Thursday, March 29, 2012

Hunger Games: bread and circuses in the 21st century

Lent 5 B; March 25, 2012
Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 119:9-16
Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33

How many of you went to see “The Hunger Games” this weekend?

How many of you read the book?

How many of you know what I am talking about?

I have to admit that the most I know about “The Hunger Games” came from the reviews of the movie in Friday’s newspapers. The story takes place in, as the New York Times calls it, a “picturesque dystopia.” Every year in this post-post-United States North America, a set of teenagers is chosen to fight to the death – and to have these games televised – until one hero or heroine survives. This plot device is a direct steal from the Roman Empire, from the custom of “bread and circuses.” The name of the empire in “The Hunger Games” is even “Panem,” the Latin word for bread.

This formula [of bread and circuses, historians tell us] offered a variety of pleasures such as: the distribution of food, public baths, gladiators, exotic animals, chariot races, sports competition, and theater representation. It was an efficient instrument in the hands of the Emperors to keep the population peaceful, and at the same time giving them the opportunity to voice themselves in these places of performance. … [1]

The emperors and their minions organized the games, and the gladiators were the peoples of the lands conquered by the Empire:

German, Spanish, Welsh, Britannic, black Africans, nomadic Russians, and Jews from Jerusalem. … using the defeated enemy to entertain the public was a triumph in victory.[2]

I think this is indeed what “The Hunger Games” is based on: a central, imperial power using brute force to divide and conquer subjected people.

If we read the Gospels closely, we will see that this reality of empire, this ever-present reality of brute force, of violence, of subjugation, is the foreground of the gospels. The story of Jesus takes place in the face of this empire, of its fear, of its force. It is the social context in which the Jews, and Jesus, lived. It is the air they breathe, the water they drink, the bread they consume.

If you think about it, we Christians cannot really understand why the Romans had Jesus executed. He was such a nice person, who said such nice things. It is hard to get back into that space, where the surrounding world was so brutal, and what Jesus said and did was in such enormous contrast. What was going on, 2000+ years ago?

One historian who has helped me make sense of this context of Jesus ministry is John Dominic Crossan. “Most of the world works on a greed system,” he says.

Keep that in mind. On a big scale, we like to keep ours and take lots of other peoples’ things. So empires usually run on that principle and on the premise that they own the world. The Roman emperors had not the slightest doubt that they were in charge of the entire world … if I were to attach a motto to the Roman Empire, I would say, “First victory, then peace.” It’s the program the world’s been run on for about 5,000 years.

What was so shocking to some, and so thrilling to others, in the first century, was that Jesus proclaimed a very different kind of empire, a different kingdom ruled by a different king. Instead of vanquishing your enemies in the “hunger games,” where death is the final answer, Jesus says, ”unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” The standard for Jesus, and for the kingdom of this God is not victory but service; not smashing one’s enemies but justice. Crossan puts it this way:

Jesus’ program is: “First justice, then peace.” That’s the real thing. Otherwise, you have peace for a while, but then eventually wars break out, and you start all over again.

Jesus’ message was thrilling to some, and threatening to others, because he challenged the “victory” status quo. Peace in the kingdom of heaven came when people realized there was enough to go around, when there was justice, when God worked in a collaborative way. Peace came to Caesar’s empire only after the enemies were vanquished, and forced to “entertain” in the arena of bread and circuses. It became a never-ending cycle of violence and vanquish: there was always someone rising up who did not want to be conquered.

