty. Only then can any sense of trespass and forgiveness be the act of a loving Governor and not an arbitrary tyrant, fighting other forces for power.

Posted by: dacalu | 29 November 2016

Philosophical Goodness

In a previous post, I mentioned my philosophy of the Good. In short, things that are Good are worthy of my attention, love, and respect. I recognize the Good. I do not label it. All things are Good and curiosity is my creed. Without curiosity, there can be no love and love is the highest good. I can imagine several potential philosophical objections, which I wanted to address.

First, I am claiming that all actual things are good, but potential things may not be good. It is easy to imagine Evil, but that is not the same as recognizing Evil in an actual thing. Those things that I encounter are Good and I seek to respect that goodness in everyone (and every thing) I meet.

Second, I am claiming that all desires are good, but not that all desires are good in any context. This requires shifting perspective from “desire to harm” to, for example, “desire to help someone else without regard to harm” or “desire for balance/justice/mercy without regard to proportion.” There is a core good desire at the root of every desire, though it may appear monstrous or out of place in a specific context. Still every person is, I believe, motivated by a desire for some genuine aspect of the Good. This allows me to respect their motivations even when disagreeing very strongly with their acts.

Third, I am claiming that all actual states of affairs are good. This is the most difficult claim. They often appear Evil in local context, but are at the universal level, Good. Thus, a murder is not good in the microcosm and yet, in the cosmos, it reveals what is in the murderer’s heart and presents an opportunity for grace. It is not, in itself, Evil; it is the manifestation of an imbalance. Being manifested, the imbalance is more visible to self and neighbor and may be addressed by grace and mercy. This is shown most clearly in the Crucifixion, which lanced the boil of human sin. It must not be viewed as a Good act and yet it can only be viewed as an act by which mercy prevailed. That mystery writ large in Christ appears daily in the smallest acts of humanity. Thus, I side with Leibowitz in claiming that this is mysteriously the best of all worlds. Once again, the claim does not simply flow from logical necessity. (God is all Good and all powerful; therefore, creation is Good.) It also flows from pragmatic concerns. (Only by thinking all things Good may I act for the greatest Good in creation.) It also flows from self-reflection. (I genuinely find most things Good. And, my assumption that unknown things are Good is self-reinforcing. I see new Goodness more easily by looking for the Good in all things.)

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