Sunday, July 15, 2012

When Church Becomes a Business

Mark 6:14-29. . .   John the Baptist lost his head.  Rather, it was taken from him. . .

Seems Herod Antipas, Tetrarch of Galilee, was fond of his brother Philip's wife, Herodias.  Or maybe it was Herodias who was fond of her brother-in-law.  Maybe she sensed that first hubby was going nowhere in the power structure of the day, so she jumped ship. 

Herodias and Antipas were legally married.  Maybe not.  According to John the Baptist, it was "not lawful for Antipas to have Herodias.  Howe'er the marriage had been legally sanctioned, or officially blessed or partied into existence, it was contrary to God's law.  It was offensive to Israelites subject to Herod's rule.  For this and a variety of reasons, Herod had lost any moral autority to lead--IF he ever had any in the first place.     

Herod and Herodias went ahead anyway.  John the Baptist spoke against it.  H&H didn't like such criticism.  They did what two-bit nobility nearly always does in the face of John's condemnation.  They had John arrested:  Incarcerate.  Interrogate.  Then abdicate. 

They abdicated responsibility to do the right thing.  Herod feared a revolt by the people who held John in pretty high regard.  If the people revolted, Rome wouldn't like it.  They might install somebody else.  So, they held John in prison--where he probably preached also.  

Odd thing is, Herod kinda liked to listen to John.  Scripture doesn't say why, but I have a theory.  John was probably the only voice in Herod's circle that wasn't a super-duper YES-man.  By being so different from the enablers around Herod, John would have stood out refreshingly. 

Interesting that we will read the same thing when Herod finally gets the chance to have a visit with the arrested Jesus of Nazareth.

But here's the zinger for today.  Why did the critique of Herod's moral corruption come from the wilderness prophet John the Baptist and not from the High Priest in the priestly court of the temple in Jerusalem?

Again, I have a theory.  I think it's because the priestly class had sold out, had made an unholy alliance with Herod the Great, thereby with Rome itself.  By building the temple, Herod had subjugated the priesthood to a bunch of rotating figureheads who would perform all the ritual sacrifices, provide the place for the purification rites and festivals, provide a Holy of Holies so Father God YHWH could be thought to dwell there. 

All they had to do was keep the people in line serving the temple--and keep the tax money coming in so that Herod's household would be supported sumptuously and so that Rome's cut, the "tribute to Caesar", would keep security in place and the benefits of the alliance in place.

Remember who the High Priest was when Jesus was arrested and tried?  Caiaphas.  Caiaphas who was "High Priest that year", according to Scripture.  But he deferred to his father-in-law Annas who had been High Priest and had behind-the-scenes power.  Patronage got Caiaphas the office of High Priest.  With it, the door opens to corruption, moral confusion, loss of moral authority.

Loss of the ability to be prophetic.  Loss of the ability to speak truth to power.  Loss of the ability to lead.  Hard to say "Thus Sayeth the Lord" when you are constantly checking your daily receipts or your stock portfolio.

No wonder John called the bunch from Jerusalem a brood of vipers, a generation of snakes, when they  came out to hear him at the Jordan.  No wonder Jesus found the changing of money and the selling of animals for sacrifice in the temple a distasteful, idolatrous business.  And no wonder the people who benefitted got hot under the collar when Jesus put a one day dip in profits. 
Amos in his day called the High Priest Amaziah to account.  In a time of peace and prosperity under king Jeroboam, Israel had lost its way.  The holy shrines of the faith were being well cared for, but the widows, the orphans and the poor were being crushed under neglect.  The High Priest called Amos a traitor for asking that "justice roll down like waters, righteousness live an ever-flowing stream".

"Get out," yelled the High Priest.  "Go ply your treasonous trade of truth-telling among our blood-brother enemies in Judah.  Israel regards you as a security threat." 

So Amos left.  It was about the economy, stupid.  The Assyrians would end Israel's grand illusion of immunity because the official church had been, for a time, doing so well.

Doing well and lost its way.  When the church becomes a business.  When it becomes a business in the business of protecting itself, it loses its moral authority.  It cannot lead.

Where is Amos in our day?  Where is John?  Who calls our leaders to account?  When we went to war a decade ago under insanely inaccurate estimates of cost and became so distracted from doing the business of the people's work, God's work, of justice and righteousness, of taking care of the widows, the orphans, the poor...  Where were the leaders of our church(es)? 

Sure, a couple wrote letters, attempted to get an audience in the White House.  But just as many either championed war itself...  or else said nothing.  As did most of us.  How many hunger striking pastors, priests and deacons can we name?

