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Bullies and the Crucified God

Make no mistake, our God is not on the side of bullies. Our God died at the hands of them. Let them take Jesus and beat, bloody, then break his body until he drew his last earthly breath. For crimes he did not commit…

Holy Week is only a week away at this point. And as we get closer and closer, one thought goes through my mind as I have watched the news of late: why are bullies still a thing?

There are so many reasons why Christ died. Key among them was to show us how incredibly terrible we can be to one another. Including how we bully, shame, degrade, harass, torment, and coerce one another. Christ’s death occurred, at least for one reason, so we would stop. So we would start to be better. To do better.

Wow have we missed that mark.

Even worse, we supposed followers of the Crucified God have tried to use him as an excuse to keep being bullies of others. To tyrannize them. To subjugate them. To persecute them. Even on occasion to literally crucify them (look back at the Middle Ages).

Just this last week we have witnessed abominations of bullying. Worse – most of those perpetrating the harm do not even realize they are taking on the role of the scourge. Or if they do, they do not even care.

Make no mistake, our God is not on the side of bullies. Our God died at the hands of them. Let them take Jesus and beat, bloody, then break his body until he drew his last earthly breath. For crimes he did not commit.

Our God is not, and has never been, on the side of belittling. Persecuting. Oppressing. Forcing. Tyranny. Torment. Subjugating. Coercion. Harassment. Intimidating. Crushing. Repressing. Hegemony. Suppression. Feel free to keep going with any other synonyms you can think of.

Lord knows we’ve been really good at using our God as an excuse for all of these things over the years. However, the cross of Jesus Christ stands in stark contradiction to all of it. In judgment of all of it. Stating that this is not who our God is. Nor is it the way our God’s Kingdom will be run.

So, bearing that in mind, it is worth considering our actions, and the actions of those we hold accountable, very carefully. Do they match the self-giving love of the Crucified God? Or are they bearing witness to the ways of the fallen bully powers of this world?

Golgotha lays all our accounts bare and asks: will we let the cross condemn what needs condemned in our lives? Even the bullies within ourselves at times? Will we let them die as they should have all those years ago?

Only then can the new life God offers finally begin to take root…

The Marks

More than anything, though, you will always recognize this Body by their love…

These past months I have been working with our Confirmands in preparation for Easter Sunday when they will join the church. Among the things they must do in order to become a full confessing member of the Body of Christ: they have to write their own faith statement. Sounds scary I know.

I keep trying to tell them not to panic. Not sure if that’s working or not. And that I am here to help. I have given them resources. I have even given them a list of topics they should probably cover (you know the basics like the members of the Trinity, how God relates to us, how we relate to one another, etc.).

Among those topics is one that is often over overlooked: the Church. We can easily underestimate just how central the Body of Christ on earth really is, can’t we?

Especially now, after two years of a pandemic that has forced us to rethink what it looks like, often required us to engage in worship from a far, we ask ourselves: what is the Church of Jesus Christ?

Is it a building of wood and stone?

Is it an organization that says this is what you must believe to belong?

Is it a place you show up every so often because you are supposed to?

The answer to all of these questions is no. Not really.

The Church of Jesus Christ is the body of believers that have been drawn together by God. Usually they are far more of a band of misfits than most would like to admit. Always they are covered in more grace and more forgiven than any of us can possibly imagine for every single thing we have ever done to break every relationship we have ever had – with God, with others, even with ourselves.

So, then how do we know that a body is Christ’s Body, rather than just a group of friends who happen to show up in random places together?

Well, they will intentionally listen for God’s voice through Scripture and conversation with Scripture. They will seek community together marked by God’s holy signs of water, bread, and wine. They will live life together in ways that will display God’s justice and preserve God’s truth among them.

More than anything, though, you will always recognize this Body by their love. A love that is radical and reckless. Giving of itself in every way. Open and welcoming. Profound and profligate. Deep and fathomless. Ready to lay down its life to see even one more person find the life they are meant to have in God’s kingdom.

That is the true mark of the Church, Christ’s Body in this world.

Your Storybook Story

…who we are as God’s disciples, Christ’s witnesses in this world, is meant to stem entirely from the story that we tell. The ways that God walking with us through this world has shaped us into who we are today.

