Let Jesus Be Jesus?

In today’s Boston Globe, columnist Alex Beam has a short piece on his frustrations with people’s need to mold Jesus into their own image, in particular focusing on another recent book (in a slew of many) claiming that Jesus was married. He writes: “The purpose, animated by the all-powerful secularism of our time, is to bring him down to our level.”

But you know what the real scandal is? It’s precisely what Beam says it is: It’s the 2000 year-old Christian proclamation that God actually does come down to our level of fragility, messiness, and humanity. It’s scandalous, and remains so scandalous, that we attempt to mitigate it however we can, from the left, from the right, and everywhere in between.

What Beam misses, and misses badly, is that this “coming down to our level” is one of the most beautiful and challenging parts of the Gospel, what is called the “scandal of particularity.” The idea that God actually comes to us as a middle-eastern Jewish peasant in the backwaters of first-century Galilee, and that this single man brings to us the salvation of the cosmos and all that is within it. It’s easy to come up with ideas and philosophies for God, it’s another when God actually shows up in space and time, as Christians (and Jews and Muslims in different ways) proclaim.

As Boston University’s Stephen Prothero has pointed out in many places, we have a crisis of spiritual literacy in our age and place. Beam shows this illiteracy well, writing that he believes that Jesus’ claims are quite moderate. Which is funny, because the Jewish and Roman leaders of the time certainly didn’t think so. And killed Jesus because of it.

He didn’t merely challenge Jewish orthodoxy, but actually managed to take it a step further around such issues of lust and anger, saying that even to have those thoughts is to commit adultery and murder. In his challenge of the religious and political leaders of the time, he exposed them as just as corrupt and human as anyone else.

He did not preach a “message of universal love,” but instead one of challenge and particularity that led to his death. Jesus does not say: “God loves everyone! Eat, drink, and be merry!” What Jesus actually says about God’s love in the Gospels is that it is costly and difficult; that to find one’s life, one must “deny themselves, and pick up their cross.”

And most of all, despite what Beam says, Jesus did in fact ask people to believe and to follow, saying in the Gospel of John: “"Whoever believes in me does not believe in me only, but in the one who sent me.” Jesus message is not one of spiritual health, but one of revolutionary grace and practice, that has led billions, from Dorothy Day to Marilynne Robinson, to discover the radical presence and work of God in the world.

And in the end, that’s precisely the problem, which is that Beam wants people to let Jesus be Jesus and go about our business. But we can’t. When Jesus is left to be Jesus, everything must change. We have to pay attention to the poor and the widow, we have to look to the a symbol of death to find life, and trust that God actually came to us in first-century Palestine, through this strange, parable-telling Rabbi who was crucified for his message and work.

And that is way more interesting than whether Jesus was married. And oh yeah, it’s also the Christmas story.

Vicar Eric


On Abundance and Rest

Over these last few days, with other Lutheran leaders from New England, Ross and I heard from Brian McLaren, a former pastor and author of many books, most recently We Make the Road by Walking. It was a reminder, once more, that the world around us is changing in remarkable ways, and that New England is a laboratory for some of this work, because it is about ten years ahead of the rest of the county in trends like urban living, and problems like increasing homelessness, a gap between the rich and poor, and of course, declining affiliation with religious institutions. And yet, we were reminded, that there is hope, both because the Church has been empowered by the Holy Spirit to do this new work in an ever changing world, but also the promise, that we hear this week in our reading from tiny book of the prophet Zephaniah, that God is also at work on this project of restoration and renewal of the cosmos, the world, and each one of us.

And I’m sure that God, who’s at work for the restoration and renewal of a world groaning in pain, would rejoice at the first steps towards something better seen in this week’s agreement between President Obama and President Xi Jinping of China in addressing climate change. People of faith may disagree over how best to address such a crisis, but should not be timid in our attempts to agree on the problem and work together to solve it. Working together, like the United States and China, with people whom we may have little agreement with on much else.

One of the symptoms of this exhaustion of creation is the exhaustion of you and I. Have you noticed? Noticed the increasing demands from work, from the lives of our kids, from a world that demands more and more and more. We are a tired people, much like the creation we live in, from the constant harvest of our time, energy, and resources. Then we are surprise when we hear, as often as we can, about this God of rest and abundance. We hear of this God who invites us to rest in the promises of Jesus, the presence of the Holy Spirit, and the community of faith. And it is this God, the source of all that is, that is full of the kind abundance, surprise, and rest we need.

