Half-full of Grace

A powerful essay on a complicated relationship with Church

It is not comforting to know quite as much as I do about how weaselly and weak-willed I am when it comes to being as generous as Jesus demands. Thanks to church, I have a much stronger sense of the sort of person I would like to be, and I am forced to confront all the ways in which I fail, daily. Nothing promotes self-awareness like turning down an opportunity to bring children to visit their incarcerated parents. Or avoiding shifts at the food bank. Or calculating just how much I will put in the collection basket. Thanks to church, I have looked deeply into my own heart and found it to be of merely small-to-medium size. None of this is particularly comforting.
By Dorothy Fortenberry. Read it all here

The Incredulity of St. Thomas

In my sermon yesterday, I referenced Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of St. Thomas. As I noted, the gospel makes no mention of Thomas actually touching Jesus’ wounds. In fact, given the gospel’s emphasis on “seeing” and Jesus’ reply to Thomas that “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe,” to focus attention on Thomas’ touch of Jesus quite misses the gospel’s point. Here’s the painting:

And a detail:

Good Friday in the Shadow of the Lynching Tree

To understand what the cross means in America we need to take a look at the lynching tree in this nation’s history–that “strange and bitter crop” that Billie Holiday would not let us forget. The lynched black victim experienced the same fate as the crucified Christ and thus became the most potent symbol for understanding the true meaning of the salvation achieved through “God on the Cross.” Nietzsche was right: Christianity is a religion of slaves. God became a slave in Jesus and thereby liberated slaves from being determined by their condition.

The real scandal of the gospel is this: humanity’s salvation is revealed in the cross of the condemned criminal Jesus, and humanity’s salvation is available only through our solidarity with the crucified people in our midst. Faith that emerged out of the scandal of the cross is not a faith of intellectuals or elites of any sort. This is the faith of abused and scandalized people—the losers and the down and out. It was this faith that gave blacks the strength and courage to hope, “to keep on keeping on,” …. The cross and the lynching tree interpret each other. Both were public spectacles, shameful events, instruments of punishment reserved for the most despised people in society. Any genuine theology and any genuine preaching of the Christian gospel must be measured against the test of the scandal of the cross and the lynching tree…..

As I see it, the lynching tree frees the cross from the false pieties of well-meaning Christians. When we see the crucifixion as a first-century lynching, we are confronted by the re-enactment of Christ’s suffering in the blood-soaked history of African Americans.

Thus the lynching tree reveals the true religious meaning of the cross for American Christians today. The cross needs the lynching tree to remind Americans of the reality of suffering-to keep the cross from becoming a symbol of abstract, sentimental piety. Before the spectacle of the cross we are faced with a clear challenge: as Latin American liberation theologian Jon Sobrino has put it, “to take the crucified down from the cross.”

Yet the lynching tree also needs the cross, without which it becomes simply an abomination. It is the cross that points in the direction of hope, the confidence that there is a dimension to life beyond the reach of the oppressor….

Though the pain of Jesus’ cross was real, there was also joy and beauty in his cross. This is the great theological paradox that makes the cross impossible to embrace unless one is standing in solidarity with those who are powerless. God’s loving solidarity can transform ugliness–whether Jesus on the cross or a lynched black victim–into beauty, into God’s liberating presence.

—James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree

Poetry: Wednesday in Holy Week by Christina Rossetti

Fr. Jonathan's Blog

Wednesday in Holy Week

by Christina Georgina Rossetti
Man’s life is death. Yet Christ endured to live,
Preaching and teaching, toiling to and fro,
Few men accepting what He yearned to give,
Few men with eyes to know
His Face, that Face of Love He stooped to show.

Man’s death is life. For Christ endured to die
In slow unuttered weariness of pain,
A curse and an astonishment, passed by,
Pointed at, mocked again
By men for whom He shed His Blood—in vain?

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We are strangers and foreigners

I have struggled over the last months to find my voice as a pastor and theologian. So much of my fear, anxiety, and anger at our current situation is connected to my identity as an American citizen that it’s been difficult for me to separate out my commitment to following Jesus Christ and my calling as a minister of the Gospel from my concerns as an American. Last week brought an end to that struggle and provided clarity of vision as I live out my calling as a Christian and an Episcopal priest. I am to follow Jesus and to preach the Gospel.

The immigration and refugee ban is profoundly evil, a repudiation of Christian and Hebrew Scriptures and the very words of Jesus Christ. Throughout scripture, there is a consistent and powerful command to offer hospitality to strangers, to welcome the foreigner, and to treat foreigners and strangers as one would treat one’s own family.

One of the great biblical stories is of Abraham’s welcome of three strangers at Mamre. In the course of that encounter, it becomes clear that those strangers are messengers from God (Genesis 18). Two of them go on to Sodom, where Lot’s nephew welcomes them into his home and protects them from other Sodom residents who wanted to rape them (Genesis 19:1-9). The sin of Sodom was the failure to extend hospitality to strangers (Ezekiel 16:49).

