Story, Vision, Institution

I’m always going back to the most basic question: “what is this whole Christianity thing about?” To some, it seems obvious: maybe that it’s about preserving patriarchal, traditional values – “and by the way, I want nothing to do with it.”  Others might be curious: I grew up in church.  Should I get my kids involved?  Why?  What are we about?  What’s our focus?  And why should anyone care?

I’m intrigued by little books that present the basics, like C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. New Testament professor C. Kavin Rowe, in his book Christianity’s Surprise, brings up three ways Christianity seemed surprising, fresh and new to the world when it first appeared: first, in the kind of overarching story it told about everything; second, in its vision of what humans are; third, in its institutions.  We discussed his ideas in some recent adult forum classes.  Here are some of my thoughts in summary.

First, says Rowe, Christians have a story: not just a collection of bible fables and sayings to believe in or reject, but a shared “this is who we are” story that gives us a place in this world -a  ‘why we’re here’ and a ‘where we’re headed.’’ Think of how your grandparents told you how they got through the Great Depression, adding “you too can get through what you face.” Our story is hopeful: as Rowe emphasizes, it’s centered on Jesus’ defeat giving way not to disaster but surprising new life, resurrection.

Many would say the most basic thing about Christianity is its ‘message’ – but that word makes me think of a sentimental one-liner on a greeting card or tweet. ‘Story’ sounds more real, personal, open-ended, adventurous. The ELCA recently said the goal is to tell lots of people the story of Jesus, but maybe what needs to be told are stories, plural: my story, your story, and his- all connected, going somewhere together.  The theologian John Webster said Christian hope involves looking backward and forward, at promises made in the past that we can trust and act on as we enter the future.  It seems like that kind of hope is what Christians are after.

People do DNA tests; they try to find their ‘tribe,’ they need roots and a story.  As Rowe, Stanley Hauerwas (5 and 1/2 minutes in or so in this sermon) and others say, we too often learn that ‘freedom’ means being autonomous and detached.  “My story can only be the story I choose for myself.’  I cut myself off from belonging and from obligations to others (as one class participant observed, people say ‘I’m not racist’ while ignoring the history and systems of racism we’re implicated in).  Christianity gives us a story and roots.  The baptized get to spend each day learningwhat it means to be children of God and to belong to one another.

Which gives us to Rowe’s second theme: Christianity’s vision of the human.  What makes us human?  Why are we of value? Again, it’s not personal autonomy or anything about us, such as our ability to use reason or to be moral agents or some status we have.  It’s that we’re created in the image of God.  Rowe points out using passages such as Colossians 1 that this means we belong to Christ (and his story). Christ joins our humanity with divinity; he died and was raised for each of us.  Indeed, we can say he’s “the” human – drawing us into his presence when we care for the incarcerated, the poor, and those whose value as humans seems questionable in this world (see Matthew 25, which Rowe discusses).  I felt this chapter was a little undeveloped, but it brought me back to the Bonhoeffer’s Ethics:

What we find repulsive in their opposition to God, what we shrink back from with pain and hostility, namely, real human beings the real world, this is for God the ground of unfathomable love.  God establishes a most intimate unity with this … While we exert ourselves to grow beyond our humanity, to leave the human behind us, God becomes human; and we must recognize that God wills that we be human … In the human Jesus Christ the whole of humanity has been judged; again this is not the uninvolved judgement of a judge, but the merciful judgement of one who who has borne and suffered the fate of all humanity.  Jesus is not a human being but the human being.  What happens to him happens to human beings.  It happens to all and therefore to us.  The name of Jesus embraces in itself the whole of humanity and the whole of God.  (from pg84-85 of new hardback Fortress edition).

Class participants seemed to be of the opinion that the most basic element of Christianity is love.  I think Rowe here is getting at how love transforms the way we see one another.

Finally: the third aspect of Christianity that was new and surprising, says Rowe, were its institutions.  Isn’t that what’s wrong with religion?  When it gets institutional, and isn’t just a free-flowing social movement? Obviously, we need some level of institution, like meeting places, times, who’s in charge of what. Says Rowe, we need institutions to maintain the story and vision and practices of the church.  Hospitals where any human would be cared for were first created by Christian bishops and monastics, Rowe claims.  I recently heard Henry Louis Gates Jr. talk about the vitality of the Black Church as an institution during slavery: if you were a child and your parents were suddenly sold, you at least have a somewhat consistent church family that will support you; songs and stories that keep you going. The question is, what institutions does Christianity need today?  How can we keep alive the story, the hope, a sense of being connected to all of humanity?

