September 9, 2018
Tangled Webs September 9, 2016
Pray with me: May the words…
First, thank you, all of you, for making this transitional time so compelling. Much wisdom has been dispensed here and much compassion too. More than that, there is an energy here that gives me hope for our nation.
Thank you, Diaconate and Pastor Dawn and all Amys present. Thank you Judy Cates and the Commons Committee and Outreach Committee, all Frosts and Slots, especially Matt for championing our beautiful labyrinth. Thank you, anyone who had anything to do with yesterday — turning asphalt into fellowship; and thank you, all of you for gracing these pews with your presence through it all.
Like the song says, this is a time of new beginnings. We’re in one. We are so much like the church I am about to tell you about that I think it is safe to say that our hands and hearts are ready for Pastor Curtis LaMars-Johnson, who arrives in two days and will stand where I stand one week from now.
Yesterday, meandering through the Courthouse lawn, I was suckered into a Christian dog and pony show. It began when I heard a man say, “Megalodon.” That’s an extinct shark, fearsome, no doubt, but gone form the oceans for more than a million years.
The showman demonstrated the sharpness of his prehistoric shark tooth to his victim as I turned my attention to the nice chunk of petrified wood he had in the case: prop two.
Still innocent of the cleverness I was about to witness, I presumed the storyteller to be an amateur geologist.
I was just beginning questioning whether the Megalodon tooth was real when this man began to spin a tail about someone finding a fossilized cowboy boot in Texas, sock and all. Isn’t that amazing!
That’s when I looked up. PT Barnum suddenly came to mind.
Finding a fossilized boot in Texas, the barker said, proved that fossils like the shark tooth and this here petrified wood don’t take millions of years to become fossils. Heck, the cowboy boot couldn’t have been much more than a hundred years old. Thus, that petrified tree stump in the case might only be 50 years old. And in case I hadn’t figured it out yet, it also meant, that Megalodons did not go extinct millions of years ago, as scientists claim; but maybe as few as 500.
Then, like he’d done a thousand times, the Barker for Jesus stepped to his left and picked up a 14 inch scale carving of “The Ark” and proclaimed that all of the above means that the Flood Story in the Bible is true.
I laughed at him, dumbfounded at the web of lies and deceit he’d tangled himself in. I told him he had just presented the textbook definition of a false dichotomy, at a minimum.
“No, sir,” he responded, “that is the truth.”
I told him, No. In fact everything he’d just said was utter nonsense and that he should expect a life of ridicule from average 5th graders.
Theologically speaking, that man was desperate to make his inherited or adopted 17th Century Christian literal interpretation of the Bible match his 19th Century Christian fear of science and 21st Century Christian hatred of smart people.
His faith blinded him to the realization that he was dangling on the end of his tangled web of nonsense about Jesus. He’d wrapped a string around the Bible then made tortured knots around 4500 years of theology, philosophy, archaeology and paleontology until he produced matted ball of nonsense he believed matched his myths about God.
We’re surrounded by tangled webs of belief about Jesus; religions and tribes and clubs adamant that they’re Jesus’ bffs or spokespersons while seemingly knowing nothing whatsoever about the life and teachings of the man, let along how Jesus’ words and intentions have been manipulated over the last 1600 years of human history.
I have spent most of my adult life trying to figure out how the original advocate for transcendence, for developing a conscience as resistance to the crushing maw of Empire, became the imaginary figurehead for every brutal Western Empire since the late 4th Century.
How did we get from Jesus and his followers spreading the principle “love thy neighbor” to Catholics and Lutherans – the big dogs of Christianity 1800 years later — forcing the world to invent the word genocide because of what they did to their neighbors?
How did we get from Christians being the only sect in the Roman Empire refusing military service because, as followers of Jesus taking another life for any reason was unconscionable, to every man in Constantine’s army bearing a cross on their shield as the most Christian-saturated enclave in that Empire?
The short answer is brutal and simple. People who called themselves Christians stopped using the teachings of Jesus as the basis of their religion. It started in the 4th Century. Christianity became about something else then kept becoming about something else until we arrive here, today, with Christians trying to replace our elected government with fascist, theocratic dictatorship.
We’ve come to a point where the lines no longer add up.
