Monday, February 22, 2016

At the Trial

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Luke 22:66-23:25:

In his excellent book, Jesus on Death Row, law professor, and United Methodist, Mark Osler, says that the trial of Jesus that we find in scripture is remarkably similar to what we see in capital cases today. At least at the 30,000 foot level this is a story in which we can find some similarities and understanding, and yet at the same time, if we try and apply our understanding of modern day trials, and the right to an attorney, and the right not to testify against yourself, and the presumption of innocence by the courts, then we will also miss much of what is taking place. That the story of Jesus’ trial is very different from what we know, and perhaps from what we also think we know about the trial.

In addition, the people of the passion we encounter at Jesus' trial are, for the most part, very different from those we looked at last week that we found at the cross. At the cross were the ordinary and the common, even the soldiers who are there are not what we would know as commissioned officers, but instead privates and non-comms. Those at the trial are the elites of Jewish and Roman society. While maybe not the 1%, there are certainly in the top 5-10%, and have the power, wealth, trappings and everything else that goes along with that, and that even includes those who are the Jewish religious leaders present, starting with what in Luke is called the council, but which in other gospels is referred to as the Sanhedrin. They not only have religious authority, but there is also a level of political authority they wield as well.

This is not like Congress where people have gotten there because they have been popularly elected, but instead they are more like the British House of Lords, where the positions are obtained through heredity and also through money. This even includes the High Priest, who, although not named by Luke here, is Caiaphas. The High Priest is a position given not to the most religious person, but is a position appointed by the Roman governor of the area, after much wheeling and dealing behind the scenes. Caiaphas' father-in-law is Ananias, who was a high priest himself at one point, and was responsible for getting the last five high priests appointed. Caiaphas also has a fairly long reign as high priest, under several different Roman rulers, so he obviously knows how to play the political game not only in keeping the Romans happy, but also keeping the other Jewish elite happy.

Monday, February 15, 2016

At the Cross

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Luke 23:26, 32-34,39-56:

Today we begin a new sermon series for the season of Lent, which is the 40 days, plus Sundays, that lead us to Easter, and we are going to be looking at the people we find in the passion story.  Rather than starting at the beginning and making our way to the cross, we are instead going to start today at the foot of the cross and make our way backwards next week to the trial, then to look separately at Peter and then Judas and conclude with the preparations for the last week of Jesus’ life. Then on Palm Sunday we reverse the story through Holy Week making our way again to the cross and then to the celebration of Easter.

There were many people who were there when Jesus was executed, some we know something about, some we know nothing about, some we can speculate about, and I think we can learn something from them, or at least I hope I do or this is a wasted time for us.  But I think it’s also important to pay attention to who is not there, and what we can learn from that as well.  Today’s passage begins after Jesus has been flogged and is being forced to carry the cross to the site of the execution, known in Greek as Golgotha, or the place of the skulls, but which when translates into Latin became Calvary. Even though popular imagery has Jesus carrying the entire cross, the likelihood here is that Jesus is not carrying the whole cross, but instead was only carrying the top cross bar, known as the patibulum.  Evidence indicates that the center poles, known as the simplex, were permanently in place just outside the city gates, especially in major cities like Jerusalem, and so the victim would carry the cross bar out which would then be placed on the center bar already there.

Now would probably be a good time to give some background on crucifixion.  Crucifixion was a punishment that was reserved for people the Romans wanted to make a special example of, and this will be important next week when we look at Jesus’ trial, only Romans could order crucifixion, and they were the only ones who used crucifixion at the time.  Although Luke refers to the two men crucified with Jesus as thieves, these were not just people who were caught stealing something. They would have been punished in another way.  In Mark, they are referred to as bandits, and that’s probably more likely because, the Romans reserved crucifixion for special cases, like runaway slaves, those who were subverting public order, and most especially those who threatened or challenged Roman imperial authority. Crucifixion was slow, painful, gruesome and very, very public in order to try and dissuade others from trying the same thing.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Review: The Given Day by Dennis Lehane

The Given Day: A Novel
by Dennis Lehane (c) 2008 by Dennis Lehane. Harper Collins, 736 pgs

5 out of 5

I love Dennis Lehane's novels. This is a sweeping history of Boston, although it only takes place over a couple of years, more inline with his other historical fiction like Live by Night, then his detective works like Gone Baby Gone.

