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True Religion

All four Gospel writers seem to agree on at least two things. First, whenever Jesus wanted to emphasize something important about his ministry, he almost always turned to table fellowship to do so. And second, when he wanted to underscore the importance of table fellowship, he usually talked about weddings.

He did both of those things in what many church-goers heard yesterday from Luke’s account of the Gospel (14:1, 7-14). So why did this matter so much to Jesus and to the gospel writers?

“Table Fellowship,” Sieger Koder

Let’s start with food: first-century rules and expectations for sharing food at a common table were rather complex, not just for Israelites but for the whole ancient Mediterranean world. Family, ethnicity, economic class, religious observance—those are just a few of the components that well-behaved members of respectable society would take into account very carefully when gathering for table fellowship.

This is why the Gospel writers tell us frequently that Jesus was constantly getting into trouble for eating with the wrong people. The commonly used collective label for them was “prostitutes, tax collectors, and sinners.”

I know this sounds odd and probably far removed from our own day. But consider the arc from “Downton Abbey” on television to the White House in the news and whatever the fanciest restaurant might be where you live: it matters who sits at all those tables and how they are arranged; that’s how the very structure of a society is made visible; it’s how we know where power and influence reside; the table reflects in microcosm a well-ordered world.

This is why Luke introduces yesterday’s passage about a dinner party by noting that the religious leaders who had gathered at the party were “watching Jesus closely.” They were monitoring how well Jesus would conform, if at all, to the expectations of table fellowship. Luke confirms this when he tells us that Jesus noticed, right away, that some of the other guests at this party chose to sit in places of honor.

Jesus himself is quick to acknowledge the complex social game unfolding at the party. “You know,” he says, “everyone invites friends, family, and rich neighbors to dinner parties.”

And why exactly is that the case? Because they can return the favor. This was one of the primary criteria for good table fellowship—reciprocity. The ones you invite to dinner are the ones who can pay you back.

Good dinner parties, in other words, happen around tables where everyone is just like you. That’s just good manners in a well-structured society; it’s also precisely not how Jesus would have us behave.

The Kingdom of God, he says, happens around dinner tables with “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”

Those aren’t just random categories. Those were the standard first-century ways to describe people on the margins, the ones left out, the forgotten and displaced, those who had no social or political capital whatsoever and therefore could never repay any favor or act of kindness—and those are the ones, Jesus says, that you should invite to dinner.

“Invitation to the Feast,” Eugene Burnand (17th century)

It’s not just any kind of dinner party that Jesus usually has in mind; here and in so many other places in the Gospels, he means especially wedding feasts.

Now, to talk about weddings in these Gospel passages, we need to talk about sex, and that’s surprisingly easy to do. There’s really just one thing, and it’s the most important thing, to understand about sex in the ancient Mediterranean world, namely, power.

In those ancient societies socially appropriate sex always involved inequality: one partner had more power than the other, and that’s what made the relationship acceptable. Curiously enough from our modern vantage point, gender didn’t actually matter much in those ancient assessments of what makes sex good and proper, except insofar as gender itself was about power—who had it and who didn’t.

Here again, this can sound like I’m describing some exotic culture from long ago and far away—until we recall the “#MeToo” cultural moment from just a few years ago. Let us not sweep that moment under the rug; remember, a wave of brave women spoke their truth about sexual harassment and ended the careers of more than 200 socially and economically prominent men.

Along with many other men—and I’m embarrassed to admit this—I was truly shocked to watch the flood of “MeToo” stories on social media. I suddenly realized what I should have known back then but didn’t: nearly every woman I know, just about every woman I ever meet, has experienced sexual harassment, abuse, or violence—all manifestations of male power.

First-century readers of the gospel accounts would have known all this whenever Jesus talked about “table fellowship” and “weddings.” We modern Western folks, by contrast, need explicit reminders: the issue of power sits right at the heart of the Gospel.

