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Lent 1: Be Undone, Be Remade

The Spirit leads into a wilderness.pinecrest_lake_jan_2017

 

Surely goodness and mercy shall attend us at every step.steps_beach

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Human One was in the wilderness with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

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God of the desert, may we recognize the tempter when he comes; let it be your bread we eat…you alone we worship.beach_wave_feb_2017_2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

***Images: Jay Emerson Johnson, 2016-17

***Text: the Gospel according to Matthew (4:1), according to Mark (11:13), the Psalmist (23:6), the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer.

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Jesus and “Obama-Care”: Christian Socialism Inches Forward

No, Jesus was not a socialist (viral FaceBook images notwithstanding). But he did preach a radically prophetic message and he also lived it, including all those stories about miraculous physical healing.

The current brouhaha over healthcare in the United States is not “just” a secular, public policy issue. It is a deeply Christian one. A deeply spiritual one. And therefore a deeply human one. How we treat our own bodies and how we help others treat their bodies and how we structure our “body politic” so that no one need suffer just because they don’t have money or just because they don’t have a job or just because they are not legally married – all of this cuts to the heart of nearly every worldwide spiritual tradition and practice, including Christianity.

For those who think Christianity cares mostly or only about “saving souls,” reading gospel accounts of physical healing and restoration might be a good idea – perhaps especially when vilifying access to healthcare these days so often relies on describing it as “atheistic socialism.”

Christians using the Revised Common Lectionary this coming Sunday will hear not just one but two among many such healing stories – and both about women! (Yes, that mattered then just as much as it matters today.) The snippet provided by the lectionary from Mark’s gospel presents a bold and audacious woman reaching out for help – Jesus provides it (somewhat despite himself, one should note), and a grieving religious leader whose daughter had died.

There’s lots of intrigue to read between the lines of this short passage – politics (who has access to the healer); religion (circumventing proper clerical hierarchies); and culture (who counts, what matters, and how power is distributed).

Let’s just focus on the “access” part. The audacious (and, sadly, nameless) woman in this Markan passage (5:21-43) tosses aside political, religious, and cultural taboos to get what she needs – access to healing. Now this could be an isolated, stand-alone story with no further implications for our own political, religious, and cultural climate today. But St. Paul suggests otherwise.

The lectionary this Sunday also includes a snippet from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians (and if you ever despair over today’s ecclesial culture, just read both of those letters and imagine the community Paul was dealing with!). On the surface, this is a strange and even rather boring little passage from Paul’s letter. But I think it carries a wallop (2 Corinthians 8:7-15).

Paul is apparently dealing with a community marked by uneven resources (sound familiar?). Some have lots of “means” while others have none but lots of “eagerness.” Paul wants them to work together to complete the good work they started. (And I can hardly resist reading this passage from his letter through the lens of the recent Supreme Court decision regarding healthcare reform: “it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something– now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means.”)

Paul is crystal clear in this passage. Those who are blessed by abundance and those who are in need must work together as a single body, each providing what the other lacks. Paul cites his own religious tradition for this by noting, and I quote: “The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.” So, “Occupy Rome,” anyone? I mean of course, ancient Rome…oh, okay, today’s Rome, too. Who has “too much””? Who doesn’t have enough? These are not “socialist” questions only; these are profound biblical, Christian questions. Why aren’t we asking them in our churches?

I love this passage from Paul. Abundance is not a sin. Neither is need. The point is that all work together so that all have what they truly need.

Ordinarily I would feel like I’m beating the proverbial dead horse to connect the dots here. But given the vitriolic rhetoric over healthcare reform in this country, I think it’s worth doing.

So herewith I connect the dots: If you’re wealthy and you know it, clap your hands. Then make sure that access to healthcare is available to everyone, like Jairus in Mark’s story. If you’re middle-class or poor and you know it, clap your hands. Then make sure that your insightful gifts are offered boldly and audaciously, like the woman with a hemorrhage in that same story from Mark.

So, no, Jesus was not a socialist. But Paul clearly was, and he was a socialist because of his encounter with the risen Christ.

People waiting for health services at a “free clinic.”