This Lenten season has provided a very cool opportunity. We have been providing an email devotional for our members every day that includes artwork, prayers, scripture, and, most importantly, selections of readings from great spiritual writers. They have ranged from the early church to the Reformation period to the nineteenth-century to some of the twentieth-century’s best known theologians and writers.

So far we have heard from the great preacher Will Willimon, been reminded of our call to love God in others by Thomas Merton, heard one of Christina Rossetti’s famous poems (she wrote “In the Bleak Midwinter), and remembered just how dark Martin Luther’s writings really were. And the fun part is that Henri Nouwen, Mother Teresa, Frederick Buechner, Madeleine L’Engle, Philip Yancey, Brennan Manning, Tolstoy, Lewis, and so many others are still ahead. (Yes, I basically found the best book of Lenten devotions ever about two decades ago.)

What is just as fascinating for me, however, when putting these devotions together is to write up short bios on each of the authors each day. For example, yesterday we were reading a selection from Jürgen Moltmann. Probably one of the top three most influential Reformed theologians of the twentieth-century, but what most people forget is that he actually fought in the German army in World War II. The author of The Crucified God did not, in fact, have his conversion to Christianity until after seeing the atrocities committed by his countrymen, in the midst of three years of being a prisoner of war. His writings are profound. Ardent. Wholeheartedly gut-wrenching. Coming from the deepest places of our soul where God resides. Something that can only happen after such a story.

And all of their stories, their writings, too, are a reminder that who we are as God’s disciples, Christ’s witnesses in this world, is meant to stem entirely from the story that we tell. The ways that God walking with us through this world has shaped us into who we are today. And where we go from here.

All of us have a story to tell. Unique. Honest. Sometimes heartrending. Nevertheless, the question is will there be another protagonist when your tale gets told? Do you see yet that you were never alone in that narrative that has twisted and turned from the moment you were born? Have you begun to perceive how you fit into the remarkable chronicle of God’s wondrous work in this world?

Piety

Our crosses are not a mark of piety. They are a reminder to us of whose we are, so we can show up for the world, no matter how messy or complicated or afraid we may be.

This is a copy of my Ash Wednesday sermon from March 2, 2022.

One of my professors from Divinity School noted this week on social media, the remarkable irony of having this passage be one of our readings for Ash Wednesday – as we are running around with a physical mark on our bodies. He was not condemning the practice or even questioning it. Merely noting that there is something rather funny about us hearing Jesus preach on practicing our piety before others and then marking our foreheads in a way that makes everyone either go – yeah, that guy knows Jesus or do you know you have something on your face?

Seriously though, have you ever seen someone truly “practice their piety” in front of you. I mean in a way that tells you they are wayyy too excited to show off how well they know the old JC? Sometimes it is because they are genuinely excited, and in those moments, we should all rejoice. However, oftentimes, it is because they are far more concerned about what others think of their religion, rather than about what God thinks of their faith. (I say their, but most likely all of us have done this at some point). 

For so many centuries piety has been about being the best at going through the motions correctly. Knowing how to show off the right way. Say the correct things. Doing all the best moves. In essence, precisely what Jesus was preaching against.

So, six years ago, Brad and I spent this week and the one following it in St. Louis, where my mom was in the midst of a mental breakdown and finally showing enough severe signs of Alzheimer’s that we were able to get her some help. A few months later, after having found out we were pregnant with twins on Easter Monday, we went to a regular sonagram appointment only to find that we could not find our babies’ heartbeats. At nine weeks of pregnancy, I became a walking tomb for my two little loves until they were ready to leave me. 

About a week after that, I found myself at a monastery on a prayer retreat with leaders from a Presbyterian seminary. I had planned to attend months before. And as I sat among colleagues, God put me in a small group of women who had been there in their own lives. Gave me leaders who made space for me to be whatever I needed to be in those moments. And God held me in the strange gaps that were so bizarrely shaped in ways I never could have imagined. That week I found that God showed up in my life just at the moment I needed.

You see, this year Ash Wednesday has got me thinking a lot about what faith really looks like. What it means to actually be pious, rather than simply to appear like it. And this morning the quote that kept running through my head was this: Be messy and complicated and afraid and show up anyways. It’s by author Glennon Doyle Melton, famous for her work on MomasteryBe messy and complicated and afraid and show up anyways.