I could stop right there and create a “to-do” list about how to unmask and dismantle the corrosive forms of patriarchal power in our world today—and we should do that! But I worry that in doing so we will miss the life-changing invitation of the Gospel.

In addition to the passage from Luke, Episcopalians also heard a Collect yesterday from the Prayer Book, right at the beginning of the liturgy. We prayed that God would “increase in us true religion.”

Whatever else “true religion” may be, I am convinced it inspired Jesus to engage frequently in table fellowship and to talk often about weddings. The essence of Christianity blossoms around the Eucharistic Table, where everyone is just as precious as everyone else. And this is so because we encounter the God who made us at that Table and who longs for us, as a Lover longs for the Beloved.

I want to urge and beg everyone to reflect for a long time on that last phrase: the God who made us longs for us as a Lover longs for the Beloved.

That’s why Jesus talked so often about weddings, and that kind of love will change your life. It keeps on changing mine as I realize in ever deeper ways that “true religion” makes me vulnerable to love; helps me be grasped by it; to be undone because of it; to give myself over to it; and to be remade in it.

True religion will usher in that day when we yearn to see those on the margins joining us at the table; that day when we are so happy to welcome the forgotten and displaced among us; that day when we realize to our shock and unending joy that we have been embraced by those who are most different from us.

We will yearn and we will be happy and we will sing with joy about all these things on that day because of love. (I urge you to watch the short video about the making of the mural below, “The Banquet,” by Hyatt Moore; the link is provided beneath the image.)

That’s what makes religion “true” and what creates the only kind of community I can imagine for healing our violent and divided world.

So let’s get on with it.

“The Banquet,” Hyatt Moore
(see this mural being made)
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The Good News of Easter: Disorienting, Unsettling, Terrifying

This is so strange, so disorienting.
We’ve never experienced anything like this before.
It’s hard to know what to think, how to behave, how to navigate our relationships and communities—it’s all so unsettling and even frightening.

You might guess that I’m describing our current lockdown condition during this Covid-19 pandemic. Perhaps. But I might also be describing the immediate aftermath of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

Here are those same words, again; think about them in relation to Easter:

This is so strange, so disorienting.
We’ve never experienced anything like this before.
It’s hard to know what to think, how to behave, how to navigate our relationships and communities—it’s all so unsettling and even frightening.

Easter is a very peculiar season, and the stories about the risen Jesus are some of the strangest stories in the Bible. So strange, in fact, that these stories simply wouldn’t be suitable for Hollywood blockbuster movies; the biblical storytellers refuse to give us the kind of neat and tidy endings big movie directors crave.

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Mary Magdalene and Risen Christ (Ivanov)

Imagine with me a director trying to film scenes from, say, John’s account of Easter:

Cut! Hey, Mary, you know what? Just go ahead and touch him! No, really. I’m wanting the soundtrack to build right there toward a big crescendo, and we can’t have Jesus just wandering off! Could you hug him, or something?

Or this:

Cut! Hey, Thomas! For heaven’s sake, don’t put your finger in there! That’s gross! Speaking of which—makeup! Get over here! Could you make that scar look a little less…I don’t know…icky? We’re going for happy here, not macabre!

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“Doubting Thomas”

The oddness of these Easter stories and the oddness of this virus lockdown—what might one have to say to the other?

The story many heard yesterday in church for the third Sunday of Easter offers at least three things that might illustrate particularly well the unsettling and therefore hopeful character of Easter. The story comes from Luke, and it features two disciples of Jesus on a road toward a village called Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). These two disciples are then joined on their journey by a stranger. Those familiar with the story know that this stranger is none other than the risen Jesus. But don’t rush ahead to Emmaus quite yet. Pause and ponder this rather curious feature that shows up in other accounts of the resurrection as well: even Jesus’ closest friends don’t recognize him.

We’re not told why Jesus is unrecognizable and there could be multiple reasons. But it seems to me that the unrecognizable Jesus is one way for the Gospel writers to remind us that the risen Jesus is not a ghost nor is he a resuscitated corpse; he is instead something new.

