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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Sin - To Be or Not To Be?

"I got sin all around me."
~ The Carter Brothers

"A lot of liberal, progressive people are afraid of the word sin..." 
~ Rachel Held Evans

Someone shared with me an interview with Christian writer Rachel Held Evans that has me thinking.

What exactly is "sin?"  

One widely accepted and simple definition is: any thought, word, or deed that separates us from God.  If this is true then, as the Carter Brothers sing in their song, there really is "sin all around" us.  

Another classic, and dominate, understanding of sin is as a state of being in which sin is not something we do but rather who we are.  If this is true, we have no choice but to "be" sinners. We live in "original sin."  This, by the way, also separates us from God from the get go. 

Regardless of which perspective one takes, the objective of religion, and especially Christianity, is to save us from sin by offering atonement. 

Atonement has taken on many forms throughout human history, mostly in the form of "substitutionary atonement" which simply means someone, something, or some action becomes a substitute for our sin thus erasing it.  This is accomplished through sacrifice and sacrificial scapegoats made to appease angry, demanding god or gods.  The sacrifice can also be more humane, requiring denial of pleasure and joy, restitution for wrong deeds, or public confession of sins or sinfulness.  Through these "substitutionary" sacrifices we are forgiven, reunited with the disgruntled divine, and saved.  

If this is the kind of sin Ms Held refers to in the quote (and article) above then there is good reason to be "afraid" of it.  One problem with believing all humans are innately sinners is that you can't really trust anyone, even yourself. Even being saved creates separation between the saved and unsaved, the godly and the ungodly.  Original Sin and Substitutionary Atonement actually perpetuate the separation from which they claim to save.

There is, however, another way to perceive sin and experience salvation. "Incarnational atonement" recognizes the incarnate presence of the divine throughout creation and humanity.  In the Judeo-Chrisitian story this is identified immediately when God breathes creation into existence, then forms humans from the earth in God's image with God's breath while proclaiming all of creation as "very good."  But, as the story goes, we quickly forget who we really are and succumb to an illusion that somehow we are separated from God by our destructive actions thus triggering the whole substitutionary salvation system.

Incarnational atonement also has its "original sin" - amnesia!  Forgetting we are the image and breath of the divine is the beginning of separation.  To use more contemporary language, forgetting we are socially, economically, environmentally, psychologically, emotionally, politically, and spiritually interconnected and interdependent with each other and all creation leads to destructive thoughts, words and deeds, creating separation and violence.

Salvation is remembering we are not separate from creation, each other , or God.  As Jesus says to his disciples, "I am in God. God is in me. And I am in you."  Paul puts it this way, "Nothing can separate us from the love of God."  It is also the "Shalom" of Judaism, "One" of Buddhism, the "Way" of Taoism, and "Tawhid" of Islam.  One might even say that we all have Divine DNA!

So, again Ms. Held is correct.  We should be afraid of forgetting who we are. However, when we remember, keep remembering, and live accordingly the result is we can trust one another because once we know the Divine Presence in our lives we see it in others. We know that even behind what she calls "the weight of many, many centuries of injustice," lies the presence of the Divine.  

What kind of religion or "church" do you want?  One that continually reminds you that you are a hopeless sinner without someone or something being sacrificed for you, separating the saved from the unsaved, or one that calls you to remember that you and everything and everybody are created in the image and breath of Divine Goodness, uniting us as one?

Actually I'm wondering if too many of us religious people are so busy embracing our sinfulness because we are afraid of admitting our own Divinity.  Fear runs both ways.  

However, the first and last words of the Gospel are "Fear not!"  I believe this means do not be afraid of who you really are, the image and breath of God.  



  




  

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Parlez Vous Salvation?

Last week I saw an excellent production of The Man of La Mancha performed by the Washington Shakespeare Theatre.  I can't seem to get it off my mind, not so much its stirring music and message as much as memories of how the musical once saved my life.

The Man of La Mancha was the first real theater production I ever saw when a broadway touring company came through Atlanta when I was a teenager.  I confess I don't remember much about it other than I saw it.  Its real impact came a few years later when I was in college.

I was a second quarter junior, English Literature, major on tract to become a high school teacher when my academic advisor said it was time I took a second course in French.  I had taken the first of two required courses as a freshman and had a miserable experience, making the first "D" ever in my life. I managed to avoid the second required course for two years, but time had caught up with me.  In additon to this, my life was in general lonely, listless, and without much direction.

The first day of French class was a nightmare.  The professor announced that English would not be allow in the classroom and then proceeded to interview each student with simple questions like "What is your name?" and  "Where are you from?"  I was terrified.

When it came my turn she asked, "Comment vous appelex-vous?"

I replied, "Andy (instead of Andre) Walton."

"En Francais, monsieur Walton."  She said.

I persisted, "Andy Walton."

"En Francais, monsieur Walton!"  This time sternly.

"Just go to the next person."  I said,  "I'll be dropping this class."

Then she broke into English herself, "Stay after class and talk with me, Mr. Walton."

Needless to say, I didn't.

As soon as the class ended I rushed out the door, fleeing French as fast as I could.  Desperately walking down the hallway, the first doorway I came to was the Department of Speech and Drama.  I walked in to find no one at the front desk.  But looking down the office hallway all the way at the end sat a man at a desk.  It was Dr. Clarence McCord, the departmant chair. I practically invited myself into his office and announced, "I need a major that doesn't require a second language."

