Sunday, April 21, 2013

In the Presence of Bleeding Children

I found myself thinking about the Holocaust this week as I watched the U.S. Senate allow a minority of its membership to filibuster the background check for gun sales bill. Polls report that 90% of Americans now favor such measures. Worse yet, it was a minimalist bill lacking the provisions for the return to a ban on automatic weapons and ammunition and mental health restrictions that polls say 2/3 of Americans also favor.

This vote occurred in the wake of the Newtown massacre where 26 elementary school children and their teachers were slaughtered by a disturbed young man bearing legally procured weapons, his mother being the first victim of the rampage. Rachel Maddow’s opening comment on her show that night went straight to the heart of the matter:

The U.S. Senate’s response to Newtown was to do exactly nothing.  

Remembering Every Child Lost

As I sifted through my shock, anger and grief over the failure of the Senate to act in the face of this clear and present danger, I found myself thinking about my visit to Israel in 1994. The Yad Vashem memorial outside of Jerusalem is dedicated to the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust (another six million coming from homosexuals, gypsies, Jehovah’s witnesses and a wide range of other groups designated less than fully human).

The most moving portion of Yad Vashem is the children’s memorial. One million of the six million Jews systematically killed by the Third Reich and its cowering collaborators in Nazi-held lands were children. In the children’s memorial, one enters a dark hallway surrounded by glass walls within which a candle is burning. The names of the children, their ages and their towns are holographically projected onto the walls as they are simultaneously recited over the public address system. The realization of the scale of this tragedy as one gropes along in the darkness can touch even the most hardened human being to the absolute depth of the soul.  

But the slaughtered children of Judaism have not been forgotten. The response to their deaths has been a fierce determination to provide a safe place for Jewish children in Israel and to insure that the threat of their destruction which nearly was realized during the Third Reich can never become a possibility again. And at Yad Vashem, the response has been to make sure that every single one of its slaughtered children are remembered by name.

How very different the U.S. Senate’s response this past week to the wanton and systematic slaughter of our own children.

Worshipping a Bloodthirsty Idol

20th CE Protestant theologian Paul Tillich has offered a definition of religion as that which is one’s ultimate concern. So what was the ultimate concern of the U.S. Senate last week? Clearly reelection was high on that list. It is the embodiment of the idols of power, privilege and status. But I suspect there is another ultimate concern which lurks in the shadows here.

The discussions of guns inevitably turns on the concerns of pre-conventional moral reasoning – fear of others and the pursuit of individualistic rights to the exclusion of - and sometimes at the expense of - all else. Pre-conventional reasoning routinely demonstrates the inability or the unwillingness to escape the lens of self to honor obligations to others that even the lowest levels of conventional reason understand as simply one’s duty. While the rhetoric of the opponents of even the most minimal gun laws often turns on self-serving fantasies of bravado with the men in white gunning down the bad guys in black before they can harm others, the ultimate focus of all such pre-conventional constructions is always the self.

The practice of any form of idolatry almost inevitably demands sacrifice. And the sacrifice to the bloodthirsty idol of guns has been ongoing and consistent for many years now in places with names like Columbine, Aurora, Tucson, Blacksburg and now Newtown. There are many more places with names which we’ve never known because they occur in inner city neighborhoods where the countless victims of drive-by shooting and gang turf wars have long since been deemed by our media to be expectable if not normal. The fact that their victims are almost always people of color living in poverty often warrants their deaths as unworthy of major media attention. Over 3000 more victims of the American addiction to the weapons of war have been recorded in the four months since the Newtown Massacre.

For the most part, the governments of the nations conquered by the Third Reich stood by silently as the Reich carried out its deadly genocide that would ultimately claim a million Jewish children. Some actively collaborated in the genocide, liquidating ghettoes and rounding up their residents for one-way train rides to places with names like Auschwitz. In a similar vein, while the Senate chose to do nothing in the wake of Newtown, a number of states have passed laws permitting guns on school campuses and in public places such as churches. They have chosen to become collaborators in the carnage.