When we enter Holy Week, walking that way with Jesus, we enter that alternate reality, that explanation of the world that Jesus followers found so compelling that they were willing to risk angering the Empire to follow him. We, too, are tired of a world of violence and vanquishment. We too are ready to hear a different story, a different vision of how we can live our lives. We, too, are ready to hear the story of a God who cares about us, who brings us a new vision of how the world works.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Everyone is friended

Lent 4 B           March 18, 2012
Numbers 21:4-9
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice

There are people who are putting an “end to the world” spin on this “mild” winter and “early” spring. A Gallup poll released last week measured opinions on global warming – opinions of people like US, mind you; not the learned opinions of climatologists. Nevertheless, here are some of the results: over the past decade, Republicans have become slightly less convinced that global warming is occurring. Yet now almost third more Democrats as ten years ago are convinced that global warming is here, and they are nearly twice as likely as Republicans to believe this! Independents, as you might guess, although they tend to be a little closer to Democrats in their opinion on global warming, are somewhere in the middle. Wherever you are on this issue is Ok with me.

This famous “John 3:16” gospel – strewn across billboards and the foreheads of Christian athletes – seems kind of associated with the “end times” but if we look closer at it, and at the passage in the Book of Numbers to which it refers, I think we would get another reading. The Gospel of John, despite its being the favorite of people who might consider themselves conservative Christians, is not about the wrath at the end of time, not about the rapture, nor the division of the good and the bad into the sheep and the goats. In the Gospel of John, we read in this third chapter, Jesus affirms that God loves THE WORLD. The WHOLE world. God in the Gospel of John is a universalist: God sent Jesus into the world so that everyone, everywhere might be saved. The invitation is to all of us. The end times in the Gospel of John is one big love-fest, a come-as-you-are party. Everybody is “friended.”

The connection between this passage in John, where Jesus refers to Moses and the snakes, and the passage about Moses and the snakes, is – healing. Think of the caduceus, that ancient symbol for medicine, with snakes entwined around a staff. As Moses lifts up his staff, Jesus says, the Son of Man – referring to himself – will be lifted up – a sign, not of the end times or terrible days, but of eternal life.

God’s great mission, as the Gospel of John sees it, is for all of us to gain eternal life. For all of us to find healing and wholeness. For all of us to walk in the light and not in the darkness. For all of us to follow Jesus into that place of blessedness. Listen to all of these ways Jesus describes himself and his mission: I am the bread of life, the bread that came down from heaven. I am the light of the world; whoever follows me will never walk in darkness. I am the gate for the sheep; whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. I am the good shepherd. I am the resurrection and the life. I am the way, the truth and the life. I am the vine, you are the branches. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself – to this cross on which the glory of God is revealed, this cross, which is the medicine of the world, which brings about the healing of the world.

One of the temptations of the Gospel of John is to read it personally – this healing, this welcome, this walking in the light is only about ME. Yes, of course we need healing in our own bodies, in our own lives, but do we not resonate with that universal message of John? Just as the love of God is not only for us alone, but for us together, healing, too, is more than personal. It is social, corporate, world-wide, universal.

… come, you who are burdened by regrets and anxieties, you who are broken in body or in spirit, you who are torn by relationships and by doubt, you who feel deeply within yourselves the divisions and injustices of our world.[ii]

For God so loved the world that he sent his Son – not to end the world but to show us the way, to bring us light, to heal and to refresh and to feed and to lead and to guide.

[i] “Fire and Ice” by Robert Frost
[ii] From the Iona Service of Healing

There is enough to go around

Lent 3 B           March 11, 2012
Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22

“Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.”

That is how our collect, or opening prayer for this Sunday started out. That is a peculiarly un-Anglican statement, although it is a statement of completely orthodox Christian theology. It’s like St. Paul: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” It’s like St. Augustine, reflecting that on that passage from Paul: “Who then should deliver me from the body of this death, but your grace only, through Jesus Christ our Lord?” [i]

Augustine devoted much of his writing to refuting the thought of the followers of the British monk, Pelagius, who believed that we did indeed have “the power in ourselves to help ourselves.” Pelagius thought Christians were depending on the grace of God just to get themselves off the hook, to live, as he regarded it, morally irresponsible lives. In modern words, Pelagius would say:

God has given you free will. You can choose to follow the example of Adam, or you can choose to follow the example of Christ. God has given everyone the grace he needs to be good. If you are not good, you simply need to try harder.[ii]

