Fury and Control

We thought that if we were in control, we could make the world a better place, a place that better reflected our wants and values. Instead, we’re no better off than we were before, and we’re probably worse. I see what we’ve done to our world in our attempt to control it, and it infuriates me.

Good Friday
Preached at St. Peter the Fisherman Roman Catholic Church in Eagle River, WI, at the ecumenical Good Friday service organized by the Vacationland Ministerial Association.

John 18:1–19:42

Back in grade school, I hated when we’d break up into teams and play sports. I wasn’t very good at sports—to this day, I’m still not good at sports—and that usually meant I was picked last or close to last. Unless it was something like “who could climb the monkey bars the fastest”, because I was a speed demon on the playground equipment. But basketball, baseball, soccer, ugh. I hated it.

But then, then, I got smart–or at least, I liked to think I got smart. Games have rules, right? And most games need someone to make sure the rules are followed. So I started volunteering to sit out and be the referee, or the umpire, when we’d play team games. As far as I was concerned, this was a win-win. I got to participate without the embarrassment of being picked last, but I also wasn’t really participating, and therefore, couldn’t let my team down. Perfect!

Of course, there was also another reason I liked playing ref or ump. That’s because being ref or ump in a game gives one an enormous amount of power and control in the game. Now I like to think that I was a pretty fair ref, and that even though I didn’t have any real authority I pretended to use it in a just and right way. But there’s no denying that I liked being in that position of control. It was fun. It was really, really fun.

I’m of course not the first human being to be in a position of power and control, and I’m not the first on which it took a hold. From the moment of our creation, we human beings have sought ever higher and higher levels of control. It seems to be wired into our makeup. We always want more control. Whether we’re toddlers demanding that we set our own bed time, children who want to play ref instead of team member, teens in rebellion against their parents, or older church folk clinging to the ways of the past, we live our whole lives looking for more and more control, to shape the world in our image.

And on some level, we’re pretty successful. Life is a constant struggle for control, losing some here, gaining some here. Some are better than others at it.

There’s just one problem, one barrier to our seizing total control. That problem is God.

And that brings us to Good Friday.

More than anything else, Good Friday was an attempt by humankind to take control away from God. You could argue that we already tried that in the garden of Eden. According to that story, we tried to take control away from God by making ourselves better, smarter, more like God. It didn’t work.

So we needed a new plan. And when God was foolish enough to come incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ, we were presented with the perfect opportunity to take control. We killed God.

And you know what? We’re still not in control.

We thought that if we were in control, we could make the world a better place, a place that better reflected our wants and values. Instead, we’re no better off than we were before, and we’re probably worse. I see what we’ve done to our world in our attempt to control it, and it infuriates me.

It infuriates me that chemical weapons are still being used as tools of war and terror, and that there are people dumb enough to try defending it or try using it to justify even more killing.

It infuriates me that no one seems capable of doing anything to stop people like Assad and Kim Jong-un, or the human rights violations in Egypt, Russia, the United States, Israel, Pakistan, China, without invasion or bombs.

It infuriates me that my own country drops bombs on the people of Syria and then denies the refugees safe haven, literally condemning them to death, and somehow thinking its doing some great and noble service in the process.

It infuriates me that the most holy region of the world for three major religions has been reduced to a literal war zone because we can’t learn to get along, instead using our sacred writings as billy clubs to beat on our neighbors and justify unleashing our rage and hatred against those who don’t think like we do, because “the Tanakh/Bible/Quran says it’s okay”.

It infuriates me that around the world the LGBTQ+ community is hunted and murdered, and that our own thinking in our churches not only accepts that reality but cultivates it and allows it to continue, because instead of worrying about people being attacked and killed for their sexuality and gender identity, we’re more worried about offending people.

It infuriates me that we laud praises on the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and then go about our lives as a racist community, a racist country, because our white privilege allows us to ignore the tragedies we leave in our wake and pretend we’re not responsible for fixing them.

It infuriates me that around the world those of us with the most stuff on the whole refuse to help the poor and the needy as Jesus did, without qualification or stipulation, because by telling ourselves that they deserve their position or are responsible for their own condition we can justify doing nothing.

It infuriates me that congregations and churches will sacrifice people, ideas, hopes, dreams, their mission in order to hold onto their precious buildings and “the way they’ve always done things”, as if the building and our less-than-useful European traditions could do the work of God without the people and their dreams.

This is the world we created when we attempted to take control of it away from God? We thought this was a better future than the one God had planned? We thought that we were actually capable of overcoming our sinful natures on our own? We thought we could maintain control?

But we’re not in control.