Worried about that label “socialist”? That’s okay. Just read his letters to the Corinthians. Oh, and his letter to the Romans, too. Read those letters in their entirety, not just snippets. But don’t miss this: We are all members of a single body. If anyone weeps, the whole body weeps. If anyone rejoices, the whole body leaps with joy. No member is expendable. No member is better than any other. We’re all in this together. That’s called “socialism.” Or rather, that’s called the Gospel – Good News.

The “Affordable Care Act” just affirmed by the United States Supreme Court is not a panacea. We have much more work to do. And here’s the truly peculiar thing: Both Jesus and Paul gave us the theological reasons to do that work.

So let’s do it.

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“Behold thy Mother” — Marriage, Family, & Salvation

Jesus created a family. Would voters in North Carolina or at the General Conference of the United Methodist Church recognize it?

That question occurred to me as I read the full transcript of President Obama’s interview this week about marriage equality. He mentioned the word “families” or “family” explicitly at least five times and referred to the various families he knows even more. (Read the transcript of the interview here.)

In fact, Mr. Obama talked about families more often than he talked about fairness and equality. And that’s exactly where the emphasis belongs. Fairness and equality matter so much because families matter so much.

Those who are opposed to marriage equality seem to worry most about what will happen to the “traditional” family. So on this Mother’s Day weekend, Christians might want to pause and consider just one traditional biblical family, the one Jesus created.

Go back to Good Friday for a moment and to John’s gospel. As Jesus is suffering the throes of an ugly death, something quite beautiful happens. He looks around and sees only a few of his intimates nearby, including his mother. And then he speaks to her: “Woman, here is your son.” Then he turns to the “disciple whom he loved” who is also standing there and says, “Here is your mother.” From that hour, the disciple took Mary into his own home (John 19:26-27).

So who is this “disciple” in the story? Is it the same one, the “beloved disciple,” that reclined so tenderly against Jesus’ breast at the Last Supper? Is it the author of the gospel itself, who recounted the first miracle of Jesus at a wedding? And by the way, where did all the other male disciples run off to at this moment, leaving just this one man with some women at the foot of the cross? (About that question, many gay and lesbian people could offer hundreds of anecdotes in response; but I digress.)

This is a rather peculiar moment. In the midst of profound suffering and on the verge of death, wouldn’t Jesus have other more pressing things on his mind than family planning? On the other hand, what else could be more urgent than what will become of those he loves once he’s dead? Could families be a matter of life and death? And isn’t that how many Christians would also describe “salvation”?

In this wonderfully peculiar gospel moment, Jesus explicitly creates a family. I would guess that this particular family had already been formed prior to this moment, but here Jesus doesn’t want to leave any doubts.

Nor should we have any doubts about this: only a very few jurisdictions in this country would even recognize what Jesus created as a family. And I wonder what would happen if Christian churches took a vote on it. Would our synods and general conferences and assemblies vote to recognize the mother of a dying man and that man’s male companion as a “family”?

The beloved disciple took Mary, the mother of Jesus, into his own home. Today, that household arrangement would face significant hardship without social security survivor benefits, IRS allowances in the tax code, and access to health insurance. These aren’t obscure social policy details, which is exactly why Mr. Obama spoke so frequently this week about families.

Some gay and lesbian couples cried as they watched our President declare support for marriage equality and “straight” allies shouted with jubilation and many religious leaders voiced a hearty “Amen.” They did this because of the most biblical and traditional reason there is: family.

In this Easter season, Christians celebrate the promise of new life. Mother’s Day celebrates the traditional family. Jesus wonderfully blended the new and the old as he was dying, by reminding us what family really means, just as President Obama did this week.

So here’s a peculiar thought: Mr. Obama’s interview would hardly be newsworthy if more politicians and religious leaders alike actually read the Bible.

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Queer Home Economics

What do civil marriage equality and the debt default crisis have in common? They are linked by a deceptively simple word: economics.

Marriage clearly means much more than joint checking accounts. But let’s not assume that love, companionship, and sexual intimacy have no economic implications. If economics didn’t matter, we wouldn’t care how employers or health care providers or the Church Pension Fund treat same-gender relationships.

And while the debt default crisis makes great partisan drama, that’s just the tip of a vast ideological iceberg, which now threatens to sink the Ship of State on which all of us depend in countless ways, whether we’re single or newly married or somewhere in between.