Having lived in Boston, and therefore knowing some of the territory, as well as loving history, and being a baseball fan and, spoiler alert, having the novel end with Babe Ruth being traded to the Yankees, it was easy to get into and hooked on the book. Since I was listening to it, even my youngest daughter got upset when we got home one day because, as she said, "it just got really interesting and intense."

The story intertwines the lives of Danny Coughlin, a cop in Boston, along with his family, Luther Laurence, an African-American on the run and seeking safety, and the great Babe Ruth. It covers, among other things, the great flu epidemic of 1918, the Boston Mollases flood, and most importantly the rise of trade unions, and the men who would like to break them, and use their power to do so, culminating in the Boston police strike, and the issue of race relations that goes alongside everything that happens in America.

But this is more than just a story about these events that happen in the past, because Lehane is writing about the problems that continue to haunt us today, capitalism and its desire to make money for some through the work of others, at as little pay as possible and wanting to keep it that way, against the cries of others who think it could be/should be different and are shouted down as communists. Of police violence, and in particular that violence being taken out on those society doesn't care about, and only getting upset when the violence begins to come their way. And the race issues that continue to plague the nation.

It's a long book, and one that can get you hooked and intimately involved, even rooting for someone to be killed, but I would recommend it, especially if you are already a fan of Lehane's work and his deft handling not only of storytelling, and character development, but of the English language.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Review: My Accidental Jihad by Krista Bremmer

My Accidental Jihad: A Love Story
by Krista Bremmer
(c) 2014 by Krista Bremmer. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 237 pgs.

3 1/2 out of 5 Stars

I came across this book because I normally go to one of the local libraries to write my sermons, and typically tend to sit right next to the biography section because it has a plug for my laptop. As I am contemplating what to say next, I will look at the titles of books and this one caught my eye and so I decided to check it out.

Krista tells the story of her relationship with her husband who is an immigrant from Libya, fleeing from Gaddafi's rule, and also a Muslim, contrasted against her Americanism, and sort of secular religion.  I say sort of secular religion because while she talks a lot about Ismail's religious practices, her religious devotion seems to consist solely in Easter and Christmas, but without any really theological meaning behind them.  It's not clear what her background is, nor is it really clear what her Jihad is if it is defined, as they have on the cover as, "an individual's striving for spiritual and intellectual growth."

Krista meets Ismail out running in the woods and it might be seen as a story of opposites attracting, except that we never really learn much about who Ismail is other than surface observations. I'm guessing this is done first because this is more about Krista's journey rather than his, and also, perhaps, to provide him with some level on anonymity even in his own story. But when I reached the end I never got the sense that I truly knew him or his level of growth in their relationship because surely Krista could not have been the only person who was changed by this relationship bringing together different cultures and religions.

A large portion of the book is spent recounting a visit they made to see Ismail's family in Libya. It was this experience that began to change her mind and opened her up to the reality of how she sees the world, with the assumption that she sees it the correct way, and therefore others are wrong.  She comes to see this for what it is, a sort of paternalism, that she can look down on others, even extend charity and compassion to them, without ever really seeing them for who and what they are, other than the other, someone, in my words, below her.

It is this insight that provides the greatest strength to this work. Her recounting of hearing of Gaddafi's arrest and death on a television in a restaurant, an event that was noticed by the other patrons but quickly dismissed so they could go back to their normal lives as something that happened "over there." Whereas this had real import for their family, and although Ismail "hated" Gaddafi, with all the important that that word entails, he could not stand to see the inhumanity taken out on him, even though he had done inhuman actions. (and can they really be inhuman if they are in fact done by a human?)

It is also her daughter's decision as she enters into the awkward tween years to begin wearing a head scarf that causes her to be uncomfortable, to face her own prejudices, and also to see the world in a new way and the liberation that her daughter finds in the scarf.  Seeing a young girl in a bikini at the pool, and seeing herself as a teen in that moment, she says "Now I imagined Aliya in a bikini in only a few years. Then I imagined her draped in Muslim attire. It was hard to say which image was more unsettling."