If we were in control, the death of Jesus Christ on Good Friday would have been just that: his death, the ultimate price we human beings can exact from one another.

If we were in control, there would have been no harrowing of the dead.

If we were in control, the tomb would have never opened. There would be no resurrection. Death would still be in control. Mary Magdalene would not have become the first apostle, sharing the good news of the risen Christ with the other disciples. God’s unconditional love and willingness to be sacrificed on the altar of hate in order to end the cycle of hate and broken promises that had characterized God’s relationship with humanity would never have been proved.

But we aren’t in control. We never have been, we never will be, and if our current and past attempts at remaking the world in our own image are any indicator, we never should be. We have always been slaves to a control that is not our own.

Once, that was Sin and Death, cruel masters of our own making that turned on us and shackled us. But today, today is Good Friday.

Today is the day on which we remember and recognize that we are not in control.

Today is the day on which we remember and recognize that, though we continue to act as though Sin and Death still rule over us, God reclaimed us, banishing the hold Sin and Death had over us, reaffirming our place as beloved, if unruly and rebellious, children of God.

Today is the day on which we remember and recognize that God, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen, is in control, and that one day, our seemingly-endless struggle against that control will cease, that the reign of God that has already broken into the world will come to completion.

Today is the day on which we remember and recognize that we tried to take control from God, and we lost.

We are still a world in rebellion; we don’t like to lose. We still inflict hardship and calamity and pain and suffering and torture and death on each other in our attempt to maintain what little control we might have. But thanks be to God that our sins are not the final word.

Thanks be to God that our power is fleeting.

Thanks be to God that our revolution did not sever our relationship with God, but rather provided God the perfect opportunity to re-imagine, restore, renew, and redeem that relationship.

Thanks be to God for Good Friday.

Featured Image: “Cross at ‘Dawn'” by *Robert* is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Very, Very Uncomfortable

Maundy Thursday
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

Exodus 12:1-14
Psalm 116: 1-2, 12-19
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Back in 2003, I was part of a program out of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago for high schoolers who wanted to more intentionally delve into their faith. It was a three week program. The first week and the last week were spent at the seminary, living in the residence buildings, and either doing classwork or other activities.

The middle week, however, was spent in Mexico City. It was my first time ever being out of the country. I knew enough Spanish that, if I got lost, I wouldn’t die in a gutter, but I was by no means fluent. I was thrust into a new world, a new culture, a new society, that while recognizable in some aspects, was very foreign to me.

On top of that, we as a group were being asked some challenging questions, and having some really deep discussions that weren’t easy to have. And on top of that, we were going out into some of the poorer areas of Mexico City to do service projects.

Split into three groups, my group headed out to spend time at an orphanage, just sitting, playing with, talking with the little children who lived there. I’m an introvert, so throw me into a room full of kids I don’t know, speaking a language I don’t know, in a culture I don’t know, and, well… let’s just say that I was very, very uncomfortable.

I had the same experience five years later as I traveled to Costa Rica with my Liberation Theology class at Capital University. I’ll never forget visiting the Iglesia Luterana Costarricense, the Lutheran Costa Rican Church. The church got its start in one of the poorest sections of San Jose. As we toured the old stomping grounds, we passed through a section of cinder block houses that were the new government-sponsored housing. But beyond that, where the church started, we left cinder block behind.

The houses there were little more than sheets of corrugated aluminum slapped together for shelter. Raw sewage ran through channels down the hillside. Electricity barely functioned here, even though down in the valley, the sprawling city of San Jose gleamed in the sun. In the midst of such poverty, desperation, well… let’s just say that I was very, very uncomfortable.

I had the same experience four years later on my internship. First Lutheran Church in Muskegon, MI is one of the churches that hosts Family Promise, an organization that relies on churches to provide a week of shelter for homeless families, as no homeless shelter in the area lets families stay together: men go to one, women to go to another. The host church is responsible for providing meals for the families, who are then taken by van to job interviews, and the like. The most important meal is dinner, and the churches are encouraged to have people eat with the folks, play games with the kids, and keep the parents company.

Again, throw me in a room with a bunch of people I don’t know, including kids, people who’s current life situation was very different from my own… well, let’s just say that I was very, very uncomfortable.

I had the same experience the first time one of my friends confessed to me that, if I were gay, he would want to date me. At the time, I had no idea how to react to that; I didn’t even know many women who wanted to date me, let alone any men, and I’m not really sure how I responded. I can say though, that I was very, very uncomfortable.

It almost makes what Jesus does in the Gospel according to John seem… quaint.