But not everyone under the domination of the Fuhrer collaborated or stood by silently. Some chose to resist, creating underground networks, resisting churches, hiding the targets of genocide in their own homes and businesses. Often the cost of such resistance was high, resisters often sharing the same fate as those they sought to protect.

Similarly, some states like Connecticut, still reeling from the massacre of its children last December, have refused to silently acquiesce to the reign of death in their schools, churches and theaters. They have begun to pass the minimalist laws that the Senate refused to even bring to a vote and more. No doubt, their leaders may pay a heavy price at election time from the gun lobby and the corporate interests which have long since supplanted the citizens who remain in the National Rifle Association.

In the Presence of Bleeding Children

One of the most striking statements made by post-Holocaust theologians was offered by Irving Greenberg. In his essay "Judaism, Christianity, and Partnership After the Twentieth Century" (from Christianity in Jewish Terms, ed. Tivka Frymer-Kensky, NY: Basic Books, 2002), Greenberg attempts to create a context in which the Holocaust can be discussed without succumbing to the almost inevitable temptation to cast the discussion in such abstract terms that its true horror cannot be clearly seen. Greenberg thus offers the following:

The Holocaust confronts us with unanswerable questions. But let us agree to one principle: no statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of the burning children.

This is a principle that the U.S. Senate and the countless talking heads across America could well consider in the ongoing discussions of gun violence. To paraphrase Greenberg, the principle would read like this:

No statement about guns - ideological or otherwise - should be made that would not be credible in the presence of bleeding children. 

This is merely a beginning place for a serious discussion about America’s deadly addiction to guns. But like the million children slaughtered by the Holocaust, the children of Newtown and the many others whose lives have met untimely ends due to America’s absolute refusal to come to grips with this crippling addiction deserve nothing less.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

 If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Marks of the Way of Jesus

Preached Sunday, April 14, 2013, Knowles Chapel, Rollins College

Sermon, Third Sunday of Easter (Year C)

Acts 9:1-20
Psalm 30
Revelation 5:11-14
John 21:1-19

“And Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me.’” [+]

Interesting Lectionary

Today’s lessons feature some well-known stories from the Christian tradition. There is the famous Damascus Road story about St. Paul. It is a rich story from which expressions such as “scales falling from their eyes” and “a Damascus Road experience” originate. Then there is a post-resurrection account in the Gospel of John featuring Jesus and his disciples at the seashore. His disciples have fled Jerusalem where their leader has just been ignominiously put to death and inexplicably returned to fishing as if nothing has happened. Perhaps they are trying to forget the horrific recent events with Jesus.

As a side note, I always find it interesting when people argue that women should not be ordained because Jesus didn’t choose any women as disciples – a debatable contention at best. Inevitably, the proponents of such arguments rarely continue on to the obvious conclusion of their logic – if we should only ordain those Jesus actually called, clearly the only ones called to the priesthood are these Jewish fishermen.

In today’s Gospel, note the irony of the risen Christ teaching veteran fishermen how to catch more fish then serving them the 1st CE equivalent of tuna fish sandwiches on the beach for breakfast. It’s only then that he tells them why he’s really there.

What interesting readings.

Luke the Harmonizer

Let’s begin with Acts. The Damascus Road story is told by the same Luke who also wrote the Gospel bearing his name. While tradition has it that Luke was a physician and travelled with Paul, these appear to be conflations of several acontextual and oblique references in Paul’s epistles. In fact, there is little solid evidence that Luke ever actually knew Paul or that either he or Paul ever actually knew Jesus.

