You Can’t Kill Eternal Norms
The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
"’I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.’”
These words of Peter from the Book of Acts are spoken to the Roman centurion, Cornelius, and other gentiles in Cornelius’ home, after Peter has a revelatory dream about who can be included in the membership of the early Christian church. Up until that dream it was required by the church elders that to be a member of the church one had to follow the Jewish law, including dietary restrictions and male circumcision. Peter’s epiphany, which was a message from God, caused him to have a change of heart. Where he once believed that partiality needed to be shown toward who could be a part of the Church, he now doesn’t. God showed him otherwise. All are able to be included as long as they honored God and did what was acceptable to God: Which translates as following the way of life that Jesus taught us as he preached the unfolding reign of God.
In that revelation to Peter, God explodes the norms that guided the religious society of that day. Norms that were restrictive and exclusive were set aside, and new norms of inclusion and radical welcome were set in place.
How are we doing with that folks? How are we living into the norms of God’s reign that Jesus preached? How are we doing showing no partiality toward others? Others who we may find different from us and may want to exclude, but rather doing what is right and acceptable to God, which is to love them? How are we individually and as a society, doing with that?
I would venture to say poorly. In fact, instead there has been an increase in showing partiality – even what I would call hyper-partiality - and of excluding others who we don’t think fit into the fabric of our country, our neighborhoods, our schools, and our churches, over the past few years.
So extreme are some elements of this trend of showing partiality, that the norms of our society and of God’s reign are being ignored, and even at times maligned, as not being of God.
In a New York Times op-ed piece recently titled, “People Can Savage Social Norms, but Also Revive Them,” columnist David Brooks speaks to the current assault on norms that we as a culture and nation once held dear.
He writes, “A culture is made up of norms — simple rules that govern what thoughts, emotions and behaviors are appropriate at what moment. It’s appropriate to be appalled when people hit their dogs. It’s inappropriate to ask strangers to tell you their income.”
‘Most norms are invisible most of the time. They’re just the water in which we swim. We unconsciously absorb them by imitating those around us. We implicitly know that if we violate a norm, there will be a social cost, maybe even ostracism.”
Some of the norms that Brooks is speaking of are civility, common courtesy, mutual respect, which includes not verbally or physically abusing others, and just plain old common decency. In times past these were the norms that guided society and allowed us to live together in reasonable harmony.
Yet these norms are being flaunted, often with glee. And in many circles instead of people who do so being ostracized by others - or at the least challenged - they are being encouraged, being lifted up as good people with a noble cause. At times it gets so extreme it seems as if a new blood sport has come into vogue in savaging these previously accepted norms, which are being thrown to the lions like so many Christians during Roman persecutions of the faith.
Brooks observes, “We’re living in a moment when norms are in maximum flux. [Those in public office] have smashed through hundreds of our established norms and given people permission to say things, [and I would observe, do things as well] that were unsayable [and, again, I would add, undoable] just a decade ago. Especially in politics, the old rules of decorous behavior no longer apply.”
Yet, some norms are eternal and should never be disregarded, and certainly not savaged. These eternal norms find their genesis in the sacred texts of the Jewish and Christian scriptures. Norms like: caring and providing for the alien and stranger in our midst. Seeking after the welfare of widows, orphans, the sick and vulnerable, the poor. Protecting those imperiled by violence. Living the values of the Beatitudes. Seeking Christ in all persons. Loving those who don’t love us. Respecting the dignity of every human being. These are the norms of God’s reign that Jesus and the prophets proclaimed; norms which have undergirded the norms of civil society.
It was in upholding the values of these eternal norms of God that Jesus was scourged, crucified and died. He was savaged by those who saw those norms of non-violence, radical respect and love as being of little or no value.
The Resurrection of Jesus from the grave is God’s response to Jesus’ death, and the attempt to negate those norms he proclaimed. Resurrection is God’s validation of what Jesus preached about the poor, the outcast, the penitent, the marginalized, the despised. Despite anyone’s best attempts you cannot kill those norms that God lifts up in Jesus’ Resurrection, just like you can’t kill Jesus, because those norms find their source in God. They are eternal.
Resurrection of these norms in our own time is to be our response to those who have savaged them. Paraphrasing David Brooks, people can savage these eternal norms, but that God, through us, can resurrect them.
The theologian, Amy-Jill Levine states that, “The whole message of the Bible, and specifically of the kingdom of Heaven, is to see the world otherwise: as God wants it to be rather than as it is.” That’s why we who profess faith in Jesus need to resurrect these norms. We see the world otherwise. We see the world the way God wants it to be. And as we see in the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead, God will not be thwarted by anyone who would savage the ways of God.
On this Resurrection Sunday, we are called to work toward resurrecting decency and civility. We are called to resurrect non-violence and the complete welcome of the other. We are called to resurrect mutual respect and honor the dignity of every human being.
These are the norms of God’s reign. They are the norms that Jesus died for and for which God raised him from the dead.