Christians don’t have to be professional economists to notice that both the Bible and Church history are packed with economic images at nearly every turn. Those images do not a fiscal policy make, to be sure. But they can help to shape a Christian voice in the public square, as some religious leaders recently discovered as they get arrested in the U.S. Capitol rotunda for doing precisely that.

Biblical theologian Walter Brueggemann once remarked that he wished Episcopalians would take the Bible just as seriously when talking about economics as they do when talking about sexuality. But those are not separate concerns; they are deeply intertwined in what I like to call the Gospel vocation of “queer home economics.” I know that “queer” word is troubling, but I don’t mean it as just shorthand for LGBT people. I mean it more broadly as strange, odd, and just peculiar.

I think it’s worth remembering that the word “economy” derives from the combination of two Greek words: oikos, or house, and nomos, or law. In that sense, organizing the daily operations of one’s household, from grocery shopping to meal preparation and bill paying to laundry, describes an economic effort to create a home that functions for the benefit of all who live there – which is precisely what “homemakers” were taught to do in high school courses called “home economics.”

Professional economists do something similar but on a larger scale, with towns, cities, counties, states, and nations, and increasingly, how all of those interrelate in a global household – clearly much more an art than a science.

In Christian traditions “economy” has also been used to talk about God. This doesn’t make God a cosmic banker setting heavenly monetary policy. Consider instead “divine economy” in the more “homey” sense. If the world is not only God’s creation but also God’s household, then God-the-home-economist seeks to create a vast, lively household in which all thrive and flourish.

Insert Jesus into this mix and something rather peculiar if not rather queer happens. Consider the shepherd Jesus described who leaves ninety-nine sheep behind to find the one that is lost (Luke 15:4-7), or the man burying treasure in a field and then selling everything he has to buy that field (Mt 13:44), or the woman turning her house upside down to find one missing coin (Luke 15:8), or getting rid of all possessions to purchase the one pearl of great value (Mt 13:45).

Those are all economic images Jesus used to describe what he called “the kingdom of God” and by most economic standards today, Jesus was a lousy economist. It makes no economic sense to put ninety-nine sheep at risk for the sake of just one or to liquidate one’s resources for the sake of buried treasure or a single pearl, no matter how valuable, or to devote so much time and effort to recovering one coin.

Early Christians took the economic implications of those parables to heart as they blurred the distinction between private household economies and larger societal ones. In the Acts of the Apostles, those Christians understood such revolutionary economics as an indispensable component of their faith and, indeed, as a matter of life and death (Acts 4:32-37, 5:1-7).

Jesus tried to prepare his disciples for this economically peculiar work by reminding them that a wise householder brings out of the household treasure not only what is old but also what is new, surprising, and fresh (Mt 13:52). Even more pointedly, he reminded them what happens to old wineskins when they’re filled with new wine – eventually they burst (Mk 2:22).

I wonder whether it’s time for the U.S. economy to “burst” and make way for a different vision. Our political system is clearly broken. Both parties are deeply beholden to Wall Street and corporate balance sheets. Among the nations, the U.S. ranks 30 in life expectancy, 31 in infant survival rates, and 37 in quality of health care. That’s a short list in an economic situation that will take more than just a little tweaking around the edges or raising a debt ceiling.

Christians engaged in queer home economics will do so not only for the treasure, the pearl, and the coin, but especially for that one out of a hundred who is lost. Or perhaps those thousands who are “lost” without any health care because they don’t have a job or aren’t married to someone who does; or those millions starving in Somalia (currently the worst humanitarian crisis on the planet while the US debt ceiling grabs all the headlines); or the appalling conditions of the factory workers outside the U.S. who make our tech gadgets, like the computer on which I’ve written this blog.

Whether or not the U.S. defaults on its debt next Tuesday, the Christian household of faith has a lot of work to do. We could start by imagining not just eleven but hundreds of religious leaders being arrested in the Capitol rotunda, and not just in D.C. but in every state capitol around the country.

If we did that, Jesus, the peculiar home economist, would surely be right there with us. And he would likely have some suggestions about what to do with all those money-changers’ tables (Mk 11:15-18).