Now I don’t know about you, but the whole footwashing thing has never made me uncomfortable. Feet don’t gross me out just because they’re feet, and the idea of pouring a little water over dirty feet and wiping them dry doesn’t bother me. Maybe I’m just a weirdo who’s not grossed out by such things, but I know that for many people, this story is what nightmares are made of.

It was no less awkward and uncomfortable for some of Jesus’s disciples, like Peter, who has a penchant for running his mouth when he should be quiet. Peter’s uncomfortable for all sorts of valid reasons. Maybe his feet are ugly; at the very least, we know they’re dirty. Washing feet was the work of a servant, and Jesus is no servant: he’s the Teacher, the Master. This work is beneath him—there’s a reason it’s relegated to servants, they should be the ones dealing with dirty work. Maybe Jesus stripping off his outer robe made Peter feel uncomfortable, I don’t know. What I do know is that, well… Peter is very, very uncomfortable. So uncomfortable that, at first, he refuses to let Jesus wash his feet.

It’s not the first time a follower of Christ has been confronted with something uncomfortable, and it won’t be the last. What we are called to do is very, very uncomfortable.

We are called to treat those we consider enemies as we would our friends; even people like Assad.

We are called to extend the very fullness of hospitality to people, including the poor and the homeless, even if we secretly or not-so-secretly believe that they’re scamming us or are responsible for their own condition.

We are called to feed the hungry, even if we know they’re going to go to the food pantry in the next town over and get more food.

We are called to love our LGBTQ+ neighbors, even if their love and sexual expression makes us uncomfortable; and not some superficial “I love you, but…” love, we’re called to actually and fully love them.

We are called to challenge the idolatry of our society that puts money, flags, political ideology and military might above all things, justifying all sorts of atrocities in the name of security and profit; even when we benefit from that idolatry.

We are called to check our own privilege as, for the most part, heterosexual cisgender white Wisconsinites, to recognize the ways in which we contribute to unjust systems that keep minority populations under oppression, and to speak up for and work for change.

We are called to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, which is all of the above and more, to a world that instead feeds on fear and complacency, refusing to heed God’s will for creation; even when we are the fearful, ignorant, complacent ones.

And it will make us very, very uncomfortable.

And yet, Jesus does something uncomfortable: he washes his disciples’ feet. And he tells them, “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” And also, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

On my trip to Mexico City, I learned something about poverty, and I learned something about humanity. I was pushed out of my comfort zone to experience life in a way I never knew. And I came home better for it. And I hope we left those little children a little better for it, too.

In Costa Rica, I visited a church that was born in and out of extreme poverty. And through them, I learned and saw what it was like to live the radical good news that Jesus taught and preached, from people who had no hangups about eating with the poor, or the sick, or the dirty; people I realized I’d been avoiding.

Spending the evenings with the Family Promise folks made me realize that I had so many preconceived notions about poverty and homelessness in the United States, and that those preconceptions were harmful. They influenced my actions in ways that hurt real human beings on a personal scale. Spending time with them opened my eyes to my own privilege.

Even hearing from my friend that he would date me if I were gay made me realize my views on sexuality were uninformed, that my views hurt people, and that I needed to do some soul-searching and introspection for myself and who I am.

Each and every time, it was uncomfortable. But each and every time, the experience opened me up to the working of the Gospel, to the movement of the Holy Spirit. Each one was an experience of love, the same kind of uncomfortable love that Jesus showed his disciples in washing their feet.

The same kind of love he showed them in the garden later that night, when he went willingly with the guards to protect his disciples.

The same kind of love he showed the following night when he was willing to die, a scapegoat, a state-sponsored sacrifice, so that he could demonstrate God’s willingness to break the cycle of hate and violence that has so consumed us as human beings.

We are called into uncomfortable situations because in those situations, we find God. We find God who has been there the whole time, showing unconditional love to the people in those situations and challenging those outside them to really see the people affected by them. God is not comfortable—anyone who’s told you otherwise was outright lying—because God never lets discomfort get in the way of acts of self-giving, sacrificial love.

Just as God enters uncomfortable situations to make divine love known, so too are we called to do the same. Though us, God is experienced and known, just as God is experienced and known though those whom we encounter. Because it is in the most uncomfortable places and situations that we experience love.

Featured Image: “Washing of Foot” by Josh Ragai is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Stubborn to the End

There has to be more to Jesus’s death than just a payment.

Good Friday
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI as a Good Friday reflection.

Isaiah 52:13—53:12
Psalm 22
Hebrews 10:16-25
John 18:1—19:42

There’s always an out.