Rowe’s framework is very intriguing. One big remaining question is whether these aspects of Christianity really set it apart from Judaism, let alone other religions.

 

The cross is upside-down

Sermon for Good Friday, based on the passion story of St John

I probably watch more horror movies than most Lutheran pastors – not so much the gory as the spooky ones.  Rosemary’s Baby: maybe that’s the first horror movie with an upside-down cross as a prop?  Many folks have seen it: about people who seem like respectable Manhattan apartment dwellers – but really they’re Satanists.  They force the main character, played by Mia Farrow,  to bear Satan’s child.  When he’s born, three Satanist wise-men visit, like an inversion of the Epiphany story, and one of the gifts they bring is an upside down cross (intended as a sort of anti-Christian work of art, I guess to hang on the black wallpaper in your nursery.)

Believe me: since then it’s been in lots of horror movies – an evil spirit enters the house and Grandma’s nice gilt cross swings upside down on the wall.  The forces of badness spoil the nice, good, clean values of Christian living.  It’s taken up by Heavy Metal bands as a symbol: one such band is actually called “Deicide.”  Hmmm.  The upside down cross is an earring worn with black eye-shadow and studded leather, all Goth, to raise your parents’ blood pressure.  It’s Rock’n’roll, rebellion and I’ll do as I please; shadows and sin, dark alleys: an obscene gesture against the suburbs.

But here’s the thing: the upside-down cross is kind of a good symbol for – well, the cross!

As we heard in a recent children’s sermon, when you look at the cross we use in processions, a Greek cross,  in all four directions it’s of equal length, like a plus sign.  Turn such a cross upside down you get –  – the same cross.  And no matter its particular design, the cross of Christ is already, always upside down!!   A symbol of rebellion, criminals, deals made with the devil in dark alleys, pierced flesh, defilement, and badness.  For St. John, the poisonous snake you look at to live.  St Paul’s words are: “scandal.  Foolishness. Curse.”

And yet used by God, made to show God’s glory.

The cross shows God’s glory.  When in John 12 Jesus faces up to his coming trial and crucifixion – we hear that it’s about “glorifying” – you could say “hallowing” – the Name of God, and glorifying the Son of God.  Glory: in Greek, “Doxa” – can mean visible splendor, honor, reputation. We want to know not just that there IS a God – but why this God would be worth our attention.  Why get involved with God?   What is it about this Christ, that we should trust him?  What glory does God have, that we would give him our hearts and minds and time?

When we think about Christ’s “moments of glory” we may think of the times he healed people – or his wise teachings – his resurrection.  Wasn’t the cross just this dark valley he had to go through to bring about the brighter moments?  Well, in John’s Gospel – being lifted up on the cross IS Jesus’ moment of glory. When he dies he says “it is finished” – as if he’s put the last bit of paint on his masterpiece, to show us the visible splendor of majesty.

But how could this be?  Crucifixion was the ultimate anti-glory sort of torture and execution.  It was a public display meant to show not people’s splendor but their ugliness.  It was about degrading people, shaming, dishonoring them. A crown of thorns – a body exposed to the elements, nude – a sarcastic inscription: “King of the Jews.” A punishment fit for slaves and insurrectionists, to show you’re a nothing and nobody.  It was a kind of satanic symbol: this is what the Devil, the powers, the Ruler of this World, likes: to humiliate and destroy people.

And yet, God’s glory: because God – in love – wouldn’t let even this stand between us.  Jesus had come for everyone on the scene: for those on the margins of society, the criminals on crosses hung on either side.  Christ also came for the cruel soldiers who whipped him, for the mob hoarse with shouting, Christ came for the privileged, for Pilate at his safe distance, for the high priest, Peter and Judas and the most cowardly disciples.  He came for all those who are completely lost, in Satan’s grip, without any hope whatsoever.

You could say the cross was always upside down.  We think of it as a religious symbol – but it’s really a symbol of religion defiled.  I don’t know how accurate John’s portrayal of the priests is here – it seems pretty bitter – but as the story is told: they want Jesus executed, but can’t do it themselves, it will defile them before celebration of the Passover. And in Israelite law – Deuteronomy – it says no corpse was to be left on a tree overnight, or it would defile the whole land.  So the priests want it removed quickly.   Jesus’ body was this pierced horror to be rid of, if we were to bring back peace and sanctity.  And yet, as Jesus was always saying, “the Father and I are One.”  In his very flesh and blood the Holy One was present for our healing and hope.