The empty tomb represents the triumph of those norms over the way of savagery, of hope re-renewed in what Jesus taught and preached. They are an invitation to participate in God’s work of building God’s reign through Jesus Christ. For us this Easter and every day that follows may it be so.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
He Loves Us So
Betrayal by his friends and colleagues, condemnation by the community that raised him, scorn and mockery, taunting and humiliation, torture, an excruciating execution, and finally death. As we reflect on this, our Lord’s Passion, the thing that seems most important is that question why did he do it?
The answer may seem familiar to you, but I’d like to take the time to tell the story of the answer to this question as it played it out in my own life. And it’s my prayer that something in this story will resonate with you today.
It was late spring/early summer in my little town of Berrien Springs in rural Michigan. The sun was shining, the skies were blue, but if you had the chance to see me that day, I suspect that you would have assumed that the sky was slate gray from the brooding, stormy, look on my face. I had a copy of the complete works of William James in my hand (I was in college), and I was seriously thinking about throwing this Christianity thing in the garbage and becoming perhaps a religious skeptic like James was. Because I realized that the Church I loved didn’t really love people like me.
To be a gay college student in a rural Midwest Christian college town, is very challenging. Especially if you were a Theology major, which I was at the time. But it didn’t bother me much at first. I’d grown up in a very unique version of conservative Christianity that my whole family had, in one way or another, dedicated their lives to for generations. And I fully expected to continue in their footsteps. When it slowly dawned on me in High-School that I was “one of those”, people, I thought to myself that as long as I followed the rules of our denomination, which was if you’re gay don’t be in any relationships, I was fine. So I’d just ignore that part of life, and get on with the rest of it. A recent Presidential candidate who grew up not 20 minutes south of where I lived in a similar climate didn’t come out of the closet until he was 34! And I definitely planned to exceed that example.
It was fine, for a while. But as the controversy about whether gay relationships were valid heated up in my denomination, and the topic of gay Christians started to be discussed more and more on my college campus, I began to realize that what I believed didn’t just affect me and my personal life, it affected the lives of all of the other people around me. The people I was hoping to minister too. I also realized that in regions of the world where people who thought like my Church did had more influence in the political process, being gay was illegal. People went to jail. Were being tortured and beaten, even killed. Just for who they were. And the reasons given for this brutal treatment were often the same arguments that my Denomination made for why they were against gay relationships. In some of these countries, the people making these arguments were members of my own church.
I began to realize that these teachings caused harm, but, even more significantly, I began to realize that we didn’t HAVE to teach these things. We were choosing to interpret and apply the Bible in ways that were causing people unnecessary harm, for reasons that had nothing to do with science or facts, but only a conviction, that a group of people were inferior to others. And realizing that the Church that I loved, that had taught me to love others, to be just and honest and true and good, and fight for the oppressed, and stand up to things that caused others harm. That this Church that I had dedicated my life to could be involved in anything like that. It broke me.
I realized for the first time that my Church wasn’t safe for me or people like me. And if my church wasn’t safe, what Church was? Maybe Christianity was too dangerous a faith to be a part of. Maybe all religion was. This is where I was at that sunny day, as I wandered the roads of my little town.
But as I walked along the road a song started playing in my head:
“Jesus, blood, never failed me yet, never failed me yet, Jesus blood, never failed me yet, this one thing I know, that he loves me so”.
Again and again that song penetrated my head and my heart. I repeated it over and over as I walked along the road. I thought about all the good things God had done for me and my family through the years. All the miracles wrought, all the strength our faith had given us, all the love we experienced as members of this flawed, broken, but spirit infused body of our Lord Jesus Christ. And I reflected on the One who chose, of His own free will to become incarnate by the virgin Mary and suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified died and was buried for me and for you and for everyone. And I looked up at that sunny sky and I said: “Jesus, I know who you are. You would never give up on me, so I won’t give up on you”.
I made a lot of changes in my life after that. But as you can see, I’m still here, in the Christian faith, because of this night when God, who so loved the world, gave his only Son so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life. That’s John 3:16. 1 John 3:16 says: “We know love by this that he laid down his life for us”.
So why did Jesus suffer all of these things? Why did he die, such an ignominious death? And why does it matter? It matters because every time we hear this story on Good Friday, we remember once again about Christ’s love that can change our lives and transform our world into the paradise of love and friendship that it was always meant to be.
The God We Need, Not The God We Want
The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
There’s a Holy Week prayer that states, “O Holy Jesus, we remember that many who claimed you as King on Palm Sunday shouted ‘Crucify’ on Friday.”
What caused the crowds who hailed Jesus with their wildly enthusiastic Hosanna’s on Palm Sunday to turn against Jesus so that they wanted him dead and gone by Good Friday?
Those sage theologians Mick Jagger and Keith Richards offer some crucial insight into this question when they sing:
“You can't always get what you want
You can't always get what you want
You can't always get what you want
But if you try sometimes well you might find
You get what you need.”
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards
The Rolling Stones would have understood what the crowds in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and Good Friday did not: that in Jesus they were not going to get what they wanted, but in Jesus they would end up getting what they needed.
