Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Knock, knock, Neo

All geeks know the importance of ritual.  We all know that if Billy Batson doesn't say the magic word, there is no Captain Marvel.  We know that if he doesn't figure out why the penitent man may pass Indiana Jones will lose his head.  We know that if we forget to search that dog house directly west of Rosewater Park we won't get to see the "Dog" ending of Silent Hill 2.  And we know that when the GM says, "When last we left our intrepid heroes..." that it's time to settle in for an adventure.

Ritual is important in the Hebrew Scriptures, too.  It's what protects God's chosen people from having their faces melted like a bunch of Nazis when they approach the glory of the presence of God (not the actual presence... again, face melty).  Or like poor Nadab and Abihu, who tried to make up their own ritual and paid the ultimate price for it.  So the questions we find in Micah 6 aren't actually all that strange:
‘With what shall I come before the Lord,
   and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings,
   with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
   with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
   the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’ 
Ok, so the questions get a little over the top—maybe even a little whiney!  But not so strange.  After all, nobody wants their face melted when they approach their God, right?  Ritual is important.

So Micah's response is actually kind of surprising:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
   and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
   and to walk humbly with your God? 
So...  all this important, please-don't-melt-my-face ritual... isn't important?  Could it really be as simple as do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly before God?

The thing is...  simple isn't necessarily easy.  Ritual is easy, but at best it leads you to an understanding of the simple truths that ritual points to:  Do justice.  Love kindness.  Walk humbly before your God.  If you take these truths seriously, it upends the world every time.

Jesus, of course, was absolutely brilliant at turning the world upside down.  I don't just mean a little bit, either.  I'm talking about full on, David-Bowie-stole-your-brother-eating-the-Red-Pill upside down.  Despite everything we've been taught by the world and everything our own experiences have led us to believe, Jesus tells us that the blessed—that the winners at life—are actually the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted—and reviled.  Jesus looks at a world that says that those strong enough be winners are blessed and turns it upside down.

Or, actually, Jesus points out that the world is already upside down and we just haven't noticed yet.  Wake up, Neo...

And the really frustrating thing is that, for all the progress we've made in the two-thousand-some-odd years since then, we still live in an upside down world.  So what's to be done about it?  Nothing, except do justice, love kindness and walk humbly before God...

Be good to each other,
Rev. Josh

The scripture lessons for January 19th—The Second Sunday after Epiphany Year A—are:
Micah 6:1-8Psalm 151 Corinthians 1:18-31Matthew 5:1-12

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

You All Meet in a Tavern...

The Epistle lesson for this Sunday feels out of place to me in relation to the rest of the lectionary readings, but I was really struck by it when I read it for several reasons.  The first reason is that the quote from Felicia Day (as reported by Wired) that I talked about last week was still very much in my mind:
“We have to mean something ourselves, and not just get trapped into, ‘Hey, everything’s just a mashup T-shirt,’” Day says in Episode 91 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “The substance of what it means to be a geek is essentially someone who’s brave enough to love something against judgment. The heart of being a geek is a little bit of rejection.”
In order to keep your sanity as a Christian you absolutely must love against judgement—we have to understand that there will always be at least a little bit of rejection at the heart of being a Christian.  This is something that modern Christianity—especially in the United States—has forgotten.  Very broadly, it went something like this: people flocked to the church in the midst and the wake of World War II and taught their children the importance of their faith.  When their children grew up, they taught their own children to go to church because it's expected of us and because I told you to, that's why.  So we've had about two and a half generations of people for whom morning worship was simply what was done on Sunday.  Now those generations are looking at those of us who came after and wondering why they can't see that they're just plain degenerate for not showing up to worship.

Don't worry, I'm not going to get into a huge discussion of the "spiritual but not religious" crowd.  Not this week anyway.  But I will say this—the other reason I was struck by the Epistle lesson was that it shows that the problems "spiritual but not religious" folk have with organized religion have always been there.  "For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters."  Church people have always been quarreling with each other and they have always been claiming that their own "brand" of the faith is superior to that of their neighbor.  Paul responds by reminding them that "...the message about the cross is foolishness..." to the rest of the world.  So why spend a lot of ultimately negative energy fighting about who's better than whom?  There will always be some rejection at the heart of being a Christian.

I don't see much, if any, of that theme in the Gospel lesson or the Hebrew lesson(s) it alludes to.  Instead I keep coming back to what the common expectations of what the Messiah was going to be like when Jesus was born, grew up, and served out his ministry on earth.  Remember that Israel had been conquered by the Roman empire.  Herod the Great (famous for spending lots of money to tear down the temple in Jerusalem to build it again—only bigger—and for being a completely ruthless bastard) and his successor and son, Herod Antipas (famous for executing John the Baptist, his role in the execution of Jesus, and for divorcing his wife so he could marry his brother's wife—yes you read that right) were named "King of the Jews" by the Roman Senate and Caesar Augustus, respectively.  So when people talked about a savior, a Messiah, an "anointed one," they were thinking of a political and military hero.  They were imagining the next King David—a true "King of the Jews" who would come to kick butts and chew bubblegum...  and he'd be all out of bubblegum.  So when Herod Antipas has John the Baptist beheaded for running his mouth—John was appalled at the whole divorcing his wife so he could have his brother's wife thing—and Jesus began preaching that the Kingdom of God was at hand and started gathering people to him...  Well, it kind of feels like the beginning of a fantasy novel or a Dungeons & Dragons campaign.  The hero of the story starts building his party, right?  A hearty band of adventurers who will rise up against the evil empire and destroy it!  Actually, that sounds more like Star Wars, but you get the point.