That’s where we’re heading together. We are talking about stewardship over the next few weeks, and moving us into an attitude of abundance. We are talking about giving thanks, reminding ourselves of joy. And we are getting ready to practice the sort of rest that we, and our creation need, as we try some new liturgy in Advent (more on that later!). New England is a laboratory, and St. Paul is trying to lean into this work of a God of abundance, rest, surprise, and joy.

So when you think of joining us for worship, or for how much money you might commit to our life and work together, or for whether you have the energy to just get on up in the morning. Remember, in a world filled with anxiety, exhaustion, and scarcity, that there is always rest and abundance to be found in the God who is revealed in Jesus. Let’s be that kind of a community, that kind of a people, leaning into God’s restoration and renewal of all things.

You’ll be surprised at what might happen.

Vicar Eric 


Crazy Clergy Shirts and a Trip to the Beach

It’s easy to find God in the beauty of the world; in sunsets, snowflakes, and when your favorite football team wins. What’s remarkable is not that sort-of-a god, what’s miraculous is to find God in the places you least expect, places like children’s hospitals, funerals, and tools of execution (like a Cross). Recently, Ross and I stumbled across this video on YouTube, that is a BBC documentary about the life of the chaplains at Birmingham Children’s Hospital in England. In the video, you discover that these chaplains are deeply aware of the sort of God that Lutherans love to talk about. You find that these chaplains, in the midst of a place often filled with sadness, grief and death, are keenly aware of God’s presence in their midst, and in the lives of these sick kids and the love of their families. It’s a really remarkable window into another world, a world that is constantly aware both of the fragility of life, and the miraculous presence of God in places we least expect.

What you might not know is that Ross and I both have hands in this world, and it’s a very different job and calling than to be a pastor. Ross has been an overnight chaplain at Children’s Hospital for many years and for the last few years, I have been a chaplain in level-one trauma centers, where the worst of the worst gets brought. Those experiences have shaped me, and healed me, but most of all taught me the importance of feeling helpless. That feeling of not being able to fix something, to encounter something that we can’t control, is a vital and deeply important experience to the life of faith.

It’s essential because those are the places where God is to be found hiding, at work the whole time. This is what Luther talks about when he asks us to be theologians of the cross, something Ross has been preaching about for the last few weeks. There has been some confusion about this, so I want to state it as simply as I can: to be a theologian of the cross is to have faith in the promise that where God most clearly can be seen, felt and heard is in these hard places, these “valleys of death.”

These are not places we can live forever, and neither does God desire that, but they are places where our lives are turned upside down and reoriented, and we can hear most clearly the call to return to God’s endless wells of grace, mercy, and love. Not everyone is called to be a chaplain, but we can all be attentive to the pain and suffering in the world, and God’s presence in those places. Because it is there we can find God once again. This was the original meaning of the word “repent,” to return, to return to God. And as we move through November and into Advent, and eventually Christmas, we begin to think about what kind of God this really is, a God of incarnation, resurrection, and the Cross.

Vicar Eric

A Public Witness

This Sunday at Saint Paul we will celebrate that almost 500 years ago, our beloved rebel Martin Luther, nailed 95 Theses to a door as a public witness of faith. What does it look like to have a public witness today? A public theology? My hunch is that it is a church that looks less like a culture war, and more like a people who know how the story ends. A community of people living in the space of a Creation, as the Apostle Paul said, that groans in pains of childbirth, and knowing the story of the God who is bringing a Kingdom through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

One of the ways that we have a public witness is how we care for our neighbor, what Luther called the primary responsibility of a people who have been saved by grace. As a community, with the help of the social concerns committee, we have raised over $2,500 for the Ebola response of Lutheran World Relief and Lutheran Disaster Response. That is public notice of our faith, particularly when, as noted in a New York Times article yesterday, in a time when fundraising for Ebola has been lacking and Americans have not responded with their money. Let’s keep up that work, as a witness for the God who is at work in the world.