You see the crowds who hailed Jesus as King, waving palm branches and throwing down their cloaks before him, did so because they wanted a Messiah who would lead them to overthrow the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire. They wanted a warrior, a mighty leader of King David’s lineage. As the events of Holy Week unfolded and Jesus did not so much as lift a finger to organize an insurrection, (in fact he prevented any violence on the part of his followers,) these same crowds came to the realization they were not going to get the Messiah they wanted. And so, in their eyes he was a failure, a disappointment and they turned on him. By Friday those who had proclaimed, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord” were screaming for Jesus’ blood. When Pilate presented the arrested Jesus to the crowds saying, “Here is your King!” the crowds cried out, “Away with him! Crucify him!” (Jn. 19:14c, 15a)
William Temple, one of the great Archbishop’s of Canterbury once said, “If you have a false idea of God, the more religious you are, the worse it is for you - it were better for you to be an atheist.”
That’s the lesson we can learn from the crowds in Jerusalem that final week of Jesus’ life. False images of God always lead to huge disappointment for those who see themselves as being religious. Our false ideas of God will lead us to believe that God has failed us, because we don’t get what we want.
But it doesn’t only lead to disappointment; the failure of our false images can incite people to resentment, hatred, revenge, betrayal and violence. Not getting the god we want infuses people with hideous ugliness.
Look at the current debate in the public square with voices of progressive Christians rising up against right-wing Evangelicals who have created a god they want; a god of hatred, exclusion, and even violence, but deny the God they need, which is the one and only God, the God of radical inclusion, non-violence and love. And as we have witnessed, when political leaders follow the gods they want, it leads not only to bad public policy, but an endangered society. When the false god you want encounters the God you need, things can get very ugly.
Which god do we profess? The one we want or the one we need? The one we pray, “thy will be done” to, or the one we say, “my will be done” too.
When we don’t get what we want, when things do not turn out the way we desire, when we believe God doesn’t answer our prayers, or at least doesn’t answer them in the way we want, we ask “Why?”
I am sure the people who wanted Jesus to lead an insurrection against Rome and instead got a non-violent, pacifist, asked “Why?”
“We thought you were the one. Why did you fail us? Why did you let yourself get arrested? Why didn’t you fight, draw swords? Why did you have to die on a cross? The Messiah’s not supposed to get crucified.”
I know plenty of people who struggle with serious doubts and even have left their faith behind because they keep asking God similar “why” questions. Why did this person have to die? Why do I have cancer? Why do millions go hungry every day? Why did I loose my job? And when they do not get the answer they want their faith crumbles, some even leave their faith, even calling it false. Oddly enough this fulfills Archbishop Temple’s observance that they would be better of being an atheist. But is what they need still present in the God they think has failed them?
The truth is, God is not absent when the why questions come up in life. We just get focused on what we want that we fail to see the presence of the God we need.
Jesus also had his moments when it all didn’t make sense to him. Moments of fear, doubt, feeling abandoned by God as he endured some of the worst “why” evoking treatment any human being could imagine. In the Garden of Gethsemane he prayed to God, “If it be possible let this cup pass from my lips. Never the less, not my will, but your will be done.” In that plaintive prayer we understand that Jesus can’t get what he wants, because if he did, we would not have the Messiah we need.
Brian McLaren writes this about Jesus in Gethsemane: “Jesus is trusting God. He believes that, whatever happens, God can turn it for good. I have tried, but I have never succeeded in imagining a trust more naked and pure than this.” McLaren says.
In the midst of facing unspeakable suffering, pain, humiliation, abandonment and death, Jesus trusts God.
His is an incomparable witness of being the Messiah we need, not the one we want. And he does this for us.
On the night before he died, at that last meal with his disciples, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and gave to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given . . . for you.”
And he says this to people for whom he was the biggest disappointment: the man who would betray him, the man who would deny him three times before the morning dawned, the men who would run from him like so many rats deserting a sinking ship when he was arrested.
“This is my body, which is given . . . for you.”
And he gave his body for us as well. Everything Jesus endures – including our false ideas of who he should be - he does for us so that we might have life and light and hope in his name: Even for those who profess the false gods we want, even for those who are disappointed in him; even for those who have abandoned him; even those who no longer believe.
My sisters and brother, if you try to get to Easter without going through Good Friday you end up with a false god. You may believe that to be a perpetually happy god who will make you always feel good. But ultimately, that god will let you down and let you down hard. Because of your pain, fears, and uncertainties this happy god may be the one you want, but that god has no ability to provide you with hope or light or new life; only of temporarily forgetting your problems. This is a god who is an escape from reality, a god who anesthetizes you with false promises. That god is impotent. That god has no ability to turn the worst that life will bring you into anything good. This is not a god to place our trust in. Although you may want this god, you don’t need this god.
That’s the lesson of Holy Week. In all it’s myriad events we witness the God we need: the authentic God of compassion and forgiveness and radical love, the God who comes to know our human pain and suffering – (who bears the scars of our wounds) and who then over-comes it all - including death itself - through love.
Trusting in God’s desire to bring good out of all things, Jesus got to Easter. In Jesus we get the God we need. We get the God who actually saves us from those false gods. Because of that with Jesus we too will get to Easter and new, resurrected life. Thanks be to God! Amen.