Dr. McCord was kind, soft-spoken, and patient as he listened to my tale of woe.  Within a couple of hours he worked it out that I could become a Speech-Communication major with a minor in English Lit - without taking French!  Then he explained that this degree required I do practicum hours in addition to course work.  My choices were Radio and TV Broadcasting, Puppetry, Debate, or Theater,

I did a quick mental "rock, paper, scissors" and said arbitrarily, "Theater."

"Fine." He said.  "Go to McCroan Auditorium tonight and report to Dr. Robert West."

That night McCroan Auditorium was buzzing with excitement.  It was the first meeting/rehearsal of the cast and crew for the winter production of "The Man of La Mancha."

Dr. "Bob" West said I would work on the lighting crew and pointed me toward a guy I recognized from campus and always thought of a kind of strange.  It was Jim Goode, whose class project was "lighting designer" for the production.  As it turned out I ran the main lighting console for the production. The "strange" guy became a fast friend along with so many others in that production and all that followed in a successful theater career of 15 years.  I even met my wife and love of 40 years at an auditon!

Salvation comes to our lives in many ways.

I was reminded of this last week while listening to Don Quixote sing of impossible dreams and witnessing a lost Aldonza discover her "angel whispered name," Dulcinea.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

It's No Joke!

I started a joke
which started
the whole world crying
But I didn't see
that the joke was on me

I started to cry
which started
the whole world laughing
Oh if I'd only seen
that the joke was on me
~ The Bee Gees
   
This old Bee Gees song somehow seems appropriate on April Fools ’ Day in the middle of Holy Week.  As a colleague reminded me once, Palm Sunday, or Christ’s Triumphant Entry into Jerusalem, as we Christians so humbly refer to it, is the beginning of the ultimate set up for the quintessential April Fools’ joke.

The whole story is saturated with irony pointing out that Jesus just may not be who people think he is. And he just may not be doing what he does for the reasons we think.

The way we read and celebrate the story one would think that Jesus is coming to Jerusalem to overthrow the entire system of Temple corruption and Roman rule.  The people surely think this as they shout “Hosanna!” which literally means, “Save Us, Now!”

Once in Jerusalem he systematically confronts and offends the Temple power structure and in doing so creates the kind of local unrest that Roman governors could not tolerate. Jesus stealth fully goes into the city during the day mingling with those who wish to kill him and at night goes back out to the suburbs where friends safely surround him. Things, like the colt on which he rides into Jerusalem, the room where he observes Passover with his disciples, and a vulnerable stroll in a garden in the dangerous dark of night all appear to be planned and pre-arranged.

Again, one would think that either Jesus does plan to overthrow the power structure or he was actually trying to get killed. But why would he do this? Why would he play to the hilt the role of conquering hero only to give himself up for execution?

Perhaps a more accurate way to ask this question would be: How could he not? Jesus has spent his entire ministry teaching and living a way of life he calls the Kingdom of God. It is a life where everything gets turned on its head.  The rich are poor, the poor are rich, the first are last and the last are first. The least of humanity are exulted and the proud humbled. 

If Jesus life were to have any integrity at all the story could be told no other way – and also told in the style Jesus would have used – that of leading us along and setting us up with Hosannas that become "Crucify him!"

The story becomes the ultimate allegory of a central teaching of Jesus: One must loose life in order to gain it. Dietrich Bonhoeffer says in the classic theological treatise “The Cost of Discipleship”, "When Christ calls a [person], he bids [them] come and die…”  When Jesus says “pick up your cross and follow me,” it sounds a lot like he’s showing us the way, not doing it for us.

That song I began with has another verse that goes like this:

Till I finally died
which started
the whole world living
Oh if I'd only seen
that the joke was on me

Happy April Fools’ Day!

Note: Today's blog is from a sermon I gave a few years ago when April Fool's day was on Palm Sunday. You can listen to it here.  Just scroll down the page a bit.  


Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Arc

"The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward Justice."
~ Theodore Parker then Martin Luther King, Jr.


A friend recently commented on how so many people in his circles were referring to the "long arc of 'this'" or "long arc of 'that'" or "long arc of ...(insert history, universe, time, space, or whatever)."   Perhaps it's been since we celebrated MLK Day or because we observed the 50th Anniversary of the Pettus Bridge march in Selma.  For whatever reason, it seems to be one of those phrases that often "catches on" in the lingo de jour, and people use it, quite often out of context and for their own purposes.

My friend's comments got me to thinking about another kind of arc, the kind when electrical current literally jumps through air from one conductor to another producing a flash or bolt of light. This in turn brought me around to the carbon arc light in which electrical current is run through two carbon rods that are slightly separated but not enough to break the circuit. The ensuing combination of heat and carbon gases creates a brilliant white light that is sustained by keeping the carbon rods trimmed. Most people have experience this kind of light from large search lights like the ones in lighthouses, movie theater projectors, and the "Supertrooper" spotlights at concerts.  Carbon arc light or some variation of it, has it own "long arc," and has provided light in different forms for many years.

Now back to the "moral universe."  Its arc may be long and bending, but sometimes when conditions are right and the moral air is charged with passion, persistence, and courage there are brilliant flashes of justice.  Such was the case with Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement.  The same can be said of other social, moral, political, or religious leaps of justice after which the world is never the same and the long arc bends a little more toward justice.

In my corner of the religious world, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), such a brilliant arc occurred last night as the denomination ratified an amendment to our constitution upholding marriage equality. Surely there has been a long arc, over thirty years of sermons, overtures, debates, votes, anger, fear, and separation,  But that arc has been bending toward justice and yesterday the rods of justice came close enough to ignite a brilliant flash of hope.  The challenge now, as in every moral movement, is to keep the rods of justice and hope trimmed so the light shines on.