Of course, Jesus doesn't turn out to be that kind of King.  Only one member of the party died and stayed dead in that campaign.  Oh, and every single one of them wanted to play the cleric!  That's not to say that Jesus wasn't fighting for something—it just turned out not to be that kind of fight.  Forming up his adventuring party was no small thing.  Rich and poor and middle class, his disciples dropped everything they were doing, left their jobs and their families, and their lives behind to follow Jesus.  And he may not have led an armed revolution, but the things he was preaching... well, they all came from his understanding of the Hebrew Bible, but they were still revolutionary!  There was a lot of what we would call "economic justice" today in what Jesus taught.  The kinds of things that Pope Francis has been saying‐the kinds of things that have been ruffling the feathers of wealthy Americans.  That message and the reaction it has been receiving is perhaps best summed up in the words of Dom Helder Camara, "When I feed the poor, they call me a saint, but when I ask why the poor are hungry, they call me a communist."

Talk about the message of the Cross being foolishness to the world!  Talk about rejection being at the heart of what it means to be a Christian!

Huh.  Maybe that earlier theme was in there after all...

Be good to each other,
Rev. Josh

The scripture lessons for January 26th—The Third Sunday after Epiphany Year A—are:

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Big Bang Theory

There are actually several great theological themes in the scripture lessons for Sunday, but this week I'm especially drawn to the concepts of call (or vocation, if you will) and—believe it or not—evangelism. Basically the idea of having a calling or vocation is that God has given you certain gifts—certain talents—and that the appropriate response and the perfect "thank you" are to use those gifts in the most faithful way possible.  Sometimes it's really obvious when someone has found their calling and are using their God-given gifts to their fullest potential.  Just off the top of my head I think of Fred Rodgers, Mother Theresa, Jim Henson, Nelson Mandela... you get the point.  Sometimes it's not as obvious, like when your car mechanic doesn't sabotage your vehicle to ensure future business. The point is to use your gifts for the benefit of all—and that's something that shows, whether or not your light is shining on the world's stage or just in the local garage.

The word "evangelism" has come to be associated with stuff that makes a lot of people—even ordained clergy!‐really, really uncomfortable. For some it simply brings to mind folk knocking on the door and imploring you to read a copy of The Watchtower or The Book of Mormon.  For others it evokes brands of fundamentalist theology that believe they have the only correct answers to life's questions and that any other answers are one-way tickets straight to hell.

And that's sad.  Because evangelism is about being so excited about your own path that you simply have to tell other people about it.  There are plenty of truly awesome and righteous religious paths out there, and I find it deeply tragic that such a small handful of them have the reputation for wanting and needing to share how awesome and righteous they are with the rest of the world.

I think this is a place where Christianity—especially local mainline churches—could learn a lot from geek culture.  The first thing that springs to mind for me is one of my favorite quotes from Felicia Day (as reported by Wired):
“We have to mean something ourselves, and not just get trapped into, ‘Hey, everything’s just a mashup T-shirt,’” Day says in Episode 91 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “The substance of what it means to be a geek is essentially someone who’s brave enough to love something against judgment. The heart of being a geek is a little bit of rejection.”
That first part, by the way, strikes me as getting at the idea of vocation—we have to mean something.  Maybe that's something that Christianity could be helping geek culture with while geek culture helps Christianity with that second part.  Even if it means a little bit of rejection, we have to love the path we're on against judgement.

The second thing that comes to me—the best popular culture example of what I want to get at here—is The Big Bang Theory.  Now, I have to say that I—like many geeks—have a love/hate relationship with the program.  But that's probably its own post at some point.

For now I want to uplift one of the things that keeps me watching.  The fact is that the program came out of a marriage between two different show ideas:  The first was about these two genius roommates—the kind of people who's thoughts and work change the world, but who simply can't relate to the rest of us in socially acceptable ways.  The second was about this naive country girl moving to the big city to try to break into acting and ending up as a waitress.  Combining these two things into one show mean that all the tension and comedy—the story, in other words—come out of the meeting of these two worlds.  One of the things I love about the series is that when those worlds meet each other, they affect change in each other.

One of the ways these two genius geeks affect change in this Nebraskan wanna-be actress is through that substance of what it means to be a geek that Felicia Day identified.  What they love they love with reckless abandonment—all the stereotypical geeky things, from D&D to comic books—despite all the snarky comments she could throw at them.  And the cool thing is that their obvious love of these things does draw her in.  The love all these things so much that their response to her making fun of them is to say (echoes of Jesus in the Gospel lesson for Sunday) "Come and see."  Sit down and watch Star Trek with us.  Come to the comic book store with us.

Christianity in general, and local mainline churches specifically, need to ask themselves if they're so excited about the path they're on that they would love it despite the judgement of their neighbors.  Do they love their path so much that they "geek out" over it?  Are the excited enough about their path that they simply can't help saying "come and see?"

Be good to each other,
Rev. Josh

The scripture lessons for January 19th—The Second Sunday after Epiphany Year A—are:

Sunday, January 5, 2014