Today’s readings focus on the Church Jesus left behind, his Jewish followers and own brother, James. When I am done speaking I hope you see yourself in them.
Contemporary theologian and Franciscan Priest, Richard Rohr says of the early church:
Much of what Jesus taught seems to have been followed closely during the first several hundred years after his death and resurrection. As long as Jesus’ followers were on the bottom and the edge of empire, as long as they shared the rejected and betrayed status of Jesus, they could grasp his teaching more readily. Values like nonparticipation in war, simple living, inclusivity, and love of enemies could be more easily understood when Christians were gathering secretly in the catacombs, when their faith was untouched by empire, rationalization, and compromise.
By several centuries, Fr Rohr means three. For three centuries, Christianity was about figuring out who Jesus was and how to live by his teaching.
In this morning’s readings we visit the community that walked with Jesus and carried on when he left them — the people who went and did likewise in the first 40 years of The Way. Like you, they numbered less than 100 but believed Jesus’ teachings could, should and would change the world. They would write no gospel until their elders began to die off, martyred, and all hell was breaking loose. Among them was James, Jesus’ brother and the author of today’s letter. Paul was their persecutor.
James ran the store, basically. Disciples and Apostles went forth in every direction. James ran central command and gave interviews to the press.
The conditions that drove Jesus to speak drove James to continue speaking. Rome hadn’t gone anywhere. All of them we selling a new form of resistance: clear minds, honest hearts, and love for all as the height of consciousness.
Jesus’ way — The Way — was a new answer to an old question. What do God’s people do when the evil way, Empire — that ancient pyramid of poison — engulfs their village and threatens their children and way of life?
The new answer was to resist with all your soul by being love itself to all those around you. The Romans make widows and starving children. Resist Rome by feeding widows and orphans.
Status no longer equals holiness. Holiness is now the only thing that holiness.
James picked up teaching where his brother left off:
“Have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? He asks.
Like his brother, James targets the internal centers of self-deception and rationalization — megaladon + Noah = 6000 year old earth, for instance. The takeaway is simple: don’t be deceptive and pretentious and don’t the egos of such people either. They’re just wrong, selfishly.
This first church isn’t arguing about the transubstantiation of bread into flesh or the nature of the Holy Spirit. They are condemning fraudulent thinking and reminding everyone that nothing is more obvious than hypocrisy.
James gives us a view of the harsh realism and collective energy just after Jesus’ death. Mark’s gospel is the first chronicle of what made Jesus so persuasive in the first place, and how he crushed prior assumptions by healing and saving the least important.
Last week, Jesus was heckled because his disciples didn’t wash their hands according to the holiness code of the day. Jesus responded by explaining, essentially, that cleanliness has nothing to do with godliness. That’s you playing games with yourself. Rather, we are as only as holy as the thoughts in our hearts and actions of our hands. Holy is as holy does, to paraphrase Forrest Gump. The clubs we belong to and silly rules we follow say nothing about our soul.
This week Jesus is getting burnt out from explaining the obvious and seeks rest in a Lebanese resort town. When a woman approaches him for help with her crazy teenage daughter, one can feel his exhaustion as he throws her a simple character quiz. Jesus wants to know how things go at dinnertime in her house, because how you really live is who you really are.
Dogs were not common as pets and still are aren’t in this region. Syrophoenicians were the exception. As traders in everything — including dogs from Britannia and Germania — some kept dogs, a relative extravagance.
Jews, on the other hand, are the first people to make reference to their children, especially teaching children with the understanding that children must know what you know then learn more. To the rest of the world, children are labor, soldiers and slaves.
“Who eats next after you and your husband have had their fill — your kids, or your dogs?” That’s the question. “Where are your priorities? Expensive dogs… or children, the future of your people? Her flippant response is exactly what Jesus hoped to hear.
But there are layers here, of course. Jesus was doing more than making sure that this Gentile she had her priorities right. Take note. While his Apostles often miss his point, this foreign woman does not. In a flip exchange, the foreign woman gets Jesus point immediately.
The takeaway? Understanding Jesus has nothing to do with being an important dude following Jesus, being male or being a Jew like Jesus. It has everything to do with seeking that understanding from Jesus.