I imagine most of us have felt we’re really outside of religion in some way.  We may not be the type of people who listen to the band Deicide and sport satanic tattoos – I mean, here we are at the Good Friday service (curious that during this very service on zoom, we were zoom bombed with offensive language and images, thus the need to post my sermon as a blog entry!).  But some of us do feel we “defile” religion in some way: even just in our doubts – we don’t know what we believe – “I’m not really as Christian as people think I am.”  Well – the glory of God for you is the cross.  God doesn’t wait for you to step forward and meet him halfway – but goes to where you are, to give and forgive everything – not to put on the pressure or guilt, but just to set you free.

Maybe our struggles aren’t so much against faith as against religion itself.  Too often it seems at odds with Jesus’ teaching.  All status quo.  Too often concern for those at the margins is all talk and intention, not action.  Too often, church is not really a place for criminals, soldiers, governors, priests, betrayers and deniers – but only those who seem to measure up or fit right someway.  Again, the glory of God for you is the cross.  Christ disrupts our status quo, and leads us by way of the cross into the dark and oppressive and at times beautiful world God so loved that he gave his only Son, that anyone who trusts him may not be destroyed but find life eternal.

One more thing about the upside down cross: as you may know, way before Rosemary’s Baby it originated as a Christian symbol.  Very early on there arose this tradition that when St. Peter was crucified by the Emperor Nero, he asked to be hung upside down by choice.  It was supposed to be about humility: he didn’t want to presume to suffer the same death as Jesus.  It’s not in the New Testament.  I’m not sure how I feel about it.  Yes – Peter, Jesus’ disciple, failed Jesus – denied knowing him, three times.  But God’s love for him on the cross is given without regard for our deserving.  What kind of humility is called for here?  Is it only saying “I’m not worthy?”  Or also, “by Grace, I am?  What you give, God, is fully for me, too.”

I am drawn to the image.  We can’t turn the cross upside down: whichever way you turn it, it’s already a scandalous – subversive symbol.  But what God did that day is about turning us upside down.  As Mary the mother of Jesus prayed: “you have cast the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.” He came in love for you, such as you are – in your doubts and struggles, your hopes and failures, to redeem and to heal you and make your life new.  Thanks be to God.

An Easter giving appeal

March 28, 2021

Dear friends of FLC,

A greeting to you on this Palm Sunday, borrowed from letters of Paul: “Grace to you and peace in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Grace to us beyond our deserving, true peace and life to our hurting world: that’s what Holy Week and Easter are all about.

Join us for an extravagant week of worship! Many of us will participate in leading the journey of the Triduum – Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil, all at 7pm on zoom – learn more here.

As an exciting sign of hope for the end of this pandemic (our county has reached the ‘orange’ tier), after the 9:30am Easter Sunday zoom service, we’re hosting an actual on-site event: an 11am outdoor (masked, socially distant) gathering with an Easter egg hunt for the kids, the option to receive communion, and a few treats.

This Easter, we’re making an appeal: would you consider an extra gift towards the ministries of FLC, even beyond pledged giving? It may be that not all of us can do this – it’s been a tough year. But thinking personally, even though we Hilleslands are facing college tuition (x2!) for the first time, we’re also grateful to have received government stimulus checks. And in general, there’s been so much “grace and peace” for us. Our family has been kept safe and well. Our congregation has been blessed with a new creativity and beautifully remodeled spaces. We’ll make a gift, hopeful for the ways FLC ministries might bring grace and peace to our neighbors in 2021 and beyond.

Financially, the pandemic has been challenging for FLC. As most you know, we’ve lost rental income and haven’t received the usual “loose plate” offering at festivals such as Christmas and Easter. We had to use around $35,000 from our endowment to balance the budget. If those of us who are able give something extra, can we make up some or even all of this amount, to be stronger going forward? In hope and gratitude for the grace and peace we’ve experienced in our lives?

If you can make an extra gift Easter Sunday or any time in the next month, we invite you to let Joyce know it’s an “Easter Gift.”  If you like, you can give through paypal here.

Thanks be to God,

Pastors Kate & Bernt, on behalf of Church Council

Pfotenhauer

Adult Forums Winter 2021

Lent 2021

Baumhoff

Shonk

Christmas Eve 2020