As we move toward Election Day in Massachusetts, I have been thinking a deal about our public and political witness as a Church. Lutherans have never been a people to stand in the pulpit and advocate a politician or a party, and we have a long history of being a Church of conservatives and liberals, peaceniks and soldiers, protestors and politicians. But, I think there are issues that are worth our consideration, as how we might witness to a God who is concerned about dignity, mercy, and human flourishing.

At the Synod Assembly this year, the New England Synod passed a memorial supporting a “yes” vote on issue 4, which is to prohibit casinos. Ross wrote to you about that a few weeks back, and I would refer you to his letter, which is a great guide to thinking about the issue. I think it’s also worth paying attention to a “yes” on issue 3, which is a question of earned sick time, and would be of great assistance to many low-income workers, and families with children, allowing them to use sick time for their children’s illnesses, as opposed to vacation time.

In the end, we are a people who don’t always agree on politics, but come to unity around Jesus, so please, vote your conscience, and as Luther would say, do it boldly, “but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.”Because no matter how you or I vote, no matter what issues pass or fail, we are saved by a God bigger than our politics, who everyday of our lives welcomes us anew to abundant grace and mercy.

Vicar Eric

Ebola and Poverty

Last Sunday, many of us heard and saw from Janice Goodman her experience as an ELCA medical missionary in Liberia. She spoke about and showed pictures that related to the many unseen issues that poverty has wreaked on post-civil war Liberia that have contributed to the deepening Ebola crisis across West Africa. Earlier this week, Dr. Paul Farmer, who works right down the road at the Harvard University School of Public Health, wrote an opinion piece in the Boston Globe, in which he argued that poverty and the underfunded and understaffed health systems across Africa are deeply responsible for this, and other epidemic outbreaks, including AIDS and Malaria in Africa, Cholera in Haiti, and drug-resistant Tuberculosis across the world.

What you might not know about Paul Farmer is that he is deeply influenced by his Catholic faith, particularly something called Liberation Theology, which has been refreshed by the arrival of Pope Francis. Liberation Theology argues that poverty and the sinfulness of structures (like governments, corporations, and empires) hinder the desire of God for human flourishing. This theology emerged out of two events in Latin America in the late 1970's and early 1980's: the publication of A Theology of Liberation by Fr. Gustavo Guiterrez of Peru and the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. Both of those events were deeply influential to Dr. Farmer's life, as it was Romero's assassination that brought him back to the Church, and Fr. Gutierrez' book and friendship that gave Dr. Farmer a theological and spiritual resource that has deeply influenced his practice of community medicine and poverty relief in places stricken by epidemics.

Last year, Fr. Gutierrez and Dr. Farmer released a book together called In The Company of the Poor, in which they argue that poverty is deeply evil, and that the church and theology must deal with three related issues. First, "that real service to the poor involves understanding global poverty." Second, "an understanding of poverty must be linked to efforts to end it," and finally, that "as science and technology advance, our structural sin deepens." All of this is to say, that poverty and the outbreak of Ebola across West Africa are deeply related, and as many people remarked after the adult forum from Janice on Sunday, that our hearts can feel that God demands our attention to these issues.

In that light, Pastor Ross and I want to invite you to respond through the efforts of Lutheran Disaster Relief in West Africa. This is a particularly helpful way to assist because the Lutheran church is deeply imbedded in West Africa, including the operation of two hospitals in Liberia, and numerous other organizations and structures across the region. Unlike many organizations, the money that is used by the Lutheran church is not lost across bureaucracy and administrative costs, but is used 100% for the situation on hand, supporting our organizations, partners and people on the ground.

There will be a bulletin insert this Sunday that will include more information and a form to give in response to the situation. It is our hope and prayer that you will take the opportunity to do this.

All of that in mind, I want to invite you to an event sponsored by Bethany House in Arlington on November 15th from 9:45 to noon at Wellesley College. Sister Joan Chittister, a prominent Catholic theologian, will be presenting "The Way of the Cross: In and Out of Our Lives." For all of us, it is important to remember that the heaviness of a world groaning in pain, and our day-to-day lives, can take a toll on our spiritual and emotional health. Sister Joan will be talking about life: "it's challenges, its crosses, and from them, the rising to new life as shown to us in the life of Jesus. Through each experience she identifies the call that is being given, how Jesus models a response, and the grace-filled rebirth that is given to us through each experience." More information can be found at Bethany House's website.

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