That should have been Jesus’s only thought as he went through his trial, or what attempted to pass for a trial that day before the Passover in the Gospel according to John.

There’s no such thing as the no-win scenario. There’s always a way out.

I went through the story and figured out how many times Jesus could have reasonably and successfully escaped his situation. It’s mind boggling that he was successfully tried and executed.

1) In the garden, when the soldiers and the police come to arrest Jesus, they ask for him to come forward. Jesus does so not once, but twice, asserting that he is the man they’ve come to arrest. If he’d kept his mouth shut or fled, he would never have been arrested in the first place.

2) At his trial before Annas, he is questioned about his teaching. Knowing his teaching to be truthful and right, even in the eyes of his people, he could have answered their questions. There is a reasonable chance that if they had nothing to charge him with, they would have let him go.

3) At his trial before Pilate, the poor case against Jesus is made abundantly clear. When Pilate asked his accusers what Jesus had done, they can’t even give an answer. “Well, obviously he’s a criminal, duh, or we wouldn’t have brought him to you,” they say–clearly avoiding answering the question because they can’t. Jesus could have gotten out if he spoke up.

4) Pilate asks Jesus if he is the king of the Jews. Jesus asks him if others told Pilate to ask him this, further exposing the fraud of his trial. And yet instead of taking advantage of the situation, Jesus lets Pilate continue.

5) Even after all of this, Pilate still can’t make a case against Jesus. He attempts to set Jesus free, and when the crowd refuses, he has Jesus whipped and beaten, hoping that will satisfy the crowd.

6) When that doesn’t work, Pilate again tries to set Jesus free, and the crowd resists. Pilate again makes the case that Jesus is innocent, but the crowd persists. Pilate is literally fighting to save Jesus and has all authority to do so, but Jesus won’t say a word in his favor.

7) Pilate questions Jesus yet again, hoping to get anything at all he can use to set Jesus free. Again, Jesus refuses to help.

Finally, Pilate acquiesces to the mob’s demands and has Jesus crucified. Jesus makes sure that everything is as it should be—that  his clothes are divided as prophesied, that his family is taken care of, that the scriptures are fulfilled. And then, willing, Jesus lets go of life and dies.

Seven times. Seven times, Jesus had blatant opportunities to escape his torture and death. The tactics used against him were laughable. The case against him indefensible. Seven openings for Jesus to take to get out of his fate.

He didn’t take a single one. And when it looked like he still might be set free anyway, he actually stepped in to ensure he’d go to his death. Seven times.

The most popular explanation for why Jesus did this is summarized in a theory called penal substitutionary atonement. It explains that Jesus went through all of this to his death instead of us because God’s justice needed to be satisfied. We were supposed to die because of our sin. And God, who is incapable of showing mercy or forgiveness, needed someone to die for the world to be right. Therefore, Jesus died in our place, a substitute for us, so that grisly justice might be done. It’s related to the ransom theory of atonement that says there was a price to be paid for us to be free of bondage, and the satisfaction theory that says Jesus’s death was to satisfy God’s wrath—a life needed to be taken, and only Jesus’s life could fully satisfy God.

These are my three least favorite theories of atonement, but they are the most popular of the prominent seven. They reduce Jesus’s sacrifice to a numbers or balance game. God required, Jesus provided. It’s just a transaction.

Nobody goes to their death for a purchase. Not willingly, and certainly not with the same devotion Jesus did. And further, such a transaction diminishes God, who in them is incapable of mercy and forgiveness.

There has to be more to Jesus’s death than just a payment. There has to be more than just this transaction, like Jesus is a product or currency to balance God’s checkbook. There has to be more to Jesus’s death than the idea that God needed Jesus to die.

And maybe there is. Maybe there is more to Jesus’s death than God needing it. Maybe it’s the other way around; maybe we needed Jesus to die.

It’s an interesting theory. Maybe we needed Jesus to die because there was no other way we could see just how far God was willing to go. How far could we push God? What would it take for God to give up and walk away from us, thereby confirming our idea that God is a horrible, angry, merciless God who’s only out to get us. How hard could we push? Could we force God’s hand? And so we did exactly that.

Making Jesus a scapegoat, we heaped on him every torture and pain we could, blaming him for everything wrong in the world. We were going to break God. We were going to be right. We stumbled our way through a trial, we put him up on a cross, and we watched him die. We watched the life bleed out of him until his eyes glassed over and his breathing stopped. Seven times he could have said no, he could have stopped it. But in the end, we did it—we proved how far we could push, how far God was willing to go. We forced God’s hand.

And only then, at the end, did we realize what we’d done.