But Luke’s job in writing the Acts of the Apostle is much tougher than being a mere historian and what he provides us is ultimately not history. Much like the post-exile priestly writers of the Hebrew Scriptures in the 5th BCE, Luke was seeking to provide a comprehensive narrative for the infant Jesus movement, a movement that would not fully become what we know today as Christianity for at least another couple of centuries. This was no small task since in fact while Luke refers to the Way of Jesus in today’s excerpt from Acts, there were many different ways of Jesus in the early 2d CE when he is writing and they often see each other as rivals if not enemies. Consider the implications of calling someone an anti-christ, a designation that can only arise if one sees oneself as the self-appointed guardian of the one true understanding of Jesus as the Christ and the way of life that requires.  It’s Luke’s unenviable job to try to harmonize those competing factions into one story.

Luke provides an account of Paul experiencing an ethereal Christ who speaks to him from a blinding light in the sky on his way to persecute the Jesus followers in Syria. This is often called a conversion experience. The common understanding of a conversion experience today is that it somehow changes one from who they were to who they are now. It is an understanding that is highly cognitive – one changes from one belief system to another. It is also highly existential. In one blinding flash, Saul the Jew becomes Paul the Apostle. And it often requires literally being knocked off one’s feet in order to happen or perhaps the horse that does not actually appear in the story itself until it is provided by a painting by Caravaggio in the 17th CE.

A Calling, not a Conversion

In fact, it is when we look carefully at what Paul himself has to say about this experience in his epistles that we realize how rich the literary imagination of Luke really was. While Luke’s account provides us with an archetype for sudden, radical conversions and the prototype for the evangelical altar call with its public conversion experiences, Paul never talks about the Damascus Road at all. In fact the language of Paul’s own writings suggests that what is happening with him is much more subtle.

You see, Paul is not being converted here. Indeed, there is never any suggestion that he ever saw himself as anything other than a good Jew, albeit a Jew who had found the long awaited Messiah. Rather what we hear in both Paul’s own descriptions and just below the surface of the dramatic events of Luke’s account is something much more nuanced and ultimately much more powerful. What you hear is a calling.

The Latin word vocatus from which the English words vocation and voice originate means to call. Contrary to the assertions of American individualism, it really does take a village for any calling to be lived out. Traditional Christian understandings of vocation require a G-d who calls, the human being who hears the calling, a community who helps discern and validate the calling, the willingness of the one called to live into their calling and ultimately a locus, a place for the calling to be lived out. Anyone who has been through the vocational process to ministry recognizes this pattern. But Martin Luther is quick to remind us that the farmer shoveling manure in the barn – or the student shoveling a similar commodity at 2 AM the night before the big essay is due - is just as faithful to his calling as this preacher standing behind the pulpit.  

One of the great beauties of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer is its recognition of the roles of all the parties required to live into our own callings as followers of Jesus. In our Baptismal Covenant, we are asked a series of questions about our commitment to this Way of Jesus as we know it today:

·         Will we continue in the apostles’ teaching, fellowship and breaking of bread?
·         Will we resist evil?
·         Will we proclaim by both word and example the good news of G-d in the Way of Jesus? Will love our neighbors as ourselves (ALL of them without exception) and manifest that love by working for justice and peace?

To every question we answer “I will with G-d’s help.” We do so as a community and every baptism we remind ourselves of what our calling as a Christian community is. And we remind ourselves that none of us can do this alone – we need each other, and we need G-d’s help in all of our endeavors.

It’s Great to be a Sheep?

That’s where the Gospel reading comes in today. After all the rather bizarre events of Jesus directing naked fishermen from the distance of a football field across the Sea of Galilee telling them where to fish and the ensuing al fresco breakfast on the scenic shores of that large freshwater lake, the risen Christ gets down to business, quizzing his  disciples about what it means to be a true follower of Jesus. His questions are pointed: “Do you really love me?” And, after the expectable answer, “Lord, of course I do,” there is an unexpected rejoinder: “Then feed my sheep.” The risen Christ is rather blunt here, essentially telling his disciples “You say you love me? Well, prove it.” And he concludes his lesson with this exhortation:  “Follow me.”