In the law of Moses, there is a consistent and strong insistence that the Israelites treat strangers and aliens as if they were their own:

When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:33-34)

Jesus was himself a refugee. After his birth, his parents fled with him from Bethlehem. Herod had all of the children under two years of age in and around Bethlehem executed in his rage (Matthew 2:13-18).

Jesus commanded us to love our neighbors and our enemies. He broke bread with foreigners and told stories about reviled foreigners who helped Jews (Luke 10:30-37). Jesus commanded his followers to welcome the stranger, telling us that in helping strangers, we are helping Jesus, that in the face of the stranger we encounter Christ:

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. (Matthew 25:35-36)

Hospitality toward the stranger and the foreigner is emphasized in different ways throughout the New Testament, most eloquently perhaps by the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, who wrote: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2, in a reference back to the story of Abraham’s encounter with God at Mamre)

That same author went a step further, reaching back to the key value expressed in the Mosaic law that linked Israel’s treatment of foreigners to their own experience of being foreigners in Egypt to assert that we followers of Jesus are strangers and foreigners here, that our allegiance is to God, not to the country in which we live:

They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. (Hebrews 11:13-16)

To think of ourselves as strangers and foreigners requires an act of the imagination that challenges us to imagine ourselves in contexts outside of our control, experience, and comfort zone. But that is the gospel imperative.

The Christian tradition bears witness to the struggles of Christians to live out the words of Jesus and the values of scripture in vastly different and changing contexts but throughout Christian history one can detect an effort to embody those values. In St. Augustine of Hippo’s City of God, for example, the great theologian argues that Christians’ primary and true citizenship is to the city of God that includes people from every nation, the living as well as the dead.

Ironically, the very word “refugee” bears witness to both the cruelty and the magnanimity of Christians. It comes from the French word “refugie” which was first used in reference to French Huguenots, French Protestants, who were expelled from France after King Louis XIV revoked their religious rights. The Huguenots found refuge in many Protestant territories across Europe and in North America.

Refugees fleeing religious persecution or war need our assistance. Whatever their nationality, religious commitment, or ethnicity, they are, like us, human beings created in the image of God, whose lives are in danger. They have the right to food, shelter, and the opportunity to flourish. The faces of refugees are the faces of Jesus Christ. In our encounters with them, we meet Him face to face.

But there is another, deeper issue in the debate over refugees. Our fear of refugees is tied up with nationalism. The United States has a constitution that promises freedom of religion and the separation of church and state. Yet most American Christians live a religion quite different from that articulated in the letter to the Hebrews or by Augustine in City of God. Most American Christians live a religion that has more to do with devotion to the United States than following Jesus. We view the United States as the greatest country in the history of the world. Our wars are always just; our democracy above reproach. We can do no wrong and those who criticize the US for its policies, its actions, or the continued injustice and oppression that occurs within its borders or in its names are heretics and traitors.

Such a view of the United States is idolatrous. As Christians whose allegiance is to Jesus Christ, we are called to name the sin of idolatry when we see it and repent of it when we commit it. As citizens of another country, “resident aliens” as Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas named us, we Christians know that our values and our lives are shaped by the cross and resurrection, not by political expediency or the idolatry of nationalism.

The future remains uncertain. One thing is clear. As the Christian martyrs of the Roman Empire showed us, we must refuse to worship at the altar of empire. We must show in our words and actions our allegiance to Jesus Christ, embodying in ourselves our love of our enemies, our love and care for those who are rejected and discarded by the nation in which we live, our embrace of the foreigner, the widow and orphan. We must make the love of Christ apparent to everyone we meet, following the example of Jesus Christ, who in his love for the whole world, gave his life. Our faithfulness to Jesus Christ and to his vision for the coming reign of God will fill us with hope, nourish us for the journey ahead, and transform the world and nation in which we live.

In the name of Christ, the stranger.

 

 

Christianity in the Age of Trump

I attended a panel discussion on Saturday at the American Academy of Religion in which scholars and activists discussed the election’s impact on the academic study of religion and the role of scholars of religion in this new time. Robert P. Jones, author of The End of White Christian America, pointed out that for all the talk of white working class voters or the split between urban and rural America,  the best predictor of what states went for Trump was White Christianity. It wasn’t just White Evangelicals who supported Trump (81%); White mainline Christians split between Trump and Clinton (each got 44%) and a majority of White Catholics supported Trump as well.

As Jim Wallis, another panelist, put it, “White identity has replaced Christian identity.”

This is a scathing indictment of American Christianity, not only its current incarnations but its entire history. We have much for which to repent; we have much to lament. We also have a great deal of difficult work to do.

Wallis, of Sojourners, offered 10 commitments of Resistance in the Trump Era.

I hope this will be a starting point for our conversions and action in the coming weeks and months.