She comes to see that the world is not black and white, that America is not always good in it's treatment of women, and that Islamic culture is not always bad because of it's treatment of women, that there are positives and negatives to both. That there was a sense of freedom, enjoyment and relaxation found in her female in-laws in Libya, in spite of how she might have originally seen them, that she did not have in America, nor did she know other women to have either.

If there is enlightenment to be found in the pages it is clearly in her exploration of all the assumptions she had held so dear, as so many of us do.  My only hesitation in rating it higher was the fact that I wish that I could have gotten to know her husband and her daughter (her son is almost entirely absent from the book) as more than just characters, perhaps even stock characters, that help her come to a new sense of enlightenment.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Getting Close To God

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Exodus 34:29-35 and Luke 9:28-42:

We start today with a confession.  This week we will celebrate Ash Wednesday, although perhaps celebrate is the wrong word to use, but in the Christian calendar the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday is known as Transfiguration Sunday, the day in which we hear one of the accounts of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain with three disciples.  A few weeks ago as I was doing worship planning, I wasn’t really thinking about this being the last Sunday before Lent, and so turned to the lectionary readings for today, and said, “Oh man, I don’t want to preach on the transfiguration again this year.”  While nowhere near as significant for most people, this story is sort of like Christmas and Easter in that it comes around every single year and we preachers get to a point and think, “what can I possibly say about this that hasn’t already been said.”  So my intention was to ignore Jesus on the mountain and instead talk about Moses on the mountain, which is also one of the traditional  readings for today.  But as I began to think about it more and more, I found myself seeing the connections and similarities between these two stories, and because God has a sense of humor, found myself coming back to preaching about the transfiguration, while at the same time trying to ignore it, because what I felt a pull towards in these two stories was not really what happens on the mountaintop, but instead what happens afterwards.

Moses has been up on the mountain talking with God, want to guess for how many days? 40.  And he comes down with the two tablets with the ten commandments in his hands.  This is actually the second set of tablets because he had shattered the first set he was given when he came down off the mountain and found that the people had constructed a golden calf and were worshipping it.  So Moses goes and meets with God again and comes down with a new set, which are the ones that end up in the Ark of the Covenant which makes Indiana Jones necessary.  But, when he comes off the mountain this time, in addition to the tablets, Moses’ face is also glowing from being in the presence of God, and the people are afraid to come near him, so Moses ends up putting a veil on his face, not to protect the people from what they see, but in order to try and quell their fear about what it means.  To put a distance between them and the presence of God.  Moses takes of the veil when he is with God, but then puts it on when he is with the people.  As an aside, when this passage was translated into Latin for the Vulgate, which is the Latin Bible, Jerome translated the word glows as horns, which is not really as strange as it may sound based on the Hebrew here, but that’s why sometimes you’ll see Moses as being portrayed with horns on his head, Michelangelo.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Review: Living with a Wild God by Barbara Ehrenreich

Living with a Wild God: A Nonbelievers Search for the Truth About Everything
by Barbara Ehrenreich
(c) 2014 by Barbara Ehrenreich. Twelve Books. 237 pgs.

2 ½ out of 5 stars.

I was disappointed in this book, and perhaps that had more to do with what I was hoping to find within its pages rather than what Barbara Ehrenreich has to present.  I have read and greatly enjoyed many of her books, with Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch being near the top. I have also tried to “read” another of her books, Dancing in the Streets, but had to stop.  I have read in quotes because I was actually listening to it and therefore assumed that one of the reasons I couldn’t get into it had nothing to do with the book but instead with the narrator. Perhaps after reading Living with a Wild God I need to reassess that situation.

Based on the title, which also includes the fact that she claims to be an atheist, I was expecting her to explain her struggles and wrestling with God (however she might define that term).  I was hoping that it might be similar to Nevada Barr’s excellent biography Seeking Enlightenment Hat by Hat: A Skeptics Path to Religion in which she too is a non-believer who comes to encounter God in a unique way. But that expectation on my part was never closely matched.

Ehrenreich is born into a family that not only has rejected the idea of God, but proudly has rejected that and seems to hold that as deeply as others hold onto God, and perhaps just as unquestioningly.  She begins by going into a long history of her family, close and extended, and their various dysfunctions, and then continues through her college and early adult years.  It was never really clear to me why this information was important, or where it was leading, nor is it clear why she stops telling us this information when she does.  A constant refrain I had throughout the book was “what does this have to do with the subject” which I thought was living with a wild God, and coming to terms with a mystical/spiritual event she has as a teenager.  I thought about putting the book down on several occasions but kept hoping it would get to the point and it would get better.