In so many ways, our world is in tatters right now. We do not know what will happen even tomorrow. What people need, more than anything, is for us to show up for them. To let them know they matter. To walk with them through the messy parts. To overcome our fear so they can overcome theirs. Because, whether we realize it or not, God has already shown up for us in far more ways than we can count. Every single day. And the best way we love God, the way we show our piety – is to love and show up for others the same way.

So, back to the crosses. When I picked up the boys from school this afternoon, I already had my cross on my face. And Luc looked up at my face and said, “what’s that Mommy?” I said, “It’s a sign to show that God loves us.”

You see, my friends, we may be made of dust, but our God has proven time and again to make beautiful things out of dust. Not to mention, there was that one time, on that hillside, when God really decided to show up for us with a love greater than no other.

Our crosses are not a mark of piety. They are a reminder to us of whose we are, so we can show up for the world, no matter how messy or complicated or afraid we may be.

Hope in a Time of Uncertainty

My friends, we do not know what tomorrow will bring. There is already so much death, destruction, and displacement occurring. What we can do is hold onto hope that, one day, the world will be set aright again…

Like so many generations before us, we find ourselves in a time of great uncertainty. The drums of war beat on the far horizon and for many of our young people, we are now in prayer that they do not strike for them. What is more, many of us find ourselves unsettled as our days continue to become more clouded by the murky waters of ill-timed power sparring.

It is a frightening time, to be sure. Disconcerting and daunting for all of us who must face the road that lies ahead. Worst of all is that we do not know what that road will be.

When my father died in 1991, roughly six months after the first Gulf War ended, he died on active duty in Washington. We had missed our final Christmas Eve with him because he had been writing wills for the young men and women going over to fight in that conflict. He had served our country in various ways through the Army JAG Corps for over twenty-five years by then.

But when we brought him home for his service, we used a very familiar hymn as we carried him out to lay him to rest. My mom later reflected that she had found him late at night in his final months memorizing the lyrics, holding the paper like a man lost in the desert craves water.

My friends, we do not know what tomorrow will bring. There is already so much death, destruction, and displacement occurring. What we can do is hold onto hope that, one day, the world will be set aright again. And I offer you pieces of my father’s favorite hymn today in that fervent hope:

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me,
I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.

Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come.
'Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far and grace will lead me home.

With Me

There is this common misconception in our world that peace is a lack of conflict…My friends, that model of peace is a counterfeit knockoff created by confidence charlatans intent on maintaining whatever assumed and illicit foothold into power they have gained. True peace is something else.

When I was a child, I grew up knowing the song, Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me… Even now I can hear the tune continuing in the back of my head as I write this.

In recent days, I have been introducing my twin sons to the Winter Olympic Games. My late husband was a huge fan of the Olympics, both winter and summer. I have always been far more drawn to the ice and snow sports that he grew up with in Utah for the first part of his life.

Though the “Little Giants” have mainly been excited to watch the big jumps of the skiers, the beautiful and strong female skaters, and that “really cool laser show that one night”, we are still trying to help them understand the deeper spirit of the games and what they are meant to represent. Of the many underlying meanings, peace-making has been the key piece lingering at the forefront of my mind.

There is this common misconception in our world that peace is a lack of conflict. That two sides, or more sides, simply choose to give up their fights and embrace and everything is hunky dory. That the silence of acquiesce constitutes acceptance of a superficially contented reality.

My friends, that model of peace is a counterfeit knockoff created by confidence charlatans intent on maintaining whatever assumed and illicit foothold into power they have gained.

True peace is something else.

It is a wholeness. A completeness. A flourishing. It seeks the welfare, safety, and health of the other as much as one’s self. It requires the presence of equity. Of reconciliation. Of integrity. Of justice. It is about finding fullness – together.

The very best stories of the Olympics are of that caliber. Jesse Owens and Luz Long. Nikki Hamblin and Abbey D’Agostino. Mutaz Barshim and Gianmarco Tamberi. And I know there are more.