"Pelagius" is the Latin name
for the Welsh monk, Morgan
There are many times in my life when I have found this “heresy” of Pelagius far more compelling than the orthodox theology of grace. Pelagianism makes more sense when I am stewing over someone who has really wronged me, over someone who has taken those 10 Commandments and cast them to the wind, put his or her hands up, moaning with cheap repentance, with a shallow restatement of Paul’s “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” line. Grace seems far too cheap for some people – but wait. I’d better stop here, before I persuade you of what really is a central distortion of how we understand how God works in the world. People do sin, and yes, there are consequences, but the first, last and most powerful response of God is grace, love and forgiveness.

So then, why do we need “the law” at all, if grace abounds? The very un-Anglican John Calvin described the law as mirror, fence, and guide. The mirror shows the harsh reality (what we have done, and left undone). The fence restrains bad behavior – remember all of those Puritan “blue laws”? (Don’t buy liquor on Sundays – or else!) Finally, Calvin’s image of the law as a guide for living comes closest to how the faithful Jew understands the law, which, as we sang in Psalm 19, is a delight and a joy. The heart of the law, for a Jew, is the Sabbath, the goal of life is this day of rest, the time when all commerce, all work, stop, when you refrain from doing anything else to change the world God has created.

But the world we live in is very big, where the rules society has us follow are not necessarily determined by God. Some people, and we hear them on that endless news cycle, think we should “go back” to a whole society living by God’s rules. Alas: it was never thus. Go back to those 10 Commandment times: the Jews were a tiny group, living in a big imperial sea. They always had to live as a cell inside a larger and sometimes voracious organism: the Egyptians, the Philistines, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Romans. The law was something profoundly counter-cultural, something which indeed freed you from the tyranny of all those “-isms.” The law is holiness, yes, but it is also justice. The 10 Commandments make it possible not only for YOU to live the good life, but for your neighbor to live it as well. Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann says the Sabbath rest, the heart of the law is

… for self, for neighbor, and even for God … the goal and quintessence of life….a kind of 'at-homeness' that precludes hostility, competition, avarice, and insecurity…and anticipates a community of peace, well-being, and joy.[iii]

Which is how we get to Jesus throwing the money-changers out of the Temple. The law of the Lord is perfect – not a place for hostility, competition, avarice and insecurity. The law is the mirror, the fence and the guide: the money changers in the Temple jumped the fence long ago, they have smashed the mirror and have forgotten the guide. Yesterday’s New York Times[iv] ran an article about the national organization of religious congregations taking their money out of banks, like the Bank of America, which profited shamelessly from writing bad mortgages to people they knew could not pay them, banks whose scandalous behavior tipped the economy into disaster with the foreclosure crisis. Throw those money changers out of the Temple, Jesus would say. God’s world was created with enough for everyone, with enough to go around. Part of what happens during the Sabbath rest is that all of those goodies are redistributed, and what Jesus was doing with all that ruckus in the Temple was to announce that God’s true Sabbath was about to begin.

So, despite all those people who have wronged us, and made us really mad, and committed all those crimes and misdemeanors, Pelagius is wrong and Augustine is right. We are all enfolded in God’s grace after all, and before all, and above all, and around all. No, we don’t have to do it ourselves. We can throw the bums out, but there will be enough to go around for them, too. We can forgive people who have wronged us, as we have been forgiven by God, but we don’t have to reconcile with them. We don’t have to be their best friends anymore; God’s grace will take care of that, too. We can be enraged, as Jesus was enraged, but, like Jesus, we can lead Sabbath-filled lives, knowing that there is enough for everyone – even enough grace – to go around.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Lent 2 B & St David’s Day
March 4, 2012
Genesis 17:1-7,15-16
Psalm 22:22-30
Romans 4:13-25
Mark 8:31-38

It’s a comfortable world we live in, with cute little saints traditions. We have friends who paint their doors blue, an old Celtic custom, I guess – “to keep the pixies away,” my friend said. To confuse those dangerous pagan characters from sneaking into your house at night and snatching your children while they are asleep.