 Anybody who went to jail like Daniel and Philip Berrigan back during the Vietnam War?  Anyone?  Anybody out there who even wrote a letter, sent an e-mail?  Anyone?   

So long as we have unhoused, unemployed, unfed and uncared for right outside our doors, and do not put our first and best efforts to work for them, we are undeserving of a roof, doors, walls over a church to be thought of as a house of God. 

And we won't even talk about taking care of the planet and its ability to support life in future generations.  Pure and simple, we worship consumption and cheap energy that enables it. 

Ironically, the cheap energy we worship is the most expensive energy there is because it is not renewable, and it is even in the near term suicidal. 
 Herod's temple began construction in 20-19 BC.  Work continued until AD 62-64.  80 years a'building.  And then... 

In AD 70, the Romans brought it to the ground.  Smashed it to smithereens.  I think God had no small hand in that.  The temple had lost its moral authority.  It had become a business. 

Lord, save us from ourselves.  Send us Amos, send us John.  Send us all of them rolled into one.

Oh, that's right, You did.  Jesus, your Son.

Father, forgive us.  Lead us.  Amen. 

Monday, July 9, 2012

Finding Church

Throughout the nineteenth and much of the twenthieth centuries in North America, finding "church" meant staying within the believing/practicing community of your ethnicity or immigrant group. "Churches" became synonymous with bricks and mortar--which many of them were. Evangelism was by and large gestational. We made more members by having kids. Demographics change. How many people shop for food, shoes and clothing at neighborhood stores today? We don't. We drive miles to the big new ones. And the old ones die. Now we drive miles to the "attractive" church, passing others by right and left, to find the one that suits us. Christ's church or consumer product?

There's a story in today's paper about how the forest canopy of Portland will be changing. 100-year-old trees will have to be replaced. The tree specialist quoted in the story said trees are like people: they eat, they breathe, they die. I submit that churches do too.

A couple of years ago, an Evangelical pastor I knew returned from another state in frustration. He'd gone back to the congregation he'd planted two decades ago hoping to referee a conflict and help them move forward. He felt he'd failed, and he concluded that maybe it would be best if all churches had a lifespan of 25 years after which they would dissolve and regroup. May be a great deal of wisdom in that. The kingdom of God wouldn't vanish, and the church as the bride of Christ wouldn't cease to exist. To the contrary, perhaps she could emerge from behind her many veils for the first time. Rebirth is, after all, sorta central to our theology and doctrine.

"Church" for me has become the group of volunteers who provide a simple supper for our homeless and low income guests. It's the two AA vets who help at Bible study night. It's sharing their griefs and joys as they share ours. It's G, the one-armed man with a heart for God's kingdom as big as the Rocky Mountains. It's T who finds the most amusing religious cartoons in back issues of the New Yorker. It's R who prays weekly to stay out of prison and complete his probation. It's A who came on her bicycle in blue scrubs from the burn unit at the trauma center to play sweet music on the baby grand with the big, ugly white spots in the crackly aging varnish on its lid.

It's gathering around tables and chairs in a fellowship hall of a downtown church with a dirt floor basement that grows puddles and ponds in our wet months--where our giveaway blankets and clothing are stored... It's S, the Army vet, who recently lost one of his 13 younger siblings but has returned to this city where he has climbed out of eight years of homelessness back to housing and employment. At his dying brother's bedside, S contacted us via Facebook to ask for prayer. We were church to him. Community. Home. The kingdom of God. All of the above.

I never expected church to be this or to look like this, but it's now about the only church I can think of honestly as church. In the five-plus years we have been gathering, an offering of nearly $10,000 has gone out the door, every red cent, to food pantries, Haiti, Japan, Joplin, Chile, Somalia. And now we are starting a new venture: our nickles and dimes and pennies and dollars will go to help wage war against malaria in Africa where 90% of the world's cases exist.

There's a difference between doing church and being church. And if our gut tells us we don't fit where we are, it may be the Holy Spirit's call not to go "find" another church but to go "found" another church--without going in with some kind of preconceived crystal palace notion of what it will become. Christ never calls us to things in order to set us up for failure. We do that for ourselves. If we let ourselves "be" the church, we will find all the church we ever need.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

If Not You

A wise mentor said, "The church survived to the Middle Ages because it outlived, it out-thought, and it outdied the pagan world--in both intellectual and artistic achievement."

My home church once had an Art in Worship group. They produced a few banners for all to see, but that effort has long ceased, overtaken by powerpoint announcements and rolling song lyrics.  Worship visuals some days look more like an Internet homepage than the sacred.