Pope Leo the Great pondered this back in the fifth century and suggested that the hearts of these disciples burned within them along that road, as Luke describes it, because they caught a glimpse of “their own glorified humanity.” We do not yet know, in other words, what the fullness of human life in all its flourishing actually looks like, and yet that is precisely what God intends for us all, a life of thriving into which the risen Jesus leads the way.

A second feature of this story is hospitality. But here again, it is not the welcoming of what is known and familiar that Luke describes but instead the increasing intimacy of these disciples with a stranger—sharing with the stranger their inmost anxieties and griefs, and then extending an invitation to lodge with them, and finally sharing food with this stranger. Not just in the breaking of bread, in other words, but in this whole arc of extending hospitality, the risen Jesus eventually becomes known.

And third, this risen Jesus who eventually becomes known in this story is also the one who quickly disappears. Without so much as a teary embrace for a stunning reunion or a “Whoa! It’s really you!” from the disciples, Jesus simply vanishes.

All of our grasping after God, all of our yearnings for certainty just slip through our fingers, like trying to catch water with a net, as one theologian puts it. Whatever the future of God’s promise of new life holds for us, it won’t be reducible to the known objects of our faith, not even the most familiar and cherished ones, the ones we can control and manipulate.

Many biblical writers and theologians of all kinds return to this cautionary note quite frequently, the caution against idolatry. As Gregory of Nyssa once wrote, centuries ago, “concepts create idols; only wonder understands anything.”

So I’ve been pondering these and other features of a very disorienting set of stories, these stories we hear every year during the Easter season and that we insist on calling “Gospel,” or good news. And it occurs to me that the news of Easter is truly good not because everything is put back in exactly the way it was before, but because everything is made new.

As Christians, we are not baptized into nostalgia; we are baptized into the hope of the “new creation,” the first fruits of which God gives to us by raising Jesus from the dead—a Jesus we cannot at first recognize, a Jesus who becomes known to us by extending hospitality to a stranger, a Jesus we cannot seize and put on display like a museum artifact.

Luke spells this out for us, actually, in the opening verses of Part 2 of his account of the Gospel, what we call “The Acts of the Apostles.” There, when the risen Jesus appears to the disciples, they ask him, “Lord, is this the time you will restore the Kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6).

Or, we might say, is this the time, Lord, when you will make America great again?

I’m not trying to be politically partisan here because, indeed, the urgency to return to so-called “normal life” in this country infects both sides of the political aisle. And Luke would urge us to resist it mightily. Luke is pretty clear about this: the Gospel doesn’t restore anything at all but instead, as he says toward the end of Acts, it “turns the world upside down” (17:6).

A recent editorial in the New York Times noted something similar, and rather pointedly: the United States was already suffering from severe pre-existing conditions long before this novel coronavirus arrived to our shores. This pandemic has simply made those conditions starkly and painfully visible, whether the shameful gap between rich and poor, the shocking fragility of our health care system, the house of cards called our economy, the near-total disregard for ecological sustainability and vitality—these are just a few of the features of what many assumed was “normal life” and to which we must not return.

Even when we realize the need to go forward rather than back, this in-between moment is filled with anxiety.

Let’s be honest with each other: we are living through a terrifying moment and we can’t see what kind of future it will bring. Luke appreciated this as well. The chapter from which this morning’s story comes begins with the women who discover that the tomb is empty and their first response is terror (24:5).

Whatever new thing God is always bringing about will always startle us, will always make us uneasy, and will sometimes terrify us. This is why, it seems to me, Luke is so keen to narrate new life around a shared table of hospitality, and why so many Christians are so eager to return to the table on Sunday mornings—we need each other as we let go of what has been and try to embrace what is, even now, emerging.

When we do that faithfully, with a posture of hospitality, Luke assures us that we will eventually recognize that future as the dear companion we have always longed for, the love that renews us, and the life that will make us thrive.