My hope is that as we all continue to look in wonder at the incredible events unfolding in Beijing, praying for the safety of all the athletes and their support staff, we will not only look for those Olympic stories where true peace is being built, but also see where we can be making peace in our lives. True peace. Real wholeness. For those around us. So we can find our way forward.

Because peace really does begin with all of us…

Every Foothold

…on this Holocaust Remembrance Day, think not only on all those lives that have been lost. Think also on the living. Think on all the ways we can make a difference for those who still find themselves considered “less than” in the world.

For evil to flourish, it only requires good men to do nothing.

Simon Wiesenthal

Have you ever considered what you would do if you saw it happen right next to you?

We often look at the events of the Holocaust, the genocide of 6 million people, and say that we would never allow such terrible atrocities to occur again. However, are we really certain that we would have the audacity, the gumption, the courage to do what is necessary in the face of such evil?

When someone is called a derogatory term because of their ethnicity?

When someone spits in another’s face because of the way they were born?

When laws intentionally single out one group of people to be denied rights that should be inherent to every being human?

When we see the police enforcing the law of the time and dragging men, women and children by their hair through the streets for simply being who they are?

When people are rounded up and put into camps because of their descent?

When civilians start taking it into their own hands to ensure that those who do not look like them follow what they see as the “rules”?

Some of these examples are from far back in our history. Some are not.

The point is this: genocide is never the beginning. It starts with small things. Little injuries. Involving the masses in seeing some people as less than others. Teaching that one group is better, more important, meant to lord it over the others.

God has never taught us this. God taught us that we were all made in God’s image. All equal. We are to care for one another. To stand with one another when trouble comes. And yes, to have the courage to face down such evil when it arises. In all of its forms.

So, on this Holocaust Remembrance Day, think not only on all those lives that have been lost. Think also on the living. Think on all the ways we can make a difference for those who still find themselves considered “less than” in the world. And go out and ensure evil loses every foothold.

Group Grief

The balance of new life will come, but only with the hard work that grief actually requires…

Earlier today I was at choir practice at our church. After we finished working on the pieces for the next few weeks, we started looking at music for the Lenten season, which will be upon us before we know it. And while I knew we would be doing it, there was a side effect to using the music from the 2020 Lenten season that we never got to use, one that I did not see coming: we were missing the bass part. Actually, we were just missing the bass.

It had not occurred to our Music Director or I that when we began this music, my husband was still alive and we had a full extra part in the choir. It is something we have been compensating for since starting back to choir practice last summer, but not with pieces we hadn’t looked at in two years. Oops.

Sucker punch to the gut out of nowhere. Great.

My sons’ favorite show right now is Bluey. Wonderful show. Fantastic. I cannot recommend it enough on every possible level. And I don’t even mind watching it on repeat constantly. Seriously.

The opening song lists off the main characters: “Mum!” and the boys say, “Mommy, that’s you!” Then, “Dad!” and one will quietly say, “My daddy’s in heaven.”

Oooof.

It’s a funny thing about grief that they don’t teach you in school and that our culture definitely never, ever wants to admit: grief keeps on going. For a really, really long time. Never really goes away, honestly.

It’s true that the day to day walking through it does get easier after a while, but generally, now when it hits, it hits all the harder. And man does it pack a wallop. This is true for my husband. For my mother. My father. My dad. My mother-in-law. And every single other family member I have lost.

Now here’s the part we really don’t want to talk about: not only are we individually grieving the losses of loved ones as per usual, but we as a group are grieving the loss of our corporate way of life that we lost when the pandemic hit. Much like losing a family member, this loss is complicated. On one level, many unhealthy patterns and habits of this world have been called outright. Some have even been discarded entirely, which is probably good. On another level, we all lost so many opportunities to create memories together that we cannot get back, which is not. And still on another level, we have experienced so much loss, fear, anger, separation, anxiety, aggravation, and estrangement that it will take probably at least a generation to fully process it all.

For now, the way back to some semblance of balance in our lives is a whole lot of baby steps, both individually and communally. However, one of the most important things we can do is recognize the pain when it hits. Recognize it. Acknowledge it. And let yourself or ourselves work through it. Only then can we actually start moving forward – be it in singing again or finding remarkable new ways to play.

The balance of new life will come, but only with the hard work that grief actually requires.