Ehrenreich’s experience is really more than just one event, but is centered around one significant experience in which it seems like her life became sort of like a Picasso painting in which everything lost shape and colors swirled while at the same time having a significant vitality that “glowed and pulsed with life.”  This left her unmoored, although it might be argued she was already unmoored by relying on solipsism, or the belief that the only thing she knows to be real is herself.  I say that it seems like this is what happened because Ehrenreich never really explains in a way that is understandable, at least to me, what actually happens.  Perhaps this is because, as William James says, one of the attributes of mystical experiences is that they are ineffable, or can’t be put into words.

Ehrenreich actually uses that term several times, although not ever really in reference to her own experience, and sadly doesn’t even make reference to James’ The Varieties of Religious Experiences: A Study in Human Nature until some 200 pages into the work.  Since Ehrenreich is someone who is known as digging deeply into the history of ideas I was expecting much more wrestling with these experiences throughout history, which really doesn’t happen.  Nor does she ever really wrestle with the idea of God, or the Other as she begins to call it, until the very end, and then it’s still very superficial.

She concludes the book by saying “But this is what appears to be the purpose of my mind, and no doubt yours as well, it’s designated function beyond all mundane calculations: to condense all the chaos and mystery of the world into a palpable Other or Others, not necessarily because we love it, and certainly not our of any intention to ‘worship’ it.  But because ultimately we may have no choice in this matter.  I have the impression, growing out of the experiences chronicled here, that it may be seeking us out.”

Does that mean that she has shifted from an atheist to a troubled agnostic? It’s unknown.  Perhaps others will get a lot more out of this than I did, and perhaps my expectations of the work when I entered, in judging the book not so much by its cover but at least by its title, impacted my view of what Ehrenreich presents (and perhaps, like many authors, she had nothing to do with the title). It had great potential, but I think she should have left much of the “living” out an instead struggled with the experience and what it might mean to have a “wild God” or at the very least to have explored how an scientist and atheist ultimately comes to terms with the question of “why?” rather than leaving that to the last few pages.

Monday, February 1, 2016

All You Need Is Love

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was 1 Corinthians 13:1-13:

Perhaps no other subject has been written and sung about more than love.  I’m sure that almost all of us could name at least five songs dealing with love without even thinking about it, for Paul McCartney is probably right, “You'd Think That People Would Have Had Enough Of Silly Love Songs.  But I Look Around Me And I See It Isn't So.” Of course McCartney, as part of the Beatles, would probably have at least one song on any list of love songs that we created.  For me at least, I can’t think of love songs without several Beatles songs popping into my head, not counting Helter Skelter, and I think their focusing on this subject was directly related to what was going on at the time when they were writing.  The 60’s were a time of turmoil and crisis.  The nation was deeply divided over many issues; we were fighting a war with no clear end in sight that some said was absolutely important to protect America and to others it seemed meaningless and believed that we were led into the war by deceit if not outright lies.  People didn’t trust the president or congress, and things generally seemed to be getting worse rather than better.  Who says that history doesn’t repeat itself?

And yet in the midst of this turmoil, musicians were singing about love and we were being told that all you need is love.  But could that really be true?  Could love solve all of our problems?  Is love really all we need?

Part of the problem of answering that question lies in the definition of love.  What is love?  What does it look like?  What does it feel like?  These are not easy questions because in our culture love is a lot of things.  We talk about falling in love, as if love is a hole or a pit, and for some maybe it is.  And we use the same word to describe our feelings about lots of different things.  So I can say I love my wife and I love my daughters.  But, I also love Italian food, I love to read, I love baseball and I love God.  Certainly, the meaning of love is not the same in all of these things, so what is love?  What does it mean?  What does it look like?  And what do we do with it?  Perhaps Eliza Doolittle is right.  In My Fair Lady, she cries out “Words, words, words!  I’m so sick of words!  Don’t talk to me of love, don’t talk to me of June, don’t talk to me of anything at all, just show me!”  I think that is what Paul is trying to do in this passage.