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Daniel Bonnell, “Road to Emmaus”

 

 

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Officer Krupke and Our Social Disease

I watched the film version of West Side Story for the first time on television in my early teens. I loved everything about it and I also encountered something new that puzzled me.

In a scene roughly half way through, members of the Jets street gang sing a parody of their experience in the juvenile justice system. Action sings about being arrested, going to court, being sent to a psychiatrist, and then to a social worker.westsidestory_krupke2

“Hey,” he declares, in response to the social worker’s diagnosis, “I got a social disease!”

I had no idea what that meant and it scared me. Was it contagious? What are the symptoms? Would I be arrested by officer Krupke? I thought the police were my friends!

I now know more: All of us in the U.S. live, and move, and have our being in a society of hostility and violence. From militarized police to “total destruction” presidential rhetoric, from hate-speech rallies to brutalized transgender people just trying to pee and a circulated memo at a major technology company about the inferiority of women, we – all of us – have a debilitating social disease.

As I noted in a recent sermon on white supremacy (published here), most of us want to isolate troublesome individuals, the “radicalized” foreigner, the disgruntled teenager, the psychotic co-worker. Few of us want to examine or even acknowledge our shared psychosis. The problem is not a few bad apples in the barrel; the problem is the barrel.

Or perhaps the television commercial for Palmolive dish washing liquid from my youth says it best: “You’re soaking in it.”

I’ve been struck recently by a number of studies and articles on chemical addiction, especially the low success rate of twelve-step programs. I have some good friends for whom Alcoholics Anonymous has been life-saving and life-changing; they are the exception. Twelve-step programs have a “success” rate of between 5 and 10 percent.

Meanwhile, I know more and more family members, friends, and colleagues who are “self-medicating,” whether by over-drinking or with anonymous sex hook-ups or binge eating or just increased isolation. I, too, drink too much and struggle with nicotine addiction.

I am convinced: treating addiction as an individual’s problem to overcome misses entirely the root of the problem. We, all of us, have a social disease. And only a social response will offer and lasting hope and healing.

Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, the exploding homeless population – and our many failed attempts to address this problem – renders our social distress in visible bodies. Armando Sandoval coordinates “homeless outreach” programs for BART, the Bay Area Rapid Transit district. He named our social disease rather pointedly:

“The issue is societal. It’s not BART, it’s not SFPD [the police], it’s not the justice system, it’s not the public health or mental health departments. It’s everything.”

Deeply embedded in all this – “infected” – most of us have trouble seeing the precise character of our plight. The following is my attempt, in outline, to “see” it, not for my own healing, but our healing. As ancient Christians insisted about salvation, my healing is inextricably bound up with yours. We have to work this out together, the diagnosis and the treatment.

My brief outline is in three parts: a personal encounter with our shared dis-ease; some theological theory; a bit of spiritual practice from Jesus.

Apocalyptic Hazing
Like many others, I was shocked recently by the revelations of violent “hazing” at Wheaton College in Illinois, my alma mater. Five Wheaton football players stand accused of doing felony-worthy things to a fellow student. The details are contested and fuzzy and still being adjudicated. Still, I responded with fury and outrage on social media; I ranted; I remain dismayed by the school’s response (a slap on the wrist or just a “pat on the head” for the accused).

Why did I have such visceral responses and why did I rant so much? At least two reasons.

The first feels like “Matthew Shepard PTSD.” The original reporting of what happened last year at Wheaton included a description of the student being stripped, tied to a fence with duct tape, and left there overnight. Nausea washed over me as I read this, ripples of dread and deep sorrow. The image evoked with uncanny resonance what had happened to Matthew back in 1998, even under very different circumstances.

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The fence where Matthew Shepard was left to die.