The Art in Worship bunch gave me a nudge, though. They asked me to make a processional cross, staff and base using a motif based on the congregation's name that includes the noun "resurrection".  Not exactly a peripheral deal to Christians. 

That one project led to a whole series of processional crosses of different woods: red mahogany in the shape of square nails with nail holes in it for Lent; a star shaped cross with reflective rays for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany; oak in the shape of stylized lilies for Easter; cherry in the shape of tongues of fire, gusts of breath and drops of water for Pentecost. I plan to do another in walnut with inlaid strands of wheat, a harvest cross for All Saints and Thanksgiving. There's a baptismal font on the chapel with legs in the shape of a Middle Eastern water jar, actually two-one inside the other. The Samaritan woman in John 4 left her jar at the well because she had been given Living Water...

A Native American friend asked me to make a processional cross for her ordination some years ago. It incorporates a whalebone carving of a descending dove by a nearly blind carver in Shishmaref, AK. The rest of the cross works with it: arms of the cross in the shape of kayak paddles, nails in the shape of the handles of the paddles, a staff in the shape of a harpoon. The only fastener in the piece is a length of fishing line. The irony of the human condition is that we would indeed cut up the very tools of survival to crucify the Son of God among us--and we did. And into this the Spirit of God descends with life giving grace.

When I visit a church and the "artwork" on bulletin covers is either stock photgraphs suitable for greeting cards or line drawings not even suitable for comic books, it says something to me about how we see God.  What is on the walls in the fellowship hall, the places where  we open the Word together?  Do we really expect God to show up at church?  Out there in the world?  I took a look at the junk I was using in my own worship folders for folks at Operation Nightwatch.  The stock photos and photocopies went away, and out came the camera.   

The worship folders for our homeless guests now have photos of the beauty and the irony and the prophetic messages left all around us in the city we all share.  Things from the news, artwork that they have made.   

Idea.  Wanna get kids and teens, even adults, excited about making the connection between faith and real life?  Start having 'em contribute photos to illustrate the themes or messages of worship.  Don't even have to give 'em cameras.  They've all got smart phones.  Where did they see the kingdom of God out there this week?  Do they have a story they'd like to tell about it?   

Tomorrow the text is from Mark 6:1-13--the prophet without honor being sent to those who resist, the 12 being sent out unprepared for what God would do. A photo of a protest sign at Occupy Portland captures the moment: If Not You, Who?

If we will not tell God's story, who will? The art we do out of our own lives is the way we tell it. And the way God tells it to us.  So often the function of art is not to provide answers but to help us ask questions, to help us see so that we even know what questions to ask.   

"Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest."
--Matthew 11:28 

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Nature's God...

This morning before putting out my flag, I again read the Declaration of Independence.

Apart from mildly stilted language, general eloquence and lofty ideals, there are a few things that rightly cause us to squirm in our seats. That "all men are created equal" was indeed radical talk by no means broadly accepted then. It still is not today. Sure, "men" may have been the rough equivalent of "humankind" back in '76. But think about the broad classes of human beings to whom the definition of "men created equal" would not have applied. Like women. People of color. No property rights, no educational or civil rights, no citizenship rights--because they were not seen as "men". They could be owned, bought, sold, imported, used for food and wealth production and used for sexual pleasure. All of that was seen as being entirely consistent with the drafters' worldview which they understood to stem from entitlements granted by no less than the "Laws of Nature and of Nature's God". Squirms all around, I hope.

The drafters of the declaration decried the British king's "transporting of large armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, destruction and tyranny..." Today we use them ourselves, calling them "contractors" and "coalition partners". As if they were doing painting or concrete work. We use them to deny the true costs of war. Hardly a grownup position, but the prevailing one.

Then there was the problem of the king's use of "the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions". (See definition of "men" discussion above.) Sounds like an apt description of suicide bombers, better named homicide bombers. But it all too often fits completely what we accomplish with the use of drones. Or rifles back at Wounded Knee. Who was that chief forced to flee a Pharaoh's army to Canada? Why again did we have a Trail of Tears here in USA? Tell me again about smallpox, carpet bombing with alcohol, worthless treaties and "termination". Children shipped off to boarding schools to be decultured but not acculturated.

"Reservations?"  Merciless who?

A wise man once said, "Everybody wants peace. But we also want what we cannot have without war." Our own founding documents call us to repentance and renewal and humility before the God of all people and all things. And may the God of All Things and All People renew us and restore us in steadfast love. And hope.