The use of sheep imagery in the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament is hardly unexpectable. Anyone who has been to the middle east knows that the sheep and the goats that often serve as immediate audio-visual aids for Jesus’ parables are even today one of the mainstays of the region’s economy. While we tend to romanticize the sheep for whom Jesus is seen as the Good Shepherd, in fact anyone who has been around these animals for any length of time know two things about them. First, they aren’t real bright and often get lost from the flock. Our bishops to this day carry shepherd’s crooks as their symbols of pastoral authority. Real shepherds use them to literally collar lost sheep by the neck and pull them out of harm’s way. Moreover, anyone who has ever gotten a wool sweater wet knows the other less savory aspect of sheep. Wool acts like a magnet which attracts every stray particle of grime and manure in a 100 mile radius and once wet it truly becomes a veritable olfactory banquet!  

It’s enough to give one pause from ever seeing oneself as a sheep again, animals that are largely stupid and stinky. But like any given human being, there is more to being a sheep than simply their worst characteristics. They are also vulnerable and needy, much like human animals. And they are all worthy of Jesus’ attention, much like human animals. As John’s Gospel points out, Jesus’ sheep are in constant need of being fed, both spiritually as well as physically. And Jesus is pretty clear how that happens: If you love me, you feed my sheep. All of them. This is how we live into Jesus’ very direct calling: “Follow me.”  

The Marks of the Way of Jesus

If we are to take Jesus at his word here, it is the willingness to care for and assist others that marks one as a follower of Jesus.  Such compassionate behavior ought to be seen as honorable by the world around Jesus’ followers. But it was not admired in the Roman Empire. And it is not valued in the corporate empire of global consumerism today.

The Roman Empire maintained itself through an extractive economy which literally ground the poor into the dust and a highly bureaucratized social structure in which everyone had their place and one would do well to remain within their assigned role if they wished to avoid punishment. The massive structure of the Roman Coliseum symbolically spoke to the denizens of the empire: We are in control here. Do as you are told. Do not resist us or we will crush you.

So what happens when a movement which opposes the exploitation of human beings for imperial purposes confronts that empire through their very way of living? What happens to the prophet who proclaims that G-d loves the poor and not the empire whose worship of the idols of wealth and power makes them poor? What happens when the Kingdom of Caesar collides with the Kingdom of G-d Jesus sought to embody whose values implicitly draw into question the values of empire? What happens? Jesus is pretty clear here: “[S]omeone will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” That place one does not wish to go? The place of crucifixion. And the risen Christ knows this only too well from experience.

Being a follower of Jesus has always borne the risk of crucifixion. We live in an empire in which the calling to be largely unthinking consumers has largely replaced the duties of being citizens, members of communities or even being in relationship with one another, much less critically conscious and compassionate human beings. The gospel of corporate consumerism – if one can actually call it good news - is proclaimed daily from our airwaves – “Just do it!...Have it your way…Obey your thirst…..Talk all the time…Never stop playing…” And now even our children preach to us: “More is better. We want more!” In short, it’s all about you - so long as you buy our stuff.

So what happens when today’s followers of Jesus seek to live into their calling to feed the many needy sheep of our world, to think of their neighbors and the need for loving relationship, to care not only for the immediate needs of those who are vulnerable but to question ways of being a society that engender and perpetuate that vulnerability? What happens when the calling to consider others and to be willing to care for their needs – spiritual, relational and material – collides with a gospel of consumerism and its atomizing constructions of the individual? What happens? One has to wonder how many creative ways a modern empire with an unprecedented technological arsenal at its disposal might consider in crucifying the follower of Jesus who draws the values of the empire into question.

Jesus still calls his followers to follow him. But answering that calling never comes cheap. So where in your own lives do you respond to Jesus’ call, “Yes, Lord you know I love you?” Which sheep do you feed? And where does the empire win? AMEN.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++