The second reason reaches back to my childhood, echoes of being bullied by the jocks in grade school and Jr. High for being a sissy and acting girly. I read the story about Wheaton, plastered with a photo of hyper-masculine football players in their uniforms. It shuttled me back to those agonizing moments when I was pinned to the ground by a group of jocks, hardly able to breathe. I can hear their taunts: “Did you bring your dolls to school, faggot?”

No one is born dreaming of torturing a young man like Matthew Shepard. No one just “naturally” throws sissy boys to the ground as they walk home from school. These things are learned – not just from “bad” parents, or “failed” schools, but in the crucible of a violent society laced with toxic forms of masculinity and seasoned with white privilege.

My African American colleagues have taught me this over the years: in a society drenched in white supremacy, everyone is racist, no exceptions. We all live with a social disease expressed with multiple symptoms.

My visceral response to the (latest) Wheaton scandal qualifies as apocalyptic for that very reason, as the word “apocalypse” suggests: it reveals what has always been there.

Theological Theorizing: The Domination System
None of this is new. It’s actually quite old. The texts of the Christian Testament in the Bible are shaped by living under the imperial thumb of the Roman Empire. This isn’t just dusty history, but a frame for noticing that thumbprint on our lives right now.

The late biblical theologian Walter Wink offered a compelling way to read first century gospel accounts through the lens of what he called the “Domination System,” a system employed by every imperial power, whether ancient or modern.

[The system] is characterized by unjust economic relations, oppressive political relations, biased race relations, patriarchal gender relations, hierarchical power relations, and the use of violence to maintain them all … from the ancient Near Eastern states to the Pax Romana, to feudal Europe, to communist state capitalism, to modern market capitalism.

Diarmuid O’Murchu brilliantly (in my view) applied Wink’s diagnosis to the stories of demon possession in the gospels. The loneliness and isolation of the “possessed,” O’Murchu notes, mimics precisely the effects of living under the Domination System.

The gospel accounts hint at this, O’Murchu writes, as “evil spirits represent unmet needs. The spirits inhabit the inner empty shell caused by feelings of inferiority, unworthiness, disempowerment, torture, pain, and alienation.” Don’t most of us feel one or more of these things just looking in a mirror first thing in the morning?

But we can’t treat these symptoms as if only individuals suffer from them; the symptoms point instead to a social disease shared by all.

O’Murchu proposes a path toward healing marked by the “companionship of empowerment.” Exorcism is only the first step; healing means, finally, restoring relationship. Think of the Gerasene demoniac (Luke 8), restored to his community, or the young child foaming at the mouth and lifted up by Jesus to be given back to his parents (Luke 9). Or think Lazarus, raised from a tomb of death but still bound. Jesus turns to his beloved community: “Unbind him,” he says to them (John 11).

Most of all, this: Jesus lived the healing he preached and practiced around tables of shared food.

Jesus at Table
I begin every one of my theology classes with this: “Christian faith did not begin with a text, or a doctrine, or an institution, but with radical social practice: table fellowship.”

The gospel accounts portray how often Jesus got in trouble for eating with the wrong people. In that first century context, those with whom you shared food mattered as much as those with whom you had sex. Both food and sex were the primary ways to mark social dominance in a system of hierarchical value.

Jesus cast those systems aside and ate with the wrong people.

He did this because his people, and the wider society, the whole human race suffered from a debilitating social disease: oppression, fragmentation, isolation. And only a social response would suffice: all are welcome at the Table.

This is ridiculously pedestrian and wildly profound: We must eat with the wrong people. It’s our only hope.

Ditch your self-improvement book. Stop berating yourself for that second, or third, or fourth glass of wine. Reject all those messages about your flaws and shortcomings. Do this: Set a table with food and invite everyone you know – all of them, including officer Krupke.

Accompany others. Be accompanied.

Love someone. Be loved.

This is totally ridiculous. It’s also the peculiar faith of Christians, who hope because of love.

We, all of us, suffer from a debilitating social disease. Only a social treatment can heal us.

It’s called Love.

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