At Coleman’s “Irish” pub, the green beer arrived last weekend – the first Sunday in Lent, no less. I thought bishops in predominantly Irish Roman Catholic dioceses had to give special dispensations so the faithful could celebrate St. Patrick’s DAY without breaking their Lenten obligations. Now it’s a month of green beer, like the month of green milk at Byrne Dairy. 

At Coleman’s, and other such places, apparently, it is all cultural trappings, with no allusions to the reasons behind them; they even built the leprechauns their own “wee door” – a sure sign that the death knell to tradition is its appropriation as “cute” by commercial culture.

Thank goodness the Welsh maintain their allegiance to the stark and the serious. St. David himself was the serious leader of a serious monastic community – so serious they drank no beer at all, only water, and ate only bread, with salt and herbs. Work hard, he said to his brothers in the sermon he preached on the Sunday before his death on March 1 in the year 598. “Do the little things that you have seen me do and heard about. I will walk the path that our fathers have trod before us.”

Whether the customs for these saints’ days are silly or serious, however, they all have this in common: they come from a time long before this one, when people looked at the world in ways far different than the way we moderns do. We no longer understand the world as one full of spirits or saints or devils or pixies. Locks are our safety, not prayers. Miracles have scientific explanations, and God is personal, quiet, domesticated. The kinds of questions we ask have predictable answers.

Until they don’t. Until something unpredictable happens to us: we get bad news. Something shocking shakes up our world. Everything we thought we could count on gets overturned. The easy answers we get from the world around us – from the glib and superficial showmen of our commercial culture – offer us no help or guidance that we can use.

Today’s lessons come from the realm of the world-upsetting. Elderly Abraham and Sarah are given the promise of new life with the birth of a son: astounding and impossible. The love and devotion which Peter shows toward Jesus is denounced as Satanic. To follow me, Jesus says, means to renounce your life and take on my death, that your life is worthless unless it is given up for Jesus, for the gospel, for God. Questions are raised by these life-shattering stories that defy predictable answers. God is not so easily defined.

The contemporary Welsh poet, R.S.Thomas, who died a few years ago, was an Anglican priest. He served congregations in small, stone buildings, surrounded by graveyards, within hearing of the surf and the sea. He was a Welsh nationalist, a pacifist and anti-nuclear activist, and he also hated those English vacationers whose second-home developments were ruining the countryside. He was a critic of this modern, commercially-tainted culture. He saw the world, as his fellow-Welshman Archbishop Rowan Williams wrote, “increasingly denuded of recognizable signals of meaning, increasingly dominated by … ‘the machine’ …”, a world whose chatter and clamor effectively blocked the voice of God in our lives. For Thomas, God was known by his absence, elusive and silent:

He is such a fast
God, always before us, and
leaving as we arrive.(1)

To one kneeling down no word came,
Only the wind’s song, saddening the lips
Of the grave saints, rigid in glass;
Or the dry whisper of unseen wings,
Bats not angels, in the high roof.

Was he balked by silence?  He kneeled long,
And saw love in a dark crown
Of thorns blazing, and a winter tree
Golden with fruit of a man’s body. (2)

R.S. Thomas is our poet for St. David’s Day, channeling an experience of God that cannot be contained by modern conveniences or explanations – an experience of God that stands open to the inexplicable – that shows the cross, which so confounded Peter and the disciples, always with us, before us, above us. The cross, once more, in the poet’s vision, something strange, a harsh instrument of death, no longer the domesticated symbol of the triumphant church, but a symbol of love poured out, love unending, love strange and unknown: blazing, golden, dark and silent, full of unsettling and life-giving grace.

1. Pilgrimages
2. In a Country Church