Straight Up Gospel

One of the simplest of his harder quotes is this: Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. If that is not straight up Gospel, I’m not sure what is and Dr. King was certainly one of Christ’s preachers. Christ himself always stuck up for the people who those in power chose to denigrate, subjugate, or keep beneath their heel…

This coming Monday we remember the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His life and legacy. And it is quite easy to cherry pick his works for quotes that are comfortable and cozy. Pleasant and snug. Ones that do not make us think too hard about the world we live in or look at ourselves with too much veracity.

Yet, if we do that, we are really doing quite a poor job honoring the man who died only 54 years ago. Who went to jail for his beliefs because they were, in fact, illegal at the time. Who was one of the top priorities of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s surveillance for the last few years of his life. His words were dangerous to the status quo at the time.

Many still are.

Why? Well, the work he took part in is not finished yet.

I do not mean only that racism still exists. It most certainly does, of course. It is so intrinsically a part of who we are as a culture that divesting it from ourselves and our systems continues to be an arduous, wearisome, and exigent process. But what many forget is that Dr. King also worked to end poverty, was adamantly pro-peace, and worked to see equal rights across every line. And those works certainly still have a long way to go.

One of the simplest of his harder quotes is this: Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

If that is not straight up Gospel, I’m not sure what is and Dr. King was certainly one of Christ’s preachers. Christ himself always stuck up for the people who those in power chose to denigrate, subjugate, or keep beneath their heel.

Things have not changed so much in two thousand years or fifty-five years. Those in power continue to find ways to remove rights and equity from those who are different. It is injustice, a threat to God’s justice. As followers of Christ, it is our job to root it out. To call it out. To remove it.

It should not be up to the people who are bearing the injustice to have to fight for rights that should be theirs simply because they are human. Nor is it theirs to teach all those who do not understand what it is like to endure such abominations we humans have dreamt up to hurt each other with – be they people of color, or women, or LGBTQ+, or any other child of God who is different from what someone has deemed “normal.”

It is our job, as followers of Christ to listen well, to walk with each other, and to join in Christ’s own labor of seeking true fullness of life, God’s justice, for all of God’s children. Work that Dr. King himself joined in.

What is Power?

…it was the Child of Bethlehem who broke the silence that night in Bethlehem: and his justice-filled Love will never be silenced. No matter what else the world may think they can take, the arc of God’s work in this world will always bend toward the fullness of life, empowerment, and equity for all people.

Tomorrow is Epiphany Day in the liturgical calendar, a day that should never be underestimated for what it can teach us about the realities of power in this world.

Those of us who have studied the gospel of Matthew know that the author’s key question to his readers is “you who have the power, what will you do with it?” And this query is rarely more apparent than in the narrative of the arrival of the Magi in chapter two. For there we find a paradigmatic story of contrasts between those who have near ultimate worldly might and how they handle themselves in the face of true power entering the world.

On the one hand, we find the Magi. Wise Men. Magicians. Men of means. Of a different religion. A different world entirely. Scientists, really, who manage to read the signs in the natural world and then risk life and limb and likely their own reputations to come and worship this new King. A King they somehow knew would change everything, though still yet a child. They used their position to give all that they had to him.

Compare that with the autocrat king who had been propped up on a throne: Herod. He hears someone might want his seat of power and tries to keep it the sneaky way, asking the Wise Men to give up the child’s location without realizing it. When they get wise, he throws a temper tantrum that ends in real slaughter. Nevertheless, we see some eery fulfillment of Mary’s prophecy from the Magnificat with Herod, for he does not live long after he seeks the blood of the innocent.

In the gospel of Matthew, we see what happens when the powers of this world do not get what they want – a whole lot of fear and trembling follows. They attempt to march into our holy places of safety, to snatch that which is most precious to us, to silence all who would cry out in truth.

And yet, it was the Child of Bethlehem who broke the silence that night in Bethlehem: and his justice-filled Love will never be silenced. No matter what else the world may think they can take, the arc of God’s work in this world will always bend toward the fullness of life, empowerment, and equity for all people. That is the power the Magi worshipped and served. That is the power we still celebrate on Epiphany – one that we can still work for now. Won’t you come and join us?