The first Christians, Mark’s generation, were sometimes known as “The 70.” “The Way” is what they preached. 70 men and women were selected from among the throng that followed Jesus to serve by testifying to what they’d seen and heard their Rabbi say and do.
After replacing Judas, the Apostles, The 70 and siblings of Jesus spent their days trying to grasp the empty tomb, especially the women sent to attend their dead messiah. Several among them said they’d seen Jesus alive. Some said he looked like a wreck — understandably so — that he was unrecognizable until he uttered a familiar word. Others said they’d seen actual angels who gave them a wry grin for expecting to find Jesus in the tomb at all.
Still others, sometimes years after Jesus’ last sighting, claimed to have talked to the man, unsure whether it was real or a vision; but did it matter? It was Jesus. They’d seen him. He spoke to them.
Some of the 70 went into the desert because Jesus started in the desert. They went to confront the serpent within, do their 40 days, find spiritual transcendence then teach it. Teaching in the desert probably saved their lives when Rome sacked Jerusalem in 70 AD.
Peter went to Rome and was martyred there, Paul too, despite taking a different path.
The first to die was James, the elder of the two James Apostles, in 44, in Spain where he was spreading the Good News about a new way of thinking: there is no other, not even lepers; not even tax collectors; not even women!
Thomas, the doubter, the twin, took traveling money from the community and founded the Nestorian Church in modern day Iran near India.
And Mark, one of the 70 and namesake of this gospel, went to Alexandria Egypt where he too was martyred in 64 after founding the Coptic Church. Somewhere between 64 and 70, his Greek-speaking followers wrote the first addition of this gospel.
James the brother of Jesus was martyred in 62, in Jerusalem.
The curtains came down on this first church between 68 and 70 AD. After the first generation died or fled then died, some followers of Paul from the Greek East– Matthew, a former tax collector, and Luke, a physician, gained copies of what Mark’s scribe(s) wrote. Each added what those factions were thinking and saying about Jesus at around 90 AD. The Jewish Wars were still in full swing and these enclaves of early Christians were grateful to be outside Israel, though by no means safe.
Jerusalem was a smoldering ruin. For the next 200 years Christians would be thrown to lions and turned into street lamps by the Roman Empire. The Jewish conditions and psychology that led James and Mark’s followers to write had changed. After 70 AD, Christianity was in the hands of Greek speakers, Zoroastrians and philosophers, most with a low tolerance for Jews. By the time the Gospel attributed to John was written, anti-Semitism was ubiquitous and Jesus was thought of as more Greek than Jew, the Logos, the Alpha and Omega. 200 years of Persecutions turned Christian thinking into something else entirely. Then came Constantine. I’ll let Fr. Rohr explain what happened to Christianity when the persecutions stopped.
When the Christian church became the established religion of the empire, it started reading the Gospel from the position of maintaining power and social order instead of experiencing the profound power of powerlessness that Jesus revealed. In a sense, Christianity almost became a different religion!
The failing Roman Empire needed an emperor, and Jesus was used to fill the power gap. In effect, we Christians took Jesus out of the Trinity and made him into God on a throne. An imperial system needs law and order and clear belonging systems more than it wants mercy, meekness, or transformation. Much of Jesus’ teaching about simple living, nonviolence, inclusivity, and love of enemies became incomprehensible. Relationship—the shape of God as Trinity—was no longer as important. Christianity’s view of God changed: the Father became angry and distant, Jesus was reduced to an organizing principle, and for all practical and dynamic purposes, the Holy Spirit was forgotten.
Fifteen hundred years after James wrote his letter, Luther called it the “Epistle of Straw” because he couldn’t make it fit his shiny new narrative about Jesus. In his outsized arrogance, he couldn’t imagine being wrong, so James must be. James handed Martin string. Martin made a tangled web.
I see people dangling from the tangled webs of former Christianities all over the place, when the answer to following the teachings of the living Jesus hasn’t changed since Calvary.
Be honest with yourself. Be kind to others. Welcome the stranger and sojourner. Feed the hungry. Fight for the powerless. Be the hands and heart of God in the world. Give everything of yourself and you will know what it feels like to feel God inside you and all around you.
Do not spend your lives spinning webs of self-deception.
Rather, simply go and do likewise. Or as we like to put it…
Be the Church.
Thanks be to God.